Usually when spring starts to scrape the cold from the top of the outfield grass, and the warm air creeps up and bites baseball in the behind, the season has already set the tone for the balance of the summer. Long before any of Minor League Baseball's mid-summer classics begin to tally votes to determine their game's participants, most of the young stars that will don the star-scattered uniforms are already known commodities among their respective organizations.
There are, however, always a few minor leaguers who fly under the radar and suddenly explode onto the scene, creating a stir that stamps their names into minds of scouts around baseball.
The 2004 baseball season has definitely had its share of surprises, and within the Mariner farm system there have been some of the most pleasant surprises in several seasons.
Here are the Top 10 most surprising prospects in the Seattle Mariners farm system so far this season.
10. Jason Mackintosh, LHP, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
One of many minor league free agents the M's picked up to prove very worthy of a roster spot. Used as a reliever for most of the year, Mackintosh has made three quality starts en route to a shiny 2.65 ERA in 15 appearances.
9. Bobby Livingston, LHP, Inland Empire 66ers
It's not a surprise that Livingston has been successful this season, but it is somewhat surprising that he has shown the dominance he has thus far. Barring his last few outings, Livingston has toyed with the California League with his control and pitching intelligence. The 66ers ace is 6-2 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts for Inland Empire. The 21-year-old has walked just 10 batters in 73.2 innings.
8. Rich Dorman, RHP, San Antonio Missions
Dorman was good enough with the Inland Empire 66ers that he was first in line for a callup to Double-A San Antonio. The 25-year-old is 4-2 with a 2.60 ERA in 52 innings combined at the two stops. After spending all of 2003 as a reliever, Dorman has made the transition to starter very nicely.
7. Cesar Jimenez, Inland Empire 66ers
Jimenez entered 2004 as the secondary left-hander in the 66ers bullpen. After two months he has pulled even with fellow southpaw Miguel Martinez, and even made a solid spot-start this week to open some eyes. Just 19-years-old, Jimenez's future role is yet to be defined but his 180-pound frame may not allow for the workload of a starting pitcher. Either way, his command and solid pitch arsenal should provide for a strong relief career for Jimenez. The Venezuelan is 2-3 with a 1.99 ERA in 15 games. His 25 strikeouts and just four bases on balls is an impressive ledger.
6. Ryan Feierabend, Wisconsin Timber Rattlers
The 18-year-old's six wins rank him third in the Midwest League and is the youngest starting pitcher in the league's top 10 in both wins and innings pitched. Feierabend leads the Timber Rattlers' rotation in victories, innings, and ERA. The left-hander is not blessed with a 95 MPH fastball but has the frame and smooth delivery to increase his velocity and develop into a top starting prospect. Feierabend is 6-2 with a 3.60 ERA in 10 starts for Wisconsin.
5. Dustin Delucchi, San Antonio Missions
Delucchi just runs out onto the field every night and performs. Nothing flashy, nothing eye-popping. But after two months of play, the 26-year-old is tearing the cover off the ball to the tune of a .335 average, ranking him fifth in the Texas League. Delucchi also ranks fifth in hits with 65, and in on-base percentage at .413. Delucchi constantly has a lengthy hitting streak intact and leads the Missions in multi-hit games with 17.
4. T.J. Bohn, Inland Empire 66ers
Bohn's 2004 season is really the natural step that we should have expected but since he played last season in the Midwest League, it was too difficult to gauge. The pitcher's league boasts large ball parks, frigid early season weather, and usually consists of players a few years younger than Bohn so his numbers were impossible to evaluate. This season, the 24-year-old has caught the attention of scouts who once said he was limited offensively and didn't have the athletic skills to play center field. They were wrong. Bohn leads the world in outfield assists, playing primarily in center. The bat has produced a .425 on-base percentage, which is fifth in the California League. Bohn leads the team in home runs with six and is second in RBI with 30.
3. Jon Nelson, OF, Inland Empire 66ers
Nelson made the move from 1B to the outfield and his bat has reaped most of the reward. After hitting just .254 in his first two pro seasons, Nelson is currently hitting at a .316 clip and has not lost his power stroke. The 24-year-old has five home runs and 28 RBI on the season. Don't let the 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame fool you. Nelson is second on the team in steals with 11 and has two triples to his credit.
2. Jesus Guzman, 3B, Inland Empire 66ers
Guzman was added to the 66ers' roster in late April and has done more than anyone could have expected, especially with the stick. After being signed out of Venezuela in 2001, Guzman played three seasons in the Venezuelan Summer League and caught the eye of the Mariners last summer after a strong showing with Aguirre. The 19-year-old is hitting .316 with a homer and 12 RBI in 31 games with Inland Empire. The advanced plate patience he is showing has produced 19 walks in 137 plate appearances and his ability to hit from both sides bodes well for both Guzman and Mariner fans that long for young position players.
1. Juan Gonzalez, SS, Inland Empire 66ers
Gonzalez was originally just thought of as a mid-tier throw-in added to the Carlos Guillen trade with the Detroit Tigers. Foolish, foolish people we all were. Gonzalez has lit up the California League like a Vegas Christmas tree, and is showing no signs of slowing down. The 22-year-old shortstop is hitting .340 with 26 RBI and 12 steals, serving as the lead-off hitter for the 66ers. The organizational leader in hits with 69, Gonzalez has been the straw that stirs the proverbial drink of the Inland Empire offensive attack. The switch-hitting Venezuelan has a bright future ahead of him, one that could include a move to 2B where his offensive skills are more suitable.