Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240 million contract reinvigorated Seattle Mariner fans over the winter.
Mariner fans have been stuck in a quagmire of mediocrity and forgettable season for much of the last decade. Cano’s signing breathed new life into a franchise and fan base starved for success, and while Cano has been heralded as the savior of Seattle baseball if the Mariners opening series in Anaheim is an indication of things to come, the Mariner’s young guns deserve just as much credit.
During his time as general manager of the Mariners, Jack Zburiencik has preached patience in regards to the development of young players. Players such as, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak, both of whom are former first round draft picks, were drafted with the expectation of them developing into cornerstone franchise players. It hasn’t happened.
In the case of Ackley he has underwhelmed the Mariners for most of first three years in the majors. So much so that the former second overall pick in the 2009 amateur draft spent part of the 2013 season in the minors, eventually moving from the infield to the outfield. Averaging a career best .273 batting average his rookie year and then a paltry .226 in 2012, Ackley has struggled to live up to his college hype.
Smoak, similarly, has disappointed since arriving in Seattle as the key prospect in sending Cliff Lee to the Texas Rangers. Billed as a five tool player who could develop into a power hitting first basemen, Smoak has struggled to live up to those lofty expectations. Never hitting more than 20 home runs in a season and a feeble career .229 batting average has lead many to label Smoak a bust.
Given both Ackley’s and Smoak’s label of can’t miss prospects when first arriving in Seattle, it would be fair to characterize their tenures in Seattle as failures so far. However, if any evidence can be drawn from both of their performances to open the 2014 season they both appear ready to shed their bust labels.
Smoak, in the Mariners opener against the Angles, blasted two home runs driving in seven RBI’s and displayed a level of presence and poise at the plate Mariner fans have rarely seen out of him. Ackley drove in four RBI’s, stole a base, and hit a triple giving hope to all the scouts who once called him a five tool player.
Three games out of 162 certainly is a small survey sample, but given what we have seen of the Mariners early on this year, both Ackley and Smoak look confident and collected out on the baseball diamond. Mostly likely this is due to increased maturity by both players. Perhaps, however, both players also owe a debt of gratitude to Cano for signing his $240 million dollar contract. Cano’s signing took all the pressure of both Ackley and Smoak to become franchise players. The Mariners are of course still hoping that both player develop into at least All-Star caliber players, but Cano’s arrival takes the spotlight off both of them and hopefully will allow them to develop under less pressure.
In the end, adding Cano may pay its greatest dividends in the development of the Mariners young ballplayers.