John McGrath

John McGrath: Mariners try to figure out how to help draft picks progress — not regress

Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto talks to reporters Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 in Seattle.
Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto talks to reporters Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016 in Seattle. AP

When general manager Jerry Dipoto cleaned out the Mariners front office last fall with a zeal that presaged his aggressive overturning of the Seattle roster, it seemed inevitable that Tom McNamara, the team’s director of amateur scouting, would be among those looking for another job.

Of the six first-round draft selections the Mariners have made under McNamara, five are either gone (Dustin Ackley), hurt (Danny Hultzen) or variously complex works in progress (Mike Zunino, D.J. Peterson and Alex Jackson). Only pitcher Taijuan Walker, who’ll start the home opener Friday night against Oakland, has met expectations.

But McNamara wasn’t relieved of his duties, a move — actually, a nonmove — that said something about Dipoto’s opinion of the Mariners talent-feeder system: The draft choices are not the issue. The issue has been the development of the draft choices.

As the Tacoma Rainiers begin the Pacific Coast League season on Thursday night, attention will be on three projects who spent much of 2015 with the Mariners.

▪  Left-handed pitcher James Paxton made 13 big league starts in 2015, and he got every chance during spring training to seize a role in the back end of the rotation. But he couldn’t beat out the equally unimpressive Nathan Karns.

▪  Shortstop Chris Taylor played well for the Rainiers last season — he hit .300 with a .391 on-base percentage, thanks to a team-high 50 walks — but appeared overmatched during his three call-up stints. Taylor’s poor showing in the Cactus League, where his inability to hit affected his usually steady defense, left the Mariners with no other choice than sending him to Tacoma.

▪  And then there’s Zunino, the 25-year-old catcher whose historically inept offensive numbers against major league pitching — he hit .174, striking out 132 times in 112 games last season — also affected his defense. The winner of the 2012 Golden Spikes Award as America’s top college player, Zunino embodied Seattle’s reputation as a place where talented prospects don’t so much stall as regress.

Hence Dipoto’s insistence that McNamara didn’t swing and miss on somebody all too familiar with swinging and missing. Baseball draft pundits applauded the Mariners for selecting Zunino No. 3 overall in 2012, just as they applauded the selection of Ackley at No. 2 overall in 2009. Both choices were obvious.

Also obvious is the organizational bungling that derailed their careers. Take Ackley. Groomed to be a second baseman, he was asked to convert to the outfield when Robinson Cano arrived as a free agent. The transition figured to be problematic, but might have been accomplished had Ackley remembered how accomplished he was with a bat in his hands.

He was given a piece of advice one day, a different piece of advice the next, and before our eyes, the left-handed hitter’s natural sweet swing became tentative and overthought.

Ackley was traded to the Yankees last July, so Dipoto couldn’t salvage this monumental organizational failure. Which is unfortunate, because the GM knows what went wrong: Too many voices were telling Dustin Ackley how to hit — when to take a pitch, and when not to take a pitch — and he listened to them all. No wonder his confidence eroded to the point he couldn’t pull the trigger on full-count fastballs thrown into his wheelhouse.

“Players don’t forget how to play,” Dipoto said before spring training. “They don’t forget how to swing a bat. Most difficulties you’re going to have on the field are almost never about the mechanical flaw. ... It’s usually something that’s going on in your head.”

Dipoto’s appointment of Andy McKay as Mariners farm director represented outside-the-box thinking at its most, well, outside-est. McKay is a mental-skills expert whose preaching of positive thinking would have found former Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon rolling his eyes and wondering: This is the state of baseball in 2016? Some egghead with a spiel best fit for a college lecture hall is in charge of our minor leagues?

But it can’t be denied that the source of Ackley’s struggles was between his ears. Same with Paxton, Taylor and Zunino. They haven’t forgotten how to play; they’ve merely forgotten how to play with confidence.

“We have to be able and willing to unlock the player’s mind, to give him the capacity to absorb what we’re going to throw at him,” Dipoto said a few months ago. “It’s the belief of putting a player in a position to succeed — that they know when the time comes in the game, they’re prepared.

“I think that’s the next great frontier, unlocking the mind. It’s positive thinking about putting yourself in a position to do positive things.”

One voice, one vision, and everybody must buy in.

“It’s called player development,” McKay has said, “but it’s coaching development, as well. Coaches have to get better. Coaches have to improve, coaches have to be coachable. If you’re working in our department, we are all a work in progress. Everyone has got to get better. Everyone will get better.”

Easier said than done, but at least it was said:

“Everyone will get better.”

For three players on the Tacoma Rainiers with legitimate aspirations of succeeding at the next level, “getting better” is a ticket to that promised land where nothing is promised.

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