Here at SeattleClubhouse, our primary goal is to give our readers exclusive, in-depth information on Seattle Mariners players from the Foreign Rookie Leagues all the way to the Major Leagues. Looking beyond just the numbers and typical website resources and using input from our own respected baseball contacts to help develop our own unique ranking, we are aiming to give the readers rundowns on the names in the Seattle organization that are worth tracking for 2014, and maybe even pinning future MLB hopes on. Our personal taste plays into the determination of where the prospects land on the list; a combination of potential ceiling, likelihood of reaching that ceiling, the most probable outcome for the player and their proximity to cracking the 25-man roster all factor in heavily.
Each player covered in these posts is presented with a headshot (when available), their 2013 position, current actual age, handedness, listed height and weight as well as the last level which they played at in 2013. Discussion/updates, etc., to these lists and prospects will be posted in the subscriber section of the Forums.
Now we've reached the top. This is one of the most popular posts each year here at SeattleClubhouse -- the final installment covering five of the best prospects in the organization for the Seattle Mariners as 2014 nears. The first nine sets can be found at the following links:
Make sure to bookmark these for future reading throughout the year.
I'd like to thank you all for reading and following our coverage here, and I sincerely hope that you learned something about some players in the system throughout this process. As I said at the beginning, nearly 90 players were in consideration for this list and trimming it down to these 50 was a process. You don't have to agree on who I picked and who I left out, but you can rest assured that the 50 covered here, those 40 that didn't make the cut and dozens more will be covered in-depth still throughout the coming season. And now, time to get to the final five Mariners prospects in our countdown; here are numbers 5 through 1.
5. Tyler Pike - LHP, 20, 6-foot, 180 lbs, L/L, Clinton
Pike, Seattle's 3rd round pick out of Winter Haven HS in Florida in 2012, was signed away from a Florida State commitment and then immediately began making a name for himself as a professional player for the Mariners as an athletic lefty that commands both sides of the plate. His dad was an 18th round pick and speedy outfielder in the Indians' organization for four years in the late 1980s, making it to Double-A in 1987, and former Mariners' backup and long-time MLB catcher Pat Borders was an assistant at his high school, so he's had a lot of experienced baseball words of wisdom in his ears from a young age and it shows in his maturity. His second season saw Pike's workload more than double, and even though he skipped over short season ball and was one of the youngest arms in the Midwest League, pitching all year as a 19-year-old, his H/9 rate actually went down with the jump from 6.04 to 5.95 -- the best mark of any starter with more than 65 innings in the league. Tyler allowed one earned run or less in 13 of his 22 starts for Clinton this past year, and he's also yet to allow more than six base hits in any one start. Just a year and a half into his pro career, he'll enter 2014 having allowed two earned runs or less in 28 of his 33 pro starts.
Pike pitches very smart for his level and has a great pitcher's body, with good length, broad shoulders and a solid trunk. An AL East scout who got multiple looks at Tyler this season summed him up like this: "He has already learned to command on the outside corner very well. You remember Tom Glavine? Well, he does that at the Midwest League level -- everything away. And when he gets those calls, he'll work it a little bit more away, and a little more, and end up getting guys to chase." Indeed, Pike's profile isn't overpowering. His strikeout rate was only 7.34-per-nine, just the 105th best rate in Low-A ball. But as the scout mentioned above, he gets hitters to chase by commanding the ball on the outer half and working away, and there was a lot of weak contact against him all year. Pike's .237 BABIP was among the lowest among starting pitchers at any level of the minor leagues in 2013. That, of course, could signal some regression is in his future if he doesn't make some changes, and while Chris Gwynn obviously loves the talent, he acknowledged that he's far from a finished product.
"Young kid that can really pitch and has a good feel for his off-speed pitches," said Gwynn. "We're working with him now on locating all of his pitches. He fools a lot of guys right now," Gwynn continued, "we're trying to show him it's not good enough just to fool them. We're working with him to get him to understand that, yeah, fooling them is great, but when you can locate all of your pitches -- that's checkmate." Gwynn says they expect the left-hander to continue to pick up the things he's being taught by the organization easily and that his background helps there. "He's going to be a good player. He works hard, he's a student of the game and grew up around a lot of big league people. Having him and [Victor] Sanchez on the same staff last year was good for both of them as far as competing, I think."
Pike came in at No. 31 on our Top-50 countdown a year ago, but improving on what he did in the complex leagues as a teenager in the Midwest League makes this massive jump a worthy one. His fastball is still mostly 88-91, but the pitch has good run. The changeup is his second pitch, and when he has good speed variance with it (82-84 usually) the pitch is a real weapon. His curve doesn't have consistently big break, but the pitch -- thrown in the high-70s -- flashes at times. He has a tendency to leave it a little up in the zone, perhaps looking for strikes more than looking for swings. Pike is a very good athlete, repeats his delivery well and seems as though he truly understands how to set hitters up through pitch sequencing. He also is a bulldog of a competitor. As one M's staffer told me a year ago, "he has a different gear between the lines. He likes to compete and he likes to win."
That drive and focus get mentioned time and again when I talk to people who know and watch Tyler. And taking into consideration what Gwynn and the scout each said above, he already earns praise from for the way he locates for his age, especially with the fastball. An assignment to High Desert isn't what the Mariners typically like to do with their prospects, but it sounds like a real possibility with Tyler. If he can survive those conditions and improve like the experts seem to think he can, improving his command and his consistency with those secondary offerings while pitching effectively in a tough league, then Pike has a good shot of reaching a mid-rotation ceiling at a fairly young age.
4. Danny Hultzen - LHP, 24, 6-foot-3, 200 lbs, L/L, Tacoma
One of the most disappointing happenings in the Mariners' organization for 2013 was the injury bug that bit Danny Hultzen. He pitched brilliantly in Triple-A when he was healthy, showing no signs of the control issues that plagued him at the level at the close of 2012, but he was healthy enough to make just seven total starts (six at Triple-A), missing two-plus months of action twice in the process. He was shut down once again when the shoulder stiffness and discomfort surfaced in his final start and it was discovered shortly thereafter that the left-hander had pretty extensive damage in the labrum, capsule and rotator cuff. He underwent surgery, at the hand of renowned surgeon Dr. James Andrews, on October 1st, and Jack Zduriencik's statement said, "Danny is a tireless worker and will do everything he can to get back on the mound to start competing again."
The former 2nd overall pick in the draft came into the organization with a label of a "fast moving, high floor" prospect, with many experts being of the opinion that he'd be the first from the 2011 1st round to establish himself in the major leagues. Fast forward to today and eight 1st rounders from that year have already made their debuts, and by the time Danny is back on any mound competitively that list will likely have grown considerably. The favorite acronym "TNSTAAPP" certainly comes to mind here, but I still believe that Hultzen should be considered a pitching prospect. And for what it's worth, the Mariners seem to have a bright outlook, too.
Chris Gwynn and I spoke about what 2014 will look like for the talented lefty as he recovers. "I don't think he'll be off a mound at all this year" he said. "I'm really just focusing on his mental side of things, and Danny's been good there. Real good." And while recovery from this type of major injury can be a huge setback for pitchers, Gwynn is still optimistic about Hultzen's future. "The one thing that Danny has going for him is that he really already knew how to pitch," he said. Continuing, "yeah the fastball could get 93-94, but his changeup is devastating. It's still going to work, it's just a matter of what he comes back to [stuff wise]." Echoing the statement from Zduriencik, Gwynn finished by saying, "Knowing Danny, he's going to work as hard as he possibly can. When he does get back, I just want him to have a clear mind and not really worry about [the injury], just go out there and pitch." I asked Chris if there had been any decisions made about altering Hultzen's delivery any further, but he quickly said, "We haven't even talked about that yet, we're just going to get him healthy first."
Before the injury, Hultzen was showing more stuff than most people gave him credit for having around draft time, with a four pitch mix headlined by a fastball that could touch 95, that devastating changeup, a curve and slider. He worked the slider much more effectively against left-handed hitters during 2013, and while it is an admittedly small sample size, Danny allowed just three hits and no walks in 32 plate appearances against them in 2013, striking out 10 in the process. That was after they hit .293/.455/.379 with more walks (18) than strikeouts (17) off of him in Tacoma in 2012. Another sign of the improvement that Hultzen can make and the intelligence with which he pitches.
So while 2014 will be even more of a lost season than 2013 was for Danny, I am not closing the book on him as a prospect. He'll be 25 by the time he gets back on the mound and will likely be rusty to boot, but I still see considerable upside in his profile. Look for him to probably pitch in extended spring training in a year before getting assigned back to a full season club, but a mid-season 2015 call-up to Seattle after that wouldn't surprise me. Get healthy Danny.
3. James Paxton - LHP, 25, 6-foot-4, 220 lbs, L/L, Seattle
After fighting his command at times through an up and down season in Triple-A for the Mariners, Paxton came up to the big club at the end of the year and dazzled in four starts, winning three of those games and closing out his season with a 10 strikeout, zero walk game against the Royals over seven innings in a 4-0 win. In the process of his big league coronation, James posted the highest average fastball velocity (94.9 mph) of any left-handed starter that accumulated more than 20 major league innings during 2013 and showed impressive use of his secondary pitches, holding right-handed hitters to a .141/.208/.268 line in 77 plate appearances in the process. He heads to spring training as one of the names that the club is penciling into it's rotation, and the 25-year-old -- who was the No. 5 prospect on our list a year ago -- seems to just be coming into his own.
In talking with Chris Gwynn about him, there were a lot of amazed head shakes from him. "James is...interesting. He's a horse. Something obviously clicked." The way that Chris started out there it was clear to me that the club was as impressed with Paxton's showing in Seattle as I was. "He competes, gets after it," Gwynn said. "He's one of the few guys we have that gets stronger as the game goes on...and that's scary." I mentioned that Paxton had told me in our interview last year that he does not get tired, to which Gwynn replied, "I believe him." Now 25, the big lefty from British Columbia logged 169 2/3 innings in 2013, more than a 60% jump from the previous season. If he stays healthy and survives in the major leagues then there is no reason to expect that Paxton can't handle a full work load and approach 200 innings. Chris says that nothing special has gone into this off-season for James from the club's directive, they just want the left-hander to stay on track and keep doing what he's been doing. "Just like everyone else, we just have to make sure he's on top of his workouts and ready to go," Chris said. "We're just going to wind him up and let him go."
I asked Gwynn if in his estimation -- in the eyes of the farm director -- are Paxton and Walker ready for the big leagues? "They've shown every sign, that I've seen, that they're ready. Is there a learning curve? Definitely. When you're facing the best hitters in the game, guys who go to school on what you do and what you don't do, and guys that really try and capitalize on those things that you don't do, you really have to be on top of your game," he said. "But they both have enough stuff and ability that they're going to be okay. They just have to trust what they're being told, execute the game plan and do their part as far as working out, eating right, those kinds of things."
Paxton's easy plus velocity from the left side is rare, as he can run his four seamer up into the upper 90s. And his secondaries are improving. The big curve -- which Paxton works as high as 85, at slider speed but with definite curveball downward movement -- showed well in the big leagues at the end of the year, getting a number of swings and misses. The same can be said of his cut fastball, which Paxton throws around 89-91. His changeup isn't a plus offering as it doesn't offer any fade or sink to speak of, but having that pitch in his back pocket proved to be enough to help keep hitters honest. The key for Paxton -- which you've already heard a hundred times if you've been following Mariners prospects over the past few years -- is his command, and that stems from his mechanics. Those mechanics are anything but compact, as he features a back leg bend and back side lean as his hands break from his glove in the delivery to start things. There is also a high leg lift, and his arm gets very long at glove separation and then he transfers into a long front leg stride. There are just a lot of moving parts to keep together mechanically there. But Paxton's head remains steady, and he's actually very good in keeping consistent with the mechanical points of emphasis that any scout or pitching expert would teach. He tightened everything up a bit during the second half, and none of those supposed mechanical issues were apparent in the big leagues for Paxton. I watched each of his starts a few times and saw him repeating his delivery solidly, which is something that I did not see as consistently in watching video of many of his starts the last two years.
It is entirely possible that Carl Willis or someone else on the staff, or even on the roster, found something that James could cue on to help keep everything in line as it needed to be. If that is the case, if Paxton has found something that can help him with the consistency of command, I think that he can be much more than a No. 4/5 starter for the Mariners. The good thing for them is that, as things stand today, that is all that Seattle really needs for him to be in 2014. And I expect Paxton to grab that role and not let go.
2. D.J. Peterson - 3B, 22, 6-foot-1, 190 lbs, R/R, Clinton
D.J. was heralded as perhaps the best combination of hitting and power in the 2013 draft, so when he was there for the Mariners at No. 12 overall, his selection seemed like a no-brainer. Seattle grabbed him and assigned him to Everett, much like they did with top pick Mike Zunino the year before. And much like Zunino, Peterson quickly showed the hitting chops that saw him get promoted out of the Northwest League and into a more challenging environment. He started slowly in Clinton after that promotion, but once he got going there he absolutely tortured Midwest League pitching slashing a league-best .379/.414/.697 and crushing five home runs over a three week run and hitting .293/.346/.576 at the level overall before an unfortunate injury cut his season short. That injury -- a broken jaw suffered when Wisconsin's Jorge Lopez hit him with a fastball -- ended Peterson's year and took him off of Seattle's Arizona Fall League roster, too. Peterson had his jaw wired shut, lost a bunch of weight and still hasn't started to hit off of live pitching yet.
"He lost about 15-20 pounds, but from what I hear he's gained at least some of it back," Chris Gwynn told me two weeks ago. I asked if he knew what weight Peterson would be playing at this year and he said the club hadn't discussed that yet. "He'll go through all that testing when he gets to camp. We just want him to get healthy. Once we get into camp we'll have the discussion about whether or not he should continue to play third, too."
That issue has been a common thread in talks about Peterson, but Gwynn seems to think it isn't a foregone conclusion that Peterson is moved. "My whole thing is that [third base] is the hardest position to find," he said. "If he can play third, with that power he has, then let's roll with it." As to what positions would be in play if Peterson were to move, Gwynn and I joked about how it is often suggested that players should move to the outfield because 'it is easy to play the outfield'. "They all think that," he laughed. "I haven't got there yet with him. If he's playing third then we're going to do everything that we can to make sure he's the best third baseman that he can be. If he isn't, well, then we'll have to adjust and make some decisions. But I saw him make some plays in Everett that impressed me. He showed good feet, backed up on a ball a few times, got the ball, fired it across. Is it pretty? Eh...it's effective." As for the idea that third base is already occupied in Seattle and that Peterson could move quickly, Gwynn answered that this way: "If we have an abundance of third baseman who can hit, that's a good problem to have. Jack would be getting calls every day. He'd probably ask me, 'What are you guys doing down there?!'"
Even if Peterson does have to move to a less demanding position defensively, there is so much talent and potential in his bat that it will play anywhere. I had two separate scouts give me Jeff Bagwell comps on Peterson during his time in Everett, and that AL East scout who watched Clinton extensively this year told me that the right-handed hitter, "stood out immediately." He continued, "You just can't hide the very good bat speed. You can't teach that. And the plus raw power, that doesn't come so easy [to normal players]." I pressed that scout for an honest assessment of Peterson's overall hitting ability, and he gave me this: "He's going to hit and the power is already starting to play in games. Some guys can hit everything a mile in BP, but squaring up fastballs in games is different -- that is real power. He's already doing that now. The bat could be special and there are 6 or 7 grades in there."
As the Mariners take precaution during his recovery, Peterson will be wearing a protective extension on his helmet to cover his jaw when the season starts. I asked Gwynn to predict where Peterson would start the year and he wouldn't commit, but it seems reasonable to expect him to be close to home in High Desert during the first half. And if he gets back in that box showing no ill effects from the pitch to the face, I wouldn't expect him to end the season there as Seattle hasn't been hesitant to challenge their performing hitters with a move to Double-A in season. That timetable would seemingly put Peterson on track for a 2015 MLB debut, and that sounds about right.
1. Taijuan Walker - RHP, 21, 6-foot-4, 210 lbs, R/R, Seattle
The 2013 season started with a disappointment for Walker as he was assigned back to Double-A Jackson to open his second straight season. But if there were any feelings of being slighted by that assignment, Walker clearly channeled them in the right way, as he exploded as a prospect, posting a sub-3 ERA and making strides in nearly all aspects of his game. He overpowered at times in Triple-A Tacoma in the second half and the right-hander was awarded with a late-season promotion to Seattle, where he made three starts for the M's and became the youngest pitcher in franchise history to win his big league debut. I was in attendance for his lone home start and gave a report on what I saw first hand from the club's top prospect from seats in the scout section. He enticed a lot of swinging strikes, pitched confidently up in the zone and showed the maturity at the big league level that was reflective of that which he showed in the minors as 2013 went along -- one of the biggest areas of improvement for him. He was our No. 1 a year ago, and he only further cemented his claim on that spot with his work this season.
Over the past few weeks Walker has been recognized among the top prospects in all of baseball as the top prospect lists have been announced, and he enters 2014 spring training for Seattle with a pretty firm hold on one of the five starting spots in the M's rotation. Along with the quotes above on Paxton where Chris talked about both he and Walker, I asked Gwynn about if he thought Taijuan and James were ready, in his eyes, to be important cogs in the big league rotation. "I'd like to see another arm added to push them down in the rotation maybe, but, yes, they're ready. It's just that in our division there are no off days." Walker was given a bit of a soft landing in his debut, facing the young Houston Astros twice and getting the Royals in his other start. Already carrying a 15 innings increase over his 2012 workload when he reached Seattle, Taijuan threw just 70, 79 and 84 pitches in his three starts, but as a testament to his ability to understand his job, Walker made it exactly five innings in each of those outings.
I asked about a 2014 innings cap on Walker and Paxton and he replied, "If they make the team that will be up to the big league staff, but if they stay with us [in the minors] then they'll typically be looking at a 15-20% bump." That could line Walker up for 180-190 innings in the coming season, again, if all goes well. With all of the talent that he has, one of the biggest things that Walker has going for him is that he is extremely athletic. A basketball star in high school (and he's shown that he still has it since), Walker compliments that athleticism with a very mechanically sound delivery, too, repeating his delivery well with a calm, controlled motion and a nice three-quarters delivery that is delivered with elite arm speed.
His fastball can work in the mid- to high-90s, seemingly effortlessly, and Taijuan also throws a curve, change and a cut fastball. His curve has good depth but he leaves it in the zone too much and perhaps telegraphs the pitch with his off-hand glove placement at times, too. The change isn't great but it is effective because he has good arm speed on the pitch. Walker is one of several arms in the system utilizing that cut fastball and his has been downright unfair at times against left-handers, producing some Rivera-esque swings from them. That pitch can be 88-92 with late bite. I asked Gwynn if that pitch was a focus within the organization. "The cutter isn't something that we're focusing on teaching, no. If they need a pitch, they need a pitch, and the cutter is an option, but we're not actively pushing that they learn that pitch to anyone. The thing about the cutter is, you need depth. Unless you're Mariano, you need a few inches of drop on it. Because if not, it's easy to barrel and balls fly."
Walker is about as close to a lock for the Mariners' rotation in 2014 as Felix and Iwakuma are, and he has enough weapons already at his disposal that he can succeed as a strong back-end starter. The Mariners hope that Taijuan -- who has shown himself to be a hard worker and good learner -- can take his off-speed offerings and command to the next level by being challenged at the game's highest level as part of that rotation. Even if the curve and change take a few years to develop, Walker represents one of the best young pitching phenoms that Seattle has had in their entire franchise existence, and the future for the 21-year-old righty could include becoming one of the best pitchers in the game.
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That does it for our pre-2014 Top-50 countdown. I hope everyone enjoyed these detailed looks at the best prospects in Seattle's system. Stay with us for all of the news and updates on the best prospects in Seattle's system throughout the season.
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.