Mike Zunino is batting .385/.414/.1.038 through six games for Triple-A Tacoma.
Although the season is young, the glaring deficiencies on certain teams’ major league rosters have become increasingly difficult to ignore.
As a result, some organizations have already begun to explore their alternatives, which, at this point in the season, typically entails the signing of a free-agent or promotion of a reserve player to a more prominent role.
At the same time, there are several teams who stand the best chance of improving their on-field product by promoting a top prospect.
Here’s a look at three highly regarded prospects seemingly poised for an early promotion to the major leagues.
Mike Zunino, C, Seattle Mariners
The Seattle Mariners’ offense has scuffled through the first 10 games of the season. Headed into Thursday’s game against the Texas Rangers, the team is collectively batting .219, which currently ranks as the fourth lowest average in the majors. And if you remove outfielder Mike Morse’s six home runs from the equation, then their .395 slugging percentage is even less attractive.
More specifically, the lack of production from first baseman/DH Justin Smoak and catcher/DH Jesus Montero is especially concerning, as the two players have combined for a .141 batting average (9-for-64) with no extra-base hits and two RBI.
Meanwhile, Mike Zunino is off to a roaring start for Triple-A Tacoma with a .385/.414/.1.038 batting line, eight extra-base hits (four home runs) and 17 RBI through the team’s first six games. Selected third overall in the 2012 draft, the 22-year-old batted .360/.447/.689 with 27 extra-base hits (13 home runs) and 43 RBI over 44 games between Short-Season Everett and Double-A Jackson last summer.
While it’s likely that both Smoak and Montero will pick up the pace as the first half of the season unfolds—well, maybe not Smoak—it may not be in the organization’s best interest to wait for that to happen. Yes, Zunino’s highly impressive production in the minor leagues is based on a relatively small sample, and the Mariners will forfeit a year of team control over his contract with an early promotion. However, the team is desperately in need of offensive firepower, and promoting Zunino ahead of schedule is clearly their option.
Tony Cingrani, LHP, Cincinnati Reds
Although the Cincinnati Reds’ offense is loaded with impact bats from top to bottom, the team’s starting rotation as a whole has struggled with a 4.28 ERA through nine games. While Johnny Cueto (2.77 ERA) and Mat Latos (2.84) are both off to respectively solid starts, Bronson Arroyo (5.25 ERA), Homer Bailey (5.73 ERA) and Mike Leake (6.00 ERA) have left something to be desired.
Coming off a 2012 season in which he registered a 4.58 ERA with 201 hits (26 home runs, too) allowed in 179 innings, Leake’s chances of sticking in the rotation for the duration of the season are slim. Furthermore, the right-hander’s forgettable first start of the season (four runs, two home runs and four walks in six innings piched) is a clear sign that things aren’t headed in the right direction.
Enter Tony Cingrani.
In his first full minor league season in 2012, the left-hander reached the major leagues as a September call-up after beginning the year at High-A Bakersfield. Overall, Cingrani’s 1.73 ERA ranked as the best in the minors among all qualifying pitchers, while his 172 strikeouts (in 146 innings) was the second highest total.
His dominance continued following a promotion to the major leagues in September, as the 23-year-old allowed one earned run and fanned nine batters over nine innings out of the Reds’ bullpen.
But despite his overwhelming success last season, there was still no place for Cingrani on the Reds’ Opening Day roster. As a result, he was optioned to Triple-A Louisville to open the 2013 season. Well, after allowing only three hits with 21 strikeouts and two walks through his first two starts, his stay in the minors should be brief.
While it’s doubtful that Cingrani will thrive as he has thus far in the minor leagues, the southpaw offers the Reds a much-needed left-handed option in their currently right-handed-heavy starting rotation. And let’s be real; he’s just that much better than Mike Leake.
Chris Archer, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Headed into spring training, the Tampa Bay Rays found themselves in an enviable situation with a surplus of talented starting pitchers vying for the final spot in the Opening Day rotation. However, after optioning prospects Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi to Triple-A to open the season and relegating Jeff Niemann (who will undergo season-ending shoulder surgery) to the bullpen, the organization ultimately broke camp with Roberto Hernandez—or the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona—as their fifth starter.
But considering that Hernandez has registered a 6.08 ERA and lost both of his starts, it’s time for the Rays to reconsider. More specifically, it’s time for the organization to give prospect Chris Archer a chance in the starting rotation.
After a pair of trades and seven seasons in the minor leagues, Archer reached the major leagues for the first time in 2012. Even though he posted a 4.60 ERA, the right-hander showcased a knack for missing bats (36 strikeouts in 29.1 innings) with a mid-to-high-90s fastball, devastating slider and vastly underrated changeup. Furthermore, he held opposing hitters to a .215 batting average during that time.
Building upon the breakout campaign, Archer has impressed in both Triple-A starts to open the season with 12 strikeouts and only two walks through his first 10 innings. Even though fellow prospect and Triple-A teammate Jake Odorizzi has also pitched well, Archer possesses a higher ceiling and is more likely to serve as an upgrade from Hernandez.