SEATTLE -- While much has been made of the Mariners' newly acquired youngsters this winter, there are a few returning prospects to keep an eye on when Spring Training opens next month in Peoria, Ariz., as well.One of those will be hard to miss, given Joey Curletta stands in at
SEATTLE -- While much has been made of the Mariners' newly acquired youngsters this winter, there are a few returning prospects to keep an eye on when Spring Training opens next month in Peoria, Ariz., as well.
One of those will be hard to miss, given Joey Curletta stands in at 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, making him one of the biggest Mariners in camp in size, if not name recognition.
Curletta isn't a hyped prospect. He's yet to crack the Mariners' Top 30 list from MLB Pipeline and hasn't advanced past Double-A despite being just about a month shy of his 25th birthday. But the Arizona native put together a breakout year last season for Double-A Arkansas, discovering new-found success and earning Texas League Player of the Year honors after restructuring his swing in an effort to better elevate the ball.
Whether there's a spot on the Major League club for Curletta this year remains a question, but the Mariners chose to promote him to their 40-man roster this winter rather than let him get away as a six-year Minor League free agent.
And with Nelson Cruz now departed and Edwin Encarnacion on the trading block, it's not crazy to think the Mariners might find some designated hitter at-bats somewhere in the future, if not a shot at first base should Curletta provide any hint that he could be part of the future nucleus general manager Jerry Dipoto is looking to build.
A sixth-round Draft pick of the Dodgers in 2012, Curletta didn't quite find his footing until midway through his first season with Seattle after he was acquired from the Phillies for switch-pitcher Pat Venditte in '17.
"It really started toward the tail end of 2017 in [Class A Advanced] Modesto," said Andy McKay, the Mariners' director of player development. "That second half, [Curletta] really started putting things together. You could see there was a bit of a transformation going on there.
"And he really never stopped in Double-A this past year. He just kept getting better. The Texas League is a really good league, and to be named the best player in that league is really saying something. We're very happy for him. Obviously we re-signed him and are glad he's still a Mariner."
Curletta slashed .282/.383/.482 with 23 homers and 94 RBIs in 129 games for Arkansas, by far the best numbers of his career. Despite the jump to Double-A ball, he greatly improved his strikeout-to-walk ratio as well, with 81 walks and 130 strikeouts in 556 plate appearances.
"Being OK taking pitches that I don't hit that well, that was a big thing for me," Curletta said after earning Seattle's Ken Griffey Jr. Award as the organization's top Minor League hitter last season. "And trying to hit the ball in the air a little more. As the year progressed, I gained confidence and put it together and started believing in myself more than I had in the past."
The Mariners are starting to believe in Curletta as well, which is why they protected him on their 40-man roster. While he's a little older than most developing prospects, McKay notes that the new emphasis on elevating the ball and improving launch angles to increase power has helped unleash increased potential in a few players -- like Mitch Haniger and Braden Bishop in the Mariners' organization -- at later points in their careers.
"Right now, we are kind of in an era where you're able to find quite a few players that have really transformed their careers with some basic swing changes," McKay said. "Probably more so than in my 25 years in the game. The obvious is Chris Taylor, and they're all over the league.
"Basically, players are making a real effort to lift the baseball and get it up in the air, where probably the first 20 years of my life nobody talked about doing that. Now you're seeing players change the trajectory of their careers based on making a few changes. And Joey definitely falls into that category."
Whether he can advance that approach now in Triple-A or the Major Leagues remains to be seen. But after spending the offseason at home in Tempe, Ariz., Curletta will get an opportunity next month to take part in his first Major League camp and see where that leads.
The challenge will be not trying too hard, but just continuing his upward path at his own pace.
"I just have to continue to do what I did this last year, and show people what kind of player I am," he said. "Be true to myself, not try to do too much. Keep progressing in terms of maturity and understanding my swing and myself."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.