Minors : : General
Thursday, January 05, 2012

Top Prospects: Seattle Mariners

Todd Gold        
Photo: Virginia
General Manager:  Jack Zdurienczik
Minor League Director:  Chris Gwynn
Scouting Director:  Tom McNamara

AAA:  Tacoma Rainiers (Pacific Coast League) 70-74
AA:  Jackson Generals (Southern League) 70-70
Hi A:  High Desert Mavericks (Carolina League) 59-81
Low A:  Clinton LumberKings (Midwest League) 63-76
Rookie Adv.:  Everett AquaSox (Northwest League) 37-39
Rookie:  Pulaski Mariners (Appalachian League) 32-36
Short Season:  Arizona Mariners (Arizona League) 25-31
Dominican:  DSL Mariners  (Dominican Summer League) 45-24
Venezuelan:  VSL Mariners (Venezuelan Summer League) 38-34

System Overview

2011 saw the Mariners graduate a pair of elite prospects to the Major League level who each made an immediate impact in All-Star RHP Michael Pineda and 2B Dustin Ackley. Ackley’s former University of North Carolina teammate Kyle Seager also made his way to The Show, displaying flashes of promise during a 53 game trial. RHPs Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke also reached the Majors, wth Lueke being used as a trade chip to acquire C John Jaso from Tampa Bay following the season.

Even after graduating Pineda and Ackley, the Mariners still boast an impressive core of impact prospects in LHP Danny Hultzen, LHP James Paxton, RHP Taijuan Walker and SS Nick Franklin. However, the Mariners lack the depth of some of the elite farm systems in baseball, as the cream is more impressive than the overall crop.  Recent drafts have produced promising early returns. In 2009 the Mariners tabbed Dustin Ackley with the number two overall pick, and they supplemented that pick with SS Nick Franklin at no. 27 overall, who has shown very good offensive upside to this point in his career. Second rounder Rich Poythress hit 31 Home Runs in the California League in 2010 before taking a step backward in 2011 (typical for players moving from High Desert to Jackson) and third rounder Kyle Seager reached the Majors in 2011. Tenth rounder Vinnie Catricala reached AA Jackson and has put up good numbers throughout his career thus far.

The 2010 draft saw Seattle take Taijuan Walker with its first pick (43 overall), which is looking like a very good selection after a strong full-season debut at Low-A Clinton in 2011. Second rounder Marcus Littlewood has struggled thus far in pro ball but remains an interesting prospect because of his raw tools. Third rounder Ryne Stanek chose not to sign, enrolling at Arkansas where he had strong freshman season. Fourth rounder James Paxton may have been their steal of the draft, landing the 2009 supplemental first rounder (who had slipped due to justified signability concerns) in the fourth round.

The international effort has been as productive as their recent drafts, if not more so. After having recently produced Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez and rookie All-Star Michael Pineda the current top ten prospect list features three players signed by the Mariners as international free agents in Alex Liddi, Jose Campos and Guillermo Pimentel. With several others just missing the cut it has been a productive avenue of acquiring talent for Seattle.

Pitching is a big strength in the system, with a pair of premium left handed starters (Hultzen, Paxton) in addition to Walker. However, the system currently lacks depth in position prospects, with Franklin as the only impact position prospect. The organization currently has glaring holes at third base and catcher, but has taken a quntity approach to addressing the problem, aquiring several prospects who each have the potential to become long term solutions, but none of whom are a safe bet to do so. The shortstop position could also become a weakness if Nick Franklin is unable to stick there, and while the Major League outfield is not a weakness at this point, Ichiro can't play forever and Mike Carp and Trayvon Robinson have yet to prove themselves as viable long term solutions. The M's do have outfield prospects in Guillermo Pimentel, Johermyn Chavez and possibly Vinnie Catricala (who currently occupies 3B), but none who are ready to step in and contribute in the immediate future.

While they have several interesting prospects in addition to the impact players at the top, they mostly fall into either the unproven teenager or future reliever categories.  Picking third in 2012 will give them the opportunity to add yet another high upside player. If their teenage imports continue to develop the system could remain strong even if it graduates several more top prospects in 2011. How many of those prospects translate into big league stars, especially of the position player variety, will have a huge impact on whether or not the Mariners can become a perennial contender.

At the very least, the Mariners project to boast an exceptional big league rotation given the upside of their top three pitching prospects and the likelihood that at least one of them goes on to become a star in the Major Leagues, bolstering the one-two punch of Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda.

2011 Draft

Holding the second overall selection in a loaded 2011 draft presented the Mariners with an opportunity to add an impact prospect to their system, and they had several impressive candidates to choose from. They ultimately chose University of Virginia left hander Danny Hultzen, in spite of a lofty price tag, inking him to a Major League deal that included a $6.35 Million signing bonus, the sixth largest in draft history.

2011 saw the M’s lean heavily towards college players, grabbing Hultzen and Clemson SS Brad Miller in the first two rounds and Division II Player of the Year RHP Carter Capps in the Compensation B round (121st overall). Failing to sign third rounder Kevin Cron left fifth round C Tyler Marlette as the highest signed high school talent Seattle acquired in 2011, at a well above slot bonus of $650,000. Seattle chose a college player with 38 of their 51 picks.

After paying Hultzen aggressively it was a relatively conservative draft for the M’s in terms of bonus expenditures. That’s not to say there wasn’t any intrigue to their mid round selections. 6-foot-6 RHP Carson Smith out of Texas State is an interesting power arm landed in the eighth round. But perhaps the most interesting pick of the draft came in the ninth round when they popped high schooler Cavan Cohoes and signed him away from a commitment to Ohio State for $650,000. Cohoes is an American citizen attended high school on a military base in Germany, and though he has not faced the same type of high level competition that most draft prospects have, his raw tools make him very exciting.

The Mariners also made a concerted effort to find a long term solution at the catcher position, something that they have struggled with for quite some time. Signing fourth rounder John Hicks out of Virginia and fifth rounder Tyler Marlette gives the Mariners a pair of players who have a chance to become valuable pieces to the farm system moving forward.

In total the Mariners managed to sign 43 of their 51 selections, and made some aggressive picks without spending huge money (Hultzen aside), landing both quality and quantity for $11.33 Million (sixth highest). While they didn’t hand out any seven figure deals to mid round high school players, the Mariners did take advantage of their last opportunity to go above slot on players they coveted, and the result was a productive draft.

Holding the number three selection in 2012 will allow Seattle to supplement Franklin with another big time position prospect, or continue to add to their impressive stockpile of high level arms. While the new Collective Bargaining Agreement will prevent them from giving a Major League contract to an elite prospect like Hultzen or spend aggressively on a high upside lottery ticket like Cohoes, the signing bonus limitations shouldn’t have a tremendous impact on the Mariners draft strategy going forward.

Top 10 Prospects

1. LHP Danny Hultzen - Baseball-reference player profile

Hultzen declined the Diamondbacks offer as a 10th round pick out of high school in 2008, electing to attend the University of Virginia, where he was a two-way star. It turned out to be a good decision, as Hultzen grew from 6-foot 180 to 6-foot-3 200 and added significant velocity to his fastball during his three years there, touching 97 this spring (topped out at 88 in high school). In 2011 the Mariners made him the second overall pick, giving him a Major League deal with a $6.35 Million bonus.

Hultzen uses a low 3/4 arm slot with a smooth, low effort delivery. He repeats it well and throws all of his pitches for strikes. Hultzen’s arm angle makes him especially effective against left handers, and his changeup which falls somewhere between plus and plus-plus allows him to keep right handers of balance well. His fastball velocity fluxuated quite a bit in 2011, sitting 90-91 in some outings, 93-95 in others and has reached as high as 97. He locates his fastball well to either side of the plate with good sink, using it to get ahead in counts and induce ground balls. His above average low-mid 80s slider will be key to his strikeout ability at the big league level. The fastball-changeup combo, command, and ground ball ability will allow him to be highly effective. But the key will be the slider, if Hultzen can develop his slider into a true Major League out pitch he could potentially become a true ace. Though he has not shown that level of breaking ball to this point, and currently looks like a no. 2 starter, he is not far off from reaching his ace level upside.

Hultzen realistically could be ready to open 2012 in the big leagues, at least physically. Though the M’s will likely send him to the minors for at least part of the year. He slots in as a very good no. 3 starter behind Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda. If he and one of the other high level pitching prospects pan out, the best rotation in MLB might just be located in Seattle.

2. LHP James Paxton - Baseball-reference player profile

The Canadian born lefty took a very long route to professional baseball. Undrafted out of Delta Secondary School as a 6-foot-1 180 pounder, Paxton enrolled at the University of Kentucky. In 2009 the now 6-foot-4 220 pounder slipped to the Blue Jays at 37th overall due to signability concerns. Those concerns proved justified, as the Blue Jays failed to sign him. After being ruled ineligible to return to Kentucky for 2010, Paxton spent a year pitching in Indy ball. In 2010 the Mariners selected him in the fourth round, and finally signed him to a deal with a $942,500 bonus in March of 2011.

Paxton made up for lost time in 2011, dominating the Low-A Midwest League with a 2.73 ERA and 80 strikeouts in 56 innings. He then skipped a level, going to AA Jackson, but didn’t skip a beat. Paxton racked up 51 strikeouts over 39 innings in the Southern League, posting a 1.85 ERA and cutting his walk rate to a manageable three per 9 innings. Paxton uses his long frame well in his delivery, creating severe downhill leverage. His low effort delivery creates deception and he features a long and smooth arm action. As with many tall pitchers Paxton has trouble repeating his delivery at times. Minor issues with repeating combined with his strikeout-oriented pitching approach has prevented Paxton from becoming efficient with his pitch counts and has led to higher walk rates than his fastball command would suggest. His four seam fastball generally sits 93-95, climbing as high as 97 with riding life, his two seamer typically sits 90-92 with hard tailing action. His curveball is inconsistent but when he’s on it's a hard 12-6 hammer in the upper 70s with good depth. His changeup is currently the biggest obstacle to reaching the big leagues, it is raw at present but has the potential to develop into an average pitch.

If he can add polish to his game, Paxton has the ability to be a very good no. 2 starter. While he is raw for a 23 year old, Paxton has the kind of impressive stuff that will make it very difficult for Seattle to resist calling him up to the big leagues at some point in 2012. Fans in Tacoma can expect to see Paxton in town for at least a portion of the season.

3. RHP Taijuan Walker - Baseball-reference player profile

Walker was a two-sport star at Yucaipa High School in California, where he was a teammate of 2009 first round pick Matt Davidson (Arizona). Walker followed in Davidson’s footsteps after being selected 43rd overall in 2010, signing for $800,000. Walker was a two-way prospect in high school, showing high level tools as a short, third and right field in addition to his pitching prowess.

Walker has a highly athletic 6-foot-4 195 pound frame and his impressive athleticism is important as his long stride delivery is difficult to repeat. But repeating is an area that Walker has shown a good deal of progress with in his first year under the tutelage of the Mariners Player Development system. Walker’s loose whippy arm is very quick, allowing him to generate consistent mid 90s velocity, occasionally climbing as high as 98. His arm action creates a good downhill angle on his driveline, creating hard tailing action on his fastball.  Walker supplements his heavy fastball with a 12-6 power curve, that at times is plus, though he can get slurvy with it and will need to continue to improve its consistency going forward. His changeup is a relatively new pitch that he seldom used during his days travel ball days with the SoCal Elite and SE Texas Sun Devils in high school, and is an areawhere he has shown significant development as a pro. Walker’s breakout 2011 campaign and rapid physical progress are extremely encouraging signs and he appears to be on track to reach the big leagues relatively quickly for a high school pitcher.

After a very strong debut in the pitching dominated Midwest League, aided by additional preparation in extended spring training, Walker will move up to the hitter friendly California League in 2012. It is a challenging promotion for a young pitcher, but the 19 year old hurler is well equipped physically to be successful at High Desert. Walker has frontline starter upside and could be on the fast track to reach the big leagues if all goes well. Though it is too early to crank up the hype machine just yet, Walker has just 18 professional starts under his belt and has a lot of things to prove in the minors. That said, he has a chance to be a special player.

4. SS Nick Franklin - Baseball-reference player profile

Franklin became the Mariners’ second pick in the first round of the 2009 draft, when they snagged him at 27th overall, as compensation from the Phillies for the deaprture of Raul Ibanez. The product of Lake Brantley High School (FL) got 16 games under his belt in 2009 before heading to Low-A Clinton for an impressive full season debut in 2010.

Franklin’s 2011 campaign was a disappointment, as he missed time from a concussion he suffered as a result of getting hit in the head on the followthrough of a teammates swing from the on-deck circle. His return from that injury was delayed by food-borne illness. A glance at the numbers indicate a step backward for the switch hitting shortstop, but he hit well when healthy and possesses a very rare and valuable combination of tools. His late season showing in AA Jackson where he hit .325/.371/.482 was encouraging, as was his performance in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars Game, where he earned MVP honors after going 4-for-5 with a Home Run. Franklin’s offensive tools are elite for the shortstop position, with plus bat speed and good leverage, Franklin has surprising power for a 175 pounder. Franklin’s picturesque left handed swing has led to many debates over whether he should give up hitting from the right side, where he was far less effective in 2010. The biggest debate about Franklin’s future though, is whether he can stay at shortstop. His 22 errors in 64 games (330 chances) during 2011 is a concern. It is also surprising given his good range and solid fielding actions. Dustin Ackley’s presence at second base in Seattle will cause the Mariners to give Franklin every opportunity to prove he can stay at short. If he is able to do so his offensive ability make him a premium prospect. If not Seattle will have a tough decision to make after the work they put in to converting Dustin Ackley to second base.

The missed time in 2011 slowed his progress but the 21 year old has already had success in limited exposure to AA. He should open 2012 back there and has a chance to reach the majors in the next couple of seasons.

5. 3B Francisco Martinez - Baseball-reference player profile

Martinez was the top prospect going back to Seattle in the much celebrated (on Detroit’s end) Doug Fister trade in July. The 21 year old was one of the top prospects in the Tigers organization, though the presence of 3B Nick Castellanos made him expendible.

Martinez’s set of tools provide plenty of reason for optimism in the long term, though he has yet to put together an overly impressive season as a professional. His 33 game stint with AA Jackson was encouraging, as he hit .310/.326/.481 and has begun to realize some of his power potential. His 10 Home Runs at AA in 2011 were double his previous career total, and his power numbers are beginning to catch up to his tools. But for him to be an asset to the Mariners he will have to continue to develop his power to at least average MLB levels, which he projects to do. But the slow development to this point is a minor concern. His contact skills make up for his lack of plate discipline, which was quite solid in his native Venezuela, but has leveled out since moving up to higher levels of pro ball. His above average speed has translated poorly into stolen base success, going 10-for-20 in 2011 and is 54-for-80 in his career. His defensive tools suggest he should be a quality defender at 3B, which makes the high error rates all the more puzzling. While the stat sheet doesn't suggest Martinez's future is very brigth, scouts believe that there is a lot of upside. While he has a ways to go, Martinez has a chance to become an impact player at the Major League level. Whether or not he will reach that potential is very much up in the air.

To this point Martinez has been promoted aggressively through the minor leagues, after reaching AA as a 20 year old in 2011, a return trip to start 2012 should not be seen as a regression.

6. RHP Chance Ruffin - Baseball-reference player profile

Ruffin was the player to be named later in the Doug Fister trade to Detroit because he was unable to be traded until a full year after signing at the deadline as a supplemental first round pick in 2010. He certainly wasn’t an afterthought in the deal though, as he was a highly polished college reliever from the Texas Longhorns who reached the Majors in July of his first pro season.

Ruffin combines mid 90s fastball velocity with occasional sink with an above average big league slider. He also works in the occasional upper 70s curveball with 11-5 break and a rare changeup. Ruffin had occasional bouts of wildness in his first pro season, stemming from timing issues created by his exaggerated high leg kick. His tendency to rush diminished his command, though it also creates deception to the delivery, and as he improves his repeatability the walk rate should diminish. His quality stuff suggests that he can be a high level big league reliever for a long time. Even if Ruffin never refines his command he still has a chance to be an effective late inning reliever thanks to his overpower stuff, if he does harness his command he could become a rare four-pitch closer.

Ruffin looks like he has reached the Major Leagues for good and is expected to break camp with the big league club.

7. 3B Alex Liddi - Baseball-reference player profile

The first Italian born player to ever play professional baseball in the United States reached the Major Leagues as a 23 year old in 2011. Liddi has an impressive resume that includes the World Baseball Classic, the Futures Game, a 30 homer season at AAA and 40 Major League at-bats.

Liddi looks the part at 6-foot-4 230 pounds, having added significant strength over the past few seasons. The results have been obvious in his power numbers. After hitting just 17 Home Runs in his first three professional seasons combined, Liddi busted out with 23 at High Desert in 2009. A promotion to AA West Tennessee in 2010 caused him to drop back down to 15 Home Runs, leading many to believe that the power surge in 2009 had as much to do with the hitting environment he played in as Liddi’s tools. But his 30 Home Runs in Tacoma in 2011 were followed by 3 more big league bombs in a September callup has proven that Liddi’s power is real. For him to put it to good use on a consistent basis however, he will need to make significant strides in his pitch selection and contact skills. His 10% infield fly ball rate at the major league level is unsightly, as was the 35.5% of pitches outside the strike zone he swung at during his brief time at the Major League level. While he lacks polish and struggled at times in the Major Leagues, there is a lot to like about Liddi, who has become an average third basemen and has a chance to develop into a very good hitter.

Assuming the Mariners are able to move Chone Figgins (and a portion of his contract), Liddi will enter spring training with a chance to compete for the everyday third base job against Kyle Seager.

8. RHP Jose (Vicente) Campos - Baseball-reference player profile

The next in a long line of Venezuelan signees in the Mariners system, Campos was signed as a 16 year old by the Mariners in 2009. 2011 saw him make his US debut as an 18 year old with Short Season Everett, where he dominated Northwest League hitters.

Campos’ live arm makes him a very intriguing prospect. The 6-foot-4 righty routinely sat 92-94 with his fastball at Everett, with reports of him climbing well into the upper 90s on occasion. His long loose arm action alieves some of the concern created by his violent delivery. He gets good use of his lower half and pitches with a downhill plane. His offspeed stuff currently lags behind his overpowering fastball, but his curveball shows potential to be at least above average. The tremendous drop off in his walk rate from 2010 to 2011 is very encouraging, especially since he was able to maintain his impressive strikeout rate. Improving his changeup will also be a big priority for the Mariners player development system going forward. While Campos has a long way to go to become a Major League pitcher, he has been impressive to this point and if he continues to develop could become the latest in a long line of highly regarded pitching prospects to come through the Mariners system.

Campos will move up to Low-A Clinton next season where he will play his first full season of professional baseball. While the early returns are highly encouraging, it is difficult to get a good feel for what his development timeline will be like until he gets a full season under his belt. The Midwest League should provide some clues as to what kind of pitching prospect the Mariners have in Campos.

9. OF Guillermo Pimentel - Baseball-reference player profile

The 19 year old product of the Dominican Republic has shown great promise in his brief pro career in the U.S. to this point. Pimentel has hit a combined 16 Home Runs in 116 games between the Arizona rookie league and the short season Northwest League. Pimentel received a $2 Million bonus in 2009, the second highest bonus given to a player signed out of Latin America that year (trailing only Yankees C Gary Sanchez).

Pimentel generates a lot of power from the left side, and though he is still raw, he is capapble of hitting majestic Home Runs at times. He has shown slow but steady improvement throughout his pro career in terms of pure hitting ability, though he has a long way to go in learning the finer points of hitting at the professional level. For him to become a high level prospect Pimentel needs to draw more walks and raise his average, as he is an all-or-nothing type of hitter at this stage of his career. While he is young enough that it is not a huge concern yet, until he proves he can lay off pitcher’s pitches and work the count he will continue to post low on base totals. Pimentel’s defensive tools are adequate but nothing special; he has decent athleticism, but does not possess the top end speed to handle center (even with improved routes) or the arm strength to be an ideal fit in right. His value is clearly tied to his bat, though his offensive upside is great enough to carry him if he reaches his potential.

After a couple of solid seasons in rookie ball to start his career, Pimentel will head to Low-A Clinton in 2012 for his first taste of full season ball.

10. RHP Carter Capps - Baseball-reference player profile

Capps headed to the Cape Cod League after being named the 2011 Division II Player of the Year at Mount Olive College (NC) and being selected in the supplemental third round by the Mariners. The trip to the Cape paid off, as Capps' performance convinced the Mariners to go over slot to sign him for a $500,000 bonus ($243,000 slot recommendation) as the 121st overall pick.

Capps was a starter in college, but closed in the Cape Cod League. The 6-foot-5 220 pound righty possesses an impressive power arm, working 91-93 and touching 95 as a starter with Low-A Clinton in 2011. Coming out of the bullpen during his summer on the Cape, Capps often ran his heater into the upper 90s. With a big imposing frame, Carter has a deceptive delivery, throwing from the extreme third base side of the rubber and hiding the ball well with his broad frame and using a cross fire delivery with a low 3/4 arm slot. Capps shows good command of his fastball and compliments it well with a power slider with hard break and good depth. The imposing build, power arm and two plus pitches make Capps at least a high quality reliever in the long term, though the Mariners hope he can refine his changeup to become a viable starter long term. He has not shown the ability to locate his changeup in the zone and miss bats with it to this point, but if he does then the rotation becomes a possibility. Though most view Capps as a potential high level closer.

Capps will likely move to High Desert in 2012, his ability to develop a third and possibly fourth pitch will determine his ultimate role, and in turn affect his rate of promotion. If the Mariners decide to use him as a reliever long term, he should move quickly.

Others in the conversation (listed alphabetically): 3B/OF Vinnie Catricala, OF Johermyn Chavez, SS Marcus Littlewood, C Tyler Marlette, SS Brad Miller, INF Martin Peguero

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