Minor League Roundup

Troy Sowden is back after a week's vacation and delivers another edition of the minor league wrap-up. Come and find out who the hottest hitters are, and which arms have survived the test of the hot summer.

The minor league seasons are fast approaching their conclusion, which for most leagues occurs sometime Labor Day weekend. Of course, in the big leagues, September represents two things; pennant races and roster expansion. As Mariner fans, we will have to be content looking forward to one of those two this year.

Triple-A: Tacoma Rainiers, Pacific Coast League
72-54 (1st in Northern Division)
Week of August 16-22: 6-1
This team should be in shambles. At last count, the Rainiers had made 139 transactions on the year. The pitching staff is almost unrecognizable- Craig Anderson is headed to the gold medal game with his native Australia in the Olympics, while almost all of the rest of the opening day starting rotation is pitching in Seattle. The offense doesn't quite look like it did a couple of months ago either, as the DH and left side of the infield have also moved north. Despite this state of flux that has accelerated as the year has gone on, Tacoma just keeps winning - they rattled off seven straight before a Sunday loss to Portland. Credit for the amazing stability through constant transition goes out to basically everyone involved, especially manager Dan Rohn, pitching coach Rafael Chavez, and of course the players, all 62 who have seen the field for the Rainiers this year. With just sixteen games left on the season, Tacoma is still clinging to a narrow division lead the Portland Beavers, and this scribe at least believes Rohn's bunch will find a way to hold them off.

In the absence of names like Jacobsen, Leone, and Lopez, center fielder Jeremy Reed is the star plate prospect. The line drive hitting lefty smacked 11 more base hits this week, giving him 57 in 47 games with Tacoma. In those contests he has also scored 31 runs, gathered 30 RBI, and swiped nine bags in 11 attempts. His average keeps rising and now sits at .311, with an on-base percentage over .370 and slugging percentage comfortably above .450. Reed seems sure to be a September call-up, but exactly when he dons a Mariner uni may depend on how deep Tacoma moves through the PCL playoffs.

While Reed has center field locked down until the M's promote him, the rest of the outfield is a little more perplexing. Jamal Strong had knee surgery and is likely out for the rest of the year, including the postseason. Greg Jacobs has not played since last Tuesday, when he went 2-3 with a double, raising his average to .304. He was suspended for undisclosed reasons, but had just been reactivated when he went back on the suspended list for what was called "personal issues".

With both of those prospects out, the Rainiers outfield has seen various combinations of lesser prospects like Vince Faison, Elpidio Guzman, Jim Horner, and utility-man Luis Ugeuto flanking Reed. No doubt Rohn and Reed are glad to have Jacobs' rocket arm and hot bat back in the fold. Surging 1B A.J. Zapp presents one of the more intriguing cases for the organization as September looms. With 94 RBI, the former first-round pick of the Braves is now third in the PCL. Plus, his 52 extra-base hits easily lead the team. At 26-years-old it is probably too late to consider the Indiana native a top prospect, but his slick glove and solid bat would seem to at least warrant a major league look.

Travis Blackley continued his up-and-down return to Tacoma. The young lefty went 6.1 strong innings versus Fresno on Tuesday, allowing but three hits and one run while striking out eight. Then on Sunday in Portland he started the game, and went one full inning and did not record an out in the second before a rain delay ended his outing. The game was continued though, and the two runs Blackley yielded ended up costing him a loss, dropping his record to 8-5 and his ERA to 3.61.

Double-A: San Antonio Missions, Texas League
Second Half Season:
28-26 (Second in West Division)
Week of August 16-22: 3-3
The Missions split a double-header with Wichita Wednesday, setting the tone for their .500 week versus the Wranglers and Tulsa Drillers. While the Missions have stumbled to a 7-10 record in August, Round Rock has gone 14-6, including 14 of their last 16, to quickly move from 5.5 back of San Antonio on August 5 to 2.5 up now.

Despite the mediocre stretch for the team, OF Shin-Soo Choo has been a model of consistency, and his name is all over the Texas League statistical rankings. His average is hovering at.307, good for fifth in the league, while his 145 hits place him third. His 74 RBI rank him sixth, his 33 stolen bases are fourth, and his seven triples tie him for second. Oh yeah, his OPS of .828 is twelfth, quite impressive for a smallish 22-year-old who is just starting to discover his power stroke.

One of the guys ahead of Choo on the OPS list is his teammate, 1B John Lindsey. At .838, Lindsey's OPS places the slugging 27-year-old eighth in the league. If A. J. Zapp in fact makes the Mariner's roster next year, Lindsey is poised to keep the Rainier lineup from missing a beat.

No discussion about the Missions is complete without looking at Felix Hernandez. Adequate superlatives are in short supply when discussing this phenom, who is likely the best prospect in all of baseball. The right-handed pitcher started the marathon game at Tulsa on Friday, striking out eight in seven full innings and leaving with a 3-2 lead. The bullpen blew the save, before Lindsey's 13th inning two-run shot gave the Missions a 6-4 win. That strong showing from Hernandez left his Double-A ERA at 3.97.

Advanced-A: Inland Empire 66ers, California League
Second Half Season:
31-26 (Second in South Division)
Week of August 16-22: 2-5
The 66ers poor week dropped them to 3.5 back of the Lancaster Jethawks. With 13 games left, including a four game set at Lancaster, the 66ers still have time to overtake their rivals to the north and earn a automatic playoff berth.

It isn't too hard to find the reason behind last week's woes. After starting the week off with four doubles and three homers in a 10-3 win over High Desert, the 66ers had a power outage. They tallied just 13 extra-base hits in their next six contests, and only one of those was a long ball.

Carlos Arroyo provided that lone home run on Wednesday, and not coincidentally, Inland Empire won that game over Bakersfield. Arroyo, the Sixers' regular right fielder, has quietly posted a decent year. The 24-year-old ranks fifth in the California League with a .321 average. His on-base (.356) and slugging percentage (.422) are not overly exciting, but Arroyo deserves credit for putting together a respectable season.

Red-hot SS Erick Monzon hasn't slowed down a bit, as he raised his average 12 more points to .339. If he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting crown, he would rank second in the California League. Likewise, his on-base percentage of .381 would rate ninth, and most impressively his .591 slugging percentage would lead the league.

Speaking of quiet performances and players who haven't been in the league long enough to qualify for statistical titles, LHP Troy Cate has rebounded from injuries and a disastrous stint in San Antonio to put up some nice numbers. In 20.2 innings at Inland, Cate has struck out 24 batters while walking just six. With a record of 3-0 and an ERA of 2.61, it's just a matter of time before the 23-year-old Cate gets another shot at the Texas League.

Rett Johnson's return to the mound has been promising thus far. The righty just turned 25 last month, and is young and talented enough to push for a spot in Seattle next year. Thus far in his comeback, Johnson has given up three runs in nine innings while striking out eight and walking five. His first decision of the year came in the form of a loss on Friday against Modesto, but that outing was his longest to date as he went four innings, and chances are good that he'll be able to go five in his next start, making him eligible to pick up his first victory on the season.

Intermediate-A: Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, Midwest League
Second Half Season:
Week of August 16-22: 1-5
After a nice run to get out of the cellar, the T-Rats find themselves in last place yet again, nine games and seven places behind Kane County. As with the 66ers, the reason for their slump is clear - a huge lack of offense. Wisconsin was shut out twice this week, tallied two runs in three games, and "exploded" for three scores in the other. If you didn't know better, you would think these guys already played for the Mariners.

The team ERA of 4.45 ranks twelfth out of 14 clubs, so it's not as if they can overcome such offensive droughts by shutting teams done. To win, the Rattlers need to hit.

Obviously, the team misses slugging OF Wladimir Balentien, who just finished his Olympic duties for the Dutch. Due to the at-bats he's lost while in Athens, Balentien no longer has enough trips to the plale to register amongst the league leaders, but his .519 slugging percentage would place him fifth, with no one particularly close behind him. Wisconsin will surely welcome him back to the States with open arms.

A solid power surge had SS Adam Jones sitting on 34 extra-base hits when he hit his tenth home run on August 6. Since then, however, the 19-year-old has continue to hit singles, but his power stroke has all but abandoned him, as he's smacked just three doubles without a triple or round-tripper to speak of. A slump like this is to be expected of a youngster at the end of his first year of full-season ball, and should not be cause for too much concern within the organization.

Sweet-swinging lefty Bryan LaHair has also hit a bit of a slump. The tall 21-year-old first baseman saw his batting average drop 10 points to .290 and his slugging percentage fall 22 points to .450 last week. Still, the Mariner's 39th round pick in 2002 probably has the biggest upside of any first bagger in the system.

Short-Season-A: Everett Aqua Sox, Northwest League
37-25 (1st in West Division)
Week of August 16-22: 5-1
Easily the most complete team in the entire farm system, the Sox just keep on rolling. Those of you fortunate enough to live in the Seattle area should definitely get up to Everett to catch the last three games of the Frogs' series with Vancouver. With two weeks left, the Sox lead the Canadians by just two games, making this set pivotal in this good old-fashioned pennant race.

On the hill, Shawn Nottingham has firmly established himself as the premier pitcher in the Northwest League, as well as the lower levels of the M's organization. The left-hander is just 19-years-old, but with above average stuff and great command, he seems poised to fly through the farm system. Another dominant start Friday saw Shawn surrender a solo run in eight, four-hit innings. Most exciting, he struck out 12 while walking just one, giving him 75 K's in 77 innings.

Throwing off the other side of the rubber, Jason Snyder has started to garner some attention of late, and deservedly so. Like Nottingham, the 21-year-old was a sleeper pick by the M's in their impressive 2003 draft. Plucked in the 17th round, Snyder played one more year for the small Utah school before signing with Mariners. After a brief stint with the Peoria M's where he had a 2.88 ERA in 25 innings, Snyder was called up to Everett and immediately plugged into the Aqua Sox rotation.

In six starts Snyder's record sits at just 1-2, but he has struck out 27 batters in 31.1 innings, and his ERA is a crisp 2.59.

At the plate, the inevitable return to earth of Matt Tuiasosopo has finally occurred. The young shortstop created ridiculous expectations for himself with his blazing professional start, and has now proven that he is in fact 18-years-old and but two months removed from high school. In 17 games in Everett, Tui's numbers are now a more rational .286/.352/.444. Don't expect his cold streak to last though. There's too much dynamite in his bat for it to stay quiet for long.

Totally under the radar, C Brian Schweiger has exploded at the plate. The M's 16th round pick in 2003 (there's that draft again!) out of Cal State San Bernadino, Schweiger has pounded Northwest League pitching in his 58 at-bats for a .310 average. Look a little closer though, and his year has been even more notable. Fourteen walks give him a sick .474 on-base percentage, and eight extra-base hits (including three dingers) have his slugging percentage sitting at .552. Schweiger is a tad old for the Northwest League, and will have to prove he can continue to hit at higher levels. That said, any catcher with a 1.026 OPS is going to get ample chance to prove himself.

Rookie: Peoria Mariners, Arizona League
Second Half Season:
12-11 (3 GB)
Week of August 16-22: 2-4
The never-ending saga of Chris Snelling has taken another negative turn, as the star-crossed outfielder has again been sidelined by injury. This time, it is irritation on the bone below his left elbow, and it has shelved the Australian for over a week already. Optimism that the once lofty prospect can ever remain healthy long enough to contribute at the big-league level is at al all-time low. Here's hoping the likeable Snelling can fine a magic pill and prove all his doubters (myself included) wrong. He's an easy guy to root for.

On a much brighter side, many of the rookie-league Mariners are making a splash in the desert. The Mariners' offense is tops in the league with a .289 average and second in runs scored. Catcher Daniel Santin and 1B Luis Soto lead the M's attack, as both rank in the league's top five in batting average and slugging, with Santin also coming in third in doubles.

As a whole, the team's pitching hasn't quite kept up with the hitting, but right-hander Oliver Arias is tied for first with five wins and is tied with lefty teammate Paul Fagan for second in the league with 51 punch-outs. Both Arias and Fagan have plenty to work on though, as Arias is second with 6 home runs allowed and Fagan also comes in second with 28 walks.

Left-hander Adam Brandt's light continues to shine bright on the Peoria hill, as he is now 2-1 with three saves in 11 appearances, all in relief. He's tossed 17.1 innings and registered a noteworthy total of 21 strikeouts, against but 5 walks. Also impressive, Brandt has yet to give up a home run.

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