The Seattle Mariners' history is generously salted with remarkable Major League Baseball debuts. This article ranks those debuts using three criteria.
First, I consider the impact each player made in his first season. The second and third criteria derive from the players' career impacts with the Mariners and their career impacts on MLB overall.
Michael Pineda's remarkable rookie year spurred this list. Players showing early greatness lead to thoughts of the future. Here I entertain Pineda's place in the pantheon.
A handful of great Seattle Mariners are absent from this list. They are absent because they began their careers with other teams or their Mariner careers were launched so slowly that in no way could they be considered rookie sensations. You can probably guess who those players are.
Bucky Jacobsen holds a special place in my Mariners-fan heart. He produced a good quarter-season of hitting at a time when most of the Mariners lineup had aged past their prime years. He was a local, at least in the generous, western states sense of the word, where anything within 300 miles or an adjacent state is not far. For those reasons, his rookie year was notable.
Jacobsen was too old to be a rookie hype magnet. His sole year as a big leaguer happened at age 28. It would not have been reasonable to assume much improvement on his .275 batting average, .335 on-base percent and .500 slugging percent.
Because Jacobsen's rookie year was also his final year, his place in the memories of all but few Eastern Oregonians is minimal.
Enrique Romo is a hard man to find on film.
Enrique Romo is a bit like Bucky Jacobsen. Romo was an old rookie, entering the MLB stage at age 30. The Enrique Romo pattern will reappear later in this article.
Romo's first season was excellent. He posted an ERA of 2.83 over 114.1 innings, mostly in relief.
Romo pitched one more season out of the bullpen for the Seattle Mariners before finishing his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Romo's impact on the Mariners and MLB as a whole was small. He spread 603 innings of pretty good relief pitching over six seasons.
Finally, we reach the players who roused serious interest.
Dave Fleming started his career with a stellar rookie season, finishing with a 17-10 win-loss record and a 3.39 ERA over 228.1 innings. The performance pushed him to third place in Rookie of the Year voting.
Unfortunately, Fleming never matched that season again. He lingered for three more summers, throwing 364.1 more innings with an ERA of 5.39.
Michael Pineda is the second most-exciting player on this list. He will shoot up the ranks should he match his breathtaking pitching this season with even a handful more similar seasons.
Pineda is striking out three times as many batters as he is walking, impressive for a fireballing youngster. Even as a huge uncut diamond he appears somewhat polished.
The only thing keeping Pineda down is time. After he piles a few more great seasons on his career his impact as a Mariner—I hope—and as a major leaguer will be enormous.
Kenji Johjima is the first on this list in a series of players the Seattle Mariners signed out of Japan.
Johjima's place on the list is high because his first Mariner season was very good and he contributed a few more good seasons after his first. None of the players ranked lower contributed multiple good years to the Mariners.
Johjima's 2006 season was the best hitting season the Mariners extracted from a catcher since the seasons Dan Wilson posted in 1996 and 1997.
Johjima's four years as a Mariner saw him hit .268 with some power—17 home runs per 162 games. Those numbers place him near the top of Mariner catchers hitting-wise.
Kazuhiro Sasaki, like Kenji Johjima, entered Major League Baseball as a player in his 30s. Sasaki also contributed four good seasons to the Seattle Mariners.
Sasaki's seasons were a little better than Johjima's. Sasaki won the Rookie of the Year Award as a closer for the Mariners in 2000. He followed that with two more very good seasons and one mediocre season.
I don't want to get into whether Sasaki was more valuable than Johjima. I favor catchers over relief pitchers as far as that is concerned. My placement of Sasaki ahead of Johjima stems from Sasaki's inherently flashy job and his place among peers as a closer. In that sense, Sasaki was the more impacting player on Marinerdom.
Freddy Garcia starts an ascending triplet of Seattle Mariner pitchers on this list.
Garcia opened his career strongly, with a 200-inning campaign leading to a second-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting with a handful of Cy Young Award votes thrown in for good measure.
Garcia went on to post four-and-a-half more great seasons for the Mariners before joining the Chicago White Sox and others. He is the first player so far described with a major league career greater than 10 years, at least five of them with the Mariners.
Mark Langston also finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. Langston lost to teammate Alvin Davis.
While Langston tallied Mariner career numbers similar to Freddy Garcia, Langston's post-Mariner career was longer. Freddy Garcia is still playing and playing well. A few more years could see Garcia and Langston swap positions on this list.
Felix Hernandez is the most exciting player on this list, with the possible exception of Michael Pineda.
Hernandez has followed his flashy first-year 2.67 ERA over 80 innings with several years of stellar pitching. Like two other players closer to the top of this list, Hernandez started very young. There is no telling how long and great his career might be.
His totals through age 25—a 79-61 win-loss record, 3.20 ERA and 1,188 K's—are numbers few pitchers see before retirement.
Should King Felix continue his regal ways as a Mariner, he will take over the top spot.
Alex Rodriguez's spot on this list is as low as it is for two reasons.
His thunderous 1996 season was not technically his first season though for some intents and purposes I consider it to be.
Mostly his low rank owes to his brief tenure as a Seattle Mariner. Had Rodriguez clubbed at least 400 home runs as a Mariner shortstop, he would likely top this list.
Nobody can argue with his crushing presence in MLB. In that regard, he is the top dog of all players considered here.
He's on the left.
Alvin Davis, Mr. Mariner, might only be the Seattle Mariners fourth- or fifth-most sensational rookie. He was the first sensational Mariner rookie though, making his year-one impact all the greater. He gave hope that the Mariners might soon crack the .500 ceiling.
The vast majority of Davis' short but good career was spent in Seattle. While his totals don't match those of his followers, his totals were early benchmarks. Alvin Davis was the man Ken Griffey, Jr. surpassed when he hit his 161st Mariner home run.
The legend of Ichiro would have existed without the Seattle Mariners record-setting 116-win season. His contributions with both bat and glove to that great team cement his position as the greatest Mariner rookie so far.
Ichiro won the Rookie of the Year Award and the Most Valuable Player award his first season in Seattle.
Ichiro's hitting pace is slowing down, making him a long-shot candidate to usurp the top spot on this list. It is possible, however. Ichiro now has about 2,350 hits, all with the Mariners. A charge towards 3,000 hits as a Mariner might vault him to the top.
Ken Griffey, Jr. scores high on all three criteria. He burst onto the scene with strong hitting and dazzling defense. All the more impressive, he did it as a 19-year-old.
Griffey's home run totals as a Mariner and overall—417 and 630, respectively—suffice to put him at the top of this list. Yet not even gaudy numbers like those reflect the excitement he stirred. Few players seeded as much speculation about record-breaking as Griffey did during his early career. Single-season home runs, career home runs, consecutive games with a home run—all records were within Griffey's reach.
He could catch everything too.
Some other time I'll talk about his All-Star Games and playoff glories. Maybe when I write this list again—with two pitchers giving Griffey a run for his money—I'll need to use every bit of Griffey's greatness.