For the past several seasons, expanded September rosters have provided the Seattle Mariners with a chance to look toward the future.
Things are a little different in 2014. The Mariners are firmly in contention for a playoff spot, meaning they will be focusing on the present rather than giving playing time to prospects.
Still, the Mariners have a number of intriguing options in Triple-A Tacoma who could help the club down the stretch. General manager Jack Zduriencik did a good job of minimizing Seattle’s weaknesses at the trade deadline, but there are still a couple of holes that September call-ups could fill.
Familiar faces like Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero will be among those who join the team on September 1, but expect these three prospects to make their major league debuts during the month.
Ji-Man Choi, 1B
As he is currently on the 40-man roster, Ji-Man Choi is likely to get a shot in the majors next month. The 23-year-old has risen fast over the past three years and has advanced plate-approach skills that could potentially provide a boost off the bench.
Choi’s best skill is his discipline, as he has posted a walk rate of 11.5 percent or higher at every minor league level, while his strikeout rates have not exceeded 15 percent since 2012. After serving a 50-game suspension earlier in the year, Choi has hit .272/.362/.344 with Triple-A Tacoma.
While he doesn’t offer much in the way of home run power, Choi collected 34 doubles between two levels just a season ago. Choi’s ability to take walks and get extra-base hits will at least get him a look this September and could put him in the running for playing time at first base in 2015 until D.J. Peterson is ready.
Smoak and Montero will presumably be ahead of Choi on the depth chart, so he will probably be used sparingly off the bench. However, it might be worth giving Choi some starts at designated hitter just to see if he can provide any upgrade.
Kendrys Morales has been better over the past week but still owns just a .607 OPS since coming to Seattle on July 24. Choi showed only a slight platoon split in the minors, according to Minor League Central, so he could start to eat into Morales’ playing time against left-handed pitching should Morales begin to slump again.
Ty Kelly, INF
Kelly has had his second consecutive strong season at Triple-A Tacoma and should finally be rewarded for it on September 1.
With Willie Bloomquist out for the rest of the year due to arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, the Mariners are currently short on infield depth. Kelly has the versatility to replace Bloomquist on the bench, as he can play second and third base well, in addition to the outfield in an emergency.
Kelly’s bat might be able to provide something as well, as he hit .269/.389/.434 with 15 home runs at Triple-A Tacoma this season.
Choi is getting praise for his plate approach, but Kelly’s is arguably better. Kelly has a walk rate of 16.0 percent this season and has walked more than he’s struck out in 498 minor league games.
Kelly talked with Colin O’Keefe of Lookout Landing about his plate approach, which is certainly different than many others at his level, saying:
It all starts with a situation, and that can be your first at-bat of the game. You’ve never seen the guy and you want to see some pitches, and see what kind of off-speed pitches he has. There’s nothing worse than going into an at-bat, swinging at the first pitch and then your next at-bat you go up there and all you see there are two fastballs on the outside corner that you don't swing at—and then throws his strikeout pitch and you have no idea what it looks like. You end up flailing at a slider in the dirt.
As a switch-hitter with patience and versatility, Kelly has all the tools to be a very useful bench player. Back on July 22, Carson Cistulli of FanGraphs projected Kelly to have the highest rest-of-season WAR among all prospects in baseball.
In second place on that list was Chris Taylor, who has put up 0.7 WAR in 21 games since being promoted.
The only possible hurdle to Kelly’s promotion is that he’s not currently on the 40-man roster, but the Mariners have some flexibility. They could transfer Bloomquist or Corey Hart to the 60-day disabled list or designate a reliever for assignment if needed.
Kelly is obviously not going to start over Robinson Cano or Kyle Seager, but he’s exactly the kind of bench piece Seattle needs down the stretch.
Carson Smith, RP
Seattle’s bullpen doesn’t exactly need any upgrades, but just about every team across the majors will call up relief depth in September. The clear choice for the Mariners is right-hander Carson Smith, who has put up big numbers in the minors and looks ready for major league action.
After destroying Double-A in 2013, Smith has slowed down a bit, but he has still been impressive in Triple-A Tacoma. Smith has a 3.00 ERA (3.00 FIP) with exactly a strikeout per inning and nine saves this year.
Smith has an unconventional sidearm delivery that generates a ton of movement and makes it tough for right-handers, who posted just a .530 OPS against him in the minors, according to Minor League Central. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he has a plus slider and a changeup that is developing nicely.
There’s nobody in the Mariners’ bullpen who needs to be replaced, so Smith probably won’t be appearing in a lot of high-leverage situations. Still, more bullpen depth doesn’t hurt and Smith will be just another option with high upside for Lloyd McClendon to use in relief.
The only thing that could prevent Smith from reaching Seattle next month is his health, as he was recently shelved with a strained side, per Tacoma announcer Mike Curto.
Smith only spent the minimum seven days on the disabled list, so the injury was not serious.
If the Mariners are extra cautious and shut down Smith, the call would likely go to Logan Bawcom, who is already on the 40-man. Bawcom had great seasons in 2012 and 2013, but has struggled mightily this year with a 5.21 ERA (6.01 FIP) and a walk rate of 13.4 percent.
All stats via FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.