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Seattle Mariners
Sports >  Seattle Mariners

How top Mariners prospects fared when they debuted in the majors

UPDATED: Thu., May 13, 2021

Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez throws to first during a bunting drill on the first day of spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, in Peoria, Ariz.   (Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez throws to first during a bunting drill on the first day of spring training workouts for pitchers and catchers Thursday, Feb. 17, 2005, in Peoria, Ariz.  (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Perhaps a few years from now, if everything goes as planned, Mariners fans might look back on Thursday as the day when the franchise’s rebuild finally started to gain real traction toward success.

Of course, that’s an optimistic viewpoint for a team that has yielded nothing more than pessimism for the better part of a decade.

Still, even the most bitter or beleaguered of Mariners fans had to find some excitement and anticipation for Thursday night’s game at T-Mobile Park when two of their top prospects in their minor league system made their MLB debuts.

The Mariners decided to call up hard-hitting outfielder Jarred Kelenic to start in left field and hard-throwing right-hander Logan Gilbert to make the start on the mound to open a four-game series vs. Cleveland. Both were playing for Triple-A Tacoma.

Kelenic, considered the Mariners’ No. 1 overall prospect by MLB Pipeline and No. 2 by Baseball America, is a top-10 prospect in all of baseball. He will be asked to help bolster a lineup that is far too reliant on the first four spots in the batting order. News of his call-up leaked on Monday evening.

Gilbert, rated as the Mariners’ top pitching prospect by Baseball America and No. 2 prospect by MLB Pipeline, is a top-40 prospect in MLB and will fill an open slot in the Mariners’ six-man rotation that has been decimated by injuries.

While the Mariners have had top hitting and pitching prospects called up before September to provide a boost of talent and production, they’ve never had a day when two prospects of this magnitude debuted together.

But here’s a look at some of the recent in-season call-ups and anticipated MLB debuts for Mariners prospects and the circumstances surrounding them.

Kyle Lewis

Debut: Sept. 10, 2019

Age: 24 years, 59 days

There wasn’t much anticipation surrounding Lewis’ call up in the sense that everyone knew he was going to be called up in September when the active rosters expanded to 40 – something that MLB will no longer do . The Mariners had to place Lewis on the 40-man roster before that offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. The Mariners let him play out the postseason series with Double-A Arkansas before calling up him and several other players, including Justin Dunn. After suffering a gruesome knee injury in 2016 and multiple surgeries over the next years, his status in the prospect rankings dropped.

He wasn’t a top 100 prospect going into the 2019 season, but given the adversity he’d overcome and his status as the No. 11 overall pick in 2016, his debut was still highly anticipated for Mariners fans.

In his first game, Lewis crushed a solo home run off Trevor Bauer. He hit six homers in his first 10 games. He was named the American League Rookie of the Year for the shortened 2020 season.

Mike Zunino

Debut: June 12, 2013

Age: 22 years, 79 days

At the time, it seemed a little early to call up the slugging catcher since he’d been drafted out of the University of Florida with the No. 3 overall pick just a year before.

In hindsight, Zunino’s call-up to the big leagues was not only premature but detrimental to his overall development and a colossal mistake.

The Mariners’ catching situation at the time was a mess with Jesus Montero not capable of handling the position, Kelly Shoppach disliked by the coaching staff and Jesus Sucre injured. So instead of trying to piece it together with perhaps a trade of a veteran minor leaguer, they called up Zunino, their No. 1 overall prospect and No. 17 in all of baseball.

“We had a little bit of a later target date, but when you look at it, we had an injury right now, there’s no harm in bringing him up,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said at the time.

Zunino came into the game with just 346 minor league at-bats. He had played in 47 games with Triple-A Tacoma that season and was hitting .238 (44-for-185) with 11 homers and 43 RBIs with 59 strikeouts and 14 walks at the time.

Dustin Ackley

Debut: June 17, 2011

Age: 23 years, 111 days

Ackley was already on the 40-man roster, part of the MLB contract he signed as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 MLB draft. With a 35-34 record and playing better than expected despite a tepid offense, the Mariners called up Ackley, their No. 1 prospect and the No. 12 prospect in all of baseball. At the time, Ackley had a .303/.421/.487 slash line in 66 games with 17 doubles, three triples, nine homers, 35 RBIs and 55 walks.

He went on to play 90 games that season, posting a .273/.348/.417 slash line with 16 doubles, seven triples, six homers, 36 RBIs, six stolen bases, 40 walks and 79 strikeouts. He was named the team’s MVP by the local chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Unfortunately for Seattle, it was the most productive season of his career.

James Paxton

Debut: Sept. 7, 2013

Age: 24 years, 305 days

Taijuan Walker

Debut: Aug. 30, 2013

Age: 21 years, 17 days

We are lumping this duo together since they debuted a week apart and were 2/3 of the members of the “Big 3” as labeled by Zduriencik. Both were top 100 prospects going into that season. The Big 3 also featured lefty Danny Hultzen, who likely would’ve debuted before both of them if not for shoulder issues. Paxton was taken in the 2010 draft as a first-round talent who fell to the fifth round. It took some time to figure out his mechanics and command and also just remain healthy enough to get to the big leagues. He made four starts in 2013, posting a 3-0 record and 1.50 ERA. He went 41-26 with a 3.42 ERA from his debut until he was traded after the 2018 season.

Walker was a supplemental first-round pick in the 2010 draft and also battled some injuries in his build up. He went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three starts in 2013. He made 62 starts and three relief appearances, posting a 22-22 record with a 4.18 ERA before being traded to the Diamondbacks.

Felix Hernandez

Debut: Aug. 4, 2005

Age: 19 years, 118 days

Hernandez made his pro debut at age 17 in 2003 and was pitching in the big leagues two years later. He rocketed through the Mariners’ system. In 2004, he made 25 starts and one relief appearance between High-A and Double-A, posting a 14-4 record with a 2.95 ERA and 172 strikeouts in 149⅓ innings. He started the 2005 season with Triple-A Tacoma, but everyone knew he would be up by the middle of the season. He posted a 9-4 record with a 2.25 ERA in 14 starts and five relief appearances. In 88 innings pitched with the Rainiers, he struck out 100 batters with 48 walks.

Alex Rodriguez

Debut: July 8, 1994

Age: 18 years, 346 days

Taken with the No. 1 overall pick of the 1993 draft, Rodriguez held out from signing his contract till the August deadline and didn’t play that summer. He made his professional debut in 1994 as the No. 6 overall prospect in baseball. He went from High-A to Double-A to Triple-A to the big leagues in one season. In 17 games on that call-up, he posted a .204/.241/.204 slash line in 59 plate appearances.

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