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' staff -- including Jeff Kingston, Andy McKay, Tom Allison, Tom McNamara, Tim Kissner and others -- and other respected baseball contacts from outside of the organization to help develop our unique set of rankings. SeattleClubhouse's personal taste and scoring plays into the determination of where the prospects land on the list, too; that scoring system is a combination of potential ceiling, perceived 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. 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.
We do updates on a smaller scale throughout the year, but just as with every pre-season list, this pre-2016 countdown is 50 deep. The landscape of the organization has definitely changed since our last report, even in the Top-5, so this extended breakdown will be much different as it is a true fresh look at the organization as it now exists, with completely up to date late- or post-season input. The reports will be thorough for all players covered, but they'll get more so as we climb towards the top of the heap. And while four of the ten pieces will be free for anyone who visits the site, the other six will be subscriber only.
As you will see during this countdown, many of the higher-ceiling prospects in the Mariners’ system are on the younger side, residing in the lower levels of the minor leagues. So while the system isn’t as bereft of talent as the common narrative seems to be, there aren’t many MLB-ready prospects knocking on the door, and that is primarily what leads to this generally being considered a bottom-third system in baseball.
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 2015 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.
Nos. 30 through 26 (SUBSCRIBER ONLY)
And now here is our sixth report in our Top-50 countdown, breaking into the top half and covering prospects number 25 through 21.
25. Paul Fry – LHP, 6’0”, 190, AA, 7/26/92, L/L
Seattle's 17th round pick in 2013 out of St. Clair County Community College -- the first player drafted from that school in 22 years -- Fry struggled early in 2015 as he tried to build off of a strong 2014 in Clinton. The left-hander allowed nine earned runs and 21 baserunners in his first 10 2/3 innings for Bakersfield. But from that point forward in the minor league season, Fry would allow just nine more earned runs in 69 1/3 innings, allowing just 54 hits and 17 walks while striking out 99 of the final 277 batters (35.7%) he would face on the year. That was good for a 1.17 ERA and 1.02 WHIP overall between Low-A Bakersfield in the Cal League and Double-A Jackson in the Southern League. Fry struck out 43 in 25 innings for the Generals and picked up seven saves in his final 16 appearances. Left-handed hitters hit just .233/.281/.283 off of Paul, but right-handed bats managed just a .227/.302/.256 slash in 202 plate appearances. And after surrendering just one home run in 2014, he didn't allow a single home run in 2015. Counting the Arizona Fall league (where Fry did struggle in 10 games), he has now allowed just that one home run in the last 427 batters that he's faced. And while his fastball doesn't have a ton of sink, Fry got more than twice as many ground balls than fly balls in 2015.
His control got away from him a bit late in the year, and that seemed to follow him to the AFL, but Fry has walked less than "Fry is a guy who doesn't jump off the page, but he continues to get guys out with an extremely high strikeout rate," said Jackson's Brandon Liebhaber. The team's announcer continued, "He showed almost no signs of an adjustment period after moving to Double-A and immediately improved the Jackson bullpen. His fastball has life and his slider can be devastating. With his arsenal and ability to pitch well in relief, I would not be surprised to see him continue to move up quickly." Indeed, Fry was one of the few prospects who were announced this past week that were given an invite to big league camp for spring training. Assistant General Manager Jeff Kingston told me last week after that announcement that Fry, "is deceptive and he pitches with no fear," summing up with, "He's more than just a lefty specialist in our eyes."
Fry doesn't have super electric stuff or elite arm strength, but he does have that deception and the appropriate approach and attitude to work in any role out of the bullpen. He hasn't been used as a specialist (few minor leaguers are in the lower minors) as he had 37 outings last season where he worked to five or more batters and 31 where he worked more than one inning, getting to that 80 inning total in 50 appearances. For his career Fry has 180 innings in 102 appearances, so he is geared to be much more than a one or two batter option out of the pen. Paul -- who works from the windup with no one on and throws from a three-quarters release -- has a repertoire led by his fastball, which is usually 91 to 93. He does a good job of getting ahead with strikes with that pitch, which has better movement to it when he keeps it down but shows good life generating more swings-and-misses when he deliberately works up with it. His slider is his best secondary offering, and that pitch (82-85) has shown to be a weapon to both left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. He'll be in big league camp, but is a top option to be a workhorse for Tacoma in Triple-A to open 2016.
TOP TRAIT(S): Command, mentality
24. Nick Wells – LHP, 6’5”, 185, SS, 2/21/96, L/L
Wells came to Seattle as one of the two left-handers (No. 47 Jake Brentz being the other) they got from Toronto in the Mark Lowe trade. The Blue Jays' 3rd round pick in the 2014 Draft, signed away from a commitment to the College of Charleston, Wells jumped from the Appalachian League to Short Season ball with the trade, and had a very strong showing for Everett in his four appearances there, allowing just 10 baserunners while striking out 16 in his 18 innings and throwing five shutout frames in each of his first two games for the AquaSox. His debut was a one-hit performance that he faced just one over the minimum, striking out eight. 2015 was a major turnaround in that regard for him overall, as in his debut in 2014 Nick struck out just 18 in 34 2/3 innings of rookie ball in the Gulf Coast League where the strikeout rate was 19.3%, but he was more than 3.0% better than the league at both Bluefield and Everett in his second season and struck out 47 in 50 innings (23.7%) overall.
Just 19, Wells is an easy one to dream on and an easy one to see just what the word 'potential' can mean. Slightly built with a boyish face, he looks like a baby out there, but when he throws, he throws like a man. "Tall, thin, slender and athletic," is how an Everett staff member described him to me. He continued with this mini-scouting report, "He’s only going to get bigger and stronger. Fastball with a straight over the top curve – both were good pitches for this level." That curve can dazzle at time to batters from both sides of the plate, but it is a huge weapon to left-handed hitters, who hit just .183/.234/.317 in 64 plate appearances against Wells in 2015 after having a lot of success (in a very small sample) in 2014. He will need to improve against right-handed hitters as he climbs, and that will mean refining his arsenal. His third pitch currently is his changeup, and that pitch wasn't a quality offering for him in Everett, but it will be important to have it (or another pitch) to use against righties.
Wells' long limbs and plus arm strength help his fastball get up to 93, and with his delivery becoming more consistent and a little longer in the back, there figures to be more velo in there as Nick adds bulk to his frame. His fastball command and overall control are already solid, too, and while he can drop his arm angle below his regular three-quarters slot at times, his athleticism helps him repeat his delivery quite well for such a young, long pitcher. The curveball is usually a mid-80s offering that he gets swinging strikes on, but he changes the firmness of it depending on the situation, showing good feel for the potential plus offering. Wells' next challenge as he climbs the ladder will be working on his changeup, which is firm and inconsistent now, to help keep right-handed hitters honest. He'll likely be part of Clinton's rotation in 2016.
TOP TRAIT(S): Armspeed, frame
23. Austin Cousino – OF, 5’10”, 178, A-, 4/17/93, L/L
Cousino had his 2015 delayed by injury, as the M's 2014 3rd rounder didn't get out of Arizona until the beginning of July, and when he finally did make it to Clinton -- his first taste of a full-season affiliate -- the season didn't exactly get a lot better. Ranked 18th on our countdown a year ago, he started out well enough, picking up two hits in four of his first seven games, but from there Austin went into a 6-for-49 skid that unfortunately wouldn't be his worst stretch of the season. When the dust settled on 2015, the left-handed hitting outfielder's slash line in Clinton sat at .190/.253/.254 in 257 plate appearances. One member of Clinton's staff said of Cousino's hitting, "it may have just been the layoff, but there were not many stretches where he consistently squared up the ball. By August and September, it was clear he was pressing." He did manage to collect 14 hits and draw 11 walks in the season's final 16 games, striking out just nine times in that span to end his year on an up note. Still, it was his defense in center field that earned Austin that high draft selection, and he still showed that even while he was scuffling at the plate. That same staff member said that Cousino proved to be a "good defensive outfielder who took pressure off of the corner guys." For his efforts in the outfield for the LumberKings, the organization named him Clinton's outfield "Defensive Specialist" for the year.
Now two years into his pro career, Cousino has shed some of the bad habits that he had developed late in his college career at Kentucky (most notably selling out for power a bit), getting his strikeout rate down around 17% and showing more of a willingness to take a walk and work the count -- showing that he has a better personal understanding or awareness of his skills, or "knowing who he is as a baseball player", as the M's like to say. That is a key piece of his continued development as he climbs the minor league ladder. Another key piece that he'll need to refine in order to avoid a platoon role before he even has a shot to crack the big leagues is in hitting against lefties; after a very strong showing in 2014 against southpaws (.281/.352/.422 in 73 PA), Cousino had just seven singles in 51 plate appearances and a .414 OPS against them in 2015. He did swipe 11 bags in 13 tries for Clinton and has been successful in 28 of 32 attempts as a pro, showing that his speed in the outfield does translate onto the basepaths as well.
That speed in the outfield is paired with very good instincts, routes and jumps, and he has an all-out approach, willingness to go horizontal and closing speed to both gaps, helping to make Cousino one of the best natural defensive center fielders in the system. His arm is at least adequate for the position, too, though it hasn't played as strong as it was hailed as being at draft time. Austin has good bat speed, works counts and has a line drive stroke in him when he stays within himself. When he does sell out for power it is at least average to his pull side, but it does lead to bigger holes in his swing. A plus runner with good athleticism and strong baserunning acumen, he is definitely a threat on the bases. Even though he struggled in an abbreviated season in 2015, the depth chart and Cousino's age suggest that he could see Bakersfield in 2016. A strong, healthy season at the plate and lots of opportunities to run down outs in the California League outfields could push him even higher on our list a year from now.
TOP TRAIT(S): Range, speed, athleticism, patience
22. Danny Hultzen – LHP, 6’3”, 210, AA, 11/28/89, L/L
After making a great push to come back from a devastating injury and showing incredible will and want to, Hultzen impressed many by reaching some good velocity numbers in the spring of 2015. And he was showing that velocity in season with Jackson, but alas, it wouldn't last. Danny was shut down for the year after only three appearances and eight innings, bringing the second pick in the 2011 Draft's career total to just 167 2/3 innings. He's been ranked as high as No. 3 for me here in our annual countdown's, coming in at 15th a year ago, and he was twice a top-20 prospect for MLB.com, too. But as I detailed in October of 2014 in talking with Danny and rehab pitching coordinator Gary Wheelock, it was a long road back. But Hultzen's confidence, work ethic and demeanor never wavered.
"Danny is an incredible guy with an even better work ethic," said Jackson's Brandon Liebhaber, "but the comeback just didn't pan out last year." If we're being honest, not much has panned out for Hultzen since being the No. 2 overall pick. Dominant in college, he had a solid debut in the AFL in 2011 before a strong, healthy season in 2012 where he dominated in Double-A (1.67 ERA, 0.93 WHIP in 75 1/3 innings) before falling off a bit in Tacoma (5.92 ERA, 1.89 WHIP). Still, that was the last time that healthy Danny Hultzen was a real, tangible thing. "We all became hopeful when we saw what he was capable of in spring training," Liebhaber said last month. "I have no doubt that he'll do whatever it takes to make a comeback again, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him in relief given what happened in 2015," he finished. And that appears to be exactly the plan with Danny. Jerry Dipoto mentioned it last week at the Media Luncheon, saying, "If I had my way, Hultzen will come in and blow everyone away and be our second lefty [in Seattle's bullpen]. He will be given every opportunity to perform." I later asked Jeff Kingston if relieving would be the only option for Hultzen going forward and he replied, "that depends on how he responds to relief work, but I don't think he'd absolutely be locked into the bullpen if he isn't in the big leagues."
As he told me in that piece detailing his rehab above, Hultzen's breaking ball changed when they altered his delivery post-surgery, and that is probably a good thing as it has a little more bit to it now. The fastball was in the low-90s last year and we should expect at least that again, especially if he's coming out of the pen. And there were many who considered Danny's changeup as his best pitch, so the three pitch mix should still all be in play. The real test for Danny is going to be how he reacts to more frequent, shorter outings as a reliever. Hultzen and the Mariners do have the luxury of letting this all play out in the minor leagues to start 2016, as he was removed from the 40-man and cleared waivers back at the end of November. My guess is that is what will happen, and he'll open 2016 in Tacoma's bullpen on a semi-regular rest rotation. When he works in relief, I wouldn't be surprised to see his fastball in the mid-90s again, and that would be a welcome sight for everyone who has been pulling for Danny.
TOP TRAIT(S): Heart, three-pitch mix, command
21. Braden Bishop – OF, 6’1”, 180, SS, 8/22/93, R/R
Bishop, who made a name for himself with the Washington Huskies with his highlight-reel defense in center field, was Seattle's third round pick in last June's draft. And while he made several very good plays for the AquaSox in center field in his debut season as a pro, it was what he produced with the bat that lands him so high in his initial appearance on our Top-50. Braden picked up 49 hits with 16 multi-hit games and hit .371/.403/.462 over the final 32 games of the season, helping to bring his season average up to .320 -- good for second best in the Northwest League (behind teammate and NWL MVP Drew Jackson). He tied for the NWL lead in times being hit by pitch (12), which helped boost his OBP which would have otherwise been a disappointment, as he walked only five times in 248 trips to the plate. Bishop also led the league with 11 sacrifice bunts, and he bunted for hits, too, using the plus tool that he has in his speed to his advantage along the way.
But his biggest plus tool is his defense. "Legit centerfielder," said a member of the AquaSox. "Scrappy hitter who hit for average but he hardly ever walked. Walk rates were acceptable in college." And while this report is definitely about Bishop as a baseball player, nearly every report you hear about him or on him ends with what this one ended with: "A wonderful human being." His '4MOM' Charity was started while Braden was in college to help benefit his mom, Suzy Bishop, who was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's in September of 2014. The AquaSox had a night in August dedicated to the charity when the team adorned "4MOM" labels on their purple gear for the game. And in true story book fashion, Braden hit a home run and picked up two hits in that win. I wrote him up at the end of the season as having one of the best debuts in the system, and a lot of that was because of what he did with the bat. But again, defense.
The scouting report on Bishop will always be headlined by his defense, where he has plus range, a plus arm and great instincts, which help him get good jumps and make good reads on balls. He, of course, is very athletic and was a well thought of recruit in football in high school, too, and that athleticism of course helps him in the outfield and on the bases. He is thin but wiry and his frame could stand to add 10-15 pounds without losing quickness, I believe. He sprays the ball all over the park and his the ball on the ground nearly four times as much as he hit it in the air for Everett. Braden drew 23 walks as a junior with the Washington Huskies but just five with the AquaSox, and that part of his game will need to advance as he moves up the ladder. Look for him to be Clinton's everyday center fielder in 2016.
TOP TRAIT(S): Range, athleticism, speed
That puts a wrap on prospects No. 25 through 21 in the Seattle Mariners' organization. Check back next Monday when we cover five more prospects and march closer to the top names in our annual Top-50 countdown.