Minor League Players of the Year Power Rankings

Cabrera's Glove is Top Drawer (Photo/Max Waugh)

As the 2005 season winds down and many big names get the call to the big leagues, those still in the minors are battling for bragging rights and statistical supremacy over their fellow Mariner farmhands. InsidethePark.com takes a look at which minor leaguers are in the lead to win the organizational awards in September.

Offensive Player of the Year

1. Chris Snelling, OF - Tacoma
Snelling accomplished quite a bit this season in his stay with the Tacoma Rainiers. Three of which would have won gamblers a lot of money - had they bet against the odds. The 23-year-old stayed healthy for the first time EVER. He showed no signs of rust whatsoever after missing the better part of two seasons with injuries to his knee and wrist, and he hit .370. Amazingly, the .370 part was the least surprising.

Snelling was recalled on August 5 for the third an final time of the season, but left the Pacific Coast League as the league's second leading hitter and ranked third on on-base percentage and 11th in slugging percetage. Snelling led the Rainiers in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and was third in doubles and home runs while ranking second in RBI.

The M's top position prospect mixes the plate discipline and batting eye of an Edgar Martinez with Raul Ibanez type power from the left side of the plate, and adds in Randy Winn's range in left field with an arm of a good center fielder.

2. Adam Jones, SS - San Antonio
Jones hit well in the California League for 68 games and earned a promotion for his .295/.374/.494 performance. Instead of showing the expected struggles of a 19-year-old in Double-A, Jones did more than hold his own with the Missions. The M's top pick in the 2003 draft is hitting .307/.361/.464 in the Texas League and boasts a .299/.370/.484 line for the season. His 45 extra-base hits (12 home runs) are a good starting point for his developing power.

Further improvement in the strikeouts-to-walk ratios could slide Jones into the top echelon of five-tool prospects. The newly-turned 20-year-old can also steal a bag and his defensive shortcomings are correctable. Jones is a legit prospect.

3. Bryan LaHair, 1B - Inland Empire
LaHair has exploded this season, his first full professional campaign. The 6-foot-5 first baseman is on a hot streak since May and has turned his decent season into a potential career-making year. The 22-year-old is taking full advantage of the hitter-friendly California League and is seventh in the circuit in homers with 19 (tied with teammate Wladimir Balentien) and second in RBI to probable minor league player of the year Brandon Wood from the Angels farm system.

LaHair does swing and miss too much, but he has improved his ability to draw a walk. The M's have talked of shortening LaHair's stroke a bit in attempt to limiting the strikeouts but his power may take a hit in that scenario. LaHair is a run-producing, left-handed hitting first baseman who may project as a C-level prospect right now - but with more improvements in the Texas League in 2006, could climb that ladder and become a major-league possibility.

Analysis: It's going to be tough for Jones or LaHair to catch Snelling, even though they will have an extra five weeks to put up numbers with Snelling in the big leagues. Jones has an outside shot if he were to get hot and hit a few more long balls while keeping his strikeouts down and his on-base percentage up. But Snelling is going to be tough to beat.

Notables: OF T.J. Bohn (SA)- .310/.368/.477, 12 HR, 30-2B, 57 RBI, 26 SB, OF Mike Wilson (Wis) - .272/.358/.475, 16 HR, 26-2B, 73 RBI, 9 SB, OF Sebastien Boucher (Wis/IE) - .339/.424/.479, 4 HR, 23-2B, 4-3B, 44 RBI, 17 SB.


Pitcher of the Year

1. Felix Hernandez, RHP - Tacoma
Hernandez was simply sensational from day one this season. From his dominant starts in the first few weeks of the season to his unbelievable outing in which he allowed just one run in a game where Tacoma and Colorado Springs combined for 28 runs and 35 hits, to his relief stints that produced even more sickening numbers for the 19-year-old.

Hernandez left the PCL last week with a league-leading 2.25 ERA - which led the league by nearly a half a run over the second-place Kevin Jarvis (2.70). Despite missing five weeks of starting assignments due to bursitis in his right shoulder, Hernandez still ranked eighth in the league in strikeouts (100) at the time of his promotion.

2. Bobby Livingston, LHP - San Antonio/Tacoma
Livingston surprised many and rolled through the Texas League,leading the league in ERA at 2.86 prior to his promotion on July 14. Livingston has held his own in Triple-A, without lighting the world on fire, but clearly needed the new challenge after putting up quality starts in 15 of 18 outings with San Antonio.

The 22-year-old continues his solid work, giving up just 24 hits in 25.2 innings in Tacoma, and recording nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks (17-9). The M's fourth round pick in 2001 has allowed eight home runs in his 23 starts, just one in five starts in the PCL.

3. Jeff Harris, RHP - San Antonio/Tacoma
Harris started his season at Double-A San Antonio and the 31-year-old dominated with a 5-0 record and a 2.11 ERA. After just 34.1 innings, Harris was sent to Triple-A Tacoma to continue his work - and he did just that.

Harris was called up on August 2, but not until he went 5-2 with the Rainiers with a 2.90 ERA in 15 games. The right-hander combined to go 10-2 with a 2.62 ERA in 26 games, 10 starts.

Analysis: Nobody is catching Hernandez for the honors, but a both Harris and Livingston can be caught if a few of the notables finish strong.

Notables: RHR Emiliano Fruto (SA/Tac) - 2-4, 3.09 ERA, 67 IP, 12 Sv., 63 K, 22 BB, Craig James (Wis/IE) - 2-1, 0.83 ERA, 43.1 IP, 13 Sv., 44 K, 8 BB.


Defensive Player of the Year

1. Yuniesky Betancourt, SS - San Antonio/Tacoma
Betancourt dazzled the Texas League for half the season, then dazzled in the MLB Futures Game in Detroit. But the Cuban wasn't done. The 23-year-old flashed the leather in Triple-A Tacoma until his bat proved better-than-advertised and the M's called him up to the big leagues. Betancourt's defensive prowess is unparalelled in the system, and is one of the best defensive middle infielders in the game.

Great hands, flawless footwork, plus range and a solid throwing arm give Betancourt the tools to make a living at shortstop at the next level.

2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS - Wisconsin/Inland Empire
Cabrera is as close as any club in baseball could come to matching Betancourt's advanced glove work. The 19-year-old Venezuelan could handle either middle infield spots in the majors right now and has no fear at third base as well.

Cabrera may turn out to be the more consistent offensive performer of the two defensive wizards, which should be enough for him to supplant Jose Lopez at second base by 2008. Until then, Cabrera's solid arm, great range and hands and advanced footwork will continue to get better as he moves through the system.

3. Rob Johnson, C - Wisconsin/Inland Empire
Johnson edged fellow catcher Rene Rivera and outfielder Shin-soo Choo for third in this catgeory by ending his stint in Wisconsin as the best defensive backstop in the league, as voted on by the circuit's managers.

Adept at working with pitchers and solid in the catch-and-throw department, Johnson's defensive skills outshine his offensive work, which stands to earn him a shot at the big leagues in a few seasons. Johnson's B-level throwing arm and skills to block pitches in the dirt, combined with his overall understanding of his job behind the plate, make the Montana native a legit catching prospect.

Analysis: Betancourt and Cabrera are simply stellar in the field. Betancourt makes fewer erros but is four years Cabrera's senior. The two could very well team up for the M's in the future, but for now, one of them will surely win this award at season's end.

Notables: LF Shin-soo Choo (Tac), 2B/SS Oswaldo Navarro (Wis), C Rene Rivera (SA/Tac).


Rookie of the Year (First-Year Pro)

1. Yuniesky Betancourt, SS - San Antonio/Tacoma
Betancourt's glovework is well-documented but his offensive skills are not to be dismissed. The 23-year-old hit .283 at two stops in the minors and tallied 35 extra-base hits in 101 games, including seven homers and nine triples.

Betancourt is still learning to hit, but has done well on the fly and produced at a satisafactory level. He can also steal a bag here and there, ending his minor league season with 19 swipes.

2. Sebastien Boucher, OF - Wisconsin/Inland Empire
Boucher started the season on the practice field in Peoria, waiting for an assignment to one of the affiliates. On April 28 Boucher was sent to Wisconsin to help the struggling outfielders. Two months later, the Canadian was hitting .326 out of the leadoff spot and was promoted to Inland Empire.

Boucher has since caught fire, after simply heating up in the Midwest League. The 23-year-old is hitting .357 since the call-up and has a combined .470 slugging percentage to go along with four triples and 17 steals.

3. Luis Valbuena, 2B - Everett
Valbuena, 18, is showing advanced plate skills for a teenage hitter in the Northwest League. The left-handed hitting Venezuelan boasts 24 walks to just 20 strikeouts in 47 games this season - 44 with the AquaSox.

Valbuena has shown some pop in his bat, as evidenced by his team-leading six home runs. The 5-foot-10, 170-pounder is a solid basestealer, though he lacks the raw speed that could lead to sustained success in that area. Defensively, Valbuena is adequate and has a strong throwing arm.

Analysis: Betancourt's presence in the big leagues could allow for Boucher to overtake the Cuban for best first year pro. If the outfielder stays hot, this could get interesting. Valbuena's disadvantage is that he has played just half the season.


Breakthrough Players of the Year

1. Bryan LaHair, 1B - Inland Empire
LaHair showed some power last season in his time with the Everett AquaSox and in his first few weeks with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers. But the last half of the year, LaHair struggled hitting for power and struck out 60 times in his final 56 games in the Midwest League.

This season the strikeouts are still prevalent to an extent, but the power has surged over the past two months and the 21-year-old is proving to be worthy of an open eye. His 19 home runs are second in the organization (Richie Sexson has 27) and his 91 RBI are tops in the entire system.

2. Marshall Hubbard, 1B - Wisconsin
Hubbard may battle LaHair for a spot on the Double-A Missions roster at midseason in 2006, but for now he'll settle for being the T-Rats best hitter. Hubbard burst out of a slump in May and has sustained a .294 average to go with 15 home runs and 62 RBI. Perhaps the most important stat for Hubbard is the 50 walks he has drawn in 88 games played. The 23-year-old currently has a .503 slugging percentage and his 74 strikeouts are high, but not alarming.

Hubbard should excel in the California League next year - just as LaHair has done.

3. Mike Wilson, OF - Wisconsin
Wilson was the M's second rounder in the 2001 draft and until this seasonhad hit just 12 home runs in 114 games.

Wilson is finally starting to put up some numbers and his 16 home runs lead the Timber Rattlers. The 22-year-old also leads the club in RBI with 73 and in doubles with 26.

Analysis: LaHair probably has this locked up with the gaudy numbers he's putting up in the California League of late. Hubbard may turn out to be the better prospect, but it will be tough for him to catch up to LaHair's numbers during the season's final month.

Notables: 1B Reed Eastley (EVE) - .297/.458/.465, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 25 BB, 20 K, RHR Emiliano Fruto (SA/Tac) - 2-4, 3.09 ERA, 67 IP, 12 Sv., 64 K, 24 BB.
Jason A Churchill is the Executive Editor at InsidethePark.com and can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsideThePark.com

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