Shin-soo Choo , RF
Age at end of 2004: 22
2003: .286/.365/.459, 9 HR, 55 RBI, 18 2B, 13 3B, 18 SB at Inland Empire
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 1 OF, No. 5 overall
2004: .315/.382/.462, 15 HR, 84 RBI, 17 2B, 7 3B, 39 SB at San Antonio
Choo is known as the premiere five-tool talent in the Mariners organization, and in 2004 he did nothing but improve his claim to that title. The strong-armed South Korean outfielder improved virtually all of his offensive statistics at Double-A San Antonio, doing so at a home field known to be a pitchers' park. Choo's ability to make contact and use the whole field makes him a prime candidate to bat at or near the top of the order, and his strong arm and plus instincts in the outfield allow him to play any three spots. He projects as a corner outfielder, however. While with the Missions, Choo showed improving power (15 HR after 9 HR in 2003) and speed (39 SB after 18 in 2003), two things the M's like to see.
The inside pitch is known to be Choo's bugaboo, giving the soft-spoken 22-year-old fits during stretches during his career. He's well aware of this, as are the Mariners, and in order to be successful at the higher levels – Triple-A and the big leagues – Choo will need to learn to drive the hard stuff in on his hands.
Choo improved his game leaps and bounds last year from where it was at before, shooting his stock through the roof heading into 2005. He'll almost surely start the season at Triple-A Tacoma next season, barring a trade, and will continue to focus on ironing out the hole in his swing as well as becoming a bigger threat on the base paths. He really turned it on late last season, stealing a ton of bases down the stretch, and will look to build off that when he joins the Rainiers.
Chris Snelling , LF
Age at end of 2004: 23
2003: .333/.371/.468, 3 HR, 25 RBI, 12 2B, 2 3B, 1 SB at San Antonio; .269/.333/.433, 3 HR, 10 RBI, 2 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB at Tacoma
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 2 OF, No. 6 overall
2004: .312/.476/.500, 0 HR, 9 RBI, 4 2B, 1 3B, 1 SB at Peoria
When healthy, and I repeat – when healthy – Snelling is probably the best pure-hitter in the M's organization. The Australian left-handed hitter has gap power and a rare ability to drive the ball all over the field. While his power isn't great, he has the ability to hit extra-base hits with the best of them, as is evidenced by his 80 doubles and 23 triples as a minor leaguer. Snelling is smart at the plate, using the count to his advantage and striking out little more than he walks. In the field, he has a major league average arm and fair instincts that project to left field.
Injuries to his knee, thumb and most recently his wrist have limited the 23-year old to 106 games over the past three seasons. The lack of playing time combined with the mounting injuries has done nothing but derail the once-promising development of this hitting-machine. Another injury and Snelling will be thought of as the position player equivalent to Ryan Anderson.
Simply put, Snelling, like George Kenneth Griffey Jr., needs to prove that he can stay healthy for a full season. He'll likely begin 2005 at Triple-A Tacoma if he can make it through spring training in one piece. Let's not forget, he'll only be 23 years old at the start of the 2005 season.
Greg Jacobs , LF/RF
Age at end of 2004: 28
2003: .357/.432/.576, 9 HR, 64 RBI, 35 2B, 7 3B, 4 SB at Inland Empire; .310/.351/.389, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 7 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB at San Antonio
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 4 OF, No. 20 overall
2004: .310/.370/.503, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 13 2B, 1 3B, 1 SB at San Antonio; .320/.388/.523, 9 HR, 30 RBI, 13 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB at Tacoma
Like Snelling, Jacobs is an exceptional left-handed hitter with gap power who can catch fire like few others can even dream of doing. At 5-foot-10, Jacobs isn't a big guy but he makes up for it with a muscular frame that he uses to his advantage on the field. In batting practice, he enjoys peppering the right field wall with line-drives rocketed off his bat. In games, when at his best, he does the same. A former pitcher, Jacobs also has an exceptionally strong arm. It was on display during a mid-summer game at Cheney Stadium when he caught a ball flat-footed from deep right field and threw out a runner attempting to tag from third base. He projects as a corner outfielder.
Age is a big factor for Jacobs, who at 28 years old could be in for a make-or-break season in 2005. Jacobs is limited in the speed department and his muscular build makes him prone to the occasional tweak and pull.
In order for Jacobs to have a chance at getting to Safeco Field, he'll likely have to make it happen by staying healthy and tearing the cover off the ball from the start of the season on with Tacoma in 2005. Players don't get to the majors due to their defense in almost every case, they get there because of their ability to hit the ball. With the clock ticking down, Jacobs will need to show he can do that better than anyone else for a chance at the show next season.
Jamal Strong , CF/LF
Age at end of 2004: 26
2003: .305/.390/.371, 2 HR, 19 RBI, 6 2B, 1 3B, 26 SB at Tacoma
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 5 OF, No. 22 overall
2004: .324/.421/.424, 3 HR, 24 RBI, 11 2B, 2 3B, 19 SB at Tacoma
Few players in the M's system are as adept at stealing a base as Strong, a greyhound of a man who will be entering his sixth season in the organization in 2005. Strong swiped 19 bases in 2004 at Triple-A Tacoma despite a nagging knee and hamstring problems, bringing his minor league total to 236 over a five-year span. Strong's specialty is getting on base, as is evidenced by his .421 on base percentage in 238 at bats with the Rainiers this past season. While he doesn't walk a whole lot, he strikes out even less; similar to the approach Ichiro takes at the plate.
In recent years, strong has been bothered by injuries and it has caused his best tool – speed – to diminish considerably from his earlier years in the organization. This, after all, is a guy who stole 95 bases in 2000 and 82 in 2001. Without that track-star speed, Strong becomes much less of a threat. He doesn't have that extra-base power, hitting just 63 doubles in his five minor league seasons, and has the power of Juan Pierre with only seven career homers in the minors.
More than anything, Strong, at age 26, will need to regain that incredible speed that put him on the map. In order for the M's to see him as a real asset to the big league club, as a pinch-running specialist if nothing else, Strong has to show that he's put the injuries behind him and can steal a base at any given time. He'll likely begin 2005 at Triple-A Tacoma, joining Choo and possibly Snelling in the outfield, and will have tough competition in making a splash big enough for the M's to bring him up to the bigs.
Wladimir Balentien, LF
Age at end of 2004: 20
2003: .283/.363/.658, 16 HR, 52 RBI, 12 2B, 5 3B, 4 SB at Peoria
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 6 OF, No. 26 overall
2004: .277/.315/.519, 15 HR, 46 RBI, 12 2B, 3 3B, 10 SB at Wisconsin; .289/.357/.474, 2 HR, 5 RBI, 1 2B, 0 3B, 1 SB at Inland Empire
As far as raw power goes, nobody in the M's system even approaches what Balentien brings to the table. After making a large impression in 2003 while with Peoria of the Arizona Rookie League, Balentien skipped Everett in 2004 for Mid-A Wisconsin and continued to put his power on display in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. The 20-year-old crushed 15 homers in 260 at bats with the Timber Rattlers, warming up after a slow April. He also showed good instincts on the base paths, swiping 10 bags and only being caught twice.
Strikeouts are the main concern with Balentien. As a young player, he has often went into long stretches where he falls back into his old habits and swings at bad pitches. When over-aggressive at the plate, it causes his mechanics to get out of whack.
The 2005 season will be a huge one in the development process for Balentien. Heading to the drier air and greener pastures of the California League, a big season is not too difficult to foresee. Balentien will need to bring his concentration at the plate to a new level, staying within himself to work the counts in his favor by laying off the bad pitches. If he does that, his batting mechanics will only improve and his stock in the system will skyrocket.
Jon Nelson , LF
Age at end of 2004: 24
2003: .264/.292/.432, 16 HR, 91 RBI, 38 2B, 2 3B, 13 SB at Wisconsin
Post-2003 Ranking: No. 3 OF, No. 15 overall
2004: .303/.398/.497, 19 HR, 95 RBI, 30 2B, 5 3B, 26 SB at Inland Empire
At 6-foot-5, 210-pounds, Nelson has the combination of height and speed that few possess even at the major league level. The name that comes to mind is Derek Lee as a direct comparison. Nelson began his professional career in 2002 as a first baseman and stayed there for a second season at Wisconsin in 2003, but last year he made the move to left field at Inland Empire. And by all accounts, the 24-year-old excelled in the outfield, using his plus-speed and rangy physique to track down flies. At the plate the hulky giant of a man has exceptional power and put it on display all season for the 66ers, hitting 19 homers and 30 doubles. No hitter on the Inland Empire roster was as consistent as Nelson in 2004.
The big knock on Nelson is his lack of plate discipline, and for the third season in a row one needs to look only at his strikeout-to-walk ratio to see that. He struck out 154 times and took just 25 walks in 2004, and his two seasons before that weren't any better. In 2003, the ratio was 168-to-16 and in 2002 it was 96-to-14.
If Nelson is going to continue to have success in the upper minors, he's going to have to find a way to become less of a free swinger. His defense, while solid, won't get him to the major leagues on its own. A likely candidate to begin 2005 at Double-A San Antonio, Nelson will look to continue to drive the ball while drawing more walks and cutting down on strikeouts. With a lack of depth at first base throughout the M's system, don't be surprised if Nelson revisits his past and returns to first base at some point in the future.
Next: Ian Levin reviews the system's top catchers, Thursday, November 11.
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