Last Updated on September 3, 2020 by Jason A. Churchill
The 2020 Seattle Mariners could have one of the more memorable rookie classes in franchise history. That’s saying a lot for an organization with several impressive freshman classes since its inaugural campaign.
Before reminiscing about bygone rookie classes, a few ground rules.
What’s A Rookie?
The Baseball Reference play index is a great resource for discussions like ours. Therefore, I’m using the limits used by B-R to define rookie status:
- 130 at bats
- 50 innings pitched
- 45 days service time prior to September 1
Something else to consider, players may appear as a “rookie” in several different seasons before reaching the milestones we’re using. For our discussion, those individuals will count just once.
We’re not debating awards or who’s the best Mariners rookie, so relax. This is merely a fun exercise – at least it is for me.
Finally, we’ll be using the B-R version of wins above replacement (WAR).
Okay, let’s talk rookie classes.
First Class – 1977
The Mariners used 19 freshman during their first year of existence. Not only were there newbies aplenty, they were important contributors on a bad team.
Rookies contributed 13.8 WAR, which was 88-percent of the total value delivered by the club during its inaugural campaign.
Seattle’s lone All-Star in 1977 was a rookie – Ruppert Jones. Seattle’s first selection during the 1976 expansion draft was also its starting center fielder on Opening Day.
Infielder Jimmy Sexton appeared in just 14 games. Sexton’s biggest contribution came after the season when the club dealt him to Houston for Leon Roberts, who’d lead Seattle in home runs and AVG/OBP/SLG in 1978.
Meet Mr. Mariner – 1984
The 1984 class also delivered a significant portion (50-percent) of the club’s total value. It also produced the franchise’s first great player. Alvin Davis earned AL Rookie of the Year (ROY) honors and was an All-Star.
Davis hit 27 home runs, which remains the franchise’s record for homers by a rookie. The former Arizona State Sun Devil would hold most of the Mariners’ offensive records for over a decade later.
Hall of Fame Edition – 1989
No Mariners rookie class can boast more career success than this group.
Future Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, and Randy Johnson entered the 1989 campaign as rookies. Griffey landed in third place for ROY honors and Martinez hadn’t become “Edgar” yet. Meanwhile, Johnson arrived via a May player swap sending Langston to Montreal.
Perhaps another 1989 Seattle rookie eventually joins Junior, Edgar, and Randy in Cooperstown.
A 22-year-old Omar Vizquel made his big-league debut playing in 143 games. Vizquel’s name appeared on 52.6-percent of writers’ ballots this year. The native of Caracas, Venezuela has seven more shots at getting into the Hall of Fame.
Finally, Erik Hanson led Seattle rookie pitchers in WAR, starting 17 games with a 3.18 ERA.
Year Of The Starter -1999
Three Mariners rookies made 15-plus starts – ROY runner-up Freddy García (33), John Halama (24), and Gil Meche (15). Both García and Halama arrived the summer prior in the deadline deal sending Johnson to the Astros.
Starter Mac Suzuki was the first Mariners player born in Japan. Seattle traded him in June 1999 to the Mets for Allen Watson. New York quickly waived the right-hander, who then latched on with the Royals.
Another notable name from 1999 was Raúl Ibañez. The team’s number-1006 overall pick of the 1992 draft would go on to be a three-time Mariner.
The One With Ichiro – 2001
Obviously, the arrival of Ichiro Suzuki was a momentous occasion. Ichiro led the majors in hits, batting average, and stolen bases. He’d win the AL ROY and MVP, a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger helping propel Seattle to a record-setting 116 regular seasons wins.
Making Ichiro’s dynamic debut even more memorable was the fact he was the first position player to begin his professional career in Japan and enjoy sustained MLB success. The future Hall of Famer became an international star.
Piñeiro appeared in 17 games, including 11 starts, posting a 2.17 ERA for the AL West champions. The Rio Piedras, Puerto Rico native played seven seasons with the Mariners, including the previously mentioned 2003 campaign.
Brian Fuentes made 10 relief appearances, which turned out to be his entire Mariners career. The team dealt the lefty and fellow rookie Denny Stark with José Paniagua to the Rockies for Jeff Cirillo. Stark finished ninth in 2002 NL ROY voting with Colorado, Fuentes became a four-time All-Star.
Royal Debut -2005
Okay, it wasn’t a deep class. However, a franchise icon did debut – Félix Hernández.
A 19-year-old King Félix made the first of 418 career starts on August 4. The Venezuelan pitched five innings, allowing one earned run on three hits and two walks with four strikeouts. As it would be throughout most of Hernández’s career, Seattle provided minimal run support losing the game 3-1.
Overall, Félix made 12 starts with a 2.67 ERA suggesting what waited ahead for arguably the best pitcher in Mariners history.
As we noted already, the 2005 class lacked depth. Despite debuting in August, The King led Mariners rookies with a 2.8 WAR, just ahead of Jeremy Reed (2.1).
Although no other freshman provided meaningful value in 2005, there were notable names and longtime major leaguers playing as rookies that year. Specifically: Rene Rivera, Yuniesky Betancourt, Matt Thornton, Shin-Soo Choo, Mike Morse, Greg Dobbs, George Sherrill, and Scott Atchison.
Fleeting Promise – 2011
The debut of Dustin Ackley was a big deal at the time. After all, Ackley was the first draft selection by GM Jack Zduriencik and second overall in the 2009 draft. Initially, the former Tar Heel didn’t disappoint proving to be Seattle’s best hitter and finishing sixth in ROY voting.
We all know now 2011 would be Ackley’s shining moment. Still, during that one summer in the Emerald City, the left-handed hitter’s bat provided something desperately needed by Mariners fans – hope.
Similarly, Michael Pineda provided a glimpse of what Zduriencik was trying to build. Pineda placed one spot ahead of Ackley in ROY voting and was an All-Star. In 28 starts, the 6-foot-7 right-hander from the Dominican Republic posted the same ERA (3.47) as King Félix and led the rotation with a 1.099 WHIP.
One 2011 rookie did become a fixture for Seattle – Kyle Seager. Ackley’s college teammate is still a Mariner and the projected Opening Day third baseman.
Seager’s production has regressed recently, but this shouldn’t overshadow his overall body of work. The 2014 All-Star and Gold Glover has been a durable performer during his nine-year career.
Since Seager became a regular in 2012, only Eric Hosmer (1,237) and Carlos Santana (1,234) have appeared in more games than the North Carolina native’s 1,208. Moreover, he’s top-5 in club history in games, hits, doubles, home runs, and WAR.
Promising Pitching – 2014
This group holds the franchise record for lowest combined ERA (3.12) in a season. There were certainly memorable names among the bunch.
After being September call-ups the season prior, heralded prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker made a combined 18 starts in 2014 posting a 2.89 ERA. Injuries and inconsistency hampered both Paxton and Walker. But the duo did experience moments of brilliance, once again giving Mariners fans hope.
In his first start of the season, Paxton threw seven shutout innings with nine strikeouts against the Angels in Anaheim. With the Mariners still in the postseason hunt in early September, the Canadian pitched into the eighth inning for the first time ever holding the A’s to just two runs and four hits.
Similarly, Walker posted a 1.96 ERA during five September appearances. The team’s former first round pick saved the best for his last outing with a complete game in Toronto. Unfortunately, the Mariners lost 1-0.
Southpaw Roenis Elías made 29 starts tying him with Chris Young for second most on the staff behind Félix (34). A year later, the Mariners traded the Cuban along with fellow 2014 freshman Carson Smith to the Red Sox for Jonathan Aro and Wade Miley. Elías returned in 2018 before the team dealt him again last summer.
It’s worth noting Dominic Leone actually led rookie pitchers with 1.4 WAR. Leone appeared in 57 games recording a 2.17 ERA. Only King Félix was better (2.14) in Seattle.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Chris Taylor, who hit .287 with a .347 OBP in 151 plate appearances. Taylor’s 1.5 WAR led all Mariner rookies and was fifth best among position players on the team.
Year Of The Rookie – 2019
From a value perspective, the class of 2019 didn’t provide much. That said; there were plenty of playing opportunities for rookies with the Mariners in year-one of their “step back.”
Names such as Yusei Kikuchi Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley received the most acclaim. However, a 29-year-old Austin Nola and Shed Long demonstrated they could be fixtures on this year’s Opening Day roster and into the future.
All told, the Mariners used 27 freshmen last year – most in franchise history. Can you name all of them?
Seattle’s Rather Large 2019 Rookie Class
The 2020 class should be a lot of fun to watch. Sheffield, Lewis, Dunn, Fraley, Bishop enter the upcoming season with their rookie status intact. Moreover, minor leaguer Evan White is the likely Opening Day first baseman and we may see top prospects Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic debut later this year.
These players and others in the team’s pipeline beginning to blossom is a fascinating proposition. Then again, there’s never a guarantee prospects morph into dependable contributors in the majors – Seattle fans are well aware of this reality.
Still, the notion of the Mariners’ rookie class of 2020 potentially growing both in size and influence over the organization’s future is exciting.
It’s also a reason to tune-in during a season not projected to deliver much success in the standings.
Wouldn’t you agree?
My Oh My….