SeattleClubhouse Top-50: 5-1

For the past few months, we have given you the SeattleClubhouse countdown of the Top-50 prospects, in sets of five, in the Seattle Mariners organization. The scouting notes, quotes from scouts, players, coaches and others and extended player statistics and information have been getting progressively deeper as we advance. And these Top-5 prospects' profiles are the most in-depth yet. Take a look!

Here at SeattleClubhouse, our primary goal is to give our readers exclusive information on Seattle Mariners players from the rookie leagues all the way to the major leagues. Looking beyond the numbers and using input from respected baseball resources -- as well as contributing our own input -- we are aiming to give the readers rundowns on the names in the Seattle organization that are worth tracking, and maybe even pinning some future hopes on. Our determination of where the prospects land on the list is a combination of potential ceiling, the player's likelihood of reaching that ceiling, the most probable outcome for the player and their proximity to cracking the 25-man roster.

This Top-50 compilation has involved countless hours of phone calls, texts, video review, scouting report review and much more in order to put forth our best effort at a look at the very best prospects in the Seattle Mariners system right now.

The breakdowns have come in groups of five, with eight of the 10 pieces being for SeattleClubhouse subscribers only. The complete list of names is now posted to the forums for discussion, and we'd love to hear feedback from our readers. Each player section is headed by the player's position, age (as of the date of article publishing), hitting and throwing handedness and level at which they ended the 2012 season.

This free look at the Top-5 prospects (as well as the free look at prospects No. 35-31) is just a taste of the depth that we offered up on the Top-50 this year. Subscribers can check out the complete database in groups of five by clicking on the following links for prospects:

These last five players in our Top-50 countdown represent the absolute best in Seattle's organization in terms of future ceiling and proximity to the major leagues. These prospects are valuable to the Mariners -- and their value is high as players that other clubs covet, as well -- as they eye the future. Here now are Seattle Mariners prospects numbers 5 through 1.

5. James Paxton - LHP, 24, L/L, Double-A Jackson
Regardless of whether or not he makes the big league rotation out of camp this year (my guess is he will not), James Paxton at this point has to be counted as one of the better draft picks that has been made during the current front office's time in charge. A clear first round talent (and pick) before the NCAA/Boras fight pushed him back a year, the M's stole him with a 4th round selection. He's built a resume that speaks to that talent so far, with an impressive 2.73 ERA and 10.8 strikeouts-per-nine in his 38 starts and 201 1/3 minor leagues innings for the Mariners the past two years. But even though Paxton still comes with a profile befitting a first rounder, he is perhaps the one prospect in our Top-10 here that generates the most differing opinions when asking around about his future.

The main reason for the concern stems from his command, which can escape him at times. The main reason for his command escaping him is his mechanics, which feature a back leg bend and back side lean as his hands break from his glove in the delivery, both out of the wind-up and from the stretch. He then transfers into a long front leg stride and, in all, it is a lot to keep together mechanically. The rocking motion that is created sometimes leads to Paxton completely losing the ability to locate, and the rhythm can go away for long stretches, but also from batter to batter. "He just doesn't repeat his delivery well," is what's Bernie Pleskoff told me after watching all of his AFL starts, a common detraction attributed to the 6-foot-4 left-hander. When the mechanics are right and Paxton does repeat his delivery however, there is no denying the stuff that James possesses.

Working from an ideal pitchers build with a strong lower half and long limbs, Paxton comes straight over the top with a fastball that works at 92-95 and he can get into the upper-90s when needed for a big spot. His curveball has big separation, usually working in the 77-80 mph range, and big 12-to-6 break. It also works as an out pitch and generates plenty of swinging strikes. The third pitch that Paxton needs is the circle change that he is still refining. His manager in the Arizona Fall League, Dusty Wathan, said to me back in late October, "He's working on his changeup down here, and when that comes, he's a top of the rotation guy."

It seemed that some of the command issues that plagued Paxton were cleared up following his mid-season knee injury, and I was told that Jackson pitching coach Lance Painter and others worked hard at cleaning up what was termed some "mechanical deficiencies" tied to his landing leg (the knee which was injured) during his time off. Whatever was done, it certainly worked in the second half. "Nobody was better in the Southern League during the second half than Paxton," Jackson's Chris Harris told me. "He was truly hitting his peak at the end of the season." The numbers back that up as the Richmond, BC native posted a 2.40 ERA and won six of his seven decisions after returning from the injury. And he was even better in the playoffs, striking out 19 batters in two scoreless starts covering 13 1/3 innings.

Having to sit out that one season following his junior year at Kentucky, Paxton heads into 2013 at age 24 and having not yet reached Triple-A, but a lot of that is just academic at this point. "To me, Paxton was major league ready at the end of the season," said Harris. His manager in Double-A, Jim Pankovits, told me in the past that the big left-hander, "made more progress in a short period of time than any player that I have ever had. I've never seen a kid take instruction the way he did." More praise came from one of Paxton's former coaches, Rich Dorman, who had James early in 2011 in Clinton. Dorman compared him to Andy Pettitte, a very successful left-hander with 245 big league wins to his credit. In comparing the two, Dorman pointed out their similarities in terms of build and delivery but added, "except Paxton is 98 (miles per hour with his fastball) with a hammer curve."

With his command being the only thing holding him back, Paxton truly already has big league-ready stuff. He is not yet on the 40-man roster, however, meaning that there are a few prospects in the system that could end up getting cracks at big league time ahead of him. His name also surfaces frequently in trade rumors as the Mariners continue to search for young offensive help at the big league level, but despite those two points, it is clear that Paxton is a very talented pitcher.

We had Paxton as the No. 2 overall prospect in the Mariners system at this time last year, and although he really didn't slip at all in 2012, he also didn't make any huge leaps forward while others in the organization did. Heading into 2013, Paxton seems to be slated for a rotation spot in Tacoma, but any trades made by the Mariners could have him either closer to a big league job in Seattle or somewhere else if he is the one dealt away. If he stays and starts in Tacoma in 2013, it shouldn't take long for James to find his way to the major leagues.

4. Nick Franklin - 2B/SS, 21, B/R, Triple-A Tacoma
It is true that Nick Franklin probably isn't going to be a long-term solution for the Mariners, or any team, as a starting shortstop in the big leagues. What is not true is that his value as a prospect relies on him sticking at that position. Franklin cracked Triple-A in 2012 during his age 21 season and even though the transition to the minor leagues' highest level had some bumps for Nick, he performed well enough statistically and to the scouting eye that he continues to be regarded among the top middle infield prospects in baseball. Franklin hit .278/.347/.453 with 52 extra base hits, 48 walks and 12 stolen bases in his 121 games between Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma. The switch-hitter played 69 games at shortstop and 48 at second base during the year and was named the Southern League Player of the Month for May after hitting .394/.457/.648 in 21 games there.

There were still struggles from the right side of the plate for the switch-hitting Franklin and his strikeout rate jumped from 15.9% in Jackson to 23.0% in Tacoma, but the tools that make him an offensive middle infield prospect were still readily evident as he was still in the Top-15 in the PCL in extra base hits (27) during his time in Triple-A despite only being able to scratch out a .243 average there. Franklin, who ranked 3rd on our Top-50 countdown a season ago, didn't reach the lofty home run total that he put up back in 2010 (23) when he burst onto the prospect scene, but his extra base hit total in 2012 actually matched his 2010 output while seeing nearly 50 fewer plate appearances.

Franklin is another top prospect for Seattle who's tools don't really "wow" you at first blush, but he plays the game hard and he plays the game the right way and he's always looking for any way to get an edge on his opponent on the field, be it by out-hustling or outsmarting the other team. Nick has average or slightly better tools across the board, including speed and power -- particularly from the left side where he earns raves for his easy, natural swing which generates hard contact -- and his plus baseball intelligence and his unshakable confidence allow his entire game to play up in game action. His range and arm only grade out as passable for shortstop and it sounds like the Mariners are starting to agree that second base is his best long-term home defensively, but I doubt that the club closes the door on shortstop for Franklin in 2013.

His swing and his stride can get long at times, and having watched most of his at bats in Tacoma I can say that he definitely got in trouble often from that. One Mariners staffer told me that late in the year in Tacoma, "his swing definitely got a little long. When he gets too big, he's not quite the contact hitter that he could be or should be." He also continued to struggle as a right-handed hitter, although his swing looked better there at times, even late in the year in Tacoma. Chris Harris agreed with that, saying, "He got much better from the right side in 2012."

Although the fall off in performance from Double-A to Triple-A was sizeable, Minor League Field Coordinator Jack Howell talked with me about how that type of failure isn't always a bad thing. "If they cruise along without ever having any troubles it sometimes isn't a good thing," Howell said. He continued, "It's good for them to be challenged and even fail a little bit because then you get to see how they react to those situations." The Mariners are working with Franklin to be shorter to the ball and to concentrate on not hitting so many balls in the air. "Balls in the air are outs in Seattle," Howell said to me.

Bernie Pleskoff has seen a lot of Franklin during the past two AFL seasons, and he sees Nick as a big league-ready offensive contributor. "I think Franklin has big upside and he looked extremely strong this fall, especially from the left side where he consistently drives the ball all over the park," he said. Pleskoff also added, "His quickness and baseball instincts are above average and that will enable him to steal some bases."

As most now see Franklin as a second baseman, his future in Seattle is unclear. He can handle shortstop defensively but it's hard to find anyone that thinks he could excel there or stick there long. With Dustin Ackley manning second in Seattle and Kyle Seager, also a natural second baseman, on Seattle's roster it is hard to see where the 21-year-old Franklin fits in. He could certainly be traded but the Mariners may value him more than other clubs and thus not be able to find a suitable match in terms of value for him. He is still young and not yet on the M's 40-man roster, and he honestly could use some fine-tuning at the Triple-A level to cut down on the strikeouts and try to figure out the puzzle that has been left-handed pitching. But Franklin is a quick study, and he could force the Mariners' hand one way or another at some point before rosters expand in 2013.

3. Danny Hultzen - LHP, 23, L/L, Triple-A Tacoma
Speaking of hitting some bumps in Triple-A, Danny Hultzen. Yes, it is true that Hultzen -- who was utterly dominant during his time with Jackson in the Southern League -- was not only seemingly off with his command, but also hit hard(er) in his 12 starts in Tacoma. So what led to the drop-off in performance for Hultzen? Was it simply fatigue? Was it his mechanics? Was it stuff not good enough? Most seem to agree that he likely just hit the "first-year pro" wall and that there is no cause for concern. Taking a step back and thinking logically, even with his struggles in Tacoma, Hultzen still posted a combined 3.05 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, 9.9 SO/9 and only 6.3 hits allowed per nine in 124 innings in his debut season in professional baseball and he allowed only 4.5 H/9 with a 1.19 ERA and 0.93 WHIP at the Double-A level. Hultzen -- who turned 23 after the 2012 season ended -- is still very much among the top pitching prospects in baseball.

Acknowledged by his peers by receiving the nod from minor league players as the "Best Lefty in the Minors" after the completion of the 2012 regular season, it's clear that even opposing players didn't see a chink in the armor of Hultzen with his late-season struggles. The fact remains that he was in Triple-A pitching well (the bad starts came later) within a year of signing as a professional. Hultzen has the stuff, the poise, the attitude and the desire to succeed not only in Triple-A, but on the next level -- in MLB.

That stuff on Hultzen includes a fastball that he can get up into the mid-90s but that usually works in the 90-93 range. The pitch has good arm-side movement and natural sink and it is a plus pitch already. Hultzen also throws a slider at 81-84 that flashes as a plus offering at times, but it also flattens out and gets short when he is battling his command or overthrows it. His best pitch is his changeup and that pitch generates a lot of swinging strikes and a lot of weak contact. All three pitches are thrown from a low three-quarters release and somewhat of a cross-fire delivery as Danny steps more towards the left-handed batter's box than directly towards home plate. That, of course, creates a lot of deception and makes it tough for hitters -- especially lefties -- to get consistent good looks and good swings against him.

Not all of his struggles in Triple-A can be shrugged off and the M's and Hultzen should focus on what went right in Jackson rather than what went wrong in Tacoma in my opinion. "I truly believe Danny benefited immensely from pitching coach Lance Painter," said Harris. Painter is well-respected in the organization and throughout baseball and has helped a number of the M's top prospects both during the regular season and in the Arizona Fall League in recent years. As I noted in this piece back on July 19th, pitch use and strike % is something that started to get away from Hultzen as his Triple-A starts went on, in my opinion.

I had the chance to interview Hultzen at the 2011 FanFest and his confidence and humility really stood out to me, as did his confidence. "You have to bring it every single time you're out there because there are no easy outs," Hultzen said then. He continued, "It is still just baseball, and one of the things I learned early on is that you can't let yourself get intimidated." Those words seem to be what Danny Hultzen should be living by following his late season woes in Tacoma, and I personally think he will do just that.

The rave reviews on Hultzen as a person, as a competitor and as a pitcher come out from everyone that I talk to about him. "I've been around this business a long time and had a lot of first rounders, but I've never seen anyone as polished and as focused," pitching coordinator Rick Waits told me, adding, "He's really bright, and really focused." Also on a personal note, Chris Harris chimed in with, "Danny is one of the nicest young men you will ever meet. He was a pleasure to be around." Those may just seem like fluff words offered up from within the organization, but the opinions are not restricted to those walking the company line. Everyone loves his makeup. That makeup and that personality are what is going to set Hultzen up to succeed.

With a dozen (mostly forgettable) Triple-A starts under his belt Hultzen may well force the Mariners hand this spring and make it on to the big league roster, where Seattle finds itself in need of a left-handed starter. But if he finds himself back in Tacoma (on what is lining up to potentially be a stacked pitching staff) it shouldn't be viewed as a disappointment for Hultzen. He will be in the major leagues at some point in 2013, and once he makes his debut he will most likely be a big leaguer until his playing days are over, well down the road.

2. Mike Zunino - C, 21, R/R, Double-A Jackson
The general consensus among most self-proclaimed draft expert fans -- and even some industry voices and media members -- was that the Mariners ended up "settling" on Zunino with the 3rd overall pick only because high schoolers Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton were taken ahead of Seattle's selection. Solid, not spectacular. No loud tools. Potential to be a starting MLB catcher, but probably not at an All-Star level. The bat and the defense will be good, not great, "but that is valuable", is the way it was spun a lot around Twitter, the internet and the Sports Networks. Following a fantastic debut season during which Zunino hit .360/.447/.689 while slugging 13 home runs while throwing out 43% of attempted base stealers in just 44 games at two levels, everyone is singing a little different tune about his future now.

The son of a former minor leaguer and current pro scout for the Reds, those regular season numbers by Zunino were accumulated at Everett (league best 1.210 OPS while he was there) and Jackson (10th best mark of .974 OPS while he was there). Zunino also went on to hit well in the Southern League playoffs (.379/.471/.828 in 8 games) and in the Arizona Fall League (.288/.337/.463 in 19 games). All of those numbers are to point out the obvious; his bat appears to be much better than "good" or "decent". In fact, I had Bernie Pleskoff and one scout that watched Zunino in the Southern League tell me the same thing; "Zunino is THE impact player in that system." And Pleskoff and his AFL Manager, Dusty Wathan, both stated to me that Zunino's bat, "is going to carry him."

The right-handed hitting Zunino has some of the pure abilities that lead to power being his best tool from a grade standpoint, generating good loft and backspin to all fields from his wide stance, strong arms and hands and quick wrists. His power plays to all fields and while he hits a good amount of fly balls, he also stays on plane enough to generate line drives frequently enough. Being a catcher with the prototypical catcher's build (6-foot-2, 220 pounds, strong thighs and wide shoulders) he isn't a fast runner, but he's athletic enough that his speed isn't a huge detraction. Defensively he gives a great target, frames the ball well and has a quick transfer, release and strong, accurate arm, but sometimes his footwork gets away from him on throws.

"Mike is a sturdy, blue-collar, talented defensive receiver with extra-base offensive potential," Director of Amateur Scouting Tom McNamara said of Zunino when his signing was announced. "He is a winning player, and will be a good fit with the Mariners. We are excited to have him join our organization and working his way towards being part of our Major League club in the future." Mike is a very take-charge type of leader that teams covet in their catchers and he has a, "very advanced understanding of game situations. He's very mature and very fundamentally sound," as Jack Howell told me. Chris Harris had great things to say about him, too. "Jumping onto a team that was labeled as one of the most talented in baseball isn't easy, no matter how good your pedigree has been," Harris said, referencing the Jackson team that garnered a lot of press prior to the 2012 season. Harris continued, "I really wondered how he would mesh or fit in with the Generals. Those questions were erased pretty quick. He became a vocal leader almost from the beginning. His ability to take coaching and learn from teammates was impressive. Mike is a truly humble kid that a lot of scouts compared to Buster Posey."

But for everything that he does right, Zunino does still have some work to do as a professional. He allowed nine passed balls in just 31 starts behind the plate during the regular season and struggled with that issue in the AFL, too. "He still needs some work with footwork and blocking balls," Pleskoff said after seeing him in Arizona. Mike also struck out 20 times in 19 AFL games, where the pitchers had better raw stuff than he was used to seeing throughout the regular season at both Everett and Jackson. Both of those numbers make it likely that Zunino will start 2013 in the minor leagues, even though his bat could be a huge boost to the Mariners' big league lineup.

Needing a little refining, Zunino -- depending on how Spring Training goes -- could even start 2013 back in Jackson, working with pitching prospect Taijuan Walker. If he picks up hitting where he left off, he could move up to Tacoma -- to team with Hultzen, Paxton and Brandon Maurer once again -- very quickly to test his mettle against the highest level of minor league competition. I don't expect the challenge to be too much for him there, either, and would be surprised if we aren't seeing Zunino in Seattle come July. And judging off of the success he had in 2012, he would immediately rank pretty highly among the best overall catchers in the American League at that point.

1. Taijuan Walker - RHP, 20, R/R, Double-A Jackson
While Zunino's position scarcity gives him a boost in our rankings, the ranking of Taijuan Walker at No. 1 in our countdown of the Top-50 prospects in the Mariners organization comes down to one thing: ceiling. Plain and simple, he has the ability to reach the loftiest of heights in baseball -- that of a true No. 1 starter. An Ace. And even though the right-hander just turned 20-years-old near the end of the 2012 regular season, he is already in the upper minors for Seattle, perhaps just a few months away from making his major league debut.

The pitching tools for Walker -- whom the Mariners selected with the 43rd overall pick in the 2010 draft out of Yucaipa High School in California -- are phenomenal. His demeanor, poise, maturity and professional approach to the game help make him special. Pitching most of the 2012 in Double-A as a teenager, Walker's final numbers are solid if unspectacular: 7-10, 4.69 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and a 2.36 SO/BB ratio in 126 2/3 IP. But walker entered June with a 2.23 ERA in his first nine starts before hitting a bit of a wall and posting a 9.15 ERA during that month. He ended the season with his worst start of the year on September 2nd, allowing eight runs (seven earned) over 3 1/3 mostly erratic innings, but he did strike out seven hitters in that outing. And then in the playoffs, Walker allowed only one earned run in two post season starts for Jackson (12 2/3 IP, 10 H, 1 ER, 4 BB, 13 SO).

As for scouting Walker, former resident prospect expert Frankie Piliere offered up this breakdown following Taijuan's outing at the 2012 Futures Game: "Taijuan Walker is what I like to call a prototype. His frame, delivery, arm action, and arsenal are what you look for in a front end right-handed starter in the big leagues. His command has to catch up with everything else, but the framework he showed at Kauffman Stadium was quite impressive. Working at 94-96 mph and touching 97 with his fastball, Walker is going to be able to miss bats in the big leagues, as he couples that heat with a big 74-76 mph breaking ball."

That is a pretty good quick rundown of Walker, but it doesn't tell the whole story. That plus velocity that he achieves is very easy as he has a deliberate motion with the ball just exploding out of his hand because of his great arm speed. He gets good, late arm-side run on the fastball when he stays on top of it and keeps his arm in-sync with his body during his delivery and also has, "really good angle because he gets on top of his fastball so well," as Rich Dorman told us last season. His curve was much better and more consistent in 2011 than it was in 2012, but that may work out to be a blessing in disguise because it forced Walker to focus more on refining his changeup and the 89-92 mph cutter that he added to his arsenal during this past year. Both of those pitches show plus potential, giving Walker four potential plus pitches at his disposal. His command and mechanics aren't always great and he is still very new to pitching overall, but he typically keeps the ball down and he also understands how and when to add and subtract for effect. Above all of these tools, Walker has the added benefit of being the best athlete on the field whenever he steps on the mound, something that cannot be said often for pitchers. And tying into that athleticism and his multi-sport background, Walker has a very competitive streak in him.

As for the mid-season struggles, Walker seems to understand what was wrong. "Lately I've been a one-pitch pitcher. I need to show my curveball," He said. "Hitters in Double-A can hit a fastball. I need to be able to show I can throw a curveball for strikes." Those statements speak to the maturity and understanding of pitching that this former basketball star has. That and his quiet confidence -- something that was very evident in his interview with me last January -- are other pluses for Walker.

I had Walker at No. 4 on this list a season ago, and while he may not have taken the statistical steps forward in 2012 that some would've liked, in watching video of him and getting reports from on the ground on him, it is clear that he is a much better pitcher now than he was at this time last year. The comps that people offer up on him -- from Dwight Gooden to Bob Gibson -- speak to the rarity of the heights that he could reach with his ideal frame and power arsenal. Although it is very real that we could see Walker return to Jackson to start 2013, that shouldn't be seen as a negative. Again, his age and his newness in concentrating on baseball simply must be taken into consideration, and he was pitching in high school just three summers ago. Wherever he starts in 2013, I would be surprised if he isn't in Seattle before the end of this coming year. The Mariners are obviously high on Walker, and so are we here at SeattleClubhouse.

That ends our second annual look at the Mariners' Top-50 prospects. We hope you enjoyed the extended looks at 50 players to keep an eye on for the Mariners. Be sure to check out our breakdown on the entire system at the links above and be sure to stay tuned throughout the 2013 season as we track the ups and downs of every prospect in the Mariners' system. We look forward to doing this all again for you at the end of 2013!

Looking for more Mariners prospect scouting reports, rankings, interviews, news and articles? Want to keep up with which prospects are hot and cold for the M's? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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