For Clint Nageotte, the end came in the third inning of a sleepy ballgame against Kansas City during the dog days of a mostly miserable 2004 season. Exactly how he hurt his back remains unclear. Perhaps while covering first base. Maybe stretching for a comebacker. Clearly though, he was in pain. Nageotte labored through each pitch gingerly, stretching his back between deliveries and ending his motion with an awkward hop after he released the ball. It was uncomfortable to watch, but Nageotte battled. Even after the training staff came out to check on the righty, he begged to finish his duel with Aaron Guiel. Manager Bob Melvin relented, and Nageotte induced a grounder to second.
But while Nageotte won the battle, he lost the war. He had strained his back, and was forced to the leave the game early with the first of a series of nagging injuries that would eventually decimate his career. He never started another game in the major leagues.
Travis Blackley wasn’t pitching well. On the morning of August 1st Blackley, a control specialist by trade, woke up with a walk rate over seven and an ERA north of ten. He’d won his first major league start a month earlier, but his next five outings were a mess. In one game, he allowed seven runs over two innings against Cleveland. Two starts later, he walked nine hitters against Oakland. Nine! Still, Blackley was surprised to get a summons to Melvin’s office that day. He thought that his most recent start had gone fairly well, all things considered.
Not well enough. Blackley was being sent back to Tacoma. Only twenty-one years old at the time, the news was devastating to the left-hander. “When will I be back?” he asked General Manager Bill Bavasi. “You tell me,” Bavasi responded.
Unfortunately for all involved, it was Blackley’s shoulder that dictated his timetable. Soon after the demotion, Blackley discovered he had torn his labrum. It was an injury that knocked him out of the big leagues for the better part of three years and it ended his career with the Mariners.
Matt Thornton didn’t really profile as a starter. He threw hard, but his command was a work in progress, and he only felt comfortable with his fastball and slider. Still, it was mid-July and the Mariners needed someone to work a few innings. Thornton got the ball for a tilt against the White Sox, and somewhat predictably, walked seven men in only five frames.
He pitched for Seattle for another year and a half, but didn’t blossom until he left the organization. Deployed as a bullpen arm permanently in Chicago, Thornton became an all-star reliever and a weapon against left handed hitters. He left Seattle with a career ERA just under five.
Of the Mariner pitchers hurt in the arm-shredding factory that was Safeco Field during the Bavasi administration, none was as well liked by fans as Bobby Madritsch. For two months, it was as if Madritsch walked out of a movie and into the 2004 season. He hailed from the frontier of the independent leagues, wore enough tattoos to make Brandon League jealous, and toured the country in search of a mother who had abandoned him at birth. Oh, and he could pitch a bit too, posting a 3.27 ERA in fifteen appearances, allowing only three home runs all season, and finishing second among Mariner pitchers in brWAR. So many other pitching prospects had faltered in 2004, but Madritsch was an unconditional success, and big things were expected from him in 2005.
But like the other prospects, Madritsch’s story didn’t have a happy ending. He retired thirteen batters in 2005 before a torn labrum interrupted his season. It was the second labrum injury of his career, and this time, he couldn’t recover. Kansas City took a flier on him at the end of 2005, but Bobby’s career was over. Though he was just twenty-nine years old when he hurt his shoulder, Madritsch never threw another pitch for a major league organization.
In some ways, not much has changed since 2004. The Mariners are once again stumbling through a losing season, dealing with the departure of a franchise icon, and (most relevantly for the purposes of this post) awaiting the arrival of the top pitching prospects in an arm-heavy minor league system. This time, the crown jewels are Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker. Regarded as the top three pitchers in the Mariner farm system by practically every evaluator, all three made Baseball America's midseason Top 50 Prospects list, with both Hultzen and Walker cracking the top five. Media outlets are particularly bullish on Walker, as he graced the top ten in all major midseason prospect lists.
There are, of course, plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this group. On talent, Hultzen and Walker are miles ahead of any of 2004’s major league prospects and only Nageotte could match evaluator’s projections for Paxton. Even at that, Paxton might be a better prospect, as some preferred Nageotte’s slider-heavy approach in the bullpen. With the current “Big Three,” Seattle has a trio of arms that can be projected to start in a major league rotation for years to come.
Better yet, the Mariners organization is much more prepared to develop healthy and effective pitching prospects now than they were a decade ago. ESPN scout and author Jason Churchill believes that the preparation begins with the team’s amateur evaluation process: “the things clubs value in amateur talent these days is a much better set of attributes on which to lean, such as makeup, work ethic, (and) athleticism.” The last one is particularly important when it comes to health. While baseball has its share of portly hurlers in the David Wells mold, clubs prefer their pitchers to look more like the ultra-athletic Walker. Such athleticism not only assists pitchers with their fielding, but also helps them make mechanical adjustments quickly.
Churchill also trusts the Mariners to bring pitchers along the right way, saying “there may not be a better organization at developing starting pitchers than Seattle right now.” Balancing the importance of health while still allowing pitchers to work on secondary pitches and face advanced competition is a delicate juggling act, but it’s one that the M’s are pulling off well. Getting innings under the belts of the young arms is imperative, and Churchill credits the Mariners for developing pitchers successfully “without overworking OR babying them too much.”
With such highly touted and advanced arms, it’s hard to imagine the Mariners not getting soemething of significant value out of their pitching crop. But a similar statement could have been made in 2004 when Nageotte, Blackley, Thornton, and Madritsch all made their big league debuts. Their careers provide fodder for the most pessimistic axiom in baseball: TINSTAAPP, or, There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. The plaudits of the TINSTAAPP motto constantly remind us all of the fact that, whether through poor performance, a sagging fastball, an inability to throw strikes, or the insidious injury bug, pitchers have been the volatile bane of baseball people’s existence since the dawn of the sport.
And it is this volatility more than anything else that should temper expectations for Hultzen, Paxton, and Walker. It’s important to remember that, as September looms and the arrival of Hultzen (and others) draws ever closer, we are still talking about pitching prospects. It’s an impressive trio, but if the M’s get anything beyond a number two starter and a decent reliever from their top prospects, it’s a bonus. The big three are coming, and they’ll hopefully be met with fanfare and excitement when they hit Seattle. But the cases of Nageotte, Blackley, Thornton, and Madritsch remind all Mariner fans that it’s important to manage expectations for all prospects and for pitchers especially. Until a hurler’s name is safely on a lineup card, there really is no such thing as a pitching prospect.