The Arizona Fall League gets underway today with the first games in it's 6 1/2 week long season, pitting many of the top prospects in the game against one another. The Seattle Mariners have seven players on the roster of the Peoria Javelinas -- pitchers Kyle Hunter, Dominic Leone, Brandon Maurer and Carson Smith, infielders Patrick Kivlehan and Chris Taylor and outfielder Stefen Romero.
Hunter, a left-hander who came in as a 31st round draft pick in 2011 and has dominated since, is the replacement for injured lefty Danny Hultzen on the roster. Kyle pitched to a 1.80 ERA and 1.13 WHIP this season between High-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson and he now owns career minor league marks of a 2.28 ERA and 1.15 WHIP in 201 2/3 innings over the last three seasons. Hunter really held lefties down this season in Jackson, where they hit just .189/.295/.226 against him, and where he allowed only 7.3 hits per nine innings overall. Hunter doesn't have overpowering stuff or a deceiving delivery, but he has shown good command of his three pitch mix and he owned a 0.89 ERA in 30 relief appearances for the Generals.
Leone was one of the fastest risers in the Mariners' organization this past season. I began getting whispers about him about this time last year when he was impressing in instructs, getting a big bump in his fastball velocity. Leone was routinely up to 98 this season and he, too, dominated in Double-A Jackson. The right-hander struck out 64 batters in 64 combined innings along three stops, but the biggest area of improvement in his game wasn't in velocity, it was in control. Leone walked just 2.5 per nine in 2013 after walking 5.2 per nine in 2012 after being Seattle's 16th round pick in the draft out of Clemson. He is primed to get a long look in spring training with the big club come February.
Maurer already had a pretty long look with the big club, and he ended that trial run with three of his best starts to close out the 2013 regular season. The young right-hander that skipped over Triple-A to open the year made 14 starts and 22 appearances overall for the M's -- four of those starts and 12 of those appearances coming after a two month stint in Tacoma refining his approach to left-handed hitters. His fastball was up to 97 regularly out of the pen and he was mixing his pitches much better late in the year, too. His 6.30 ERA and .311 opponents' average aren't great marks, but the talent shined through on a number of occasions during his 90 big league innings.
Smith is another hard throwing right-hander that was in Jackson this season, but his fastball is more dominant because of the movement and his arm angle than the velocity. Smith already introduced himself to the AFL in 2012, when he fared quite well despite not having pitched above High-A ball prior to his assignment to Peoria a year ago. During the 2013 regular season he again overcame some early struggles to be dominant over his last 22 appearances, allowing only one earned run over his final 28 2/3 innings while striking out 43. Smith has 148 strikeouts and a 61% groundball rate through his first 112 pro innings.
The former college football player Kivlehan had an even better year in 2013 than he did while winning the 2012 Northwest League MVP. He increased his walk rate, cut his strikeout percentage by double digits and hit .303/.366/.464 with 44 extra base hits, 90 RBI, 15 steals and 43 walks overall between two levels. Included in that performance was a 25-game hitting streak that saw Kivlehan raise his OPS nearly .200 points all while playing steadily improving defense at third base in a tough environment.
Taylor, who seemed like a very low profile, low ceiling pick on draft day, has done nothing but impress since taking the field as a professional for the Mariners. He was awarded the organization's Minor League Player of the Year award after hitting a combined .314/.409/.455 in High Desert and Jackson this year, leading the organization in hits (165), runs (108) and stealing 38 bases. All that said, it is his smooth defense that really earns the best reviews from scouts.
Romero was the winner of the award bestowed on Taylor a season ago, and he also played down in the AFL last year. And he played quite well, too. But the right-handed hitting infielder-turned-outfielder had somewhat of a quiet regular season in 2013 with Tacoma, hitting a pedestrian .277/.331/.448. But that final overall line blurred the tear he went on late, when Romero hit five of his 11 homers in an 11 game stretch to close out the year.
These seven figure to get a lot of playing time for the Javelinas, allowing the Mariners -- and the rest of the league -- to get a nice long look at some of the most promising prospects in their upper minor leagues heading towards the movement months of a key off-season for the organization.
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