M's Prospect Watch - The Starting Pitchers

When you talk about the strength of the Seattle Mariners' farm system, the conversation starts right where it has for many, many years - pitching. The M's have stayed away from trading away young arms in their recent history, and as a result have stockpiled an impressive group of talent. InsidethePark.com's minor league editor Jason A. Churchill ranks the best of the bunch.

Anyone who knows anything about baseball knows that pitching is where it's at. In order to win in the big leagues, you have to possess it. Nobody wants to trade it. Everyone wants to trade for it. Owners know they have to pay dearly for it. Managers know they must handle it well. The players know that it is a special breed of athlete to be addressed accordingly. The fans? Well, the fans just love to watch it dominate in a big game. The Mariners have several young arms who look more than capable of doing just that at the big-league level in the near future.

1. Clint Nageotte, 23, 6-4/214, R/R
2003 Team: San Antonio-AA
11-7, 3.10ERA, 154IP, 157K, 67BB

Outlook/2004: Nageotte took yet another step toward "ace" status in the organization in 2003 with a strong season highlighted by probably the best pitched game in all of the minor leagues . On July 5th vs. El Paso, Nageotte tossed a gem, going the distance in a 1-0 win over El Paso. His brilliance didn't end so simply. The northpaw allowed one base runner, a single in the fourth inning, while striking out 14. That one base runner never sniffed second base and Nageotte continued his domination right through the ninth inning with 5 strikeouts in the final three frames. Nageotte attacks hitters with a fastball clocked between 92 and 96 MPH, the best slider in the minor leagues, and a change-up thrown on occasion to keep hitters honest. His slider is his out-pitch and he tends to rely on it a bit too much at times. His control improved somewhat in 2003 and needs to take another step in the same direction in 2004. Nageotte is an improved change-up and slightly better control away from being undeniably un-hittable. The 23-year-old is one of, if not the best, right-handed pitching prospect in baseball. Expect Nageotte to have a decent chance of making the big leagues out of spring training. Otherwise, he will begin the year at Triple-A Tacoma.
MLB ETA: 2004
MLB Clone: Jason Schmidt, John Smoltz

2. Travis Blackley, 21, 6-3/192, L/L
2003 Team: San Antonio-AA
17-3, 2.61 ERA, 162.1IP, 144K, 62BB

Outlook/2004: Blackley had a great 2003 as his 17 wins and Texas League Pitcher of the Year award shows. The southpaw proved many scouts wrong this past season by continuing his high level of success despite the lack of a dominating heater. Blackley is armed with four better-than-average pitches in his arsenal, led by a plus curve ball and a plus change-up. The Australian-born Blackley brings his fastball at 86 to 90 MPH with great command and sets up hitters for the change-up and curve ball. Look for the left-hander to break spring with the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers and join fellow Aussie southpaw Craig Anderson in 2004.
MLB ETA: 2004 (September)
MLB Clone: Mark Buehrle, Al Leiter

3. Rett Johnson, 24, 6-2/212, R/R
2003 Teams: San Antonio-AA, Tacoma-AAA
11-4, 2.63 ERA, 154ip, 112K, 39BB

Outlook/2004: Johnson made a name for himself in 2003 with a fantastic start to his season in Double-A San Antonio and then an even better finish in Triple-A Tacoma. Promoted around mid-season, Johnson took the PCL by the ear and dragged them through the mud until a stiff shoulder forced him to shut it down for the final few weeks of the year. Using a fastball at 88 to 92 MPH, a change-up, and a slider, as well as mixing in a few cutters here and there, Johnson limited hitters to a .223 batting average combined at two levels. If the Mariners open up a spot in the starting rotation by trading away Freddy Garcia, Johnson will be the first prospect in line for the job. At worst, the right-hander will be next in line in Triple-A, waiting for the phone to ring.
MLB ETA: 2004
MLB CLONE: Brad Radke, Russ Ortiz

4. Felix Hernandez, 17, 6-2/211, R/R
2003 Teams: Everett-SS/A, Wisconsin-A
7-2, 2.22 ERA, 69IP, 91K, 27BB

Outlook/2004: Kid K took 69 innings of work and did more with them than any other prospect in the system. His 2.22 overall ERA and 91 strikeouts showed that the kid can pitch. When I say, "kid", I mean, "kid". Hernandez turned 17 years of age a few weeks after the 2003 baseball season began. Yes, I said 17. After dominating the Northwest League as the youngest starter, Hernandez was sent to Wisconsin to aid in their attempts at landing a playoff spot. The phenom should start the 2004 season in Wisconsin and see how it goes. It wouldn't be surprising to see him return to Everett in June or find him pitching with Inland in the California League by year's end. He's that good. His 91-96 MPH fastball and better than average slider are devastating. Only the improvement of his change-up is in the way of Hernandez being the next ace in the making.
MLB ETA: 2008
MLB Clone: Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez

5. Cha Seung Baek, 23, 6-4/224, R/R
2003 Teams: Inland-A+, San Antonio-AA
8-4, 3.13 ERA, 112IP, 96K, 26BB

Outlook/2004: Baek came back from surgery in 2001 to have a very solid 2003 season. Armed with a 90-94 MPH fastball, a sharp breaking slider and a developing change-up, Baek has learned to outsmart hitters as well as overpower them. If healthy, Baek can turn ace in a hurry. In 2004, Baek will again be on monitored pitch counts but will have the opportunity to start the year as San Antonio's ace in Double-A.
MLB ETA: 2005
MLB Clone: Adam Eaton, Brad Penny

Other Notables:
Ryan Ketchner/21/Inland Empire
Troy Cate/22/Inland Empire
Bobby Livingston/20/Wisconsin
Bobby Madritsch/27/San Antonio
Glenn Bott/21/Inland Empire
Matt Thornton/27/San Antonio/Tacoma
Eric O'Flaherty/19/Peoria/Everett
Craig Anderson/23/Tacoma

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