This fall the Seattle Mariners sent some of their top prospects to Arizona to compete in Major League Baseball's top offseason showcase league, the Arizona Fall League. With eight players on the roster, numerous Seattle prospects are in action each day, and while the crowds in Arizona are small, the quality of the eyes that are upon these prospects -- from scouts to baseball operations and player development staff of all MLB teams -- are powerful.
Players are typically sent to the AFL to focus on improving in certain areas, to make up for lost time during the season, or just for a club to get an extra look before determining a prospect's fate for the upcoming season. The Mariners' players are no different in this regard, with each having specific areas to focus on while a few are making up for lost time and a couple making their case for a potential 40-man (or maybe even 25-man) roster spot come next spring.
Moments after the Peoria Javelinas wrapped up their Arizona Fall League best 10th win this season on Wednesday with five Mariners farmhands in action, their Manager Dusty Wathan -- himself a former Mariners minor leaguer, the son of former Kansas City Royals Manager John Wathan and the current skipper for the Double-A Reading Phillies -- took some time to talk with me about the players on his roster from the Seattle organization, their areas of focus and how they've handled themselves.
First up, we talked hitters, and we started by discussing the club's top pick in 2012, catcher Mike Zunino. Zunino is one of 25 AFL hitters that has an OPS of better than .800 at this point (.848) in the season, is tied for 3rd in the league in RBI (9) and also ranks in the top-10 in total bases (21) through his first 10 games. Mike is also one of only two 2012 draftees (Richie Shaffer of Tampa Bay is the other) selected for a spot on the AFL rosters.
Zunino, who had a draft profile of being a polished, good all-around catcher and hitter without any real standout tools, has struggled a bit defensively, but has really impressed Wathan with his bat: "He's done a fine job with the staff. He has a bit of work to do behind the plate and that is one of the areas that we are having him concentrate on. The bat is special though, and it is going to carry him, in my opinion." Wathan mentioned that although Zunino is one of the least experienced pros, he has "definitely shown that he should be here" with his advanced skills.
Nick Franklin, who was alternating between starts at second base and shortstop for Tacoma during this season's second half, is seeing a similar pattern in Arizona, with four starts at second and two at short early on. Franklin is hitting .318/.423/.545 in 33 plate appearances including two doubles, a home run and four walks, all of which he drew on Wednesday while starting at designated hitter.
"Being able to handle second and short -- and he's looked good out there -- that definitely adds value." Wathan said of Franklin's defense. And fittingly, after his four walk game, Wathan said of Nick at the plate, "He's also shown a very patient approach, but he's aggressive when he needs to be. When he gets his pitch, he goes at it hard."
Originally assigned to Peoria as a member of the Taxi-Squad (only active for Wednesday and Saturday games), Seattle's Minor League Player of the Year Stefen Romero has seen extended action of late due to an injury on the roster, something that Wathan has enjoyed: "You never want to see anyone get hurt, but I'm happy to get the chance to play Stefen more than just on the Taxi Squad," he said.
Having seen starts at second and third base, as Romero hinted would be the case when I interviewed him in September, Wathan again pointed to Romero as a player expanding his versatility for the big club. And although Romero struck out twice Wednesday (just his 2nd and 3rd Ks in 26 plate appearances), about his bat Wathan said, "He puts the ball in play. He squares the ball up and puts it in play hard."
Vinnie Catricala was Stefen Romero before Stefen Romero was Stefen Romero, having put up very similar numbers and been named the M's POY in 2011. He had a down 2012 in Tacoma, but Seattle sent him to the AFL to work on fixing some issues in his swing and -- stop me if you've heard this before -- work on his defensive versatility. Catricala has started twice in left field, twice at third base and twice at first base and has driven in four runs.
"I don't want to speak for the (Seattle) organization, but I think versatility is key for Vinnie," said Wathan. "He's handled himself well here and has shown some ability," with the bat, despite nine strikeouts in 26 plate appearances.
The pitchers have a secret weapon, if you will, who has joined them in Peoria, as Jackson Generals pitching coach Lance Painter is back for a return gig in the same role for the Javelinas. Wathan stated that Painter is a huge help for all of the pitchers on the roster, but in particular plays a vital role for the Seattle arms. "He's been tremendous down here. And all of the Seattle kids have played for him (in Jackson), so everyone is comfortable with him, and that is a big thing down here."
Among those most familiar with Painter is left-handed starter James Paxton. Following a season and a half in Jackson, Paxton drew the Opening Day assignment as Peoria's "Ace", and with two great outings to start the year before being a bit off in his last outing, he hasn't disappointed. The big Canadian has 13 strikeouts out of the 34 batters he's faced in his first 7 2/3 innings of the AFL season.
"James has just been outstanding, both on and off the field. He's very professional. He had a little bump in that last start, but the first two starts were so good you give him that one." Said Wathan. Asked if he sees Paxton as close to big league ready he said, "Absolutely. He's working on his change-up down here, and when that comes, he's a top of the rotation guy."
Fellow left-hander Bobby LaFromboise has been in five games for Peoria and has been a shut down guy in four of those outings. In all he's struck out six in 5 2/3 innings, including four of the 10 left-handers he's faced. LaFromboise is a tall, long-limbed left-hander that has a bit of a sidewinding delivery, and that has been effective.
"He comes at you from a different arm angle and that's tough," said Wathan. Bobby was named the Rainiers' pitcher of the year after posting a 1.59 ERA and striking out 38 hitters in 39 2/3 for Tacoma. Not just a specialist though, that innings total came in 27 games. Wathan said he could see LaFromboise being more than just a specialist, "He's hard to square up. I think he definitely could handle pitching to both (left-handers and right-handers)."
Right-hander Carson Smith is the club's "exception player", coming from High-A to the AFL. Smith -- who ended the season on an absolute tear as High Desert's closer, posting a sub-1.00 ERA in the 2nd half of the season -- has pitched very well in five games for Peoria, allowing only one earned run while holding opponents to a .174 average.
Wathan likes that Smith hasn't been fazed by playing with more experienced players. "He's not intimidated. He's a big kid and he is strong and confident. And he can really sink the ball." A player who there have been some concerns around in the past because of his demeanor, Smith has had no troubles in Arizona. "He's been very professional on and off the field for us," said Wathan.
The last player Seattle has in the AFL, another right-handed reliever, is Logan Bawcom. Acquired from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Brandon League deadline trade, Bawcom got off to a slow start with Jackson following the deal but he has the 2nd most saves in MiLB over the past two seasons (53). And despite the 3rd highest ERA in the AFL thus far (9.53), there is promise there.
"It's tough," Wathan said about the stats. "Logan really just had one bad outing for us, but here he's only pitching once every four or five days, so it's hard to get it (the ERA) down." Outside of that one outing, Wathan likes what he sees and the results. "He's throwing the ball well. And from what I see and hear, he definitely has a future in Seattle."
And that is really all any of the players down in Arizona want.
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The players playing in the sun in Arizona aren't the only ones in the Seattle organization playing offseason ball. The Mariners do a great job of giving regular updates on all of their players playing around the globe in various leagues in their weekly Mariners Winter League Report, and you can find a link to this week's edition by clicking here.
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