Found August 14, 2012 on SeaTown Sports:

Nick_Franklin_spring_training
Shortstop Nick Franklin
Photo Credit: Seattlepi.com

It’s that time of year again. The season is winding down and once again the M’s are out of contention. But this is never a boring time of the year. As a matter of fact, quite the opposite.

Now, we get to speculate and evaluate how the club’s top prospects are doing and who may get a September call-up to get his first taste of what it feels like to be in The Show.

Pitchers:

Let’s start with the club’s obvious strength: pitching. No other team in baseball has the pitching depth and talent the Mariners have in their farm system. Between Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the future is bright for the M’s pitching.

Hultzen has struggled after being called up to AAA Tacoma in late June. He currently sports a 5.23 ERA, having given up 19 earned runs in just 32.2 innings. In comparison, Hultzen gave up 10 earned runs in 75.1 innings with AA Jackson. However, the strikeouts are still there as he is averaging a combined 10 K/9 this year. Hultzen is considered the Mariners’ safest prospect, but his potential limits him to probably only a solid no. 2 starter.

Walker is easily the most exciting player in the system as of today. He easily has the potential of Felix, and his raw athleticism set him apart from other pitchers. The only 19-year old Jackson Walker has put up decent numbers in AA with a 1.38 WHIP and 8.6 K/9. He’s still very raw, but the makings of an ace are there.

Now at the age of 23, Paxton is getting closer to a polished potential no. 2 or 3 starter for the club than the wild card he used to be. His fastball hits the mid-upper 90’s, and his slider is consistent. But like Pineda, he needs to develop more/better off-speed pitches (his changeup and curve need a lot of work). This season at AA Jackson, Paxton’s K/9 remains steady at 9.5, and his BB/9 is down to 2.02. However, his WHIP has increased to 1.41, the highest of his career, leaving much work to be done.

Batters:

Obviously, the weaker spot for the Mariners and their farm system has been hitting. Young guns like Justin Smoak, Nick Franklin, Dustin Ackley, and Vinnie Catricala are all struggling. This doesn't mean that we can label them busts, but even with the immediate impact of Jesús Montero big minor league bats are still needed.

Shortstop Nick Franklin, who at the beginning of the year was ranked 77th on Baseball America’s top prospect list, hasn’t done much to prove that 2011 wasn't a fluke. Batting just .236 with an OPS of .706 in 182 AB’s with Tacoma, Franklin’s season has been disappointing to say the least. After hitting .322 with an OPS of .896 with Jackson, regression was expected, but not this much. Add in the fact that Franklin has just four steal attempts, and you begin to wonder if we all just got too excited over a power hitting, speedy kid at short. However, he's still young at 21-years old and can’t be considered a bust yet, but he’s still at least a year away from the big leagues.

Between Rookie League and AA, 3rd baseman Francisco Martinez has done little to impress the Mariners this year. With a combined slash line of .244/.317/.334, and only 2 HR in 332 AB’s, much is left to be desired. What Martinez does show very well however, is that the gap between the top five prospects for the M’s (Montero, Walker, Hultzen, Paxton, and Franklin) and everyone else is perhaps bigger than we all thought.

While it is far too early to pass any judgement on this year's 3rd overall pick, catcher Mike Zunino, it is safe to say that he picked up right where he left off in college. The former Florida Gator has racked up 10 bombs in just 110 AB’s with low-A Everett. Zunino has recently been promoted to AA Jackson. The M’s may eventually have an interesting (but good) problem on their hands, with three solid catchers in their hands between Zunino, Montero and Jaso. But that's down the road. 

Lastly, let’s go over 1B/3B/OF Vinnie Catricala. At 23 years of age, he is the oldest in this group, and likely the most MLB ready. Catricala still has shown potential flashes of power (a combined 25 bombs last year between high A and AA) and solid discipline (a minor league total of a .301/.374/.492 slash). The transition to AAA Tacoma hasn't been as smooth as some thought, as he is batting .236/.302/.356 in 402 AB’s with only 9 HR. Until this season, Catricala has never batted under .300 or had an OBP under .350. So while this season may have been a slight disappointment from Catricala, we look to next year for signs of improvement and maybe a shot out of spring training to make the big leagues.

An overall drop in production for nearly the entire Mariners minor league system may be a reason to worry; or one could just shake it off a fluke. Either way, pitching and the depth of young arms are the strong point in the M's farm system while the amount of impact bats is lacking. Jesús Montero was a solid start, but as of today, it appears that no hitter in the system is ready to step up and make a major impact for the team.

- Austin McDermott (@honeynut_ichiro)

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