With just under 40 games remaining in the Seattle Mariners’ disappointing 2015 season, “hot stove” conversations will soon begin to churn. Fans will want to know what the team’s front office will do to end a playoff drought that will reach 15 years after this season – regardless of who’s in charge. As Prospect Insider founder – Jason A. Churchill – points out during his mid-season prospect rankings, most of the team’s top prospects are at the lower levels. That means that the bulk of new major league-ready talent will have to come from somewhere other than the team’s minor league system.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t any Tacoma Rainiers who might be able to help the team in 2016. Fans are quick to mention prospects like Patrick Kivlehan, D.J Peterson, John Hicks, Steve Baron, and Tyler Olson as potential contributors in 2016. It’s possible that a few of these young players will make some type of impact in 2016, but only Kivlehan and Peterson even cracked Jason’s mid-season top 30. Two Rainiers who don’t receive as much attention – although they have major league experience – are outfielders James Jones and Stefen Romero. That gives rise to the question – what’s their future with the Mariners?
Both players spent a considerable amount of time with Seattle in 2014, yet they’ve been non-factors with the team in 2015. Jones made his major league debut with the Mariners in April and was a fixture in Seattle’s lineup between May and July. Although his .250 batting average was near league-average, his success at running the bases was impressive. He swiped 27 bags and had a 96-percent success rate – best in the majors among players with more than 25 stolen bases. Unfortunately for the pitcher-turned-outfielder, his value to the major league squad significantly declined after the Mariners acquired outfielders Austin Jackson and Chris Denorfia at the July 31 trading deadline.
With the exception of a brief eight-game stint with Seattle in late June, Jones has spent the entire 2015 season with Tacoma. His productivity as a Rainier has been similar to his 2014 Tacoma numbers despite two stints to the disabled list – which is where he currently resides due to a broken toe. Although there hasn’t been any official word on the 26-year-old’s status, he played a rehab game with the Arizona League Mariners last night and – depending on his recovery – may be available for a September call-up when major league rosters expand from 25 to 40 players.
Jones has continued to be a force to be reckoned with on the base paths – despite only playing 61 games with the Rainiers, his 21 stolen bases rank number 11 in the Pacific Coast League. When healthy, Jones’ speed provides a unique value that could help the Mariners – or any team – in 2016. At this point, it’s important to refer to the age-old adage that you can’t steal first base – that’s the challenge that Jones faced with Seattle last year. The left-handed hitter’s batting average may have been near league-average, but his .278 on-base percentage was nearly 40-points below the league-standard. One reason behind his struggles at reaching base was his paltry 3.6-percent walk rate – league-average is 7.6-percent. He’s been much more selective this season and has walked during 10.5-percent of his plate appearances, which is encouraging.
Romero – who made the Mariners’ 2014 Opening Day roster – started 36 games for Seattle, but he hasn’t appeared with the team in 2015. Like Jones, his value decreased dramatically after the arrival of Jackson and Denorfia – Romero’s .192/.234/.299 major league slash didn’t help his cause either. In all fairness to the former Oregon State Beaver, he wasn’t given consistent playing time. It’s tough to expect a rookie player to flourish in a limited role, especially when they’ve been a regular player during their entire life.
Unlike Jones, Romero has been available throughout the 2015 season and has been a productive right-handed bat with power. He leads the team in games played (110) and has a team-leading 35 doubles to go along with his .297/.335/.490 slash and 15 home runs. He has the potential to be an effective power bat against left-handed major league pitching, if given the opportunity.
Now the hard question – can these two players fit into the Mariners 2016 plans? That may depend on who’s making the decisions. If the current management structure remains in place, it’s tough for me to envision a scenario see where either player fits into the team’s plans. I base my opinion on the team’s previous offseason when they opted to revamp their outfield with veterans like Nelson Cruz, Seth Smith, Rickie Weeks, and Justin Ruggiano rather than give Jones or Romero an opportunity to compete for a role with the team. The current regime will likely follow the same strategy of filling the bench with veterans, if they’re given the opportunity.
It’s hard to fault the team for taking a veteran-centric approach, especially after missing a postseason opportunity by just one game in 2014. On the other hand, Jones and Romero didn’t get an opportunity to contribute as Mariners once it became obvious that Weeks, Ruggiano, and 2014-holdover Dustin Ackley weren’t going to work out. The 2014 major league numbers of Jones and Romero were better than the 2015 production of Ackley and Weeks, respectively. Plus, Romero would have provided better outfield defense than Weeks while Jones would have been a fair trade-off with Ackley defensively.
I’m not trying to overstate their potential value, but the Mariners had opportunities to use both Jones and Romero and failed to do so. Management preferred to stick with something that wasn’t working rather than give the 26-year-olds an opportunity. I’m not sure if that’s an indication of the team’s assessment of the outfielders potential or just another example of the organization’s inability to pivot away from bad roster decisions – perhaps both.
Both Jones and Romero are likely to be with the Mariners in September, but playing time may be hard to come by. The team appears committed to having lineups that contain both Brad Miller and Ketel Marte, which means that there will be even fewer opportunities – assuming one of the shortstops is either in a corner outfield spot or in center field. Consequently, Jones and Romero are destined to enter 2016 as they did in 2015 – unproven quantities with limited opportunities to prove themselves.
Both James Jones and Stefen Romero will be 27-years-old when next season starts and – regardless of the hierarchy in place in Seattle – they may never ascend beyond replacement-level status. Until given a chance, we won’t know if they can be more. Based on their current trajectory with the Mariners, they’ll likely have to fulfill their potential – whatever that ends up being – with another organization.