Following the graduation of a number of key components within the Mariners’ farm system, the stock of talent in the minor leagues is as thin as it’s been this decade.
Much of the depth of the past several years sat in the low-to-mid minors in the form of Chris Snelling, Shin-soo Choo, Felix Hernandez, Jose Lopez and Rafael Soriano.
Void of more than half the talent present in last year’s top 10, thanks to a rebuilding team who robbed Triple-A Tacoma of more than 30 players over the past two seasons, the M’s are basically starting over.
With the exception of Choo, Snelling, Travis Blackley and 1999 5th round pick Clint Nageotte, the top talent has been acquired since the end of the 2002 season.
Most of the talent is young, several years away and are without blue-chip status. But alas, the fridge isn’t bare. There are a few ice cold “drafts” brewing down in the bottom of the ice box.
From Triple-A to the complex leagues in Arizona, The Mariners have some solid outfield depth. With top talents of Choo and Snelling to the raw tools of Michael Saunders and Oswaldo Graterol. There could be as many as six potential big-league outfielders scattered throughout the organization.
Snelling, 24, is the clear-cut best hitter in the system and still draws some comparisons to the likes of Lenny Dykstra and Tony Gwynn. Snelling’s inability to stay off the disabled list is the only negative factor in his development.
Choo, 23, remains a five-tool player waiting for the right opportunity, but still has the physical skills to become a regular in the big leagues. More power is necessary for that to happen in Seattle anytime soon, but a second season in Triple-A may allow for the Korean native to polish his plate skills.
Saunders, just 18 all of last season, possesses solid tools across the board, including potential plus power. Shortening his swing is a must, but solid potential is there for the left-handed hitting right fielder, who also displayed a strong throwing arm and the instincts to become a plus defensive outfielder.
T.J. Bohn, a 30th rounder in the 2002 draft, has taken it one step at a time since being taken 1200th overall three summers ago. The 25-year-old has blossomed into a solid defensive center fielder with a plus throwing arm. Offensively, his raw power remains untapped, but Bohn has displayed strong natural instincts on the bases and is an asset with the glove. When his bat catches up to his other skills, Bohn becomes more than useful to the M’s.
In the 2004 draft, the M’s dialed up Canada for Sebastien Boucher. After spending half of ’04 working on his visa problems, the speedy Canuck took the system by storm. With solid leadoff skills and better-than-average defense in the middle of the outfield, Boucher, 23, is on the fast track. His ceiling is likely as a fourth outfielder, but think Mark McLemore, Dave Roberts and Coco Crisp – not Charles Gipson.
The bad news is that Wladimir Balentien is a one-tool player. His power potential is unrivaled in the system, but his other skills lack the potential to be anything but average in the major leagues. The good news is, the 21-year-old’s power is indeed legit – with a catch – and this is where the bad news comes into play once again. Without better strike zone judgment, Balentien’s 30+ homer potential will be wasted.
The outfield crop got a big boost when 2003 first rounder Adam Jones made the transition to center field late in 2005, and into the Arizona Fall League. Jones, 20, is among the top few talents in the entire system and is expected to have few problems developing defensively after the move from shortstop.
Offensively is still the area where Jones could make his mark. Blessed with superior raw tools, Jones may develop 25-homer power to go with average or better plate skills, better than average speed and a plus throwing arm. If incumbent Jeremy Reed doesn’t bloom in 2006, it maybe Jones’ job to lose in 2007.
Halman began the season in Peoria as a 17-year-old, which is intriguing enough considering his numbers. The 6-foot, 4-inch right-handed hitter has some pop in his bat and could open some eyes in the years to come.
Others to Watch: Oswaldo Graterol, Mike Wilson, Jeff Flaig, Carlos Arroyo, Jon Nelson, Jamal Strong, Jairo Hernandez, Eddy Hernandez and Casey Craig. Craig is the most gifted of the bunch and simply needs to stay focused with on and off the field issues to maximize his opportunities.
Craig is a potential regular with the stick, but 2006 is critical for his development.
Closest to the Majors Shin-soo Choo and T.J. Bohn. Snelling would reign here if it weren’t for knee surgery that will keep him out too long to be considered.
Best Overall Talent Adam Jones. You don’t improve from the Cal League to the Texas League at 19 unless you are a special talent.
Best Overall Hitter Snelling. He could step into a big-league lineup today and hit .280/.350/.450. But you could have said that about him three years ago, too.
Best Overall Defender Bohn. Choo is solid in left with a great arm but Bohn’s play in center is more than solid. Besides, Bohn can throw, too.
Best Hitter for Power Balentien. Choo, Snelling and Jones are next.
Best Throwing Arm Choo throws more people out from left than Bohn or Jones will from center, so he gets the nod – for now. His accuracy improves each year.
Fastest Baserunner Boucher. Capable of 30 steals, bunt singles and scoring from first on any double, Boucher is the fastest base runner.
Once an empty cupboard is now with solid depth. June’s top pick Jeff Clement leads the pack while Rene Rivera already has two stints in the majors. It’s not out of the question that 2004 fourth-round choice Rob Johnson peaks his head into the M’s catching equation in the next few years.
Clement’s power bat vaults him to the top, as does a work ethic and positive attitude that clubs look for in a backstop. Catching coordinator Roger Hansen will have a close eye on Clement and is a major factor in his development.
Rivera is a defense first catcher, but may become at least average offensively, creating a place for himself in Major League Baseball.
Johnson may be the dark horse of the group. Skilled defensively and the owner of decent offensive tools, the Houston product has a big-league future behind the plate.
With better than average quality at the top, the catcher’s position survives, even without much depth to speak of after Clement, Rivera and Johnson.
Organizational types such as Luis Oliveros, Justin Ruchti, Chris Collins and J.B. Tucker fill roles, some of them very well. Tucker has decent offensive and defensive tools and could skate through to the upper minors behind his leadership skills and work habits.
Rookie leaguer Curtis Ledbetter and two-year veteran Daniel Santin are unlikely to stick behind the plate, though both have decent bats. Santin has an outside shot to develop major league caliber offensive production from the position, but he may need to move to first base as early as 2006.
Others to Watch: Kevin Gergel, Brian Schweiger.
Closest to the Majors Rivera. The former second rounder has two stretches of big league time under his belt and showed he is one worth keeping around.
Best Overall Talent Clement. When your offensive potential is so high that scouts and front office executives often refer his MLB timetable as “as soon as his defense is about average,” you know the word ‘premium’ fits the bill.
Best Overall Hitter Clement. He may be ready to hit in the bigs right now.
Best Overall Defender: Johnson. This is no surprise, since he was drafted as a glove man. His offense is better than expected.
Best Hitter for Power Clement. The USC product has Posada/Varitek type offensive potential – maybe more power.
Best Throwing Arm: Rivera. Johnson is gaining quickly with good footwork and a great understanding of how to handle the running game. But Rivera is a slight notch up today.
The arms sit third in the pack due to depth, and despite any surefire big-league starters in the group. The injury to lefty Travis Blackley robs the club of a potential No. 3 or No. 4 starter and the King made his debut last summer.
Clint Nageotte may get another shot to start, but his future may still be in the bullpen, as is with fellow right-hander Yorman Bazardo, acquired from the Florida Marlins in July.
Bobby Livingston is still a year or two away and may need to make some mechanical adjustments in order to maximize the velocity on his fastball. Translation: There’s only one Jamie Moyer in this world – Livingston needs to top out.
The depth in the bullpen is a key factor for the club’s pitching depth. With J.J. Putz and Rafael Soriano entrenched on the 25-man roster, Scott Atchison, George Sherrill, Cesar Jimenez, Emiliano Fruto and Jeff Heaverlo are still holding up the walls out of the bullpen.
Atchison and Sherrill will likely exhaust their prospect and rookie status sometime during the first half of 2006 while Fruto, Jimenez and Heaverlo do their thing in Triple-A.
Atchison could easily fill the role currently manned by Julio Mateo, as could Clint Nageotte. Atchison, 29, has done nothing but impress in his short time in Seattle – as has Sherrill. Both deserve spots and have the stuff to be successful over the long haul.
Fruto needs more time in Tacoma, but may have better stuff than any current M’s reliever with the exception of Soriano. The 22-year-old may close for Tacoma next season in preparation for a major-league gig in 2007.
Heaverlo has a rubber arm, and that’s an accomplishment in itself, especially considering he had surgery two years ago. Ignore his full-season numbers, Heaverlo was terrific during the final 100 games of the PCL season. If he cleans up the control and further develops his change-up, he has big-league stuff.
Renee Cortez was recently placed on the 40-man roster, protecting him from the Rule 5 draft. Why, some may ask? For starters, the right-hander was reaching 97-mph during the latter stages of last season and minor league pitching coordinator Pat Rice loves what he sees in Cortez. Could be a future short-inning reliever.
Nageotte has found a way to pitch, rather than throw. His two-seam fastball-slider combo makes him a prime candidate for setup work, but he may be capable of starting games and avoiding massive pitch counts with his pitch-to-contact approach.
Bazardo has been clocked at 98-mph with his fastball as recent as August 2004, but sat in the low 90s for most of ’05. He, too, has stuff that strongly suggests that the bullpen is where his future lies, but his breaking ball and change-up have potential that could keep him in the rotation.
Jimenez has decent stuff but as a relief prospect his arsenal lacks an out pitch that most one and two inning arms have. It may behoove both Jimenez and the M’s to insert the 21-year-old into the starting rotation in Double-A and get quality innings out of his change-up before the 7th and 8th inning.
While he lacks the technical status as a rookie-to-be or a prospect, Jesse Foppert may provide the M’s with their best chance to get long-term rotation help from the minors.
As Foppert, 25, recovers from Tommy John surgery, the M’s hope the winter rest allows the return of his velocity that once sat consistently in the 92-96 range.
Southpaw Thomas Oldham could make the jump to Triple-A in 2006, rounding out the candidates closest to the majors.
In the lower levels, a slew of southpaws and a few choice righties litter the starting rotations, starting with a trio of 2005 draftees.
Fourth-round left-hander Justin Thomas, fifth-round righty Stephen Kahn and eighth-round southpaw Robert Rohrbaugh all showed why they were snatched up and signed quickly by the M’s.
Kahn possesses potential closer stuff with a low-to-mid 90s heater and a power curve ball. His command needs fine-tuning but Kahn could move quickly into the M’s bullpen with slight improvements in all areas.
Thomas has better stuff than Rohrbaugh but lacks the consistency, at least in 2005 in Everett. Rohrbaugh cruised in starting role while Thomas’ arm was rested with bullpen work. Both have the pitches to develop into a back-end of the rotation starters.
Left-hander Paul (Robert) Fagan was impressive in short-season last summer, posting strong ground ball to fly ball ratios, though the 20-year-old struggled with his control at times. Fagan could sit in the low 90s with his fastball when the kinks in his delivery are all ironed out.
Lefty Ryan Feierabend was knocked around to the tune of a .311 BAA last season, yet managed to post the league’s second best ERA. Luck? Sure, some. But the 19-year-old used a much-improved off-speed arsenal to post a 3.22 ERA in the second half of the season, while allowing just a .266 BAA in the hitter-friendly California League.
Feierabend may repeat the league, but if his breaking ball shows enough life in spring training, the M’s could have a 20-year-old pitching in Double-A San Antonio on opening day.
Right-hander Edgar Guaramato put things together for a strong relief season, though his future still may be as a starter. The 20-year-old showed signs of dominance by striking out more than a better per inning and inducing a large amount of ground ball outs. Guaramato is one to watch in 2006 and could be a breakout candidate.
Right-hander Jason Snyder entered 2005 as one of the more promising young starters in the system, but suffered through a tough start then giving way to a shoulder injury before mid-season. Snyder, 22, still possesses a 90-93 mph fastball and a potential plus curve ball. His change-up is improving and will be key to his advancement past the California League.
Left-hander Shawn Nottingham was injured for much of 2005 as well, curbing the development of the 21-year-old. Armed with a solid change-up and two decent breaking pitches, Nottingham could push his way toward the top of this list with steady command.
Others: Mark Lowe, Mumba Rivera, Ryan Rowland-smith, Francisco Cruceta, Mike Flannery, Nate Mateo, Chad Fillinger, Eric O’Flaherty, Lance Beus, Sean Green, Cha Seung Baek, Marwin Vega, Chia-an Huang, Julio Santiago, Rich Dorman, Craig James, Jon Lockwood.
Closest to the Majors Sherrill will begin the year in the M’s pen, followed by Atchison. Nageotte is the starter closest to the bigs, but his role in Seattle may not be in the rotation just yet.
Best Fastball Nageotte’s two-seam offering along with Cortez’s high-octane stuff are very intriguing. Kahn can dial it up beyond 95 at times.
Best Slider Nageotte. Still a great pitch when he’s on. A fully-recovered Foppert puts up a nice challenge here.
Best Curve Ball Kahn and Dorman come to mind first, though Dorman didn’t get his command under him until being demoted last August.
Best Control Livingston is the starter with the best control. Lockwood, James and Jimenez in the pen.
Best Overall Arsenal A healthy Foppert – by far. Justin Thomas may surprise many once he’s rested. Nageotte isn't far off.
The Mariners were once rich in middle infield prospects but are now void of more than one they can count on to make the majors at some point. The disappointments of Michael Garciaparra’s health record, the injury to Ismael Castro, the graduation of Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez and the position change of Adam Jones have depleted the two positions.
What remains is a defensive wiz with average offensive skills at shortstop, an all-hit, little field second baseman with one short season under his belt, an all-around athlete that has yet to develop the punch in his bat, and a defensive wiz with below-average offensive skills at second.
Asdrubal Cabrera can field the position, and while his bat isn’t ready to dazzle anybody, he does have above-average strike-zone judgment and a little more pop in his bat than he’s shown. He’s a few years away, but if his bat can catch up some, he’ll challenge for a big-league job in 2007.
Oswaldo Navarro and Luis Valbuena are the top two second baseman in the system, since health has removed Garciaparra and Castro from strong consideration. Navarro has plus defensive skills, can also play short, and his bat is developing as he mature physically. He could be a useful fifth infielder in three years.
Yung-Chi Chen can run, field, throw and is adept at making adjustments with the bat. But he’s yet to put all of those skills together and posted the offensive numbers the M’s thought he was capable of when they signed the Taiwanese star. He has yet to have a bad season, but 2006 might be a make or break year for his prospect status. Could be Navarro’s double-play partner at Inland.
Valbuena has pretty solid offensive potential, though his power totals are skewed by the mega-short porch in Everett Memorial Stadium. The questions arise with the 19-year-old’s defense and his physical stature.
If he answers the conditioning concerns and improves his range and footwork he has a chance to advance quickly.
Garciaparra seems to have turned a corner offensively as he learns to play second base. The 23-year-old had his finest year as a pro in 2005, and even displayed a little bit of pop from time to time.
Castro, like Valbuena, is built like Carlos Baerga – seemingly too big for second base. While the Colombia native catches everything he gets to, his range is mediocre and his future is probably as a utility player at best. Offensively, he lacks the power to play third and he doesn’t appear to have the athleticism to move to the outfield.
Matt Tuiasosopo is unlikely to stay at shortstop in 2006: More to come on this front.
Others: Dean Zorn, Juan Guzman, Jeffrey Dominguez, Ron Garth.
Closest to the Majors: Cabrera. He’ll probably start ’06 in San Antonio, but he’s certainly the most likely to move quick.
Best Hitter for Average Cabrera. Solid approach + good stroke + confidence = solid results.
Best Hitter for Power Valbuena. A pretty solid stroke covers up some of the other holes in his approach. But he’s young.
Best Overall Hitter Cabrera. He’s the most likely candidate to succeed beyond Double-A.
Fastest Baserunner Garciaparra. Not a blazer or a great base stealer, but when he’s 100% he runs well and can swipe 20-25 bags a year.
Best Overall Defender Cabrera. While Navarro is solid in his own right, Cabrera is simply outstanding. He wowed the crowd and the opponents in the postseason in Triple-A Tacoma. There isn’t a play he can’t make. Just a step below Betancourt in the range department.
Best Throwing Arm Garciaparra has the arm strength that Cabrera does but Cabrera can make every throw and his accuracy is beyond that of any of his peers.
The biggest weaknesses in the entire system, position wise, is first and third base. While Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson figure to hold down their jobs for the next three or four seasons, wouldn’t it be nice to have a backup plan?
Well, the M’s may have one at the hot corner, but first and foremost, the depth is awful at both spots.
Thomas Hubbard and Bryan LaHair are the crème de la crème at first, while Jesus Guzman, Hunter Brown and Ronald Prettyman lead the third base crop.
Hubbard and LaHair have decent power potential, but neither possess the blue-chip, middle-of-the-order run producing type capabilities that clubs want in their first base prospects.
Hubbard grades out slightly better in most categories, but LaHair is building on a huge 2005 season that placed him second in all of the minors in RBI before leaving the team for Olympic duties.
LaHair should head to San Antonio in ’06, while Hubbard mans first in the hitter-friendly Cal League.
After LaHair and Hubbard, the pickens are slim, or so says the song. Bryan Sabatella, a 2005 draftee, possesses the best power tools while Triple-A incumbent Aaron Rifkin is simply an organizational player, but with decent defensive skills and sufficient Triple-A offense.
Sabatella, 21, along with Hubbard and LaHair, are the only hope within the system for the M’s at first.
Guzman lacks the power to project as a third baseman and he may move to second in 2006. Prettyman is a plus defender but has little time to develop offensively. The 23-year-old may run out of time and top out in Double-A.
Brown had a fine season in Tacoma in ’05, leading some to wonder what he may have done had be been playing regularly all season. Posting an .814 OPS after such a slow start is impressive, especially in the PCL. He led the team in doubles with 30, despite receiving just 380 plate appearances. Brown’s future is probably as a utility player, but it’s a role he can handle if given the chance.
Tuiasosopo is expected to make the transition to third base next season with the Inland Empire 66ers. While he committed the same numbers of errors as the defensive-minded Navarro, Tui lacks range and footwork to play the shortstop position, but does possess the arm strength and athleticism that may make him a solid defender at the hot corner.
While some still believe he belongs in right field, he’ll get a shot to stay in the infield next spring while he continues to develop offensively. The M’s are seeking more power from the 19-year-old next season, especially hitting in the dry air of the California desert.
Closest to the Majors: Brown. But not as a starter. LaHair and Hubbard have outside chances. If Tui sticks at third, he has a chance to start in the majors.
Best Hitter for Power: Hubbard, then LaHair and Tuiasosopo. Tui’s power is still developing, but he could explode in his first full year not played in the Midwest League. Pray for a Brandon Wood-like launch, but an Adam Jones-style improvement would suffice.
Others: Andy Hargrove, Reed Eastley.
Best Hitter for Average Hubbard. Hitting .297 in the Midwest League is tough to do, and an OPS of .883 is even tougher. Despite LaHair’s season in Inland Empire, Hubbard showed the most potential in this area.
Best Overall Hitter Hubbard.
Best Overall Defender Both LaHair and Hubbard can play first fairly equally. Slight edge to LaHair. Prettyman is a natural at third and Brown can play both spots at above-average levels.
Best Throwing Arm Prettyman at third – smooth, accurate and better than average strength. Tui’s arm may play well at third.
Up Next: Positional Rankings: 1B/3B, 2B/SS - November 30