At the end of the 2003 season the Mariners farm system was buzzing with talk of 17-year-old phenom that toppled over the Northwest League and made a mark in his short stint in the Midwest League. Both are leagues where the average age is closer to 22 than it is to 17, yet the kid ran roughshot over hitters as many as five years older than he.
Coming into 2004, more attention was being aimed at Felix Hernandez, and the Venezuelan responded by turning the California League into his coronation ground and then making the Double-A Texas League his biggest accomplishment yet.
Rolling up numbers that 23 and 24-year-olds would kill for at the same level, Hernandez won 14 games between two levels and finished with a combined ERA of 2.95. A sub-3.00 ERA in two leagues filled with quality hitting is something special on its own, but it was his maturity and durability that impressed the most. Even with 172 strikeouts in just under 150 innings, his biggest plus is the fact that he walked 47 batters all year and never let bad games or tough innings get to him, not that he had a lot of them to begin with.
Hernandez left the California League as the leader in strikeouts and led the 66ers in wins, strikeouts and ERA. After a solid Double-A beginning, the 18-year-old ran into a few rocky starts, only to rebound and win his final three decisions with stellar outings in each. Without a doubt, Felix Hernandez is the M's Minor League Pitcher of the Year.
Hernandez made an appearance in this years' MLB Futures Game in Houston and went one scoreless inning, dazzling hitters with a 97-mph fastball and a devastating curveball. New York Mets prospect David Wright had absolutely no chance and struck out on three pitches, proving to the nation that this kid was something special.
When "Kid K" turns 19 in a little less than seven months from today, he'll begin his third year in the Mariners organization and will still be the club's youngest player in full season baseball.
The M's No. 1 prospect will likely enter 2005 in Tacoma's rotation, and sit by the phone as the big club could be calling at any point. Can you see it yet, a rotation consisting of Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Bobby Madritsch, and Felix Hernandez? Now that is a young and talented starting five that could scare the bats out of an opponent's hands.
On the Ballot:
LHP Bobby Livingston, Inland Empire
LHP Thomas Oldham, Wisconsin/Inland Empire
LHP Shawn Nottingham, Everett
LHP Travis Blackley, Tacoma
In June, the M's player of the year running would have likely ended with Bucky Jacobsen winning the award and Justin Leone, Jamal Strong, and A.J. Zapp picking up votes for strong consideration. Well, needless to say, it's not June anymore and only Zapp, among that group, finished the season in the minors.
Jacobsen and Leone left for the big leagues before August rolled around, and Strong spent most of the remainder of his season on the disabled list, robbing him of both a shot at the award and, more importantly, a September call up.
So that leaves Zapp as the clear-cut winner, right? Wrong.
Since July, a certain outfielder started to play at the top of his game, and with the combination of his bat, his defense in right field, and his speed on the bases, he wrapped up this award by a nose in the last weeks of the season.
The Mariners' organizational riches have been primarily headlined by pitching, pitching, and more pitching in the past five years or so. The shortage of promising position players in the system was glaring and the Mariners were starting to feel that pain out on the playing field.
Thanks to a few solid draft choices, a few decent free agent signings, a solid mid-season trade and the emergence of the Mariners Minor League Player of the Year, the shortage has become closer to a strength, at least in the higher levels of the minors.
Shin-soo Choo's 2004 season was fantastic and in contrast to his 2003 campaign with Inland Empire, he was able to stay healthy and put up big numbers all across the board at Double-A San Antonio.
Choo was hitting in the .270's in May and had yet to make the adjustments to the Texas League that he knew was going to be necessary. The knock on Choo coming into the season was that he could not handle pitches in on his hands and was therefore susceptible to a basic combination of hard stuff in and sliders away. Opposing teams scouted Choo and came with that game plan night in and night out. Did it work?
The 22-year-old from Pusan, South Korea flipped the switch just prior to mid-season and ended the year with top prospect-like numbers.
Choo finished the season with a 15 home runs and led the team with a .315 average and 84 RBI. The five-tool talent also led the club with 40 steals and finished second in the Texas League Player of the Year voting.
Add seven triples, 29 doubles and throwing arm that scares runners in a similar manner that Ichiro's cannon right arm does, and you have yourself a more than worthy player of the year.
On the Ballot:
1B A.J. Zapp, Tacoma
OF Gary Harris, Inland Empire
OF Jon Nelson, Inland Empire
1B John Lindsey, San Antonio
Mariners 2004 Minor League Players of the Year
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