SeattleClubhouse Top-50: 5-1

Over the past two months, SeattleClubhouse has given you an inside look at the Top-50 prospects in the Mariners organization. Rankings have been complete with professional scouting notes, front office quotes, player info and projected 2012 assignment. I now give you the five best prospects in the organization in our tenth and final set of players in these rankings.

Here at SeattleClubhouse, our primary goal is to get information on the Mariners' minor league players to the fans that want the knowledge. Looking beyond the numbers and using input from scouts and other baseball personnel then combining that with our own input, we have given the readers a rundown on quite a few names in the Seattle organization that are worth tracking going into 2012 and beyond. Our hope is that you learn a little bit more about what is on the horizon so that you can better understand the moves, and non-moves, of the front office.

For the Top-5 Prospects on our list, I was lucky enough to talk to the people that saw them the most this year: their coaches. Quotes from each player's coach are included in the scouting reports below.

Without further delay, here now is our final set in our initial ranking of the 50 best prospects in the Seattle Mariners organization.

Enjoy!

5. Vincent Catricala 23-years-old, IF/OF, Double-A Jackson
Catricala easily counts as the breakout hitting prospect for the Mariners in 2011. A 10th round selection out of the University of Hawaii by the club in 2009, he has hit at every stop along the way since, but he hit his way into our Top-5 with his outstanding performance this season. 182 hits, 101 runs, 106 RBI, 48 doubles, 25 homers, 57 walks and a .349/.421/.601 slash line at two stops was far beyond what anyone could have reasonably expected from the 6-foot-2, 200 pound right-handed hitter.

He made big advancements at the plate with his discipline, his opposite field power and his baserunning this season and he now has developed into one of the best hitting players in the system.

I got the chance to speak with Jackson Manager Jim Pankovits this past week and he said about Catricala, "I was very impressed with the way that he was able to step right into the middle of our lineup and make an impact. He was no doubt our second half offensive MVP and I think he has a real bright future."

Pankovits continued, "He's very patient and selective and he uses the whole field with power. He brings a real mature approach offensively. Defensively I think he is most comfortable in the outfield corners. He gets good jumps and he showed a surprisingly strong and accurate arm from the outfield." That meshes with what Pedro Grifol told me about him back in September saying, "he's seen a lot of time in the outfield. If he's a bat we need, (he) will have some options."

When I asked if the coach could think of a comparable player he had either coached himself or seen extensively, he brought up the name of the Houston Astros' J.D. Martinez, who played for Pankovits while he was managing with Houston and who went straight from Double-A to the big leagues last summer, putting up a .742 OPS over 208 big league at bats as a 23-year-old. "Vinnie is a little more versatile defensively," he said, "but they're both really aggressive young hitters with great approaches."

Since Catricala is a 2009 draftee, he hasn't yet been added to the 40-man roster, but I expect to see him in Tacoma in 2012 and, should he continue to hit the way he has to this point, he could push himself up the depth chart for a big league look at left field and/or third base before the year is out.

4. Taijuan Walker 19-years-old, starting pitcher, Low-A Clinton
One could make a serious case for Walker to be the number one prospect on this list. In fact, the Top-4 are all pretty interchangeable, in my opinion. But the thing we need to remember with Walker is that while he was certainly one of the best pitchers in the Midwest League, this season is his first real action as a professional. He pitched this entire season at just 18 years of age, getting shut down do to reaching his innings limit prior to his birthday in August. That means he is certainly still a ways off from making an impact at the big league level, and with the volatility of pitching prospects, I think it is best to err on the side of caution when projecting his future.

That said, all signs point to his future being very bright. Walker works easily in the mid-90s with his fastball and gets good sink on the pitch, especially when it is down in the zone. He also has a big overhand curve that flashes as a true swing-and-miss, plus pitch and he is getting better and better with his changeup. He has an ideal frame (6-foot-4, 195 pounds), clean delivery, and is a very hard worker and natural leader, despite being one of the youngest players in his league.

His Pitching Coach this season in Clinton, former Mariner farm hand Rich Dorman, said, "He came out of extended Spring Training to us, and from the time he got there until the time he was shut down he made big improvements and really impressed me--he really impressed everyone."

When I asked what Walker learned this season that enabled him to be so successful, Dorman said, "He really learned to elevate and to pitch inside with his fastball this season. Taijuan throws all four-seam fastballs, he's got really good angle because he gets on top of his fastball so well, but he works mid- to high-90s with it. So the three biggest things he learned this season were pitching inside, sequencing his pitches to set up his breaking ball and reading the hitter's swings to get to his next pitch."

If Walker proves to be a quick-study and continues to show dominance on the mound, his debut in the big leagues may not be nearly as far off as originally thought.

"He's ready for Double-A," in 2012, said Dorman. When explaining his thoughts on that, he said, "The California League is about the same as the Midwest League, a little bit older hitters, but pretty much the same. He can throw his fastball for strikes and work off of that and he can succeed there now. The thing about Taijuan is, when he walks out on the field, he is the best athlete on the field--he's better than the center fielder, better than the shortstop. That athleticism and the way that he competes...he's special. "

When I asked around for player comps on Taijuan I heard a name a few times that had me pause a bit. "Bob Gibson," said one coach. "I never saw him, obviously, but I have heard that name from some that did and been told that Taijuan has a lot of the same qualities as Gibson."

High praise, indeed. Double-A in 2012 seems a reasonable assignment for Walker, and the M's have shown that they don't mind skipping a level if they think the player is ready (i.e. Paxton). And although he won't turn 20 until next August, don't be surprised if he's regarded as one of the top pitchers in the entire minor leagues by that time. And don't be surprised if he is knocking hard on the big league door come 2013.

3. Nick Franklin 20-years-old, shortstop, Double-A Jackson
With all of the injuries and illnesses that befell him this season, Franklin probably has fallen down most prospect prognosticator's lists further than this. But just in case anyone was ready to brush him off as a one-year wonder following his less-than-stellar 2011, Nick came out and went nuts in front of a number of scouts and a large television audience in the Arizona Fall League Rising Stars game. A homerun (off of No. 1 pick Gerrit Cole), two doubles and an infield single in the game, together with four RBI, certainly let everyone know that his name belongs among the top players in minor league baseball.

A switch-hitting shortstop with power and speed, Franklin has that rare five-tool ability that everyone dreams about. Sure his swing can get a little long at times and the strikeouts can pile up a bit, but as a player famous for his work ethic already, he makes adjustments about as well as any 20-year-old kid could possibly be expected to make. His defense hasn't been fantastic at shortstop, but he has the ability to play the position in the big leagues and is just three years removed from high school.

"I can't wait to see how Nick's career plays out," said Jim Pankovits, his manager in Jackson. "He showed us immediately why he was one of the top prospects in all of minor league baseball. Very aggressive, very confident, outstanding tools. Another guy who I was very impressed with how well he accepted and responded to instruction."

Really reinforcing all of those scouting reports on Nick, Pankovits added, "He's got surprising power, very good speed, really good hands and he's very athletic with great body control. Beyond that he is a great student of the game."

Pankovits' only concern? "Nick's not that far behind (Dustin) Ackley and (Kyle) Seager, but I think he still needs a little more time to refine his approach and figure out exactly what type of offensive player he's going to be," he said. "I think he has the ability to be either a middle of the order run producer or a set-the-table type."

Asked if he could think of any comparable players to Franklin, his manager said, "I haven't really seen anyone that has had as high offensive and defensive ceiling as Nick has shown. I did see Ackley this past Spring Training, but I think Nick has more athletic ability. If he can be a little more consistent than I could see him being a number 2 or 3 hitter in the big leagues with at least a 10-year career."

Because of the injuries, Franklin might return to Jackson in 2012 as he continues to refine his game, but him grabbing a full-time big league job as early as Opening Day 2013 is not out of the question.

2. James Paxton 23-years-old, starting pitcher, Double-A Jackson
Like Walker, Paxton was shut down a little bit early this season to avoid overextending him in terms of innings and pitches. That didn't prevent him from impressing everyone that saw him along the way. He posted a 2.37 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, allowed just 6.9 H/9 and proved to be a dominating strikeout pitcher with 12.4 SO/9. He also made a huge cut in his walks with his promotion to Double-A from 4.8 to 3.0.

Paxton is also easy in the mid-90s with his four seam fastball and gets good tail on his two seamer. He has a big curveball, 76-78, and a slider that he mixes in that is usually in the 82-84 range. His change-up isn't great, but it has proven effective thus far simply because of his fastball velocity and tough delivery. Big and strong, Paxton has the great build (6-foot-4, 220 pounds) teams look for and he uses his long arms and legs to minimize his distance to the plate with his delivery. He has everything you look for in someone to become a workhorse down the road and a left-handed one to boot. Everyone I talked to this season raved about his maturity and his approach.

Pankovits, who has been coaching or managing since his playing career ended in 1992, said of Paxton, "He made more progress in a short period of time than any player that I have ever had. He came to me fairly raw and erratic, but I've never seen a kid take instruction the way he did."

His compliments of the young Canadian left-hander continued. "He has an unbelievable approach to his career. He's extremely coachable, has a great work ethic and really listens and applies everything that you talk to him about. He's got dominating stuff. Down the stretch here, he really wasn't even challenged. He really handled the Double-A level easier than any pitcher I've ever seen in a long time."

The veteran manager said a lot of the credit for the improvements Paxton made in Double-A should go to Lance Painter, Jackson's Pitching Coach. And those improvements weren't just in the pitcher-hitter battle, as Paxton also made great strides in combatting the running game.

But his arm is something special, and was the best of a great group of arms that came through Jackson this season, in Pankovits' opinion. "Paxton, with his relative inexperience, was still probably the top prospect in that league last year...and everyone's top prospects usually play at the Double-A level."

Rich Dorman, who had Paxton while he was in Clinton said that a player comp that he'd heard for Paxton was Andy Pettitte. That makes sense from a delivery standpoint if you watch the two--they're both long on the backside before coming to the plate. But, as Dorman said, "except Paxton is 98 (miles per hour with his fastball) with a hammer curve and he's learning that change-up. So he's basically Pettitte with a lot better stuff."

Although he has just one season consisting of just 17 starts under his professional belt, Paxton does have an outside shot at winning a rotation spot in the big leagues in 2012. If he doesn't, he should be just down I-5 in Tacoma ready for a mid-season call if needed. And I wouldn't be at all surprised if he were joined in the big leagues in 2012 by...

1. Danny Hultzen 21-years-old, starting pitcher, Arizona Fall League
Wait a minute--a pitcher who hasn't even thrown a single pitch in a full-season league ranked as the number one prospect in an organization that is suddenly pretty full of talent? Yes, Hultzen is that good. Simply put, he was MLB-ready the day the M's selected him No. 2 overall this past June, and his performance to date in the Arizona Fall League--including his standout two innings in the Rising Stars game--have only further cemented his status as one of the top arms in the minor leagues.

Hultzen came into the draft with the label of being a very polished pitcher who would likely make it to the big leagues in short order. He throws from an almost true sidearm delivery and he crossfires over his landing foot a bit, the way that I describe him is a mix between a shorter Randy Johnson and a skinnier Sid Fernandez. On top of the sidearm, slightly crossfire motion, he also starts from a bit of a squat position--both from the wind-up and the stretch. Because of his delivery, and a very consistent arm slot for all of his pitches, he is very deceptive and that really maximizes the effectiveness of all of his pitches. He throws a two-seam and four-seam fastball and throws them both 91-94, getting great natural sink. His change-up is 80-82 and is a huge weapon because he is so consistent in his delivery. His slider is something that he isn't using a lot in games and he is still working on refining the pitch--particularly from a command standpoint--but it is 80-83 with less than ideal tilt. He's a very good athlete (he was Virginia's DH on his non-pitching days) and fields his position well where he also makes solid, confident throws.

He signed with Seattle at the deadline, reported to Arizona shortly thereafter and began working with Mariners' minor league pitching coordinator Rick Waits immediately before the Arizona Fall League got started. His performance in the AFL was fantastic: 6 games, 19 1/3 IP, 16 H, 3 ER, 5 BB, 18 SO, 1.40 ERA, 1.09 WHIP. If you add in his Rising Stars Game stats, the ERA falls to 1.27 and the WHIP falls to 1.03. Beyond statistics, he really showed his polish and pithing smarts that make him appear to be MLB-ready now.

I spoke with Waits about Hultzen and he had a lot of good things to say about the 21-year-old lefty. "I've been around this business a long time and had a lot of first rounders, but I've never seen anyone as polished and as focused," as Hultzen, Waits--a lefty with a 12-year major league career himself who has been working in front offices since 1995--said.

Asked what the M's focused their work with Hultzen on, Waits said, "we really didn't do a lot. His delivery was good, he had three solid or better pitches. Really we just altered his routine, going from working every seven days to working every five days. Changing that routine from seven days, to six, and then to five was the biggest thing we worked on. Outside of that, we looked at his crouches a little bit and stood him up a bit out of the stretch, just so he could be a little quicker, and that seemed to really help his slider, but that was about it."

"I think there is some deception there, but it really amazes me how smooth and how consistent he is," with his delivery and arm slot, Waits said. He added, "everything also comes out with the same effort."

When asked about his thoughts on where Hultzen could land in 2012 Waits offered, "He's at least ready for Double-A, no question. He'll be in big league camp and--like Pineda last year--you never know. Carl (Willis), Eric (Wedge) and Jack (Zduriencik) have seen him, but the rest of the staff need to see him. But I don't think it is a stretch to say that he will be pitching in the big leagues at some point in 2012."

Working on improving the slider is his main work in progress right now. "When its good, its really good," says Waits, but they are working on getting him more consistent command of it. Waits also said that Hultzen is still learning the differences in the pro and college game in what types of pitch locations and pitch sequences work in the pro game, but he doesn't think that Hultzen will have any problems adapting. "He's really bright, and really focused."

Going straight from the college game to the big leagues doesn't happen often, and we could see Hultzen do that next year, but more likely is that he will be in Jackson and/or Tacoma to continue to get acclimated early on before coming to Seattle to stay before the All-Star Break.

And with that, the initial stroll through the Top-50 Prospects in the Mariners system is coming to an end. If you haven't read all of the reports, please go back and do so (The nine other pieces are linked below). I put a lot of effort into these and got a lot of great information from inside the Mariners while completing the rankings, scouting reports and assignment estimations.

In closing, I offer this final quote. Near the end of my conversation with Rick Waits, as we were talking about Hultzen and the other top pitchers in the system--including Paxton, Walker, Jose Campos and Erasmo Ramirez--he gave me this little nugget: "I wish you could see me right now, because I am smiling big. I feel blessed. These aren't your typical prospects, these guys are special. A lot of credit needs to go to our scouts, because they don't get enough credit. As the game has changed, they have changed and they have really adapted well and have found top talent. They have done a great job."

Those words were echoed throughout each of my interviews and we should all remember that. For Mariners fans starved for a winner, that scouting and player development will hopefully be paying off at the big league level soon.

Prospects 50-46
Prospects 45-41
Prospects 40-36
Prospects 35-31
Prospects 30-26
Prospects 25-21
Prospects 20-16
Prospects 15-11
Prospects 10-6

Looking for more Mariners news and articles? Follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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