PEORIA, Ariz. – With spring training finally over, the Tacoma Rainiers flew from the desert to Fresno, Calif., to open the Pacific Coast League baseball season Thursday.
The eyes of fans and the Seattle Mariners’ front office will be trained on four of the organization’s top prospects — pitchers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, infielder Nick Franklin and catcher Mike Zunino — who are all beginning the season with the Rainiers.
For Hultzen and Franklin, this is a second chance at Triple-A after less than spectacular debuts last season. Paxton and Zunino — who continues his rise from the No. 3 overall pick in June after a strong showing this spring — are seeing their first Triple-A action.
“It’s the last step before the big leagues,” Franklin said. “Anybody has a chance to get up there as quickly as possible as anybody else … .
“If we all come together and we don’t worry about what’s going on up north, we only worry about what’s going on in Tacoma, we’ll be good.”
HULTZEN: GETTING CLOSER
There was speculation Hultzen could have cracked the Mariners rotation with a strong spring. Hultzen, in just four innings, did not surrender a run while striking out six but wound up being sent to minor league camp.
Some players in that situation might have been disappointed, but Hultzen shrugged it off. The way the 23-year-old lefty sees it, he still is on the fast track to the big leagues — and he’s got something to prove in Tacoma.
Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick by the Mariners in 2011, said he learned a great deal in his first full season of pro baseball, the first half of it with Double-A Jackson (Tenn.) and the latter part with the Rainiers, where his usual control deserted him.
“The biggest difference for me was just the experience of the hitters in Triple-A,” Hultzen said. “What made the Triple-A hitters so good was they had their approach, they knew what they were doing up there and that made it a lot more difficult to pitch to.
“When I had no idea where the ball was going, they knew that so they would just take, take, take, take (pitches) until they got that cookie that they wanted and they would mash it.”
Hultzen’s numbers reflected his wildness, which started soon after he arrived in Tacoma in June. He said he somehow lost all the feel for his pitches and went from 8-3 with a 1.19 ERA in Jackson to 1-4 with a 5.92 ERA with the Rainiers and almost a walk an inning (43 in 48† innings).
“The numbers don’t tell the whole story but they tell a pretty good story of what happened at Triple-A,” Hultzen said.
“I’m past it. It’s behind me and I’m ready to move on. I have a chance to kind of redeem myself … and get the opportunity to go back (to Tacoma) and prove that’s not the pitcher I am.”
SURPRISE! IT’S PAXTON
Paxton starting the season in Triple-A is a bit of a surprise considering his struggles this spring. He posted a 14.73 ERA in three Cactus League appearances and struggled in a “B” game start before being re-assigned to minor league camp.
The big lefty struggled to command his fastball and big breaking curve early on, but did pitch better once he began throwing in minor league games.
He posted a 9-4 record with a 3.05 ERA in Double-A Jackson last season. He struck out 110 batters in 106⅓ innings. The numbers could have been even better if it wasn’t for tendonitis in his right knee that put him on the disabled list for five weeks (May 26-July 2) resting and rehabbing the knee.
He came back and felt like a different pitcher after the DL time, posting a 6-1 record with a 2.40 ERA in his next 11 starts.
Paxton ranked No. 89 in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects for 2013.
FINDING HIS GROOVE
Hultzen isn’t the only Rainier with some improvement to show. Franklin’s batting average dropped from .322 in 57 games with Jackson to .243 in 64 games in Tacoma.
Franklin said he believes it’s all about adjusting to the pitching at the Triple-A level.
“They pick out your weakness quick,” Franklin said.
Franklin has not had much failure since being the Mariners’ first-round pick (27th overall) in the 2009 draft. He hit .283 and .281 in his first two seasons in the minors, and tore it up in Double-A before being promoted to the Rainiers.
“I think it says a lot about all those guys being in Triple-A already,” Zunino said of Franklin and Hultzen. “They’ve earned the right to be drafted there and obviously they’ve earned the right to be in Triple-A. They’re all playing well and they’re all great ball players.”
ZUNINO: RISING FAST
Zunino, who won the Golden Spikes Award as the top amateur player in 2012 while at the University of Florida, made a smashing debut in the organization last season. He hit .373 in 29 games at Single-A Everett and .333 in 15 games at Jackson, hitting a combined 13 home runs with 43 RBI.
The Mariners invited Zunino to the major-league training camp. He showed some offense this spring, hitting .261 with two home runs in 23 at-bats.
As much as he learned on the field he gained even more knowledge off, picking the brain of veteran Kelly Shoppach, the backup Mariners catcher.
“Got all my work in and feel ready to go,” Zunino said.
Zunino, 22, is going to see plenty of action in Tacoma; Rainiers manager Daren Brown said he’ll be focusing on Zunino’s catching and getting him experience and more confidence.
Staff writer Ryan Divish contributed to this report.