The turn of the calendar in baseball marks a logical spot to check in on the top performers, and that's just what we do here at SeattleClubhouse, offering a monthly look at our opinion on the top performances (pitchers and/or hitters) turned in at each level of the Seattle Mariners' organization. With the first month of the minor league season in the books and all four of the club's full-season affiliates in action, here is our first of those looks.
Clinton Lumber Kings
Marcus Littlewood - C: .379/.455/.569 (22-58), 5 2B, 2 HR, 7 BB, 11 SO
The assignment to Clinton for a second straight season and third time overall had to be a bit of a disappointment for Littlewood, no 22, but Seattle's 2nd round pick in 2010 hasn't let it negatively affect his play on the field as he's currently putting together his most consistent streak of quality plate appearances at any level as a pro. The switch-hitting catcher ends April leading Clinton in AVG, OBP and OPS (1.024), coming in just .002 behind Burt Reynolds for the club lead in SLG. More importantly, Littlewood has really improved in his biggest area of weakness; the strikeout. He entered this year with a career 26.0% strikeout rate, but that number has dropped all the way down to 16.7% so far in 2014. And that has come without sacrificing power or patience (10.6% extra base hit and walk rate so far), Marcus' two strongest tools as a hitter.
Take this early strong start with at least a little bit of a grain of salt, though: Littlewood is now in his fourth season and he hasn't yet left Low-A ball. Part of that can certainly be attributed to his position switch to catcher (which looks to be a clear success, by the way -- he's earning very good reviews from everyone on his play as a catcher and he's throwing out better than 40% of baserunners this year), but if he had been hitting better the last two seasons he certainly would not still be at this level. With higher rated full-time starter guys like Tyler Marlette and John Hicks ahead of him, Littlewood has a tough road ahead in terms of promotions and playing time. But if he continues to hit like this and show signs that his plate discipline and swing-and-miss issues have improved, the Mariners will find a place for him to play against appropriate competition.
High Desert Mavericks
Gabriel Guerrero - OF: .340/.383/.519 (36-106), 7 2B, 4 HR, 7 BB, 31 SO 3-5 SB
Guerrero started the 2014 campaign on absolute fire in the desert for the Mavs, and while the pace has slowed a bit for the right-handed hitting outfielder, the overall body of work for this first month in High-A ball was a resounding success for the 20-year-old. The power is still very raw and isn't consistently showing up in game action in terms of home runs, but Vlad's nephew had a stretch of 41 plate appearances dating back to last August where he hit five home runs. Gabriel has connected for only one home run in his last 14 games and has 21 strikeouts in that time, but he has a current 10-game hitting streak in which he's collected four extra base hits.
Guerrero is also killing left-handed pitching, hitting .560/.593/.720 against them in (an admittedly small sample size of) 27 plate appearances. That trend is encouraging as he hit just .225/.241/.324 against them last year. Strikeouts will be a part of his game because of his aggressive nature, which is exacerbated because of his age and inexperience, but perhaps the issue that should be garnering more attention here in the early going is that nearly all of his production is coming in Adelanto at the launching pad that is Heritage Field. Guerrero is slugging just .327 in 13 road games on the season versus .725 at home. There is growth that needs to happen, but Guerrero's start and age warrant his recognition as the Mavs' player of the month for April.
Jabari Blash - OF: .262/.418/.512 (22-84), 6 2B, 5 HR, 22 BB, 24 SO, 4-4 SB
Blash -- who was the clear pick for Generals' player of the month last August, too -- picked up where he left off to open 2014 for Jackson, pacing the club in a number of categories and the entire Southern League in home runs (5), walks (22) and runs scored (19). Blash was clearly the best offensive player for Jackson during the duration of his stay there. Chris Harris told me that Blash's impact reminded him of Mike Zunino's impact during his short stay with the Generals on his way to the big leagues. Blash was seeing a lot of breaking balls in the Southern League but rarely expanded the zone to chase. And when he got a pitch to hit, he delivered; to the tune of 11 extra base hits and 20 RBI.
Jabari is an impressive athlete, with long limbs and a strong build and impressive speed and quickness for a player his size. That helps him on the bases and in the outfield, although he could still sharpen up some of his routes. Blash ended April by going 0-for-5 in his Triple-A debut for Tacoma last night, but his combination of plate discipline and power figure to make a big impact with the Rainiers soon. And with the Mariners' outfield very much unsettled, it isn't out of the question that he could end up getting a shot to make an impact in Seattle soon, too.
Chris Taylor - IF: .364/.394/.566 (36-99), 10 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 6 BB, 18 SO, 5-6 SB
Taylor had a lot of hype to live up to, entering this year as the organization's reigning Minor League Player of the Year. And while a lot of his surprisingly big offensive numbers came in the California League last season, he more than held his own in Double-A Jackson, too, and is showing so far that Triple-A pitchers aren't too big of a challenge for him, either. He had his second career two-homer game a few weeks ago against Sacramento and has 11 multi-hit games already on the year. Despite not being seen as anything of a power hitter, Taylor is tied for the organization lead in extra base hits (with High Desert's Patrick Kivlehan) with 14. He's hitting right-handers at a .381/.413/.607 clip, all while playing his customary strong defense at both shortstop and second base.
Taylor's walk rate is all the way down to 5.5% in the early going after being at 12.5% for his minor league career and 13.5% last season, but his strikeout rate is still a very manageable 16.5%. Chris has also swiped five bags in six attempts and used his speed to take extra bases on a number of occasions. Robinson Cano, Brad Miller and Nick Franklin complicate his future for Seattle a bit, but the former 5th round pick is cementing his place as one of the top prospects in the Mariners' system.
We'll check in monthly in this manner with our pick for player of the month at each level, and -- of course -- will have continuing coverage from players at all levels throughout the season. So stay in touch with SeattleClubhouse for thorough coverage throughout the year.
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