All-Star rabbit hole
A Mariner just last year, Taijuan Walker pitched in the All-Star Game as a representative of the Mets
July 14, 2021
When watching the All-Star Game last night—a game featuring zero current Seattle Mariners—a group of us here at GS.net HQ enjoyed mocking the truly hideous All-Star uniforms and giving our own imagined responses to the inane questioning of the players—during the game, while they were playing—by Fox broadcaster Joe F#%*&ing Buck.
In recent years, Fox Sports has gone beyond the established-if-silly practice of interviewing the managers live on-air between innings once during a game to having select players mic'd up while they're on the field during the All-Star Game and interviewing them during an inning. That's crazed, of course, but as ridiculous as it was to talk to Bryce Harper while he was playing the outfield, this year they stepped it up to eleven by trying to interview players, not only as they were playing the outfield, but awaiting grounders in the infield, as they were batting, and, in the case of White Sox reliever Liam Hendriks, while he was pitching! (To his credit, Hendriks ignored Buck completely, claiming his earpiece didn't work.) Insane. We were openly rooting for Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, for example, to have to field a hard liner at his face right as Joe F@%$&ing Buck was asking him an irrelevant question about the home run derby, or for Pirates second baseman Adam Frazier to respond to a question about how much of a distraction all the All-Star pomp and circumstance is with something like, "it's a whole lot less distracting than having a blowhard broadcaster asking me questions in my ear while I'm trying to field my position, dumbass," but alas, that didn't happen. (Said Boston shortstop Xander Bogaerts after the fact: "I told (Rafael) Devers, I had someone talking in my ear while hitting. That’s not something I want to do more often.")
The game itself wasn't all that exciting, with the scoring rather limited and the suspense of the contest thin, so we amused ourselves not only by lampooning Joe F#&@ing Buck and his interviewees, but by noting not only the lack of Mariners but the presence of former Mariners. It seemed as though the only way for Mariners to get the acknowledgment and respect of their peers, the fans, and the league PTB was to become former Mariners.
Anyway, fellow GS.net contributor Erik L. suggested a deep dive into the ex-M's in last night's game (he also suggested that your's truly lacked suitable housekeeping standards by taking it upon himself to scrub my kitchen, but that's neither here nor there for our purposes). So let's do the dive.
Though it sometimes felt like more, the 2021 ASG included five former Seattle Mariners. (At one point late in the game, an ex-Mariner was batting while another ex-Mariner tried to advance on a would-be wild pitch, only to have a different ex-Mariner throw him out at second base; at a different point, an ex-Mariner pitched to an ex-Mariner catcher when the ex-Mariner batter hit a home run.) What's the history for them?
- Mike Zunino (C, Tampa Bay): Elected to the All-Star team by the players in a year when no American League catchers are hitting well, Zunino might be the first All-Star selected to the team while batting under .200 (the lowest averages I can recall are Jason Varitek's .218 in 2008 and Terry Steinbach's .217 in 1988; let us know in the comments if you can cite a lower one, I haven't done the research). Z was drafted by the Mariners in the first round (third overall) in 2012, seen as the long-term answer for Seattle's catching woes and the antidote to the already-failing Jesús Montero experiment. With the big-league roster hurting and no patience for developing their prize prospect, then-general manager Jack Zduriencik promoted Zunino to the Mariners just a year after that draft, in June of 2013. Between late 2012 and early ’13, Z accumulated just 100 games of minor-league experience, including an underwhelming half-season at Triple-A Tacoma in which he batted .227/.297/.478, hardly numbers that shout "I'm ready for the Majors!" Though excellent defensively, Z basically replicated that Triple-A performance in Seattle in ’13 and did worse in 2014, ’15, and ’16, being shuttled back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma for much of the latter two seasons. He hit his high-water mark in 2017, batting .251 with 25 home runs, but it didn't stick. The next season he was back to struggling to stay above Mendoza in 405 plate appearances. After that season, Z was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays, along with outfielder Guillermo Heredia, for outfielders Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. What might have been if Zduriencik and company hadn't rushed Zunino so quickly and let him develop along a traditional minor-league growth period? We'll never know, as Z got himself pretty well locked in as a low-average power hitter with more holes in his swing than cheap Swiss cheese. Since becoming a Ray, Zunino has put up a cumulative line of .174/.253/.396 and struck out 218 times, a staggering 37.2% rate that's actually 3% worse than his Seattle K rate. As for the Mariners' side of the trade, Mallex didn't quite work out the way he was expected to, serving two disappointing years in the Mariner fold before being unceremoniously released and is now playing for the Louisville Bats, the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds; Fraley is now finally getting his opportunity with the Mariners after injuries and poor management kept him off the big-league field in 2019 and ’20.
- Chris Taylor (IF/OF, Los Angeles Dodgers): In what Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto once called the worst trade of his career, Taylor was shipped off to the Dodgers in mid-2016 in exchange for...let's see, what was it... a rosin bag? Some BP baseballs? A sack of Diamond Dry? Oh, here it is, for pitcher Zach Lee, who went 0-9 with a 7.39 ERA in 14 starts for Tacoma in his only time as a Mariner "asset" and has bounced around the minors in the five years since. Taylor had just gotten his feet wet in the big leagues after being drafted in the 5th round by the M's in 2012 and steadily making his way up the minor-league ladder. A strong first half of 2015 at Tacoma (.300/.391/.429) earned him a promotion, but he only hit .170 for Seattle the rest of that year and Dipoto deemed him expendable when a need for a 40-man roster spot arose. So off he went to Tinseltown, where he's since batted a nice .268/.347/.463 over essentially four seasons, not to mention been a postseason hero (2017 NLCS MVP with an even better performance in the 2018 NLCS) and now an All-Star as LA's super-utility man, turning in great defensive plays whether he's at shortstop, second base, center, or left field.
- Omar Narváez (C, Milwaukee): The Mariners acquired Narváez in a trade with the White Sox after the 2018 season, a one-for-one deal with reliever Alex Colomé going from Seattle to Chicago. Colomé was a pending free agent and the M's needed a catcher after dealing away Zunino; seemed like a good trade, and indeed it was, for both parties. Colomé was outstanding as Chicago's closer for two years and Narváez turned in the best offensive season for a Seattle catcher since... well, ever (.278/.353/.460, 22 HRs). Defensively, he was a few steps down from Zunino but overall rated a 2.2 WAR while Zunino's ’19 season earned him a -0.2 WAR (if you're into that sort of thing). The White Sox had a reputation for failing to develop catchers, so being defensively challenged should have been no surprise and to his credit he did do some on-the-job learning to become a better receiver. Yet, for whatever reason, Dipoto felt the best offensive catcher the M's had ever had, a player three years away from free agency, was expendable and traded Narváez to the Brewers after his only Seattle year for a Class-A pitcher named Adam Hill and a supplemental draft pick, used to select pitcher Connor Phillips. Hill is getting his first action as a Mariner farmhand this season at Double-A Arkansas at age 24 (2-1, 9 starts, 4.19 ERA), while the 20-year-old Phillips is now at Class-A Modesto (3-2, 8 starts, 4.25 ERA). Whether either of those two will amount to anything in the Majors remains to be seen, but wouldn't the Mariners like to still have Narváez right about now? After a down mini-season in 2020, Omar made the All-Star squad with a fantastic .300/.396/.469 line; Mariner catchers, on the other hand—including days when they played as a DH—are batting a mere .200/.272/.380.
- Nelson Cruz (DH, Minnesota): Nellie left Seattle as a free agent after serving a four-year stint as the Mariners' primary designated hitter. An All-Star three of those years, Cruz was a fan favorite at then-Safeco Field and posted outstanding numbers as an M, with a batting line of .284/.362/.546 with 163 HR and 414 RBI. Deemed by the M's as too old to risk another multi-year deal on, Cruz took a two-year free-agent offer from the Minnesota Twins after the 2018 season. Now 40 years old, he re-upped for another year in the Twin Cities and his cumulative stats in two and half years as a Twin is even more impressive than his line in Seattle: .307/.390/.603. In 2019, he topped a 1.000 OPS for the season and won the Edgar Martínez Award for best DH in the American League. In last year's mini-season, Cruz finished 8th in the league in batting average, 3rd in OBP, 5th in homers, and 9th in total bases. Not bad for an old man.
- Taijuan Walker (RHP, New York Mets): Not just an ex-Mariner, but an ex-Mariner for the second time! Walker was a Seattle first-round draft choice in 2010 as a 17-year-old high schooler, did a brief stint in Rookie ball, then a year at Class-A, a year in Double-A, then a 2013 season that saw him make three stops: Double-A, Triple-A, and Seattle. He split 2014 largely between Seattle and Tacoma, then had two full campaigns with the M's in ’15 and ’16 (19-19, 4.41 ERA) before he was the principal piece in a five-player trade with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Along with shortstop Ketel Marte (who would have been another ex-Mariner in the All-Star Game if he wasn't injured), Walker went south in exchange for outfielder Mitch Haniger, middle infielder Jean Segura, and reliever Zac Curtis. That trade worked out very well for the M's, of course, as Haniger and Segura both hit well with Seattle (both were also All-Stars with the M's in 2018) and Segura was later traded for J.P. Crawford. The Mariners re-acquired Walker on a one-year free-agent deal prior to the truncated 2020 season, when he pitched better than his numbers would indicate before being traded once more, this time to the Toronto Blue Jays, for whom Walker was a valuable piece in a race for that weird year's expanded playoffs. In return, the Mariners received outfield prospect Alberto Rodríguez, who is currently playing with Class-A Modesto. Dipoto made noises about trying to re-sign Walker after the 2020 season, but no serious offer was made and he instead signed a three-year deal with the Mets.
In addition, there were two All-Stars with Mariner pedigrees if not time as actual Mariners: Rays pitcher Andrew Kittredge—who was on the team as a replacement for Yusei Kikuchi—was a Seattle farmhand from the time he was drafted in 2008 until after the 2016 campaign, when he was traded to the Rays in a five-player swap that got the M's hair-flip aficionado Taylor Motter for a year; and Brewers pitcher Freddy Peralta, who made 36 appearances in Rookie League as a Mariner asset before being dealt to Milwaukee for alleged first baseman Adam Lind, who hit .239/.286/.431 in his lone Seattle season (2016).
Will things look much the same at next year's All-Star Game, with a handful of former M's and one or no current ones? Or will Mariner favorites like Crawford and Haniger and others be on the big stage? Knowing our luck, Haniger will be there—just with some other club's uniform on.