Prospect Watch: The Best is Yet to Come

While Bucky Jacobsen, Justin Leone, Travis Blackley, Clint Nageotte, Matt Thornton and George Sherrill have each been called up from Triple-A and given Mariners fans a glimpse at the future, InsidethePark's Jason A. Churchill reports that the best is yet to come. Three players in particular - RHP Felix Hernandez, OF Jeremy Reed and SS Jose Lopez - are potential all stars who could very well be mainstays in Seattle for the next decade.

When newly promoted slugger Bucky Jacobsen stepped into the batter's box last week for his first plate appearance at the major league level, nearly 40,000 fans at Safeco Field stood up and applauded. Yeah that's right, a standing ovation. A standing ovation for a 28-year-old rookie making his major league debut after seven-and-a-half years in the minors isn't something you see everyday. But if you think Mr. Jacobsen adds excitement and promise to the future of your Seattle Mariners, wait until you get a load of the real future of the organization.

Contrary to the belief of the masses that are piling into the Safe to get a look at the new kids, the ultimate success of the franchise does not lie in the hands of one Bucky Jacobsen. Nor does Justin Leone possess the capabilities of saving an entire team from completely burning to the ground and smoldering in mediocrity for years on end. The saviors you're looking for are still playing baseball in the minor leagues.

Three key players hold the Mariners destiny in their hands. The trio is made up of a 23-year-old multi-talented outfielder with plus skills across the board, a 20-year-old infielder with skills far beyond his age and experience, and an 18-year-old super blue-chip right-hander with "ace" written all over him.

For as good as Jacobsen and Leone could be, the three aforementioned prospects are the youngsters that carry the hope that the fans in this city desperately need. Jeremy Reed, Jose Lopez, and Felix Hernandez are the high quality talents that are required in order for a franchise to re-enter the competitive world of Major League Baseball.

Reed, acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the recent trade of Freddy Garcia, is a solid left-handed bat with top drawer plate skills, and the ability to hit .300 with 20-homer power. Reed is capable of playing a solid center field, using good speed, a better-than-average arm, and solid natural instincts to effectively play the position. With offensive skills mirroring those of a quality everyday player, the Newport Beach, California resident should be in the Mariners starting lineup coming out of spring training next April and could find himself hitting behind Ichiro in the second spot in the order.

Reed's defensive placement could depend on whether GM Bill Bavasi is able to lure a player such as Carlos Beltran to Seattle or not. If so, Reed can slide over to left field with Beltran taking over in center. A move of this sort will likely force Raul Ibanez to move from the outfield to first base, a position he does have experience at and can play adequately.

Lopez is the positional prospect with perhaps the biggest upside and although he is lacking some of the polish that Reed possesses, the Venezuelan native could provide the M's with a long term answer at any of the three infield positions.

Naturally a shortstop, Lopez has experience playing both the hot corner and at second- base. The current plan for 2005 likely has Lopez at shortstop, with veteran Bret Boone due back at second base, and Justin Leone off to a solid start at third. If Leone can prove to be an everyday starting third baseman, Lopez will stay at shortstop. If not, Lopez could slide to his right and open up a spot for a free agent signing, or even a trade, in order to fill the shortstop position.

Lopez has an advanced eye at the plate, limiting his strikeouts and making the most of his at-bats on a regular basis. In Triple-A Tacoma, the numbers speak for themselves and say quite a bit about a kid that nobody knew anything about just two short years ago. Hitting .280 with 11 home runs in less than half of a season with the Rainiers, the 20-year-old has proved to be very worthy of the praise he receives in and out of the organization. Lopez could also fit nicely in the second spot in the lineup, possibly platooning with Reed in that spot versus left-handers.

Ultimately, Lopez could match the power numbers of a young Bret Boone while maximizing his production by making consistent contact. Not blessed with great speed, Lopez uses positioning and footwork to cover ground in the field and put his plus arm to use when necessary.

The prize of the organization is flame-throwing right-hander Felix Hernandez. The M's handling of the teenager this season is not only proof that he is far more advanced with his mental approach to pitching, but even more evidence that maybe Felix just isn't human. Promoted to Double-A just three months after turning 18-years-old? Wow.

Most onlookers, including yours truly, would have been far too gun shy with Hernandez. Moving such a young pitcher that far up in the minor leagues is as rare as a perfect game and as risky as betting on the M's to beat the Texas Rangers this season. The front office and their scouting and player development departments have obviously done their homework, as Felix has not missed a beat since joining the Missions in the Texas League.

For those of you who missed the Futures Game earlier this month, please allow me to fill you in on what transpired in the second-inning. Felix showed the baseball world how absolutely nasty he really is. During the process of tossing a scoreless frame, Kid K managed to turn a few heads as well.

The three batters he faced are currently ranked No.2, 3, and 5 among positional prospects in Baseball America's mid-season rankings. After Felix finished his warm up tosses, up to the plate stepped Prince Fielder, son of Cecil and the top prospect in the Milwaukee Brewers organization.

The first pitch was a blinding 97 mph fastball that painted the outside corner to the left-handed hitting Fielder. The second pitch was a 96 mph heater that was swung on and smacked into left field for a single. Nice hitting by Fielder.

From one blue-chip hitter to another; next up was New York Mets 3B prospect David Wright. Wright is perhaps the best offensive prospect in the minor leagues, possessing not only the batting eye and power to be a 10-time all-star in the big leagues, but the speed and plate presence to be an MVP as well.

Someone forgot to translate that piece of information to young Mr. Felix.

Three of the most wicked 12-to-6 hammer-style curveballs later, Wright was trotting back to the dugout without anything to show for his at-bat except for a big giant "K" in the scorebook next to his name. Wright was made to look as silly as a fat kid trying to outrun an ice cream truck as it bolts down his neighborhood and away from his house. The kid didn't get any ice cream and Wright sure didn't make contact.

Hernandez is armed with a fastball that often reaches the upper 90's, and a curveball that buckles the knees of anyone that steps into the box against him. Blessed with plus command and a developing changeup to go with his Cy Young-level arsenal, King Felix is the gem in a farm system loaded with solid young pitching prospects, and serves as the biggest ray of hope that the Mariners have boasted since Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were growing up with the franchise.

The baseball fans in Seattle have a lot to look forward to and their hope lies in the hands of the current crop of prospects that are beginning to break through. The three primed to bring the franchise back to the top are as good as advertised. Jeremy Reed, Jose Lopez, and Felix Hernandez are the real deal.

The big three, however, are not alone and have a solid group of both pitchers and offensive players complimenting them. Right-hander Clint Nageotte, and left-hander Travis Blackley are likely to become mainstays in the starting rotation in the very near future and outfielder Shin-soo Choo, who is steadily gaining top prospect status with a very strong showing in Double-A, could make a major league push as early as next season.

Nageotte got his size 14's wet earlier this year and Blackley is currently enjoying the opportunity being given to him as one of the five Mariner starting pitchers.

Nageotte's only hurdle seems to be the lack of command he has displayed for much of the 2004 season. Armed with a deadly fastball-slider combination, the 23-year-old simply needs to harness his "stuff" to become a quality starting pitcher in the show. He is more than capable of toeing the rubber out of the second or third slot in the starting rotation.

Blackley probably just needs experience in order to realize his potential. The Australian native knows how to pitch, and make the proper adjustments within his game plan. Learning comes easy for the M's 2003 Minor League Pitcher of the Year, and his tame arsenal becomes very tough to hit when you add a grade-A pitching brain on top of things. Blackley's out-pitch is his changeup and at times he uses both a slider and a cut fastball to set up hitters. The 21-year-old fits nicely in the three spot in the Mariner's future five.

Reed could eventually be joined in the outfield by 22-year-old Shin-soo Choo, a five-tool talent in his own right. Choo projects as a corner outfielder with a plus arm and plus speed and could very well develop 25-homer power at the plate.

The cupboard is far from bare and the time to develop the young talent roaming the minors is now. But we're only scratching the surface with Jacobsen, and Leone.

While you enjoy the work of Justin Leone and Bucky Jacobsen, just remember that the best of the future has yet to peak its head out from the depths of minor league baseball. But when it does, it's sure going to be fun watching a potential Cy Young award winning pitcher and two all-star caliber offensive players lead this franchise back to the top of the American League West, where it belongs.

Running the risk of sounding like a Cubs fan; wait ‘til next year.

Seattle Clubhouse Top Stories