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)
Nos. 25 through 21 (SUBSCRIBER ONLY)
Cracking into the Top-20 names in the system now, the reports will be more in-depth and hopefully give you an even better feel for the top players that will be affecting the Seattle Mariners in the coming seasons. Here are prospects number 20 through 16 for our 2016 list.
20. Rayder Ascanio – SS, 5’11”, 155, A+, 3/17/96, B/R
Ascanio's offensive numbers weren't very good in 2015, but he played most of his season in High-A as the youngest position player in the top 100 in terms of games played for the California League, having turned 19 just before the season started. And while fellow 19 year old shortstop Franklin Berreto of Oakland hit over .300 and slugged an even .500 and Bakersfield teammate Tyler O'Neill (who is 15 months older than Ascanio) led the league in homers, Ascanio did most of his dazzling on the defensive side of things. Rayder started 74 games at shortstop for the Blaze and had a knack for making the difficult plays look routine. "Ascanio, defensively, is a wunderkind," Bakersfield's Dan Besbris said. "He has incredible instincts with his first step and a great arm. It's funny - you almost never see him dive; not because the effort isn't there, but because his reactions are so extraordinary and his ability to read how his pitcher is working the opposing hitter gets him in the right spots early." I had Ascanio at number 32 on last year's countdown when the system was more well regarded than it is today, and what he did with his extremely aggressive assignments (acknowledging that they were more out of necessity than merit) in 2015 do help that cause. A year ago Chris Gwynn and Jack Howell were singing his praises, with Howell stating, "Really great instincts above all," and Gwynn offering his opinion that, "Ascanio is a special defender." Baseball America named him as Seattle's Best Defensive Infielder last year and did so again this year and he rated out as the Cal League's 'Playmaker' (essentially range factor leader) for shortstop as covered by BA as well.
Although that defensive ability is at or near the elite level currently, Ascanio isn't without his faults on defense. After all, he is just 19. "His errors almost all came on routine plays," Bresbis added on him. That can often be an issue with younger players, and it is something that Ketel Marte struggled with during his climb through the system. And as Gwynn told me several years ago when we were discussing Brad Miller, "I don't know of many shortstops who came up through the minors that didn't make errors." And at the plate, Rayder hit just .234/.288/.290 in 2015 and has posted just a 4.5% extra base hit rate in 529 plate appearances stateside, just 4.2% this season in the Cal League. He did hit very well from the right side this past year, with a .317/.358/.397 slash, and he is a .286 hitter (42-for-147) from that side of the plate to date. Of course if you do the math, it will tell you he is just a .229 from the left side, where he obviously sees most of his at bats. Add in the low walk rate (5.9%) and high strikeout rate (21.7%) and you can see that Ascanio shouldn't be written in stone as the M's top shortstop prospect. "He looked overmatched at the plate quite a bit, mentally and physically," said an "Offensively, he pulled off the ball a ton, and his slumps were long and difficult," Bresbis notes. "But," he finished up, "he could play shortstop in the big leagues tomorrow."
Helping Ascanio out in that regard is his athleticism, which landed him on our list in November of the top athletes in the system. He doesn't have blazing speed and he isn't adapt at reading pitchers and stealing bases currently, but he is a plus runner when underway and as you can see from the chart below, he does a good job of putting the ball in play on the ground, which will only help him as he advances.
For a nice, concise scouting report, Ascanio has fantastic hands, plus range and a solid shortstop arm to go along with very good instincts and improving footwork on defense. He showed an ability to throw on the move and charge balls effectively, too, doing a good job of getting himself good hops. The routine plays need to be cleaned up, but that is to be expected of a flashy, young shortstop. Again, it will be his bat that needs to improve for him to advance. Despite the walk and strikeout rates, Ascanio does show a good approach, and he has good bat speed and a short swing and good swing path that plays to his strengths as a gap-to-gap guy, so as he gains strength and improves his knowledge of how pitchers are trying to work him Rayder should find more success in the batter's box. As he'll be just 20 when the 2016 minor league season kicks off, any and all development in that regard is likely to take place in 2016 back in Bakersfield as the everyday shortstop for the Blaze.
TOP TRAIT(S): Range, hands, baseball instincts
19. Gareth Morgan – OF, 6’4”, 220, AZL, 4/12/96, R/R
Morgan, who just wrapped his 19 year old season and now has more than 400 plate appearances in the AZL with a sub-.200 average and sub-.600 OPS, may seem a curious choice for the 19th spot on our Top-50 Countdown. But the Mariners 2nd round pick in the 2014 Draft did show some small improvements in game action this past season, and he does also still have that talent and those tools available to him that led to him being the 74th overall player selected in that Draft. Seattle signed him out of his collegiate commitment to North Carolina State by going more than $1 million over slot, and after a dismal debut in 2014, Morgan hit .225/.270/.383 with 12 doubles (t-10th in the league), five home runs (t-6th in the league) and 30 RBI (t-8th in the league) for the Peoria M's in 2015, but he did so with the most PA in the league at 241 and he did so with the most strikeouts in the league with 89. Those totals meant that his strikeout rate was an eye-popping (not in a good way) 36.9%. But the optimist sees that the 36.9% number is a solid creep in the right direction from the 41.0% mark that Gareth posted in 2014. 21 of his 50 hits went for extra bases, but that meant that Morgan had 85 total bases -- still a smaller number than his K total. So, again, why is he here in the Top-20? The fact of the matter is that Morgan has great bat speed, plus-plus power potential and a solid right field arm with enough current atlheticism that, despite his size, he's seen time in center field in Arizona and he doesn't look like a prospect that is destined to be strictly a strength-based, one tool only guy. You can dream on Morgan, and you can see exactly why the Mariners have done so.
Morgan played for the Candian Junior National team where he was a force, and he played at the Mariners' Dominican Summer League Camp in 2012 as an amateur as part of that experience. That extra exposure to top competition and strong performances when faced with that competition hinted that he could have an opportunity to be an advanced bat early, but the pitch recognition issues haven't developed much in Gareth's first two seasons. Still, that tremendous bat speed and big time power led to many more of the balls he did put into play last year being hard hit balls to the outfield, and with the way the ball comes off of his bat, it won't take an enormous change in the contact rate for the damage he does with the bat to become more substantial. The evidence to support that claim is that even though he put a high percentage of balls in play on the ground, a number of those turned into hits because of how hard he hits the ball.
That being said, Morgan is a below average runner who takes a while to reach top speed on the bases, and he doesn't stand a chance of seeing many infield hits in his future. Extra base power is his game, and he needs to get more balls in the air for that to play. As that happens, the extra base hits should start to add up. "He reminds me of Jesse Barfield," said former Diamondbacks and Twins scout and Langley Blaze GM Doug Mathieson, "big time power potential." That power is why I had Morgan at No. 9 on our Top-50 countdown prior to 2015, and it is the main reason why he is still hanging on here now.
Despite the contact issues, Morgan has quick hands, plus bat speed, a small stride and not a lot of head or body movement in his swing. The swing has a bit of an uppercut to it, but it isn't so extreme that it looks like that is what leads to the contact issues. The truth is that Morgan simply looked late on fastballs a lot and early on offspeed pitches quite a bit. That all falls under the issues of pitch recognition, having a plan and -- to hit on the keyword of the moment in this organization -- "Controlling the Zone". Gareth's progress in the system is going to be very closely tied to those traits growing. Whatever growth we're going to see will most likely play out on the field in Everett after extended spring training wraps up. There, AquaSox fans will see a strong throwing arm and the plus power to all fields on display...when he makes contact. If Gareth can make strides in that aspect of his game, he'll become one of the louder bats in the system.
TOP TRAIT(S): Power, throwing arm
18. Dan Altavilla – RHP, 5’11”, 200, A+, 9/8/92, R/R
Altavilla, Seattle's 5th round pick in 2014, jumped from the Northwest League to the California League and the 22 year old showed that he was up to the challenge, turning in a solid but unspectacular season that did include some spectacular starts. He went at least five innings in 22 of his 28 starts and allowed three earned runs or less in 19 of those 22 starts, including each of his first 14 outings. The second 14 starts were headlined by a complete game shutout on July 12th against Visalia when he walked two and struck out six that included 17 fly ball outs. Dan's 148 1/3 innings was good for fourth best in the Cal League and only two arms who topped 100 innings in the league allowed fewer hits per nine. He struck out better than 25 percent of the right-handed batters he faced and held lefties to just a .675 OPS on the year. All in all it was a very strong first year in full season ball for Altavilla.
He has been strictly a starter as a pro to date, and he has been very durable and reliable in that role, but many think that Dan -- who I had at No. 31 on last year's countdown -- could ultimately be best suited for a bullpen role. "Dan seemed to run out of gas a bit late in the year," said Besbris, "and the Mariners put him on a 5-inning limit, wisely. Prior to that, he was the team's most consistent starter from day one." Altavilla held opposing hitters to a .709 OPS (below the league average of .734) in 2015, As a starter, he works with a good fastball and he has enough stuff to survive multiple looks through the lineup, and he also has great makeup. "The stuff is there. He showed great composure in tough spots, and his election to the [California League] Full Season All-Star Team was well-earned. Altavilla is mature beyond his professional experience, and the impression I got was that his development is about preparation, repetition and arm strength more than anything else," Bakersfield's Dan Besbris said.
A flyball pitcher, Altavilla did get a lot of outs on balls in the air in the homer happy Cal League, but he surrendered just 11 homers in those 148 1/3 innings of work, a number bested by only nine arms who topped 100 innings in 2015. The Blaze had an outfield that could really run balls down, led by Aaron Barbosa in center field, but Dan did a good job of pitching to the ballpark and really dictating what hitters were able to do against him thanks to working smart.
For the scouting report on Altavilla, here is some more from Besbris: "A strong, low-to-mid 90's fastball, a big slider and a solid change." That fastball works comfortably at 92-94 and can touch 97. He will cut it from time to time, too, particularly against lefties, and he also elevates it effectively. The changeup is a pitch that he commands well, and his slider has good late tilt. Altavilla (pictured in action in the main story photo) is stocky with big forearms, big legs and a thick base. He works from a three-quarters delivery, although he does short arm it a bit and does drop his arm angle at times on the slider, leading to some flat spinners. I expect that he'll continue to get a shot at starting in 2016 as he reaches Double-A, but this could be the season that Altavilla moves to the bullpen to get more out of that arm strength.
TOP TRAIT(S): Armspeed, durability, mentality
17. Tony Zych – RHP, 6’3”, 190, MLB, 8/7/90, R/R
Zych, a former fourth round pick by the Cubs who came to Seattle in April in a cash deal, worked just 31 2/3 innings in Triple-A Tacoma, but of the 258 arms that got at least 30 innings in the PCL, Zych's SO/9 (10.52) and SO% (27.4%) both ranked 23rd. The strikeouts have always been there for the 2011 draftee, but he worked 66 2/3 innings between Jackson, Tacoma and Seattle last year and walked just 12 of the 273 batters he faced (4.4% BB rate). Before last season he carried a 8.2% walk rate in 161 1/3 innings. Despite being a power arm which can generate a lot of the needed power for hitters to do extra base damage, Tony's allowed just eight homers in 228 minor league innings in his five minor league seasons.
Ranked among Chicago's top prospects a few times, Zych was available to the M's for a reason, coming off of a season with an ERA over five, a WHIP of upwards of one and a half and a strikeout rate that had dipped from 11.2 to 5.4. But Seattle saw something in him, and some slight mechanical tweaks that he made on his own really paid off big for Tony and the Seattle organization in 2015. "I worked really hard during this past off-season and cleaned up a few things with my delivery," Zych told the Chicago Tribune back in October. He said that he went back to his old delivery before the year, but in that same piece he also credits veteran big league reliever Kevin Gregg, who was with Tacoma for part of the year, for helping to get his mind right.
Refocused and comfortable once again, Zych took off. Jeff Sullivan put together this fantastic post about Zych's slider on FanGraphs in December detailing the unique nature of the movement on the pitch, something that developed for Zych in 2015 thanks to some mechanical tweaks. His whiff rate on his slider was basically the same rate that relievers like Wade Davis, Al Alburquerque and Brandon Maurer posted in 2015. Is that something that hitters will adjust to after some more notes and scouting are available on Zych? We don't know. But what we do know is that what we saw in September and October in Seattle, and that version of Tony Zych is easy to envision as being one of the most important arms in Seattle's pen in 2016.
Zych's fastball gets up to 98 and his average velocity of 96.0 MPH in the big leagues was among the tops in the game. But that slider is really what sets him apart. It is an excellent, late moving slider with curveball shape and slider velocity. Zych also mixes in an ocassional changeup, but that is more of a "keep 'em honest" pitch than a weapon. Six of his 13 big league outings went more than one inning, and he faced 21 batters -- getting 17 outs and striking out eight -- in his final two outings of the year. Zych could fill any number of roles for the Mariners in their big league bullpen with a durable arm that can work longer outings. He does have an option left, but I would be surprised if he doesn't stick in Seattle to open the year.
TOP TRAIT(S): Armspeed, slider, durability
16. Tyler Smith – SS, 6’0”, 195, AA, 7/1/91, R/R
Smith -- who I had 19th on last year's countdown and 41st the year before -- leap frogged a couple of other shortstops in the system in 2015, playing a full year at Double-A and posting perhaps the best plate discipline season in the system for Seattle while continuing to play solid defense and be an asset on the bases. He posted the second highest walk total in the system (61) with an 11.7% walk rate and he struck out in just 16.3% of his trips to the plate. Add in strong defense, 10 steals, 11 sacrifice bunts and 29 extra base hits (5.6% XBH rate) and it all adds up to Smith being a nice all-around player. Following his year in Jackson, the M's rewarded Smith by assigning him to the AFL, and he put up a .231/.287/.333 slash in 20 games for Peoria there. He's been given a little extended action in big league camp each of the last two years and one of the main reasons he has stuck around is because he is a smart, heady, natural, hustling ballplayer -- a 'gamer'.
"Smith is an extremely valuable piece for an organization to have," said Jackson's Brandon Liebhaber. "He is a versatile middle infielder who gets on base, and he filled in wherever he was needed last year, capably moving from second base to shortstop after Jack Reinheimer was traded," Brandon continued. The broadcaster wrapped up with this on Smith: "He has some pop for a guy his size, as shown by his 24 doubles, but his on-base abilities shine. Smith is a consistent player and was easy to rely on in a season where a lot changed in Jackson." Athletic and aggressive with his actions at the plate, in the field and on the bases, Smith is still physically developing a bit, and it is possible that he ultimately grows off of shortstop.
One Southern League scout mentioned that he was an under-the-radar type that often ends up making a mark. "He isn't a guy you realize in a one game look, but then you go over notes at the end of the series and you see he got on base seven or eight times and just played sound ball. Guys like that end up in the big leagues." Former PD director Chris Gwynn said of Smith, "he 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." He sprays the ball around the field, hitting it where it is pitched but still hitting it hard; he had more balls classified as line drives than fly balls last year.
Smith doesn't have any truly plus tools that set him apart, but he has solid average tools across the board (outside of power, which isn't poor -- probably a 40) and he plays the game smartly and alertly, getting the most out of his tools because of his overall approach to the game. Smith squares balls up often, using a line drive stroke to hit balls to all fields. His speed is probably his best pure tool, and it might be a 55 when he is underway, but he is a fantastic baserunner that gets great reads and jumps so it plays higher than that. Smith uses very good footwork and a quick release along with his solid arm to play sound defense at shortstop, and while he can probably handle the position in the big leagues in a utility role currently, he doesn't project to be a full-time everyday guy at the position. Likely to see time at second and short in Tacoma in 2016 as one of their everyday lineup options.
TOP TRAIT(S): Baseball intelligence, plate discipline, speed
There you have the details on prospects No. 20 through 16 in the Seattle Mariners' organization. Check back next Monday when we cover five more prospects and march even closer to the top names in our annual Top-50 countdown.