Here at SeattleClubhouse, our primary goal is to give our readers exclusive, in-depth information on Seattle Mariners players from the Foreign Rookie Leagues all the way to the Major Leagues. Looking beyond just the numbers and typical website resources and using input from our own respected baseball contacts to help develop our own unique ranking, we are aiming to give the readers rundowns on the names in the Seattle organization that are worth tracking for 2014, and maybe even pinning future MLB hopes on. Our personal taste plays into the determination of where the prospects land on the list; a combination of potential ceiling, likelihood of reaching that ceiling, the most probable outcome for the player and their proximity to cracking the 25-man roster all factor in heavily.
Each player covered in these posts is presented with a headshot (when available), their 2013 position, current actual age, handedness, listed height and weight as well as the last level which they played at in 2013. Discussion/updates, etc., to these lists and prospects will be posted in the subscriber section of the Forums. Please respect the confidential nature of the subscriber posts.
This is the sixth set of five of the best prospects in the organization for the Seattle Mariners. The first five sets, covering prospects number 50 through 26, can be found at the following links:
As we break into the top half of the Annual SeattleClubhouse Top-50 Countdown of the best Mariners prospects, the reports are going to get a little more in-depth. My hope is that you will get to know these players a bit more through this series. Enjoy!
O'Neill was Seattle's 3rd round selection in the 2013 draft and they signed him away from an Oregon State commitment, then he was assigned to the Arizona Rookie League shortly after his 18th birthday. There the right-handed hitting outfielder hit a solid if unspectacular .310/.405/.450 in 28 games, and despite only hitting one home run, he posted the 10th highest OPS of the 130 players with 100 or more plate appearances in the circuit even though he was battling a balky throwing arm all year. A player who has always been compared to Brett Lawrie -- an easy comp as they came out of the same region and same travel program in Canada -- O'Neill is a converted catcher that played all over the diamond for the Langley Blaze as he recovered from a hernia. The Mariners announced him as an outfielder when they drafted him and he saw all 17 games of defensive action this year in left. But the physically mature youngster nicknamed 'Tank' who is the son of a former Mr. Canada will be carried by his bat.
That bat still has a ways to go, but O'Neill's already shown the type of potential in there while playing for the Canadian Junior National team and with the Blaze. "He's very raw," said Mariners' Minor League Field Coordinator Jack Howell, "but I'm impressed with the leverage in his bat." Indeed, O'Neill boasts impressive plus bat speed and showed well in several home run contests as an amateur, and the power figures to be at least plus as he matures. A Mariners fan who frequented Safeco Field with his family as he was growing up, Tyler got a chance to hit in front of the team in late June when he was in town to sign and reportedly reached the upper deck in left field a few times. And he told me just before that time that he was excited about the opportunity to play for his favorite team: "I want to be one of those guys that brings the younger kids out to watch them play and get them to love the game." Tyler left the AZL M's before the end of the year and wound up being named a tournament All-Star for the 18U World Cup competition, where he led the event in home runs for team Canada.
Despite being an obvious weightlifting enthusiast, O'Neill is quick and athletic and adapted well to the outfield, where he has the potential to have a plus arm as he gets back to full strength. As mentioned above, his bat speed and power give him the potential to be an above average hitter with above average power down the road, too. He's an aggressive hitter but he does have good pitch recognition in him. He is just 18 and has only 28 games of professional baseball under his belt, but because of the differences in youth baseball in Canada, he's already played against some pretty advanced competition and traveled extensively, so he should have no trouble adjusting to pro ball. Look for O'Neill to be in Everett to start of 2014, where he'll continue to work on improving his plate discipline and work on tapping into his power more consistently during game action.
Marte posted an OPS of "only" .687 in 2013 -- his 19-year-old year -- across two levels of play, but the difference in his approach and the success he had throughout the season was a huge step forward for him in his third season in Seattle's system. He posted career high marks in nearly every offensive category, but perhaps most importantly of all of those, he played in 117 games, seeing just under 500 plate appearances and nearly doubling his career numbers in those two areas. That exposure really allowed Ketel to mature as a ballplayer and become more comfortable at the plate, and he hit .340/.366/.433 in 46 second half games for Clinton. His bat got so hot that he tallied nine straight multi-hit games for the LumberKings -- hitting .634/.667/.780 and collecting 26 hits in those nine games -- towards the end of his stay in the Midwest League.
On that point, Howell said of Marte, "he's a classic case of what can happen for a kid when his maturity and confidence kicks in." Indeed, Marte seemed like a different player with a completely different approach in 2013. While he was in Everett in 2012, I saw him often and was disappointed in his approach at the plate as he often seemed content to weekly slap the ball the other way to try and get on. That changed this year as he consistently drove the ball. And while there were only 23 extra base hits (4.6% XBH), Marte was hitting hard line drives, swinging with authority much more often in 2013. And it shouldn't be forgotten, this kid is a slick defender, too. "He can stick at shortstop," Howell said, and while his defensive numbers don't exactly jump off the page at you, and there are still areas that need improvement, his smoothness, range and arm strength all impress in in-person looks. "I think the jury is still out on where he ends up [defensively]," an AL East scout told me, "but with all of that athletic ability there will be a lot of options."
For all of that praise and the obvious talent, Marte is still young and has some development in front of him. Most glaring is in his plate discipline. While Marte has struck out in just 11.9% of his career plate appearances so far, he's also walked in just 5.7% of them -- only 3.8% in 498 plate appearances in 2013. So he is clearly helping pitchers out by putting pitches in play that he should lay off of. The body is going to mature still, too, bringing with it some more strength and natural power, although Marte won't ever become a power hitter. He has above average speed but stole only 19 of 30 bases in 2013, a low percentage that obviously needs to be improved on if that is going to remain part of his game. And on the defensive side of things, Marte needs to clean up the mental mistakes and those that come from trying to be too flashy. He has tremendous upside and took a major leag forward in 2013, but 2014 could really be the big development year for Marte -- a year in which he could see Double-A.
Hicks struggled at the plate tremendously in 2013 for Jackson, hitting just .236/.301/.331 in 80 games for the Generals after hitting .312/.351/.472 in 121 games in 2012 for High Desert in his first full pro season, seeing his extra base hit total dip from 49 to 19 and posting an OPS nearly 10% below the league average. But to his credit, the 2011 4th round pick didn't let his tough times at the plate carry over to his defense, where he continued to be a valuable asset behind the plate. "The job that he did behind the plate was unbelievable," Harris told me. "The beating he took behind the played no doubt affected his offensive numbers," Chris said, "but he was a guy that constantly played through pain and minor injuries." The defense that Hicks has shown as a catcher has been a huge reason for his profile as a prospect to watch in Seattle's system. His defense helped the Generals allow the fewest stolen bases as a team (64) among all Double-A teams for the year. The 24-year-old has thrown out better than half (111 of 220) of the runners that have attempted to steal against him in his 215 games behind the plate as a pro.
Hicks' throwing and athleticism behind the plate that make him a plus defender are going to be his ticket to the major leagues, but his bat will determine whether or not he can see significant time as a starter for an MLB club. Mariners' scout Mike Moriarty, who scouted and signed Hicks, told me that he thinks that John could even adequately handle first base defensively because of his athleticism. For all the struggles that he endured as a hitter in 2013, there were still some positive trends. He posted a career best 6.7% walk rate and kept his strikeout rate at an acceptable number, whiffing in 19.0% of plate appearances. Hicks -- who I ranked 15th on this countdown a year ago -- also continued to show good speed and baserunning for a backstop, following up a 22 steal year in 2012 with 13 (in 17 attempts) for the Generals, again ranking second among all minor league catchers in steals in 2013.
Hicks is a strong, mature athlete, looking very much the part of a catcher from a physical appearance standpoint. He has a solid swing, with the bat staying in the zone a long time as he extends. The right-handed hitter is more of a gap hitter than a power hitter and he has just average bat speed, but he can muscle up on balls to the pull side at times. Double-A messes up a lot of hitter's progression paths, and Hicks did have that happen to him a bit this past year. Look for him to start off back in Jackson to open 2014, but if he can get back on track at the plate he is a very good candidate to be up in Tacoma quickly in 2014.
Choi was just outside my Top-50 a year ago as he played about half of a season at Low-A Clinton after missing all of 2011. But although the award went to Chris Taylor, Choi hit very well at three levels in 2013, making his case for Mariners' Minor League Player of the Year with the 14th highest OPS (.929) among qualified full season minor leaguers. Having moved out from behind the plate, more attention is being paid to his bat the past few years, and Choi has responded to that in impressive fashion, hitting .296 with a 10.5% extra base hit rate the past two years. He climbed from High-A to Triple-A in 2013, hitting a combined .295/.394/.535 with 60 extra base hits (including 18 home runs), 63 walks and only 68 strikeouts on the year, showing a very impressive overall offensive package. In fact, no stateside minor leaguer with more than 300 plate appearances had a higher OPS that could match Choi's low 13.6% strikeout rate.
"You know what they say about guys that hit," Howell said to me, implying that Choi definitely has a big league future in his eyes. He pointed out that Choi had improved at every level and also mentioned that, despite being a bit undersized, he's a good first baseman defensively. "He's a better first baseman than people think -- he's agile and athletic." So athletic in fact that he actually got into four games at third for the Mavericks during his time there. He's unlikely to be able to play third going forward, but he is handling first base well. And now that the bat has come along, too, the 22-year-old looks like a better prospect now than he ever has in his development. Howell summed up his take on Choi like this: "He's going to have a 10-plus year big league career." Choi made an impression on Jackson's announcer Chris Harris, too. "Choi during the three months he was in Jackson was the most clutch player on the roster," said Harris. "He came up with big hit after big hit and his power numbers translated from High Desert. And Harris backed up what Howell said about his defense, too, saying, "his ability with the glove on defense surprised me."
Choi was a solid catcher before the back injuries forced him from the position, but the fact is that he has hit .309/.411/.511 in 1,002 career minor league plate appearances, and that plays anywhere. And Harris -- who saw all of Choi's 61 games with the Generals -- was very impressed with the hitter that the 'G-Man' is, saying, "He might have one of the purest swings I've ever seen. He is one guy that when he takes batting practice it's almost like watching a golfer repeat the same swing over and over." That same swing repetition drove line drives all over the park at a 19.4% rate in 2013. Choi has just average home run power potential, but the rest of the offensive package could very well make Howell's prediction come true. Added to the 40-man roster this fall, he'll be in big league camp in 2014, likely heading to Tacoma to be their regular first baseman to open the year.
Blash, who was drafted three times in four years, is another player who had a strong case for Minor League Player of the Year in the M's system with his performance in 2013, leading all Seattle minor leaguers in home runs with 25 and posting a .915 OPS in 109 games between High Desert and Jackson in his fourth season in the organization. He ranked ninth in the organization in total bases (203) and walks (60) despite playing in only 109 games. The big right-hander also stole 15 bases again and in all he set personal bests in hits, homers, RBI, AVG, SLG and OPS. While I had been given words such as "uninterested" and "half-hearted" about his efforts at times in the past couple of years, this season everything seemed to come together as Blash -- who ranked 35th on the SeattleClubhouse Top-50 a season ago -- finally had production on the field that equaled what his talent hinted he could accomplish.
"He broke out for us," Howell said. "He's a smart hitter, and he started to learn to set up patterns and took advantage of that knowledge. He works hard, too." Harris echoed the sentiment of a breakout for Blash, saying, "Blash was a superstar with the Generals the final month of the season. He never gave away at-bats and is up there with Mike Zunino as far as the impact he had on our lineup late in the season." And it isn't only his performance on the field that caught Harris' attention, as he also said of Jabari, "His personality and charisma honestly made him one of my favorite players to come through Jackson."
Blash's biggest tool is his easy plus power, which plays all the way around to right center. He is very strong and can hit the ball a mile when he squares it up, something that he was doing more regularly as the 2013 season wore on. But power isn't Jabari's only tool, as he also boasts a plus throwing arm, decent range and average speed -- a great package for such a big athlete. In fact, Scout's own Kiley McDaniel rated Blash as the number one position player prospect available prior to the Rule 5 Draft in December, and a few outlets agreed that Seattle was lucky to have slipped the non-rostered outfielder through. Until this past year, consistency was where Jabari came up short. If he can move forward in 2014 with the improved consistency and plate discipline that he showed this year -- especially during August in Jackson -- then the big leagues aren't that far away for Jabari.
That does it for our look at prospects number 25 through 21 for the Seattle Mariners. Check back next Monday as we break into the top 20 in our annual countdown of the best prospects in the system, and stay in touch with SeattleClubhouse for more details about the Top-50 and all things Mariners-related leading up to the 2014 season.
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