With special thanks to Zach Sanders of FanGraphs for his input, I present to you the Seattle Mariners' Top 10.
This season didn’t exactly go very well for the Mariners. Having finished last in the AL West for the second straight season, the Mariners continue to look toward the future for hope because the present offers none. Fortunately, the minor leagues seem to be a legit source of optimism. Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda made their major-league debuts, and they both offered strong rookie performances (Pineda was my pick for ROY). Kyle Seager had a rougher go of things, but he’ll be 24 all next season and was playing out of position for most of his time in the majors. The only problem with this is that these young players are basically what the Mariners have, with the giant exception of King Felix and a couple mild ones for Franklin Gutierrez (big bounce-back candidate) and Justin Smoak (still not sure what the deal is there).
Looking a bit deeper into the organization, the rotation looks to be a solid one in the future. Felix Hernandez is the anchor, and Pineda seemingly cemented a spot somewhere in the 2/3/4 slots. Following their footsteps, James Paxton and 2011 first-rounder Danny Hultzen are fast approaching, and both could be in the majors by season’s end. A bit further down, Taijuan Walker looks the part of a stud, but he’ll have to work on a few more things to fulfill his enormous potential. While the Mariners will be lucky to get 2 of these guys to pan out, it’s fun thinking about the potentially dominant rotation, especially in Safeco Field.
Things are even pretty good on the position player side of things. Nick Franklin had a somewhat underwhelming season from what was expected, or hoped, but it was still solid and Franklin was recovering from mono. Staying in the upper levels, the Mariners have several offense-oriented prospects that will test the Mariners recent focus on defense. Francisco Martinez, Alex Liddi, and Vince Catricala are all below-average defenders, but they all have significant offensive potential. Deep in the system, they have several prospects with significant potential but substantial risks, but several of them played well in 2011.
While the major-league season didn’t go very well, the farm system offers plenty of potential. The top 4 are enviable, and there’s some depth below them, though many of the “Good” prospects are nearer to the border to “Fair” than the other way around. What worries me a bit is that the Mariners may be depending too much on the farm system to supply talent, but perhaps (and this wouldn’t be bad) the front office is simply waiting to see what they have before making substantial free-agent and trade moves.
Taijuan Walker SP
Age/Level (as of 4/2012): 19/High-A
Making comparisons is a fool’s errand, but I can’t help but think Edwin Jackson when I see Taijuan Walker. Walker has excellent stuff - a mid-90s fastball, a plus curveball, and a solid change-up - but he’s still pretty raw, demonstrated by his inconsistent delivery. While his limbs flail everywhere now, they should get better as he throws more innings (he hasn’t focused solely on baseball for much more than a year), and with his knockout stuff, the additional control (it’s a tick below average now) will make him a force. What makes me ever-so-hesitant about him is that he hasn’t thrown more than 90 innings in a year and has a long way to go and many improvements to make, but he’s one of the better “Outstanding” prospects.
Danny Hultzen SP
Age/Level: 22/High-A or AA
I would never teach anyone to throw like Hultzen, but he makes it work. The most recent number two pick throws from a very low ¾ arm slot and steps toward first, but one of his best assets is his plus control. In regard to his stuff, it’s somewhat unremarkable as he throws a low-90s fastball, above-average curve, and an average change-up, but they play up due to the control/command. Hultzen won’t need much time in the minors, but his low arm slot make me wonder if he will have enough of a platoon split (though Safeco breaks its fast on RHB) to keep him from being a true top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Nick Franklin SS
Projection: 3-5 WAR
Continuing to perform well while being young for the levels he plays in, Franklin is one of the better middle infield prospects in the game. Though he isn’t a huge guy, Franklin hits with plenty of power and has a solid approach at the plate, especially for his age. The big question is whether or not he’ll stay at short, as he’s not exactly fast and only has a decent arm. I’m not really concerned, however, because the Mariners have Dustin Ackley at second and Kyle Seager at third, and I imagine they’ll suck it up and take the -5 runs on defense for his plus offensive potential for the position.
James Paxton SP
Age/Level: 23/AA or AAA
Paxton had quite a few questions coming into the season, but he seemingly passed every test with flying colors. Having pitched rather poorly in Indy Ball in 2010, Paxton needed to have a successful first pro season due to his age (he would have been a college senior if not for the NCAA fiasco), and he did fine in about 100 innings. He also needed to add a solid change to his low-90s fastball and plus curveball, and he made it an average pitch that flashed better. To finish things off, he needed to get rid of the rust and establish enough control for him to be effective, and after a somewhat rough start, he got much better as the season continued. Paxton has the chance for 3 plus pitches, and I wouldn’t be entirely shocked if he ended up the best pitcher of the top three mentioned here.
Jose Campos SP
Campos dominated Low-A as an 18-year old, and the most impressive part about it was that he essentially did it with one pitch. His fastball sits in the mid-90s, and he locates it exceptionally well as indicated by his 1.4 BB/9 (though his delivery has quite a few moving parts and a high leg kick). That, of course, leaves the problem of needing secondary pitches because, while a plus fastball will get you through A-ball, any fastball will get hit at upper levels if it’s all you have. At the moment, he throws a curve and change-up, but they are barely usable at this point. Being 19, however, has its advantages, and he has plenty of time to develop those pitches.
Francisco Martinez 3B
Age/Level: 21/AA or AAA
Projection: 2-4 WAR
One thing you cannot call the Tigers organization is conservative. Pushed through the minors and being young for each level, Martinez has produced fairly well at every stop. A good athlete, Martinez has good hand-eye coordination that leads to plenty of barreled balls, but perhaps a mark of his development and/or his ability to make contact, he’s still extremely aggressive at the plate and could use a better approach. Defensively, there are questions about him sticking at third, but like I said, he’s a good athlete with a strong arm. Having just turned 21, I think he can still get better because he has the tools for it. I like Martinez quite a bit, and he’s just beginning to tap into his power. I could see a breakout for him next year, but I would also like to see him possibly get a second look at AA or a full year in AAA to work on his offensive and defensive fine-tuning.
Alex Liddi 3B
Age/Level: 23/AAA or MLB
Projection: 2-4 WAR
If you want another reason to keep Martinez in AA, it can be Liddi. A big guy with enormous power, Liddi still has quite a bit to work on as he strikes out too much and could use some more work at the hot corner, though he did improve there in 2011. Liddi, however, does have some things working for him as he’s a secondary skills beast with an ability to take some walks along with his power, but the contact rate is a major concern. Liddi is still young and could benefit from an improved approach, but he needs to make strides his second time through AAA.
Vince Catricala 3B/1B
Projection: 2-4 WAR
The Mariners need an infusion of offense, and Catricala may well be the man to bring it. Drafted in the 10th round in 2009, he’s hit every step of the way, taking a steady diet of walks and belting a good number of extra-base hits (73 last season). The question with him is what position he’ll play. Catricala is downright slow, and if he plays third in the majors, he’s likely to be one of the worst at his position. If he moves to first or a corner outfield spot, he’s not likely to be great shakes in either spot, and that doesn’t count the substantial position value hit he’ll take. But the young man can hit, and the Mariners are in dire need of offense.
Guillermo Pimentel LF
Projection: 2-5 WAR
Pimentel has plus power. That’s really the beginning and the end of what you need to know about the young Dominican. His hit tool is a bit sketchy, but he has already improved his approach, meaning he could improve his hitting. Improving his approach is essential if he doesn’t hit for a high average because, even if he does have huge power, power won’t be enough by itself. Defensively, Pimentel is already looking toward a corner, meaning the bat has increased importance on his value, and he isn’t terribly good out there, though there’s time for improvement there. Pimentel is basically your normal lottery ticket - big risk and potential huge reward - but he’s off to a good start.
Brad Miller SS
Age/Level: 22/High-A or AA
Projection: 2-4 WAR
Miller isn’t the stereotypical shortstop and won’t get his production the usual way, but he could still be a solid regular. Defensively, he has decent range, but he’s had some issues, especially throwing the ball, that make him sticking at short questionable. Miller has improved, however, so the Clemson product could be the answer at short if Franklin has to move. Offensively, Miller makes a lot of contact, hits for a high average, and has an advanced approach that will get him some high OBPs, but he has little power. Miller might cost the Mariners on defense, but his ability to get on base could make him a solid player, nonetheless.
Big Question - Lottery Tickets
Overall, the Mariners farm system is pretty good, and they’ve put substantial investments in Latin American signees. Guys like Pimentel, Phillips Castillo, and Martin Peguero are sitting in A-ball, and while they all have their virtues, they are a long way from being finished products. If the Mariners can develop these types of players and take advantage of their heavy interest in foreign players, they could really become a powerhouse, but as with all lottery tickets, there’s plenty of risk associated. The Mariners seem to have attempted to take advantage of a market inefficiency by really going hard after these types of amateurs, and we continue to watch to see how it works out.
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