|Cheney Stadium (Wikimedia Commons, user CougsGo509)|
Regardless, the Rainiers are a particularly interesting bunch to analyze with the transition from Jack Zduriencik to Jerry Dipoto. In fact, Dipoto's remake of the Rainiers roster is arguably more dramatic than what he did at the major league level. I am interested to see how the new-look Rainiers play ball. Here is the 2016 Rainiers roster, broken into different groups based on some of the typical ways that fans often look for ballplayers at minor league games:
Familiar faces: RHP Mayckol Guaipe, INF Shawn O'Malley, OF Stefen Romero, SS Chris Taylor
The brevity of the list above says all you need to know about the sweeping changes, and even within this group there will be differences. Guaipe is ticketed for the bullpen again, but it seems likely that Romero will see more time at first base, O'Malley will see more time at shortstop, and Taylor will see more time at second and third base.
Familiar Mariners faces: LHP James Paxton, LHP David Rollins, C Mike Zunino
Jerry Dipoto built up enough depth at the major league level to push these guys down to Tacoma. Zunino and Paxton still have room to develop, Rollins is probably mostly depth at this point stashed away if needed. I am curious and excited to see Zunino get some at-bats in AAA. He doesn't need to hit much to be a quality everyday catcher in the majors with his excellent defense, and I still see a good hitter in his stroke and bat speed. He could be the most exciting Rainier to watch this season.
Prospects: LHP Paul Fry, CF Boog Powell
Paul Fry does not get a ton of publicity, but we should find out soon how much of a prospect he is. I think he can at least be as good as George Sherrill from about a decade ago now. Relief prospects aren't often very sexy, but they are still prospects. Boog Powell also gets mixed reviews as a prospect because he has limited tools. He needs to be a good OBP-contact-speed-defense type of player to make a mark in the majors.
Fringe prospects: RHP Jonathan Aro, RHP Justin De Fratus, OF Dario Pizzano, RHP Donn Roach, RHP Adrian Sampson, SS Tyler Smith, RHP Joe Weiland
These are mostly players unlikely to generate much buzz but also not all that far from the majors. Aro was picked up from the Red Sox for nothing and for a while looked like a real contender to break camp with the Mariners when bullpen injuries piled up. Then Donn Roach looked even closer with his fabulous spring. De Fratus was supposed to be in the M's bullpen but struggled mightily, so he heads to Tacoma to see if he can find whatever he has lost over the past year. Sampson was acquired at last year's trade deadline from the Pirates when J.A. Happ got shipped out. He has a solid mix of pitches with some feel for them but nothing overwhelming. Pizzano has hit at every level so far but lacks any real strong tool to get noticed. However, if he continues to hit, he seems likely to get up to the majors at some point in the next year or two. Smith is likely organizational depth, but this year is also his first taste of AAA ball. Who knows? Joe Wieland is the opening day starter for the Rainiers, for whatever that is worth. He has some MLB experience sprinkled over parts of multiple seasons but is yet to break through despite relatively solid success in the minors.
AAA veterans: IF Make Baxter, RHP Casey Coleman, RHP Steve Johnson, C Steven Lerud, INF Ed Lucas, INF Efren Navarro, RHP Blake Parker, OF Daniel Robertson
These are the players who make or break AAA seasons but have a minimal impact at the major league level. Every now and then a player in this category puts up a monster season that generates some speculation that they may get called up, especially if they happen to play a position of need for the MLB team. These are the kinds of guys that Jack Zduriencik almost never picked up so they are a breath of fresh air to me at least. Moreover, the position players all bring defensive versatility and generally good plate discipline. In other words, these are skilled players with limited tools, which is the opposite of who Zduriencik went after. It remains to be seen if this strategy ultimately pays off but it is a clear contrast between the two GMs.
The 2016 Rainiers do not have any glamorous prospects, in part because the whole Mariners system lacks those type of players at this point. However, on paper, this looks like a team that could be pretty good in AAA and should not get blown apart by a fledgling MLB team above them. This Rainiers team might have a degree of continuity that Tacoma has not seen for some time.
Rainiers lineup cards should be fun to check for a particularly geeky fan. It's relatively clear who will start regularly, but where will they line up? In particular, most of the infielders have experience at many positions and it is likely that Dipoto wants them to log innings around the diamond. I would think the defensive versatility makes this Rainiers team fun to manage, and we might get to see a bit more of Pat Listach's style and strategies.
Center field will be another fun position to watch. Boog Powell is likely to get more playing time out there than most, but both Daniel Robertson and Shawn O'Malley have experience out there and might be more likely to see time with the Mariners in the near future.
The basepaths might become a focal point as well. The Rainiers don't have many sluggers like they tended to have under Jack Zduriencik. They have quite a bit more speed though. How much will they look to use it? Does Pat Listach like running? What does Jerry Dipoto think about base stealing strategies? This Rainiers team could end up hitting a bit like the Kansas City Royals.
Bottom line, many of my best baseball memories are from Tacoma games. Minor League Baseball is fun, especially with a little knowledge of the players. The Rainiers under Jack Zduriencik had some cartoonishly flawed player who were incredibly fun to watch because when things went right they were amazing, but when they were off...they were way off (looking at you, Dan Cortes, Carlos Peguero, Jesus Montero, etc.) This year's team does not feature the same boom-or-bust potential but could put a steady, exciting product on the field, especially if they run the bases aggressively. There will be new memories made, that much is certain.