Here at SeattleClubhouse, our primary goal in covering the Seattle Mariners is to give our readers exclusive, in-depth information on players in the organization from the foreign Rookie League teams all the way to the Major Leagues. We do this by looking beyond just statistics and typical web resources and using direct input from the Mariners' Player Development Staff -- including Chris Gwynn, Tom McNamara and Tim Kissner, among others -- and other respected baseball contacts from outside of the organization to help develop our unique set of rankings. The aim is to give the readers rundowns on the names in the Seattle system that are worth tracking for the coming season and maybe even pinning future MLB hopes on. SeattleClubhouse's personal taste and scoring plays into the determination of where the prospects land on the list, too; that is 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, but also age, level, tools, etc. are weighted.
This pre-2015 countdown is 50 deep, building off of the truncated post-season Top-35. Things have changed since that report, even in the Top-5, so this report will be much different as it is a fresh look with completely up to date late- or post-season input. The reports will be thorough for all players covered, but they'll get more in-depth as we climb towards the top of the heap. And while three of the ten pieces will be free for anyone who visits the site, the other seven will be subscriber only.
Each player we cover this year will be presented with a photo (when available) and bio info as well as the level at which they ended during the 2014 regular season. Players who have finished their age-26 season and those who have exhausted their Rookie status per Major League guidelines are not eligible for consideration. Discussion in the forums is welcome, but until the entire Top-50 is released for all (after the individual pieces are finished), please keep discussion on the information from subscriber pieces in the subscriber forums.
The Post-season Abbreviated Top-35 can be found again here, and the previous reports from this year's Top-50 can be accessed via the following links:
Here we go with the first group in the Top-20, prospects 20 through 16:
Int FA, '08
Still just 22, Morban is a veteran of these Top-50 countdowns here at SeattleClubhouse, but after coming in at No. 8 on last year's list, Morban's struggles on the field in 2014 dropped him back down below the No. 16 ranking I pegged on him following the 2012 season. It was evident pretty early on that 2013's season-ending broken leg injury was simply too much for him to come back from at the start of the season. "He just wasn't ready early," said Gwynn. And although his 2014 season produced slugging percentage almost .200 points below the number he combined for in 2012 and 2013 (.322 to .500), me, the Mariners in general and Jack Howell specifically are definitely still believers. "He's still one of the best pure bats I've ever seen in a Latin kid. Just chalk this year up to the injury." The caveat remains the injury bug with Morban. And almost every injury that he's had -- and there have been a number of them -- have been to his lower half. So what are Morban and the M's doing to try and curtail that? "We've had him really working on flexibility and durability," over the off-season, Howell said. Which, to be fair, is very similar to what they told me prior to the season, too.
The numbers that Morban put up on the year -- .248/.309/.322 in 237 plate appearances -- are indicative of something not being right with Julio, and the obvious culprit to point to is the lingering injury. After posting an ISO of .237 and an extra base hit rate of 10.6% in High Desert in 2012, he followed up with a .173 ISO and a 9.8% XBH% in 2013 in Double-A in 2013. But those numbers were just .061 and 4.6% in 109 PAs with Tacoma in the hitter friendly PCL this past season, with that ISO number being the 12th lowest figure in the league of the 260 hitters who had 100-plus plate appearances. And that was with Morban's strikeout rate hovering around 30%. Even in June and July while the lefty was back in Jackson, he hit just .252/.307/.339 for an .087 ISO and 5.5% extra base hit rate at the Double-A level.
At the plate, Morban hits from an open stance, has a quiet load, fantastic hands, plus bat speed, solid power and -- despite the plate discipline stats -- good bat-to-ball skills. But he gets himself into bad counts and into trouble by being over aggressive at the plate; a trait not uncommon to players from the Latin countries. That has led to his career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 3.72:1. He played a few games in center again last season and saw a bulk of his time in right, but without any true plus defensive skills (and the always present injury concern) Julio likely profiles best as a left fielder. If he manages to bounce back in show the type of production that he put up prior to 2014, the sole hill left to climb for him is turning in a healthy, 400+ PA season. If Morban can finally do that in 2015, a role in Seattle isn't that far away.
8th rd, '13
In his first season in the system in 2013 down at Rookie Level Pulaski, Smith did enough to be recognized as the No. 41 prospect on this list in late-2013. Just one calendar year but three minor league levels further along the line this time around, Smith cracks the Top-20. An 8th round selection by the M's out of Oregon State, where he was an integral part of that perennially ranked program, Smith started 2014 off by seeing probably much more playing time with the big club in spring than anticipated, going 8-for-14 in 13 games with three extra base hits and earning the respect of the coaching staff. That led him to jumping up the organization's depth chart at shortstop and starting his first full year in the system at High Desert. After a somewhat slow start for the Mavs (.689 OPS in 24 games in April), Smith didn't have an OPS under .816 in any of the remaining months there and wound up with an .806 OPS in 108 games before he was promoted (as part of an organization-wide carousel started by Willie Bloomquist's injury) to Double-A Jackson. There he hit a very strong .271/.414/.386, walking more than he struck out and picking up 6 multi-hit games in 20 total games played there as a 22-year-old. When the year had wrapped, Smith ranked second in the organization in walks and was ninth in the system (250+ PA) in wOBA at .387. Oh yeah, did I mention he played shortstop?
Smith played 110 of 120 games defensively this past season at shortstop, and while he doesn't have blazing speed or a huge arm, he plays all out there and his defensive skills play up because of it. Similar to his offensive game, Smith gets his value as a "sum of the parts" prospect much more than a one- or two-tool guy. Chris Gwynn likes Smith's overall game, telling me that the best way to describe what he does to him is, "Smith is a kid that just knows how to play the game. He works hard and he gives you his all, in the field, at the plate and on the bases." Smith's minor league slash of .294/.387/.433 through his first two seasons is nothing that can be ignored when it is coming from a player with real defensive value, and his 11.2% walk rate is among the best in Seattle's system over the past two seasons, too.
Smith hit 2nd in the order 87 times last year, and with his combination of plate discipline, gap-to-gap, linedrive approach and baserunning prowess, he really profiles well there as a hitter. And, again, while he doesn't blow you away physically, he can definitely still play a very solid defensive shortstop at this point, so you can bet he'll stay there for now. It's likely that Tyler opens 2015 back at Double-A Jackson, where he ended 2014. And with three young players ahead of him on the organization's depth chart at shortstop (Miller, Taylor and Marte), the big leagues aren't calling him right now, but he could prove to everyone that he's ready for a look by the time 2015 is over, and either enable the club to make a move with one or more of the guys ahead of him or himself make a nice piece in a trade.
3rd rd '14
Short Season Everett
Cousino was selected 80th overall by Seattle in the 2014 draft out of Kentucky, and the three-time USA Baseball National Team member showed a lot of promise in his debut pro campaign with Short Season Everett. The left-handed hitter come out of the gate hot, reaching base multiple times in eight of his first 14 games and hitting .295/.353/.410 in his first month of pro ball. He walked only seven times his Junior season with the Wildcats, but Austin drew walks at a solid 9.1% rate with Everett and walked 11 times in 13 games at one point in late-July when he was looking his most comfortable at the plate. His 23 steals were good for fourth best in the NWL and tied for seventh best in the organization, and Cousino's defensive reputation also looked to be well-earned, as he also showed very good speed and plus range in starting 62 games in center field for the AquaSox. Although he hit leadoff most of the time for Everett, he ranked in the top-10 in the league in extra base hits and total bases when the season had wrapped, showing that his bat does have the ability to play.
The left-handed hitting Cousino hit well against left-handed pitching, managing a .281/.352/.422 slash in 73 plate appearances against them, and while he did strike out at a higher rate against southpaws (21.9% to 16.1%), the rate wasn't enough to be troubling. That is a pretty small sample size, for sure, but since he is lacking any true standout skills other than speed on the offensive side, Cousino will need to keep working hard at that part of his game to try and avoid being labeled as a platoon guy too early in his professional career. Cousino's numbers don't look overly impressive at first blush, but he had a 5-for-42 stretch in mid-August that really pulled his overall season numbers down, but outside of that Austin was a .293 hitter for Everett. And he still ranked in the top 40% of the league in OPS even with the rough couple of weeks factored in.
Again, any discussion of Cousino's profile has to start with talking about his defensive abilities. He's a plus runner with a solid arm in center but he shows great instincts, gets fantastic jumps and seems to turn it up a notch with his closing speed, enabling him to make several diving catches for Everett. His swing got a little long at times and he definitely lacked patience in stretches, but when he's going right Austin has line drive, gap power and uses the whole field, as the above graphic shows. He'll move to full season ball in 2015, with more of a chance to overcome the slumps that can pull numbers down in Short Season ball, and his combination of speed, defense and somewhat quiet pop is sure to be a fixture at the top of Clinton's lineup.
Int FA, '08
Playing in Seattle's system since 2009 without many noticeable stretches of performance to speak of entering the year, Lara enjoyed a massive breakout in his age-23 season for High-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson in 2014, culminating in being named as Co-Minor League Player of the Year by the Mariners at season's end and now finding himself in our Top-50 countdown for the first time. The monster numbers at High-A have inflated a number of Seattle prospect's status in the past, but Lara picked up multi-hit games in one-third of his outings at Double-A after being promoted and did so while basically maintaining his plate discipline and extra base hit rates. Following the minor league season, Lara played in the Dominican Winter League and hit .298/.441/.553 there, further cementing himself as a prospect on the rise. And after leading the minor leagues in hits last year, Lara is still working hard to improve his game.
A raw, overly aggressive hitter that didn't have much of a plan early in his career, Lara has improved by leaps and bounds in that phase of his game and has struck out in just 16.2% of his plate appearances during the past two seasons, and that number was just 13.8% in his 33 games played at Double-A. That improvement is what has enabled Jordy to push his game to the next level, but it hasn't come easy. "He had some struggles early on in his career, but Lara is an extremely hard worker and he's very confident in himself," said Gwynn. That confidence finally paid off in 2014, and it wasn't just a High Desert mirage. THe right-hander hit for a better average and posted a better OBP on the road while in the Cal League and while he did slug 14 of his 22 homers at home, he still slugged .589 away from Adelanto. Lara played only first base, right field and DH'd in 2014, but he isn't completely without defensive abilities. "I still think that he could play some third," said Howell. "He's absolutely got the arm for it, and you hate to waste that." For what it's worth, Lara did post his best defensive statistics at third in 2013.
Third base is probably not in the primary plans for Lara going forward, but having that option in his back pocket is a good chip for Seattle to get him a full season worth of plate appearances. Even though he has just over a month of action in Double-A under his belt, those PAs will likely come almost exclusively at Tacoma in 2015. Although he figures to mostly see action at first base and in an outfield corner, Lara does have good athleticism and familiarity with the infield which could both enable him to work himself into being at least an average defender at first and in the outfield. While there have been many prospects that crushed for the Mavs over the past few seasons, Lara hit extremely well on the road and continued to produce in the middle of the order at Double-A. He also could still add some weight and strength to his frame, meaning that his power -- which is mostly to his pull side in the over-the-fence department -- could grow as a hitter even more. If Seattle finds themselves with a need at first base, where they do look a bit thin on the big league roster, Lara's name will be among the first mentioned.
4th rd, '11
Hicks, who played Little League with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and still has a good relationship with him, bounced back from a down 2013 in a big way this last year, reaching Triple-A and handling himself quite well behind the plate and at it. Seattle's fourth round pick in 2011 out of Virgina where he played with a number of other recent M's draft picks, Hicks ranked 23rd a season ago and 15th the year prior on our annual countdowns. Hicks spoke with me and others at FanFest about the changes that enabled him to regain his form at the plate in 2014, "After 2013 I went out to Arizona at the end of the year and hit every day with Lee May and Roy Howell, worked on some things, getting in my legs. Really worked on my balance and staying in my legs. That stuff helped me out a ton, and I worked on it through co-op. Then I continued to work on it throughout the off-season with a family friend who owns an academy back home, and I just felt much more comfortable at the plate this year because of that."
That comfort led to John tying his career best number for OBP (.351) while setting a new career high with an 8.4% walk rate. He also mashed left-handed pitching in his limited looks, slashing .364/.417/.500 in 72 PAs combined between Jackson and Tacoma against them. Hicks also continued to make strides behind the plate, becoming a better receiver according to some of the pitchers who I spoke with throughout the year. The 25-year-old has thrown out 47.6% of attempted base stealers in his four pro seasons so far, too, and his strong arm, quickness and athleticism are all plus for a catcher. As I covered previously, the scout that signed him -- Mike Moriarty -- told me that he thinks John could adequately handle first base defensively if needed. Gwynn echoed that to me, saying, "Hicks is really athletic and he's still developing into an ever better defender behind the plate." And John himself talked with me about parts of his defensive game that he's still working on, saying, "I'm still working on being calm behind the plate, getting more strikes on those close pitches."
At the plate, Hicks is a mature-bodied, strong hitter. He has plus power to his pull side but hits a lot of line drives all over the park with a level swing that stays on plane throughout the zone well. He has surprisingly good speed for a big catcher, too, setting a career high with three triples in 2014 and stealing seven more bases to bring his career total to 44 (in 62 attempts). He had nine multi-hit efforts in his 28 games with Triple-A Tacoma, and if everything goes as planned he'll get a shot as the No. 1 guy there from Day 1 of the season in 2015. If he continues to improve his game, Hicks looks like a good shot for some time on a 25-man roster very soon, with the ability to at least function as a platoon bat behind the plate.
That does it for report number seven of 10 in our weekly looks at five prospects making up this year's Top-50. Check back next Monday as we give you reports on more of the top Mariners' prospects to watch.
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