With spring training wrapped up and the big league season underway, the next box to check off for the 2016 baseball season for the Seattle Mariners is the most important one here for us at SeattleClubhouse; the minor league season openers. The M’s four full-season affiliates kick off their campaigns this week, with Tacoma, Jackson, Bakersfield and Clinton opening on Thursday.
Seattle released the Opening Day rosters for each of those clubs on Monday, and in this preview I’ll let you know what level is housing the prospects that were covered in the Top-50 countdown, give a brief look at the league they play in and a quick look at how the 2015 worked out for each club. Also included are a pitcher and hitter to keep an eye on for 2016 -- these aren't always the top prospects, but they are players that I feel strong about their performance going forward.
Low-A Midwest League (16 teams, Western Division)
PITCHING FRIENDLY (4.20 runs/game)
2015: Last place overall, 46-93 (no playoffs)
15th in batting (.648 OPS, 3.85 runs/game)
15th in pitching (4.31 ERA, 5.17 runs/game)
The 2015 LumberKings were one of the worst teams in the entire minor leagues, and there really wasn’t a lot in terms of talent for local fans to be excited about on a nightly basis after Alex Jackson was demoted early on. Only one player reached double-digit homers (Joe DeCarlo) and no one even got to 30 extra base hits. The pitching wasn’t great either, as only Zack Littell threw more than 60 innings and had an ERA under 4.00. Littell is back, and the pitching should be much improved. And the overall roster looks much more entertaining, with the club certain to improve on its lowly record from last season with this group.
“The LumberKings starting rotation is going to be a lot of fun to watch,” Clinton’s Greg Mroz told me. “With Nick Wells, Kyle Wilcox, and Zack Littell in the fold, you have three starters that when on, can shut any lineup down.” There is offense, too, with Liberato, Bishop and Taylor (at least some of the time) all moving up from Everett to play outfield for the LumberKings. And in Bishop, Ascanio and Fernandez, the club should be entertaining on the bases and very good in the field, too. The organization’s goal is to win at the minor league level, and this team looks like they can do that on paper.
Hitter of note: Gus Craig – OF
Craig -- who just missed being included in the Top-50 -- is an outfielder drafted out of Ivy League Columbia, where he was co-Player of the Year in his final season, and where fellow M’s farmhand Dario Pizzano also played collegiately. Like Pizzano, Craig has an advanced approach at the plate. Although he isn’t quite the same caliber bat, Craig does have more athleticism and more defensive abilities in the corner outfield than Pizzano, and his swing – with a big leg kick – is more geared for power, too.
Pitcher of note: Art Warren – RHP
Warren tossed only seven innings of regular season ball in Peoria last season after being the M’s 23rd round pick in the 2015 Draft, but the big right-hander has a fastball that has been mid-90s in the past and a wipeout breaking ball that earned him raves from the organization. That opinion was enough to land him in our Top-50 (48th), and a strong season in Clinton could push him way up that list.
High-A California League (10 teams, North Division)
HEAVILY HITTING FRIENDLY (4.90 runs/game)
Tied-8th overall, 61-79 (no playoffs)
10th in batting (.659 OPS, 4.07 runs/game)
5th in pitching (3.86 ERA, 4.52 runs/game)
Bakersfield was an exciting team last year, but most of that was due to the other-worldly power displayed by Tyler O’Neill on such a frequent basis. They stole the most bases in the league, with Tim Lopes’ 35 bags leading the six players they had in double figures, but they also struck out more than any other team and had only O’Neill and Lopes get to 30 extra base hits in a league known for yielding them in bunches. Austin Wilson was largely a disappointment up until he ended the year on a torrid 30-game stretch (.322/.414/.522), and not surprisingly, he has been tasked with putting together a strong season of success at the High-A level to open 2016.
“This should be a great, great year,” Bakersfield’s Dan Besbris said. “Continuity among the coaches is huge for the front office and for the players, and between the highly touted guys coming here for the first time and the guys that were right on the cusp of making the jump getting another year of experience under their belt, this team is poised to make some serious noise. The infield looks particularly sharp, with Kyle Petty taking over at first base full time, last year's Northwest League MVP Drew Jackson leapfrogging the Midwest League and coming to us, and Gianfranco Wawoe coming off a terrific season. I'm looking forward to seeing some runs scored, and we know the M's always have strong pitching. This should be fun!”
SeattleClubhouse Top-50 prospects: Drew Jackson (6), Andrew Moore (13), Tyler Marlette (14), Austin Cousino (23), Ryan Horstman (29), Anthony Misiewicz (40), Tyler Pike (42), Matt Clancy (43/DL), Joe DeCarlo (46)
Hitter of note: Drew Jackson – SS
The reigning Northwest League MVP skipped over Low-A to land in his home state of California for what will be his first full minor league season. The defense is real, and his 70 arm, range and plus speed make him an intriguing prospect just from the fact that he’ll stick at shortstop. But if his bat can be anything resembling what we saw in 2015, Jackson – Seattle’s 5th round pick last June – has the ability to quickly move up the organizational ladder and up prospect charts.
Pitcher of note: Ryan Horstman – LHP
Horstman is a 2013 draftee that has accumulated all of 22 1/3 pro innings in his three pro seasons thanks to a myriad of injuries. He’s breaking camp healthy, and after a solid (albeit brief) showing in the AFL, and his career could finally get some momentum if 2016 can be a fully healthy year for him. The reliever works 90-92 with his fastball and shows good feel for his breaking pitches, too. He has allowed three doubles, one triple and no homers to 88 regular season batters faced to date.
Double-A Southern League (10 teams, North Division)
PITCHING FRIENDLY (4.16 runs/game)
Last place overall, 53-83 (no playoffs)
8th in batting (.682 OPS, 3.69 runs/game)
10th in pitching (4.50 ERA, 4.85 runs/game)
Jackson looked like they were pretty loaded with talent at the beginning of last season, but Double-A was probably the level that saw the most struggles for the Mariners prospects last season. D.J. Peterson fell flat, Danny Hultzen was hurting again, Jordy Lara and Julio Morban really fell off...and the pitching wasn't great, either. Edwin Diaz was a bit up and down after his promotion, and the bullpen struggled all season long. This year, the club again looks to have a lot of talent; how will it play?
"I'm excited to see how the organization's new emphasis on speed and defense impacts Jackson," said Brandon Liebhaber. "We open the season with three more than capable center fielders in Guillermo Heredia, Ian Miller and Leon Landry. Miller, Landry and infielder Tim Lopes combined to steal 100 bases last year. The Ballpark at Jackson plays very similar to Safeco in that it has a huge outfield and plays to pitchers. That speed will be fun to watch. This team figures to be exciting. Edwin Diaz is 22 and will feature prominently on the mound, while Tyler O'Neill is the youngest player on the roster at just 20 years of age on Opening Day. I'm curious to see how his prodigious power plays in the pitcher-friendly Southern League."
SeattleClubhouse Top-50 prospects: Edwin Diaz (2), D.J. Peterson (3), Tyler O'Neill (4), Ryan Yarbrough (12), Dan Altavilla (18), Danny Hultzen (22/DL), Tim Lopes (33), Emilio Pagan (35), Steven Baron (41), Stephen Landazuri (44), Marcus Littlewood (49)
Hitter of note: Tyler O’Neill – OF
He may seem like an obvious pick here, but O’Neill (20) is the youngest player on the roster and figures to be one of the youngest players in Double-A this year, coming off of a 32-homer campaign in the California League, definitely making him the most intriguing player on the roster. His power is game ready and plays at least plus now, and he’s athletic enough that he isn’t strictly a slugger. If he can refine his approach in the Southern League with better pitching and better umpires and learn to be a bit more selective, it could be a big step forward for him. His outfield defense will need to grow more this year, too, but if that happens, he could be knocking on the door for some big league consideration by next year.
Pitcher of note: Ryan Yarbrough – LHP
Yarbrough's big debut in 2014 led to a surprisingly high ranking prior to 2015 for the senior sign out of ODU. Although his season was interrupted a bit by injury in 2015 and gave up nearly twice as many hits-per-nine, the 6-foot-5 left-hander still performed well enough to rank 12th in this year's Top-50, and the challenge of Double-A in 2016 is something that I feel he will rise up to in his age 24 season. He's a ground ball machine with a swing-and-miss breaking ball and good command.
Triple-A Pacific Coast League (16 teams, Pacific – North Division)
HITTING FRIENDLY (4.73 runs/game)
Last in Division, 11th overall, 68-76 (no playoffs)
4th in batting (.774 OPS, 4.17 runs/game)
12th in pitching (4.85 ERA, 5.39 runs/game)
Tacoma's 2015 offense was help up by standout seasons from Stefen Romero and the now departed Jesus Montero and half season from Jabari Blash, now with the Padres. Mike Zunino looks to be in a line for a full season in the minor leagues, which could actually double his career MiLB PA total (462) if it happens, and the M's hope that he can rediscover the thunder in his bat. Other former big leaguers like Romero, Chris Taylor, Efren Navarro and Dan Robertson figure to see a lot of time, too. The pitching staff, which struggled across the board last year, was led by a number of players either no longer in the Seattle system or permanently fixed in Seattle now. Of the 13 arms with 40 or more innings for Tacoma, only Guaipe returns, and he will help lead the Rainiers' bullpen, which looks like it could be a strength this year with him, Jonathan Aro, Justin De Fratus, Paul Fry and David Rollins.
Hitter of note: Mike Zunino – C
Chris Ianetta and Steve Clevenger figure to be able to hold down the catching duties just fine for Seattle this season, but the Jerry Dipoto, the PD staff and the entire Mariners' organization doesn't sound like they are ready to close the book on Zunino, either. He has big raw power and can drive the ball the other way when he is right at the plate and he is clearly one of the best defensive catchers in baseball already. 2016 is a mental reboot for the now 25 year old, and hopefully everything gets up and running smoothly with some time out of the spotlight.
Pitcher of note: James Paxton – LHP
The same can be said of Paxton to some degree. Despite an uninspiring showing in Peoria, he's already shown that he can get the job done in the major leagues, turning in some dominant outings as a big league starter. What he hasn't shown is that he can stay healthy, with just 141 innings and 26 starts over the last two seasons for Seattle. He needs to get in a rythym, be consistent and be dominant again for Tacoma, but if he's going every five days for the Rainiers it won't last long; Paxton is too talented of an arm to spend the whole year in the minor leagues if he's healthy.
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