Month One around the Mariners' Minors

With April in the books, we take a closer look at how three Seattle affiliates -- Tacoma, Jackson and Clinton – have fared, where they are in the standings and in the training room and at who stood out for their performance during the first month of the minor league season.

The long grind that is the minor league baseball season can mark off month one of its calendar, and the affiliates of the Seattle Mariners have had some solid showings so far. There have been two players -- Carlos Triunfel and Abraham Almonte -- hit for the cycle, impressive pitching performances by two of the Big Three (Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen) and a number of fast starts at every level. Let's take a look at Tacoma, Jackson and Clinton.

TRIPLE-A Tacoma Rainiers
16-10 record, 1st place in the Pacific Coast League Pacific Northern Division
PCL ranks (16 teams)

Hitting: 2nd in R/G (6.19), 4th in OPS (.821), t-2nd in HR (28), 2nd in BB (121), last in Ks (251)
Pitching: 4th in ERA (3.77), 4th in WHIP (1.41), 3rd in HR (17), 3rd in BB (79), t-3rd in Ks (219)

Tacoma got off to a fast start behind the bat of Mike Zunino and the pitching of Danny Hultzen. Both prospects have had issues since -- Zunino with contact and Hultzen with injuries -- but the club as a whole, loaded with more top prospects than any time in recent history -- continues to play well with a strong mix of veterans and young players. Jeremy Bonderman was passed over when a big league rotation spot opened up, but the veteran returning from a long injury layoff is building up strength and endurance for the Rainiers.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Nick Franklin – 2B/SS
Franklin has a slash of .410/.538/.623 through his first 17 games of action and leads the club in OPS at 1.161 and wOBA at .512, both numbers being good enough for 4th in the PCL. He's also tied for the club lead with four steals and is playing solid defense at second base and shortstop. The switch-hitting infielder is posting a BB rate of 20.3% and has cut his strikeout rate all the way down to 10.1% while putting up an impressive .213 ISO thus far.

TOP PITCHER: Danny Hultzen – LHP
Hultzen was off to a very impressive start prior to his unfortunate injury, ranking just outside the Top-10 in the league in ERA (2.78) with a great FIP (2.49), 9.93 SO/9 and a 4.2 to 1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. With his injury there definitely won't be a repeat of this performance in May (and maybe not even in June), but the early returns on the field are encouraging following his struggles at the level last year.

SLOW STARTERS: Denny Almonte – OF, James Paxton – LHP, Rich Poythress – 1B
Almonte has not adjusted well to Triple-A pitching and has a pretty amazing 37 strikeouts in 78 plate appearances leading me to believe that a return trip can't be too far off, especially with the recent signing of Corey Patterson. Paxton has an ERA of 6.00 and a WHIP of 1.81 as he continues to have the same issues with command, often having a good start turn disastrous with one command-less inning. Poythress isn't terrible, but his fantastic walk/strikeout rates from last season are gone and he continues to not hit for much power.

TRAINING ROOM: Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez, Anthony Vasquez, Joe Dunigan
Hultzen's injury is definitely something to keep an eye on as his rotator cuff strain and tendinits could become something worse after his 4-6 weeks of rest is up. Ramirez, I hear, is still down in Arizona slowly recovering, as is Vasquez, who had offseason emergency brain surgery. Dunigan got hit in the jaw with a pitch mid-month and had his jaw wired shut.

DOUBLE-A JACKSON GENERALS
11-14 record, 4th place in the Southern League North Division
SL ranks (10 teams)

Hitting: 7th in R/G (4.20), 7th in OPS (.671), 4th in HR (16), 9th in BB (72), 9th in Ks (205)
Pitching: 1st in ERA (2.90), 2nd in WHIP (1.18), t-2nd in HR (12), 6th in BB (89), 1st in Ks (201)

Jackson has another very talented roster this year, boasting a number of the Top-25 prospects in the organization, but the results haven't matched the talent so far. Jackson's Chris Harris talked with me last night to shed a little light on why that is. "We've played 15 1-run games so far, tied for the most in the minors when I looked [Monday], and we're only 5 and 10 in those games," he said. Adding, "The bullpen has struggled at times, too. But the starters have been fantastic." Let's take a closer look.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: James Jones – OF
A notoriously slow starter before this year in his minor league career, Jones has put up some very strong numbers out of the gate for the Generals at .299/.365/.506, leading the club in OPS (.871) and wOBA (.393), good for 7th and 10th in the Southern League, respectively. The left-handed hitting outfielder has a strikeout rate of just 15.1% so far and it was 22.4% coming into the year, which is a huge improvement. And his walk rate (9.3%) is holding steady above league average.

TOP PITCHER: Taijuan Walker – RHP
Yes the walks are higher than you'd like to see, but the rest of the numbers show just how dominant Walker has been. "His cutter is just not even fair," said Harris, "And his change to left-handers has been pretty good." Indeed Walker is proving to be dominant, and even though this is his second year in the Southern League, he's still young for the level. But Harris says that Walker is maintaining focus. "He wants to go out there and dominate," he said. Because of the walks his ERA (1.55) is well ahead of his FIP (3.75), but when he isn't striking batters out (26.7% K rate) he has been getting a lot of weak contact and defensive swings, leading to a .147 oAVG and .191 BABIP. If his command steps up a tick he could be looking at a very similar promotion timetable to what Hultzen saw last year.

SLOW STARTERS: Carson Smith – RHP, Forrest Snow – RHP, Vinnie Catricala – 3B
Smith has had enough struggles early that he has been removed from the high-leverage closer role to try and get some softer landings while he gets his command harnessed. The stuff is still there for sure (13 strikeouts in 8 1/3), but he is young and has some maturing to do. Snow has already been tagged with four losses out of the pen as he's been unable to put out fires and even started some of his own out of the pen, primarily because he's been up in the zone a lot. After tearing through Jackson in 2011, Catricala continues to look like he's lost his mojo and his focus in Jackson this year following his struggles in Tacoma in 2012 and he's struck out 22 times while walking just once with an OPS under.500.

TRAINING ROOM: Julio Morban
The Generals have been pretty fortunate in the injury department, with only one major player still back in Peoria (Mickey Wiswall with hamstring issues) and one on the club missing any significant time. That player is rising prospect Julio Morban, who tore through the spring with the big league club. But he continues to have groin issues and sat out for nearly two weeks earlier in the month. Keep an eye on how often he can play, because he is a very, very talented hitter and maybe the best outfielder on a very talented roster of defenders.

LOW-A Clinton Lumber Kings
11-12 record, 4th place in the Midwest League Western Division
MWL ranks (16 teams)

Hitting: 10th in R/G (4.57), 11th in OPS (.668), t-7th in HR (12), t-7th in BB (86), 5th in Ks (154)
Pitching: 4th in ERA (3.63), 2nd in WHIP (1.28), 2nd in HR (7), 9th in BB (79), 11th in Ks (154)

That Tweet (and picture that you should click) from left-handed starter Tyler Pike sums up the theme for the first month for Clinton -- rainouts and double-headers. The club was rained out seven times in 13 days at one point and also played five double-headers in eight days when the makeups. It's too bad, too, because this roster is very talented for Clinton -- Henry, Gabriel Guerrero, Dario Pizzano and Guillermo Pimentel in the outfield and a lot of talented relief and starter arms -- they just haven't had a chance to get in a rhythm yet. Here's a closer look at the club.

TOP OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Jabari Henry – OF
Henry, the M's 18th round pick last June, has found a new gear in Clinton this season. Following a very successful 2nd half of the year in Pulaski last year, the 22-year-old has the 4th highest AVG (.385), 3rd in OBP (.500), 5th in wOBA (.468) and 6th in OPS (1.023) while cutting his strikeout rate from 18.8% last year to 8.3% so far in 2013 and drawing more than two times as many walks (16) as Ks (7). A big, strong athlete, Henry has been hitting leadoff and playing center field for the LumberKings while posting a .385/.500/.523 slash, and he has the tools -- including potential for plus power -- to be a very interesting prospect if this plate discipline can keep up.

TOP PITCHER: Dylan Unsworth – RHP
Unsworth quietly had a standout year last season for Everett and his early returns in the Midwest League have been promising for the right-hander, too. 6th in the league in FIP (2.23), the 20-year-old has gone 7 (complete game), 8 and 9 innings in his last three outings for Clinton and has walked just two batters in 29 innings on the season. He's been a very good ground ball pitcher again this year (1.41 GO/AO ratio) and has held left-handers (.609 OPS) and right-handers (.616) in similar check.

SLOW STARTERS: Timmy Lopes – 2B, Pimentel – OF, Guerrero – OF
Lopes was in the AZL for all but four games last year in his debut season so this is a strong push for him to even be in Clinton, but he's been a little slow to get started for the LumberKings with just a .587 OPS through his first 17 games of action. He has a good line drive bat and is showing decent plate discipline numbers and his low BABIP (.271) suggests that more of his natural gap power should show up soon. Pimentel started the season drawing walks at a very impressive pace, but he's fallen off there (and I hear a lot of that could be attributed to pitchers being wild more than Guillermo being patient) and the strikeout numbers are back up to scary heights -- enough for the 2nd worst total in the league (that he is repeating). Guerrero played just a partial season in the AZL last year after winning the DSL MVP so his jump is even more of a challenge than Lopes', and he's shown flashes, but the power hasn't shown up yet and the walk (4.5%) and strikeout (24.7%) rates need improving.

TRAINING ROOM: Victor Sanchez, Marcus Littlewood
The healthiest team in the organization so far, Sanchez got a late start to the season following an appendectomy and Littlewood came in a little late after rehabbing in Arizona for a bit, but outside of that Clinton is pretty clean. Sanchez has been very impressive since he showed up and Littlewood -- who played in Clinton briefly at the beginning of last season -- has been splitting time at catcher.

ORGANIZATION TOP PERFORMERS: Franklin and Walker

That does it for our first month recap of the Rainiers, Generals and LumberKings. Not all great results and not all bad with some standouts and some clunkers being put up by some top prospects. We'll, of course, continue to monitor the goings on around the minor league affiliates. Look for our Taylor Ward to be chiming in soon with his month one recap of the High Desert Mavericks.

Looking for more Mariners news, articles and player interviews? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse site Editor Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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