Mariners Minor League Players of the Month

InsidethePark.com's Joseph A. Yencich scours the month of June to produce the best minor leaguers over the past 30 days. Did your favorite prospect make the list? Who won the award in this third installment of the players of the month? Read on and find out.

The Mariners have become a major force in international scouting in recent years, and it shows, as three of the five winning awards this month were signed from outside of the United States.

InsideThePark.com's Position Players of the Month:

Bucky Jacobsen, DH, Tacoma Rainiers
Wladimir Balentien, CF, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers

If you want to see one of the hottest hitters in all of baseball, you don't have to plan your schedule around which teams are coming to Safeco soon or pay full price for tickets; just hop on I-5 and head due south for Cheney Stadium during any Rainiers homestand. Last month, Bucky Jacobsen made his mark on this list by slugging .700+.

Not to be known as a one-month wonder, he came back in June and slugged .800+, leading the Rainiers in most offensive categories with lopsided numbers like 13 home runs and 31 runs batted in. For the second straight month, he had extra-base hits in roughly half of his games.

Perhaps more impressive has been his consistency. He reached base safely on all but one of his games, and went hitless in only four of them. The defining game for Jacobsen on the month came on June 23, a 7-0 win over Fresno, when he was involved every time the offense scored a run; a run-scoring double in the first, a solo homer in third, and two-run shot in the seventh. Ordinarily, 28-year-olds in Triple-A don't always get too much credit, but Jacobsen's making the front office take notice, and he certainly has the support of the fans.

Jacobsen started out in the Milwaukee Brewers farm system after being selected with a 7th-round pick out of Lewis and Clark State in the 1997 draft. An old leg injury has prevented him from playing the field regularly in recent years, but he does have the power and the hitting ability to make enough of a contribution with the bat. Last month he hit a home run over the light tower in left-center field at Cheney Stadium.

It isn't always easy to gauge hitting performances in the Midwest League, as typically benefits pitchers more in the early months. Still, it's hard to deny what Wladimir Balentien, who recently turned 20, accomplished in June. In just 26 at bats, Balentien doubled or came close to doubling his offensive production for the entire year in most categories, including hits, runs scored, runs batted in, triples, home runs, and total bases. For the month, he hit .329/.358/.645, and for those worried about his production translating into the higher league, he's been hitting .320/.359/.639 since returning from his shoulder injury.

All of this adds up to make Balentien one of the more interesting prospects in the system. After all, how many younger players can put up an OPS near 1.000 in a bad league in which to hit? It's also looking as if he's becoming a better all-around hitter while still maintaining his power. In a 6-0 win over Dayton on June 29, he did it his usual way, three-for-four with a triple, a home run, and three runs scored.

On June 14, a 10-9 victory over the same team, he was four-for-five with a double, two runs and two RBIs, and was instrumental in Wisconsin's ninth-inning comeback.

Balentien signed with the Mariners out of Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles in July of 2000. He spent the rest of the year in the Dominican Summer League before changing addresses to the Venezuelan Summer League for the next two years, and in 2002 he was named Aguirre's team MVP after hitting .279/.390/.538 with 10 home runs. He is most notorious for shattering the Arizona League's home run record after hitting 16 long balls last season.

Notables:
Tacoma Rainiers infielder/outfielder Justin Leone got the call to the big leagues after Miguel Olivo went on the DL, and for an offense in need of some pop, it only makes sense. The 27-year-old had eight home runs on the month and, for a while, he and Jacobsen were trading places at the top of the home run charts in just about every day. Leone hit .297/.383/.604 for the month, but he's also displayed the athletic ability to play just about anywhere, spending 19 games at third, 12 games at shortstop, and one in the outfield.

Tacoma Rainers third baseman Greg Dobbs struggled a bit after his promotion, hitting .192 through his first seven games. After that, he hit .483/.483/.724, including a two-run pinch-hit single to win the game on June 27th, giving him a .345/.345/.527 line overall in fourteen games. A pretty smooth transition from San Antonio, where he spent the other half of the month and hit .357/.357/.536. Dobbs, who recently turned 26, will play at third the majority of the time with Leone in Seattle.

Tacoma Rainiers first baseman A.J. Zapp is starting to show the power that made him a threat in the San Antonio lineup last year. While Zapp entered the home run race between Leone and Jacobsen a little late, hitting all but one of his six homers in the last 10 games, he did lead the team in doubles with nine. Though strikeouts remain a concern, the 26-year -old is hitting for a better average, .324/.361/.568 overall in June.

Inland Empire 66ers outfielder Carlos Arroyo may not have played everyday when T.J. Bohn was still with the team, but he'll get that opportunity now and it shouldn't be unreasonable to see him in the top five in batting average for the California League throughout the rest of the year. In 18 June games, the 23 -year-old Columbian hit .371/.405/.443, leading the team in both average and hits for the month.

InsideThePark.com's Pitchers of the Month:

Travis Blackley, LHP, Tacoma Rainiers
Felix Hernandez, RHP, Inland Empire 66ers
Thomas Oldham, LHP Wisconsin Timber Rattlers


Those who listened to his debut shouldn't be at all surprised to see Blackley's name here, but the question now might as well be whether or not the 21-year-old lefty will ever need to see time in Tacoma again. Though he still maintains that he hasn't had his best stuff all year, the numbers disagree, listing him as having a 2-0 record and a 1.74 ERA in June, which again, leads all system starters for the month.

If you don't want to take that, then ask the Pacific Coast League batters, who hit only .170 off of him in June. An example of one of these performances was a seven-inning make-up game against Salt Lake on the June 17. It was a game that the Stingers would rather have not played, as they managed only two hits off of him and struck out six times as Blackley pitched the complete game.

Other games didn't net wins but were just as impressive, such as the 10-inning victory over Las Vegas on the June 7 where Blackley came in after a rain delay and went the next seven innings, allowing only one run on two hits and two walks as he struck out eight. When he finally does get his good stuff back, hitters should watch out, only this time around, Mariners fans around the country should be able to see it on TV.

Blackley signed out of Australia late in 2000 and had only been pitching about a year or so at that time, though you wouldn't know it by looking at his results. Though he wasn't necessarily considered to be an excellent signing at the time, he's exceeded expectations at every level and has the pitching knowledge to continue to do so for years to come. Blackley should stick around for a while in the majors this year and will figure heavily into the Mariners plans for 2005 and beyond.

Another start, another seven-plus strikeouts for Kid K. In fact, Hernandez didn't strike out any less than seven in any of his six June starts, had 10 or more twice, and was recording about 12.5 Ks per nine innings. The 18-year-old led all system starters for the month with 38.1 innings pitched, but most impressive were the last three starts before his promotion, when he had a 0.84 ERA and held batters to a .160 average. On June 16 against Lake Elsinore, he was one out away from his first complete game when he gave up his first run and was pulled after scattering seven hits and a walk while he struck out eight.

Against the same team five days later, he was pulled after reaching a pitch count and went 5.2 innings, allowing only two hits and a walk and ringing up 10. In his final start, a 7-3 win over High Desert on the June 26, he went 7.0 innings, allowed only one run with three hits, a hit batter and a walk. He struck out 11. California League batters won't be sad to see him go, Texas League hitters won't look forward to meeting him, and Tim Salmon might have to warn everyone else in the AL West about him sooner than you'd think.

Hernandez was signed in Venezuela by Mariners scouts Bob Engle, Pedro Avila, and Emilio Carrasquel on July 4, 2002. He didn't make his official system debut until 2003 with Everett, but he showed that he was going to move rather quickly, earning a late season promotion to Wisconsin. His combined stats for the 2003 season added up to a 7-2 record, a 2.22 ERA, and 91 strikeouts in 69 innings, all as a 17-year-old.

Oldham was putting up pretty good numbers through April, posting 1-0 record and a 1.46 ERA despite giving up a hit per inning. Then something changed that left him struggling to get through games, save for one May 17 start where he scattered five hits over seven innings and struck out 13. It turns out that everything else in May was a fluke, except that start.

Since the start of June, the 22-year-old staff ace has been pitching to the hitter and the situation, attacking the strike zone, and it's been paying dividends. While his entire month was impressive, like with Hernandez, you have to look at his last couple of starts for the best indicators that he is getting back on track. He went eight innings in both, scattering four hits and two walks with nine strikeouts against Clinton on the June 20 and he was even more aggressive against Dayton on the June 28; spreading out another four hits, walking one, and striking out 15, the most of any starter for the month. Odds are, if Inland Empire ever needs another starter through the rest of the season, Oldham is a guy that they're going to take a long look at.

Oldham was selected in the 8th round (236th overall) in the 2003 draft out of Creighton University, where he was named Pitcher of the Year in 2002. In his system debut last year in Everett, he posted a 2.86 ERA, gave up a little under seven hits per nine innings, and had an equal number of innings pitched and strikeouts at sixty-three.

Notables:
San Antonio right-handed starter Chris Buglovsky was a key part of the San Antonio rotation, until he went down with an injury for a few weeks. Since returning, he's pitched in five games, two of them starts, and only allowed one earned run over the course of 15.2 innings, walking one and striking out 16. Look for the 24 -year-old to be a key part of the Missions' second-half playoff run.

San Antonio lefty reliever Jared Thomas has been putting up some impressive numbers since coming up from extended spring training, particularly in June, when he gave up only one run in his 13.2 innings. While the peripherals of nine walks against 17 strikeouts could be cause for concern, the 23-year-old seems to know how to pitch when it counts, and helps give stability to a shaky Missions' bullpen.

Inland Empire right-handed reliever Darwin Soto is looking like he might be getting his sinking pitches under control again, a primary factor in the M's selecting him in the minor league Rule V draft. Soto only allowed one earned run in 11 innings, striking out seven and walking just two. Both are good signs for his future, but at 22-years-old, he still has a bit of time to develop and polish his repertoire.

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