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Inside Mariners’ minor leagues: What is working and where they are thriving

Mariners prospect Jake Fraley has continued to hit well since a promotion to Triple-A. (Getty)

The Mariners were well-represented Sunday in the MLB All-Star Futures Game, with their No. 1 and No. 5 prospects Jarred Kelenic and Evan White in the starting lineup and No. 2 prospect Justin Dunn pitching a scoreless inning in relief.

MLB All-Star Futures Game ends in 2-2 tie; trio of Mariners prospects play

The Mariners were one of just five clubs in baseball to place three players in the minor league showcase game, and the organization’s recognition did not stop there. While the M’s team managed to send just one player to the MLB All-Star Game, the story was quite different with the various minor league All-Star Games that were played at each level. This was one of a number of topics I inquired about in a recent conversation for the Mariners pregame show with team director of player development Andy McKay.

“The Mariners are second in all of baseball in sending players to those games,” McKay pointed out. “It is certainly not a stat that is going to be the end of the story and say, ‘Well, it’s all working,’ but it is an indicator that our players are playing well. You have talent that has to be turned into skill and you have prospects that need to be turned into performers. That takes time. It doesn’t happen all at once.”

Reset for Sheffield

While there have been numerous standouts in the minors in the first half, one notable prospect struggled mightily: Justus Sheffield, who posted a 7.69 ERA while walking 41 and striking out 48 in 12 starts for Triple-A Tacoma. The decision was made to send him down a level to Double-A Arkansas and the results have been much better, with Sheffield allowing a total of three earned runs in four starts while striking out 29 and walking just five.

“It was just kind of a reset,” McKay said of the move. “We did it with (James) Paxton, we did it with (Mike) Zunino. Those phone calls are hard, the meetings are difficult, but in general they have been effective for us.

“With Justus it was just trying to kind of break the cycle of what was happening in Triple-A. We were open to sending him anywhere, just something different. Obviously it’s worked, and I really can’t say why but he is throwing the ball as well as he has ever thrown it. Not really sure how it is happening, but the good news is he is throwing the ball exactly as we had hoped he would throw it.”

The evaluation of Sheffield goes beyond how he has dealt with hitters at a lower level. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto recently traveled to Arkansas to watch him and he passed the eye test. Beyond the eyes there are also metrics that McKay pointed out.

“With pitchers it’s a little different than hitters. You can measure things, you can watch somebody throw in Low-A, High-A, Double-A and you can quantify it pretty quickly and say, yeah that’s Major League stuff there and we are all very excited for him.”

The proof, of course, will be how it translates to the big leagues and how Sheffield himself handles the big league stage. An area of concern has been controlling his emotions and adrenaline on the hill – another hurdle to overcome, but the recent developments at Double-A have nonetheless been encouraging.

While Sheffield has struggled in his first months as a Mariner, another recently acquired prospect has thrived. Outfielder Jake Fraley is hitting .305/.354/.661 for a 1.015 OPS in 14 games since his promotion to Tacoma.

“He’s gotten acclimated to his new environment very quickly,” said McKay. “Jake is a kid, he’s so competitive and he prepares so well. He does have that X-factor a bit about him and it has shown up everywhere he’s been. If you look at what his career has done since he transformed his swing with Tampa has been exceptional.”

It’s not just Fraley’s swing that is turning heads, either.

A new way of doing things

While there have been numerous individual standouts in the Mariners minors, the processes have been as important, if not more important, than the performances. The processes are set in place and there is uniformity from level to level with the goal of sustaining the performance through the years. How they teach and what methods and technologies they utilize are constantly front of mind.

“We are always looking for different ways to evaluate – is what we are doing working, is it not working – and you need have humility to take that deep breath and say this is a well-intentioned idea, it’s just not taking place with our guys,” said McKay.

What has worked?

“Gas camp (an offseason camp for pitchers designed to add velocity) has seen some results,” said McKay. “Some players don’t throw any harder but there are players that have taken substantial leaps and we have learned a lot to the point where we think they can improve it this year. We are also working on some things with breaking balls where Trackman, swing and miss are showing some success.”

McKay also pointed to the work that has been put in with the organization’s catchers, work that started in the winter with Dan Wilson and catching coordinator Tony Arnerich leading “Game Calling U,” weekly conference calls with all of the catchers, as perhaps the most sustainable and measurable development happening in the minors.

“We are receiving the ball probably in the top two or three in organized baseball,” said McKay. “Joe Odom in Double-A has gotten more strikes called than anyone in the game at any level. The strides that (High-A Modesto catcher) Cal Raleigh has taken, the evolution of Omar Narváez and Tom Murphy at the big league level as well, that part has been good.”

The challenge of the PCL

What is of concern on the development front? With the recent implementation of using the MLB baseball at the Triple-A level this year, home run numbers have been sky high with the final numbers expected to be up around 50 percent for the year. In the extremely hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League pitchers are getting no breaks, especially with launching pads in Reno, Albuquerque, Las Vegas and even El Paso, where the Chihuahuas set a new franchise record for home runs in just their 84th game of season.

“One of the things we’ve been really concerned with, I think everyone in baseball has been concerned with, is trying to develop pitchers in the PCL right now,” McKay said. “The ballparks that you are dealing with and now using the baseballs from the Major League level, it’s produced a very challenging environment. It’s a tough environment to develop pitching right now and it’s league-specific to the PCL.”

How the Mariners adapt their development plan to the new challenges at Triple-A remains to be seen. A new challenge in the world of player development, all part of the game.

“The evolution never stops,” said McKay.

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