The general consensus around baseball is that the Seattle Mariners are among the Top-10 or so organizations in terms of minor league talent right now. What Jack Zduriencik and his staff have managed to accumulate in their three drafts with the Mariners is amazing, especially considering where the talent level was when they took over. But while the talent and the depth are near an All-Time best level for Seattle, things could be even better.
SeattleClubhouse takes a look at 10 prospects that were once highly-touted that have hit rough patches -- on the field and off -- and become a bit of an afterthought, examining what they need to do to once again start generating buzz about their game. Scout.com's prospect guru Frankie Piliere also lends a professional take on each player.
Carlos Triunfel: Without looking, guess how old Carlos Triunfel is. He's 21. He turns 22 later this month, but my point is that he is still very young. Baseball America rated Triunfel as the #62 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2008 season and he was #89 the following year. So what happened? The power hasn't developed as many thought it would, his speed has slipped since his broken fibula in 2009 and as he's aged and his body has filled out, but the point is, he is still younger than most prospects that people have given up on. He finally made it to Triple-A in 2011 in his fifth season as a pro and he is still playing shortstop, but a lot of the polish on his once shiny prospect star has faded with time.
Much of that is due to Triunfel's power. It simply hasn't developed the way that many projected back when the Mariners signed him for $1.3 million out of the Dominican Republic in 2006 as he's hit just 21 home runs to date in over 1900 plate appearances. He also has drawn just 88 walks in that time, and while he's hit .281 or better in three of his five seasons, that average has been pretty empty without extra base power or walks attached to it. Now up to 200 pounds, he has stolen just 9 bases (and been caught 15 times) since stealing 30 in 2008 before his injury. 2011 saw him get to career bests in a number of categories, including doubles and extra base hits, but he still looks like a below-average hitter and fielder at this point.
Triunfel does have a very quick, level swing, plus hand-eye coordination and a fantastic arm, but unless he can cut down swinging at everything that reaches the plate on the fly and making fundamental mistakes in the field, his big league future isn't very promising. I still have him ranked 10th on the Mariners' prospect list and he did rank 5th among Mariners infield farmhands with 500-plus at-bats in OPS, but he is dangerously close to falling down dramatically if his 2012 performance isn't a breakout. Already on the 40-man roster, he is likely to start the season in Tacoma, though he may get a chance to see some big league time at some point in 2012. It may well be his last chance to impress the front office and remain in Seattle's plans.
Piliere on Triunfel: "Scouts have been waiting for Triunfel to show he could really drive the ball on a consistent basis. That hasn't really happened yet. He's still very young so I'm not ready to give up on his upside, but I think we have to see him start hitting the ball with authority in 2012."
Mauricio Robles: Robles came to the Mariners from Detroit mid-2009 in the Jarrod Washburn trade and it didn't take long for him to climb to the forefront of the M's organization from there. A 2.78 ERA and more than a strikeout an inning in 32 1/3 innings for High Desert following the trade that year as a 20-year-old had many thinking that the M's had pulled a fast one on the Tigers. But after a decent 2010 in which Robles reached Triple-A while still piling up strikeouts (but still showed command and pitch count issues), he got injured during Spring Training 2011, had surgery March 22nd and was on the DL from March 30th to June 13th recovering from left elbow surgery. He came back and made 10 unimpressive starts between High-A, Double-A and Triple-A (8.91 ERA, 2.04 WHIP, 33 walks and 23 strikeouts in just 32 1/3 innings) but was shut down again on August 4th with what was labeled a left forearm strain, but it very well could have simply been a bruised ego. He resurfaced for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League and pitched even worse (54.00 ERA, 10.00 WHIP in three games, two starts, totaling just one inning in those outings).
When he is right, Robles has good velocity -- reaching the mid-90s consistently even following surgery -- a plus change-up and a curveball that rates as plus at times. But at just 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, he doesn't have an ideal pitcher's frame. And while it is usually longer, taller pitchers that struggle with mechanics, Robles has always had issues carrying his form late into games as he tires. Add to that the fact that he nibbles, perhaps searching for strikeouts too much.
Robles was ranked by Baseball America as Seattle's 6th best prospect prior to the 2011 season and he does have number 3 starter potential if he figures out his issues. But he needs to attack the strike zone more frequently to lower his pitch counts and learn to maintain his stuff into the 6th or 7th inning consistently in 2012 or risk being moved into the bullpen.
Piliere on Robles: "The problems are all command related with Robles. His stuff is plenty good to pitch in the big leagues someday. But, it's not going to happen for him unless we see his control come around."
Johermyn Chavez: Chavez was chip two -- and an important piece in the Mariners' eyes -- of the December 22, 2009 trade with the Blue Jays along with Brandon League for Brandon Morrow. He impressed big time in his first season with Seattle, hitting 32 home runs (2nd in the Cal League) in his first season in High-A ball as a 21-year-old. But 23 of those long balls were hit in Adelanto, and there were still a lot of strikeouts (131). Nevertheless, the right-handed hitting outfielder made strides in his game that season which had to make the M's feel more comfortable with what they got from Toronto for a young right-hander with a ceiling like Morrow's. California League Scouts and Managers named Chavez to the post season All-Star team and recognized him as the 18th best prospect in that league following the 2010 season.
But in Chavez's Double-A debut in 2011, he took a big step backwards, hitting just 13 homers while seeing his batting average dip .099 points and his slugging percentage fall more than .200, from .577 to just .360. He regressed back to his pre-2010 form in his approach, too, getting very pull-happy and having a lot of trouble with inside pitches. Although he played some in center field and led the Southern League in outfield assists in '11 (18) with his plus arm, he is not fleet of foot and is seen as merely adequate defensively in the outfield, meaning a majority of his value is going to have to come from his bat.
SeattleClubhouse has Chavez ranked as the club's No. 18 prospect heading into 2012, but he could easily climb into the Top-10 or fall out of the Top-30 based on which version of him shows up in 2012. While he led his Double-A team in HR (13) and ranked 2nd on the Generals in walks in '11 (49), there is a lot of room for improvement. He still has starting corner outfield potential in him, but his approach and his results need to get a lot better.
Piliere on Chavez: "That Double-A jump is not easy and Chavez proved that last year. But I think we'll see him adjust. His power is undeniable and I think we'll at least see those huge power numbers return in 2012 if nothing else. There's still a lot to like about his bat."
James Jones: Jones is the first player on this list that primarily has injuries to thank for his prospect status at this point. A surprise 4th round pick as an outfielder by the M's after primarily focusing on pitching while in college, Jones immediately showed promise in 2009, hitting .311/.392/.463 for Everett. He followed that up with a .269/.356/.432 performance in 132 games for Clinton -- including reaching double figures in doubles, triples, home runs and steals -- that included a .321/.387/.487 mark in the second half. But he wasn't done impressing there as he ended up being named the MWL Offensive Player of the Postseason by hitting .356 and slugging .600 with three HR and nine steals in the LumberKings' playoff run. All that flash landed him a surprise spot on ESPN analyst Keith Law's Top-100 prospect list heading into 2011.
High expectations were paired with an assignment to High Desert, but the offensive explosion many expected didn't occur. 2011 saw Jones get off to another very slow start as he hit just .206/.313/.304 in 56 games in the first half for the Mavericks, and while he did turn it on again in the second half (.324/.412/.520 in 27 games), Jones broke his nose in July and his season ended on July 23rd. Healthy again after the regular season ended, Jones started slowly once again in his assignment with Adelaide in the Australian Baseball League, but actually ended up with the top SLG (.542) and OPS (.940) of any Seattle prospect that played Winter Ball, including hitting .409/.509/.727 versus left-handers.
Jones comes with great bat speed, plus foot speed, potential for 60-grade power and a cannon of an arm in the outfield and while the strikeout numbers are higher than you'd like, he's shown enough plate discipline and willingness to take a walk that you know he isn't lost up there. What he really needs to get back on track is to hit the ground running in 2012 and not have a lackluster first half, as has become his modus operandi.
Piliere on Jones: "We know he's athletic and he has upside. It's been known since he was drafted. But, at some point we have to see the power come along and he has to gain some consistency at the plate. He hasn't done that, even in hitter's environments, yet so you have to wonder if he ever will."
Dennis Raben: Raben is another player that can't shake the injury bug as he's missed what amounts to two full seasons in the four years since the Mariners drafted him in the 2nd round out of Miami in 2008. Baseball America rated Raben as the No. 9 college prospect in that 2008 draft and many thought he was one of the top two or three power hitters available, too. He homered in his first pro at-bat (4th of July vs. Yakima) and hit very well, but ended up missing a little more than a week with a finger injury toward the end of the year which would serve as a sign of what was to come for the big left-handed slugger.
2009 was a complete washout as Raben had microfracture surgery on his right knee and missed the entire season rehabbing that injury. 2010 saw him miss 12 days with an ankle sprain and another month with a hamstring. Last season ended early with another knee injury requiring surgery, though this surgery was minor and to the other knee. While he has been healthy Raben has racked up the offensive numbers as he enters 2012 with a career line of .306/.382/.581. He's actually played 158 games total over the last two seasons and put up 192 hits, 41 doubles and 38 home runs in what amounts to about the equivalent action of one full MLB season. So the theme is pretty obvious here: great when he plays, but doesn't play enough.
There are two things that are complicating that matter now, however. One, Raben is now 24, going on 25, and hasn't yet reached Double-A. And two, because of all of the injuries, he is a liability in the field at this point, even at first base where he doesn't have ideal hands. As a former 2nd round pick with an obvious tool that the big club could use (power), he is still on the radar, barely (ranking 47th on the initial SeattleClubhouse Top-50). But another injury or two, equating out to more lost development time, could spell the beginning of the end of the prospect road for Raben.
Piliere on Raben: "I've long been a huge Dennis Raben believer. If he's on the field and healthy, this guy is going to hit. I know he's a little older, but given what he's capable of at the plate, that doesn't concern me much. He's a potential impact bat in the big leagues."
Yoervis Medina: Of all the players on this list, I doubt that anyone wishes that they could snap and make 2011 disappear more than Medina. Placed on the 40-man roster prior to the season following a strong 2010 that saw him post a 3.17 ERA and 10.3 SO/9 across three levels in his first stateside action for the M's, about the only positive thing that Medina achieved in 2011 was pitching a career high innings total (131). He lost 14 of his 15 decisions, saw his ERA jump three runs to 6.18 and had a 1.66 WHIP while his strikeouts-per-nine dipped to 6.8. As if that wasn't bad enough, Yoervis managed to lose seven more games (and not win any) in the Venezuelan Winter League as well, giving him a tidy 1-21 combined record on the year.
Despite that rocky season, Medina does have some skills that are worth noting. He throws his fastball up to 94, sitting comfortably in the 90-93 range, has a good, sharp curve, a splitter and a change-up that both have late, "chase-me" movement. He's also built like a horse at 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds. What gets Medina is what gets a lot of pitchers: command. Particularly with his fastball, as he works off of that pitch but often finds himself working from behind.
Medina had his lunch handed to him a bit in the California League, but despite that -- and despite the fact that he'll turn 24 this summer -- I wouldn't be surprised to see him back in High Desert trying to regain his form from 2010 (when he was named the 15th best prospect in the Northwest League) and work on commanding his fastball and controlling the count a little better.
Piliere on Medina: "I'd like to see him starting missing bats again like he did earlier in his minor league career. I think he has enough raw stuff to do that, but he has to show some mastery over the Double-A level if he's going to pitch in the big leagues."
Ji-Man Choi: Choi is a very interesting prospect. Signed on July 2, 2009 out of South Korea as a catcher by Seattle, he made his debut in 2010 and tore the cover off the ball as an 18/19-year-old, hitting .360/.440/.517 in 50 games (39 for Peoria and 11 for High Desert) and winning the Arizona League batting title (.378) and MVP while also being named AZL MVP by the Topps Company. Big (6-foot-1, 224 pounds) and not especially agile however, he saw most of his time defensively at first base (34 games), catching only 10 times. Part of that was due to back spasms, which turned into a back muscle strain, which ended his 2010 season in early September and -- paired with a shoulder injury suffered during rehab -- cost him the entire 2011 campaign.
He was thought of as pretty athletic for a catcher before the injuries and his arm and release were decent, but with the injuries starting to pile up, it's not likely that Choi sticks at catcher long term. And therein lies the issue: his bat is really only special the way it is now if he is catching. He doesn't have great power and is more of a line-drive hitter, so he doesn't really profile as a big league first baseman.
If Choi somehow has figured out how to put the injuries behind him and stick behind the plate, it's possible that his left-handed bat could move him quickly through the system. But he is now another player dealing with a development backlog from missing a full season. If he can't catch and can add more power then he might be an option down the road as a 1B/DH...but asking him to reinvent himself really isn't fair. The most likely scenario is that Choi (if he stays healthy) moves up the ladder doing a little of all three (C/1B/DH) but maxes out a little below MLB quality...but you never know with a young bat that has shown such early promise.
Piliere on Choi: "Health, of course, is the key: If he's on the field and healthy, I think there's more than enough offensive upside to contribute in the big leagues. But, we'll have to see how he looks this spring coming back."
Julio Morban: Perhaps only Raben has had worse luck than Morban when it comes to injuries. Part of the July 2, 2008 international class out of the Dominican, Morban missed all but 10 games in 2010 with a torn thumb ligament. His bookend seasons haven't been great, but they haven't been terrible, either -- and even those seasons weren't fully healthy. In his debut in 2009, Morban showed a lot of promise as he hit .270/.309/.509 as a 17-year-old while missing time with shoulder issues. Then last season he got off to a fast start but hit just .256/.315/.382 while playing all three outfield positions in between three stints on the disabled list (both groins and a right oblique strain).
His strikeout rates are high and his walk rates are low, but he is still very young, and the tools are there for Morban. He's very athletic and has speed to spare for center field, where he also has a good throwing arm. Morban just needs to shore up his routes and fundamentals on defense and, as he grows into his body, trust his hands more and guess less to let his smooth, quick, left-handed swing guide him to more hits and fewer K's. He's up 13 pounds to 203 now and there could be some more power in his bat.
Having just turned 20, Morban still has time to refine his approach at the dish and in the field to become a better player. With Mike McGee likely to see himself promoted in 2012, Morban may end up repeating in Low-A Clinton to work on his plate discipline and get more consistent time in center field. If he can manage to remain healthy enough to stay on the field for a few consecutive seasons, he could climb back into the conversation for some of the best prospects in the organization for Seattle.
Piliere on Morban: "He's still very young and there's some upside, but we have to see him cut back on the swings and misses. This will be a big year in determining just what kind of prospect he's going to be."
Nate Tenbrink: Another guy that missed significant time to injuries over the years is Tenbrink. Along the way, the former 7th round pick has enjoyed some on-the-field successes, too. But in 2011, Tenbrink suffered a fractured elbow at the end of June and missed the remainder of the season. He missed about three weeks in 2010 with a concussion after being hit in the head with a pitch. But the similarities between his 2010 and 2011 basically end there. His average dropped .100 points (.318 to .218) and his strikeout rate jumped from 21% to over 28%. His fielding also fell off, as his errors climbed and his fielding percentage at third base dropped below .900 for the third time in four seasons.
While his average dipped, his extra base power ticked up a bit and his patience -- which has always been one of his strong points as his P/PA is always high -- was still very present and he still posted a .740 OPS. The injuries are a concern as is his defense, but he's already started seeing time in the outfield corners, too. He has enough upside and history that I put him on the Top-50 list at number 49 back in September.
When healthy, Tenbrink has a nice level swing path with average bat speed, plus plate discipline and pitch recognition and at least 55 speed. Given his struggles at third base, I'd expect to see Tenbrink start getting much more outfield time in 2012 when he likely repeats Double-A. With that speed and a plus arm, he has enough offensive skills to pass in a corner if he cuts down on the K's and continues to hit with more pop.
Piliere on Tenbrink: "This is a make or break year for him, if last year wasn't already. He's 25 and has not fully mastered Double-A. If that doesn't happen in 2012, it's probably the end of the line for him as any sort of prospect."
Rich Poythress: Another second round pick with the slugger profile needing a bounce-back in 2012 lands on this list for the Mariners. And even having fallen way off from 2010 to 2011, Poythress came in on our Top-50 at number 31 following the 2011 minor league season. More advanced pitching found ways to get him out more often and keep him in the park more. But even though his RBI total was more than cut in half (130 to 64) and his HR total almost in third (31 to 11), Poythress did still improve in some ways in 2011.
His walk rate went from 9.6% to 9.8% but more importantly his strikeout rate dropped from 18.4% to 16.0%. He also ended the season very strong, hitting .316/.396/.445 in the second half and trimming his strikeout rate even further (14.8%). And while his OPS fell nearly .200 points outside of High Desert, he did still out-OPS the league in 2011 (.763 for Poythress, .739 for the Southern League as a whole).
But the bottom line is that the former Georgia Bulldog needs more bite in his bat to continue to progress towards the big leagues. He does get great loft and natural backspin and has shown power to all fields in the past, but a player of his ability and background should not go 34 games without a home run in Double-A ball from the cleanup spot.
Piliere on Poythress: "Poythress is another guy I've had the pleasure of scouting for a while now. I believe in his swing and approach. That Double-A jump is very difficult at first, but I think he'll find his way and have a big 2012."
One point I'd like to make very clear: the above players all have potential big league tools -- they all have the potential to become big league ballplayers. It is very unlikely that everyone on this list will find the magic elixir that turns it around for them in 2012. But if two or three of them can, then the Mariners system will be looking even stronger going forward.