Mariners’ organizational philosophies taking root in minors

May 27, 2016, 6:19 AM | Updated: 10:38 am
Tyler O'Neill, a third-round pick in 2013, is hitting .306 with a .915 OPS for Double-A Jackson. (AP)

Adding to the list of pleasant surprises this season for the Mariners, the dramatic turnaround has not been limited to the big-league club. The Mariners’ minor-league affiliates continue to do well with Triple-A Tacoma and Double-A Jackson in first place and Class-A Clinton just two games out.

Director of player development Andy McKay let it be known early that development in the minor leagues was not just about developing individuals. He believes the minor-league teams records are important because winning is important and that must be be taught as well.

“Learning how to win a baseball game is a skill,” McKay said. “Just like learning how to bunt is a skill. So learning how to play the game that gives you a better chance of winning, it is important because obviously that is what we are trying to do up here.”

From the minor-leaguers who were brought to the hitting summit in January to the work that was put in during spring training to the efforts of the coaches and coordinators, the new organizational philosophies are taking root. McKay has spent time with all of the affiliates and sees a familiar theme being echoed throughout the system.

“They are all having a good time,” he said. “It’s very similar to this (Mariners) clubhouse. I think a lot of guys are trying to model themselves off of what Scott (Servais) has done up here and the great clubhouse culture, great environment, kids are having a lot of fun.”

And like the big-league club, they are winning.

“It’s the No. 1 skill you have got to learn: how to win a baseball game,” McKay said, “because obviously that is the only thing that matters up here.”

While winning is an important goal, making it to the big leagues is the ultimate goal for players in the minor leagues. To that end, their path is clear, according to McKay.

“All players, they are all held to the same types of standards,” he said. “For each guy it could be a little different. What it takes for somebody to move might be a little different from what somebody else might need to move forward, but they are all moving when they meet their expectations.”

A number of high draft picks have been on the move in the last 10 days with former first-round pick Alex Jackson and Nick Neidert being moved from extended spring to Clinton, and Andrew Moore from Clinton to Jackson.

One player who has yet to be moved but has opened eyes with an improved approach is 21-year-old Tyler O’Neill. The 2013 third-round pick has put up impressive power numbers in his three years in the organization, but his swing-first, ask-questions-second approach did not appear to be a good fit with the new C the Z model of hitter the Mariners look to develop and promote. Last year at high-A Bakersfield, O’Neill hit .260/.316/.558/.874. Nice numbers, but he took just 29 walks and struck out 137 times.

This year at Double-A he’s improved his line to .311/.373/.557/.930, walking 16 times with 48 strikeouts. The strikeouts are still high, but the walks are an improvement and an improvement at a level where the hitter is facing tougher pitching. It represents a change, a change McKay is happy to see but not necessarily surprised as he knows the process.

“Most guys are really good at doing what they are told when they know you are serious and it’s not flexible standards,” he said. “He’s been tremendous. You couldn’t play any better than he is playing and with any more consistency.”

Another player to keep an eye on is Edwin Diaz, who is being converted from a starter to a reliever with Jackson. For the past two weeks, Diaz has had his outings scripted for him. He’s entered games at the starts of innings and had plenty of time to get ready. Thursday night he was put into a game with runners on for the first time. He inherited runners on first and third with two outs in the eighth and struck out the first batter he faced to end the inning. He then pitched a 1-2-3 ninth and picked up his first career save. Diaz has pitched 8 1/3 innings in relief, allowed just three hits, no runs, no walks and struck out 14.

While McKay said that he has been thrilled with what he has seen from Diaz, he pointed out it will take some time to bring him along properly as a reliever. There are many things that need to be accomplished before the transition can be considered complete.

“You have to go out there and do it for X amount of time, pitch on short rest, pitch on back-to-back days,” he said. “If he’s here at some point, he might have to pitch three days in a row. You have to get him into as many situations as you can.”

Still, an exciting and needed arm in the system. One that appears to be progressing quickly.

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Mariners’ organizational philosophies taking root in minors