It happens every season across MLB; players far exceed expectations. Last year, the Seattle Mariners had two such pleasant surprises. Before talking about this duo, let’s reflect on previous Mariners thrust into the consciousness of fans thanks to surprising breakout seasons.
Some has a short history with the Mariners. Others are household names, even icons, in Seattle. Our first player appeared during the franchise’s infancy.
Leon Roberts – 1978
Roberts, a tenth round pick by Detroit in 1972, hit 17 home runs with a .709 OPS in 252 games with the Tigers and Astros. Then, Houston dealt him to Seattle for Jimmy Sexton in 1977.
That’s when the good times rolled.
In his first season with the Mariners, Roberts hit 22 homers and .301/.364/.515. The former Michigan Wolverine led all AL right fielders in SLG and OPS. Similarly, his 4.4 bWAR and 146 OPS+ were second only to Baltimore’s Ken Singleton (4.7 and 152) within their position group.
It turns out the 1978 season was the best of Roberts’ 11-year career, In December 1980, the Mariners dealt him to Texas with Larry Cox, Rick Honeycutt, Willie Horton and Mario Mendoza for Brian Allard, Rick Auerbach, Ken Clay, Jerry Don Gleaton, Richie Zisk, and Steve Finch.
Edgar Martinez – 1990
Martinez famously didn’t get a chance to be a regular until his age-27 season when he hit .302/.397/.433 with 11 home runs and 27 doubles. Two years later; Edgar earned the first of two batting titles and stroked a league-leading 46 doubles.
Edgar was a master at reaching base and one of the best right-handed hitters of any time. Rogers Hornsby (.434), Jimmie Foxx (.426), Frank Thomas (.419) are the only righty bats with 6,000-plus plate appearances and a higher OBP than Papi’s .418.
When he hung up his cleats for good, Edgar had compiled five Silver Slugger Awards and seven All-Star selections. His sustained superior performance as a designated hitter inspired MLB to name its award for best DH after him.
Last year, Edgar became the second Mariner inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Oh yeah, the team is planning to erect a statue of his likeness outside T-Mobile Field.
Not bad for a guy who didn’t get a shot until he was 27-years-old.
Jay Buhner – 1991
Although“Bone” joined the Mariners via a 1988 trade immortalized by an episode of Seinfeld, he didn’t immediately thrive with Seattle. He finally did so three years later clobbering 27 home runs with an impressive .834 OPS.
Buhner’s best run during his 14-year Mariners career was 1995-97. His 124 home runs were third most in MLB behind Mark McGwire (149) and Albert Belle (128). In 1995, Bone finished fifth in MVP voting. The following year, he was an All-Star and Gold Glover.
By his 2001 retirement, Buhner had amassed 307 home runs and a .857 OPS as a Mariner. Only Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. (417) and Edgar (309) have more homers. Only Álex Rodríguez (.934), Edgar (.933), and Junior (.927) a higher OPS.
It seems Frank Costanza was onto something after all.
Mike Blowers – 1993
Blowers appeared in just 76 games with the Yankees before a May 1991 trade sent him to the Mariners for Jim Blueberg. “Blow” made limited appearances with Seattle in 1992 before making his presence felt a year later.
In 1993, the former Washington Husky hit 15 home runs with a career-high 121 OPS in 429 plate appearances. Not only did he prove valuable at the plate, his willingness to move around the diamond benefited his team.
Blowers primarily started at third base, but also appeared at first base and the outfield. He even donned the tools of ignorance once. On July 23 of his breakout year, Blow played catcher for an inning with Rich DeLucia pitching. The frame concluded without serious incident.
During three stints with Seattle, the pride of Bethel High School posted a strong .270/.343/.448 slash-line. These days, you’ll find him delivering spot-on analysis during local broadcasts of Mariners games.
Rich Amaral – 1993
The second round pick of the Cubs during the 1983 draft would spend nine years in the minors before making his MLB debut with the Mariners in 1991 as a 29-year-old.
Amaral didn’t make an immediate impact, not appearing in 100-plus games until 1993. That’s when the Visalia, California native finished fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting.
Fun fact: Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto finished eighth in 1993 Rookie of the Year voting.
Amaral would appear in 200-plus games in both the outfield and infield playing every position with the exception of catcher and pitcher. His most notable sub-job may have occurred when Griffey suffered a fractured wrist in 1995. The former UCLA Bruin along with Alex Diaz stepped in to cover Junior’s center field spot.
Offensively, Amaral didn’t have a power bat with just 11 home runs in eight seasons with Seattle. Still, he did manage to hit 82 doubles as a Mariner and steal 20-plus bases in a season twice.
Dan Wilson – 1995
Wilson was the seventh overall draft pick in 1990, but Cincinnati dealt him along with future Mariners fan-favorite Bobby Ayala to acquire Bret Boone and Erik Hanson. He’d appear in 91 games for Seattle in 1994 before a season-ending work stoppage. Then, his career took off.
In 1995, Wilson contributed a solid .278/.336/.416 and a model of durability. Hall of Famer Iván Rodríguez (120) and Phillies manager Joe Girardi (119) were the only backstops making more starts than the University of Minnesota alum’s 118.
Wilson’s 12-year Seattle career is the benchmark used to measure every Mariners catcher ever. In 2012, the Mariners inducted him into its Hall of Fame with Randy Johnson. It’s fitting the Illinois native entered with his most notable battery-mate.
Franklin Gutierrez – 2009
Although he saw action in four previous seasons, Gutierrez’s Mariners debut in 2009 was his first with 500-plus plate appearances. The Venezuelan delivered results hitting .283/.339/.425 with 18 home runs and 24 doubles.
Gutierrez’s offense declined the next season. However, stellar defense earned him a Gold Glove and the reputation as the best defensive center fielder in major-league baseball. It’s why the late Dave Niehaus referred to Guti as “Death to Flying Things.”
Unfortunately, injuries decimated Gutierrez’s production and availability for several years. But he did enjoy an encore before ending his career in 2017. As a part-timer, Guti hit 29 home runs with a .859 OPS in 472 combined plate appearances in 2015-16 with the Mariners.
Despite his struggles, Guti will always hold a special spot in the hearts of many Mariners fans – including my wife.
David Aardsma – 2009
The former first rounder pitched for the Giants, both Chicago teams, and Boston before the Mariners acquired him in January 2009. In the Emerald City, he enjoyed his greatest success.
In prior stops, Aardsma recorded modest results posting an 88 ERA+ in 128 relief appearances. With the Mariners, he shined brightest as the club’s closer in 2009-10 by averaging 34 saves and a 143 ERA+.
Regrettably, 2011 Tommy John surgery ended Aardsma’s Mariners career. The club didn’t offer salary arbitration after the season making him a free agent. After recovering, the former Rice Owl pitched for both New York teams and Atlanta, although he never soared to the level he did in Seattle.
Prior to the 2018 season, Aardsma formally retired and joined the Blue Jays front office.
Kyle Seager – 2012
Then-scouting director Tom McNamara famously chose Seager in the third round despite knowing his team’s draft board projected him as a fifth rounder. McNamara’s decision paid off for both Seager and the Mariners.
Prior to his MLB debut along in 2011, Seager spent most of his time at second base. However, the North Carolina native found a home at the hot corner.
In 2012, third base became Seager’s full-time position and he didn’t disappoint with 20 home runs, 35 doubles, and a .259/.316/.423 slash-line. By 2014, he was an All-Star and a Gold Glover.
Now, with the club in rebuild-mode, Seager is the longest-tenured Mariner and the veteran leader the kids need. He’s also top-5 in the team’s record book in games, home runs, doubles, and WAR.
Hisashi Iwakuma – 2013
Iwakuma was an established starting pitcher in Japan prior to signing with Seattle. Still, previous injuries softened demand when the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles made him available to MLB clubs after the 2011 campaign.
For this reason, the Mariners initially used Iwakuma in just five relief appearances through Memorial Day. Kuma eventually joined the rotation making 16 starts with a superb 2.65 ERA. Yet, the best was yet to come.
In 2013, Iwakuma made 33 starts logging 219.2 innings with a near-identical 2.66 ERA. Kuma would be an All-Star and a Cy Young Award finalist and even appeared in MVP voting.
Between 2013-16, Iwakuma averaged 28 starts and 181 innings. He even tossed a no-hitter against the Orioles in 2015. During this span, his ERA and ERA+ were top-15 among pitchers with 700-plus innings – only Bartolo Colon (3.6-percent) had a lower walk rate than Kuma (4.4).
Unfortunately, a shoulder injury ended Kuma’s career in 2017. That said; the 38-year-old’s success justified the risk Seattle assumed when other clubs wouldn’t do the same in 2011.
Edwin Díaz – 2016
Prior to the start of his breakout season, Prospect Insider ranked Díaz as third-best prospect in the Mariners’ system. How he reached the majors was a pleasant surprise.
Although he began his professional career as a starter, Seattle’s new management converted Díaz into a reliever in early 2016. After just 16 relief appearances with Class-AA Jackson, Sugar made his MLB debut on June 6.
As a reliever, Díaz’s was able to throw every pitch at nearly full effort. As a result, the native of Puerto Rico hit 100-MPH on the radar gun three times during his MLB debut with a peak velocity of 102.1-MPH.
That’s good, right?
Díaz would make 49 relief appearances and notch 18 saves on his way to a fifth place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. The Mariners seemed to have their closer for years to come.
In 2018, Díaz finished eighth in Cy Young voting, was an All-Star, and appeared on MVP ballots. Perhaps most impressively, he earned the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award. Alas, all good things must end.
That offseason, the Mariners took a “step back” dealing nearly every player on the major-league roster with high trade value, including Díaz. The team shipped Sugar with Robinson Canó to the Mets for veterans Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak, plus prospects Justin Dunn, Jarred Kelenic, and Gerson Bautista.
Mitch Haniger – 2017
A first round pick of the Brewers in 2012, Haniger’s career progressed more slowly than anticipated. By 2015, he was playing with Class-AA Mobile in Arizona’s system, but requested reassignment to High-A Visalia to play regularly. A year later, his situation improved dramatically.
On Thanksgiving Eve 2016, the Diamondbacks sent Haniger along with Jean Segura and Zac Curtis to the Mariners for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker. The Cal Poly alum had appeared in 34 games with Arizona as a September call-up, but he’d get a shot at a starting role with Seattle n 2017.
Although injuries curtailed his availability, Haniger put together a superb rookie campaign with 16 home runs, 25 doubles, and a .282/.352/.491 slash-line. In 2018, he was an All-Star and the Mariners best all-around player.
Unfortunately, a freak injury ended Haniger’s 2019 season in June. Adding to his woes, setbacks that may delay his debut this year. Despite the health-related troubles, the 29-year-old remains the best player on the Mariners until unseated.
Marco Gonzales – 2018
To acquire the former first rounder from the Cardinals, the Mariners shipped highly touted prospect Tyler O’Neill to St. Louis in July 2017. At the time, it was an unpopular deal with Mariners fans.
Fan angst was understandable. O’Neill was Seattle’s top prospect, while Gonzales was still trying to bounce back from 2016 Tommy John surgery. In retrospect, it all worked out.
Gonzales scuffled during second-half appearances with the Mariners in 2017. However, the value Dipoto saw in the southpaw began to emerge during the following season.
Since then, the former Gonzaga Bulldog has been Seattle’s best pitcher and the team’s 2019 Opening Day starter. Whenever the season begins, he’s a cinch to earn the same honor again.
Yep, it all worked out.
Tom Murphy – 2019
The Mariners acquired Murphy during the first week of last season to serve as backup to starting catcher Omar Narváez. No one could’ve predicted the impact the former Buffalo Bull would have with the club.
Drafted by Colorado in the third round of the 2012 draft, Murphy briefly appeared in parts of four seasons with the Rockies. Nevertheless, his 75 games with the Mariners was a career-high as was his overall production – .273/.324/.535 slash with 18 home runs.
To put Murphy’s performance into perspective, Edwin Encarnacion (138) was the only Mariner with 250-plus plate appearances and a higher OPS+ than Murphy (129). This suggests he was 29-percent more productive than a league-average hitter was.
Murphy’s offensive contributions and top-notch defensive skills made the Mariners comfortable enough to deal Narváez in the offseason and make the New York native starting catcher.
Not bad for a last minute addition.
Austin Nola – 2019
Our final pleasant surprise plays the same position as Murphy and many more. Nola was initially an infielder when the Marlins drafted him in 2012. He only began wearing catcher’s gear during the 2015 Arizona Fall League season.
After making his MLB debut last year, Nola primarily played first base and made starts at second and third base, right field, and catcher. It’s worth noting his positional versatility wasn’t the only contribution the former LSU Tiger made.
In 73 games, Nola hit 10 home runs and .269/.342/.454 with a 115 OPS+. The 30-year-old projects to back up Murphy behind the plate when play resumes.
Nola’s perseverance and flexibility finally paid off.
So who’ll be the next pleasant surprise for the Mariners?
It’s almost impossible to tell.
Who would’ve predicted a tenth rounder like Roberts would star for the Mariners? Or a late-bloomer eventually earning a plaque in Cooperstown.
Perhaps the next unexpected Mariners star is already in the organization, anxiously waiting for the season to begin to prove he belongs. Hopefully, the wait isn’t too long for him and the rest of us.
At this point, we’re all looking forward to the start of the season and the return to normalcy Opening Day would symbolize.
My Oh My…
Cover Photo: Kim Klemen / USA Today Sports
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