Joey Curletta was among the many ’90s kids who grew up admiring Ken Griffey Jr.’s sweet swing. So when Griffey stopped by one afternoon this spring training to talk to a group of Mariners minor leaguers, Curletta reveled in the experience.
He just doesn’t remember much of what the Hall of Famer actually said because he was in awe.
Six months later, Curletta was sitting in the Mariners’ dugout at Safeco Field, dressed in a pressed suit and waiting for his name to be called over the stadium speakers—as the Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. minor league hitter of the year.
“To have an award named after arguably one of the best hitters to play the game of baseball, that’s humbling,” said Curletta, a 24-year-old first baseman who hit .282/.383/.482 with 23 home runs and 94 RBIs at Double-A Arkansas.
The Mariners are Curletta’s third organization. The Dodgers drafted him in the sixth round in 2012 out of a Phoenix high school, then traded him to the Phillies after the 2016 season for Carlos Ruiz. He never played a game in Philadelphia’s system. Seattle acquired Curletta just before the 2017 season for switch-pitcher Pat Venditte.
Curletta, a righthanded batter, hit 17 homers in the Dodgers’ system in 2016, but it took him time to pick up on the Mariners’ organizational hitting philosophy. Things started to click late in 2017, helping him break out in 2018 as the Texas League player of the year in his first full Double-A season.
“They key for me was what this organization talks about,” Curletta said. “They talk about controlling the zone, getting pitches we can handle, being OK with taking pitches that maybe we don’t really hit that well. That was a big thing for me, and trying to hit the ball in the air a little more . . .
“As the year progressed I kind of gained confidence and put it together and started believing in myself a little more than I have in past years.”
Maybe that can revive his path to the big leagues. When Curletta was in high school, former major leaguer Shawn Green told him that his swing reminded him of Mark Trumbo’s.
“Toward the end of last year (at high Class A Modesto) I stared to get it,” Curletta said. “This year, it was just about being comfortable hitting with one or two strikes and not feeling like if I let a pitch go by, I’m done in this at-bat. Just trust myself, really.”
• Righthander Matt Festa earned the Mariners’ Jamie Moyer minor league pitcher of the year with a 2.76 ERA with 67 strikeouts over 49 innings of relief for Double-A Arkansas. He also allowed one run in 7.2 innings with the Mariners down the stretch.