Tacoma Rainiers manager Roy Howell has worked with infielder Gabriel Noriega for several years now.
Howell served as Noriega’s hitting coach at Advanced-A High Desert in windy Adelanto, California. He had the same role with the Cardinales de Lara in the 2012 Venezuelan Winter League, where Noriega was the starting shortstop.
That whole time, Noriega had been considered a good-field, no-hit shortstop prospect.
That might be changing now.
In his first taste of Triple-A baseball, Noriega has done nothing but hit. He had two hits in his Triple-A debut April 16 — the first of nine multiple-hit games in his first 19 Pacific Coast League contests.
He entered Saturday’s game with a .420 batting average, connecting for 29 hits in his first 69 at-bats.
“Noriega has been one of the best defensively in the organization for a while now,” Howell said. “He’s matured as a hitter, he’s matured as a person and I think he’s putting the whole package together.”
Part of the reason for his success is gained muscle. Listed at a gangly 6-foot-2, 170 pounds as recently as 2009, the 23-year-old Noriega has added 15 pounds to his frame without losing mobility.
“His nickname was ‘Flaco’ — the skinny man,” Howell said. “We had to put rocks in his pockets in Adelanto so he wouldn’t blow off the field.
“He’s got great balance, good hands. His arm has gotten better. Everything has gotten better.”
Noriega has shown some gap power with the Rainiers, lining 10 doubles. His isolated power (raw power) is .145. Power hitters ordinarily have an ISO between .240 and .300.
Nineteen games is a small sample size, but it is an encouraging sign for a player who already has the defensive side of the game figured out.
“He’s laying off of bad pitches; he’s doing situational hitting,” Howell said. “He’s evolved as a hitter. He’s got the knowledge, and now what he does with it will be the tale of how far he goes.”
Middle infield depth is a new strength of the Seattle Mariners organization, and a glance at the Double-A Jackson roster shows it.
Shortstop Ketel Marte is just 20 years old and playing every day against much older competition in the Southern League.
Marte has been unfazed at the plate, hitting .324 with 12 doubles and a triple. He has drawn 12 walks with just 16 strikeouts, posting a .375 on-base percentage. He also has stolen 14 bases in 18 attempts.
The native of Nizao, Dominican Republic, is working on defensive consistency. He has been charged with 17 errors in 37 games, but reports indicate that he has the range to play shortstop at the highest level.Mike Curto is the radio broadcaster for the Tacoma Rainiers.