Mariners Prospect Watch: Top 10 Misconceptions

InsidethePark's Jason A. Churchill warns, "Don't believe everything you hear." In his latest Mariners Prospect Watch, Churchill breaks down the top misconceptions regarding the Mariners minor league system.

1. The Seattle Mariners Farm System Is Stacked with Blue Chip Talent
With the clear-cut obvious exception of Felix Hernandez, the M's are without a true blue-chip prospect in the entire system. There are a number of quality talents that could turn themselves into everyday players in the big leagues someday, but only Matt Tuiasosopo has the natural talent of a future all-star. Yung-Chi Chen, Adam Jones, Wladimir Balentien and Asdrubal Cabrera all possess the ability to become big-league regulars, but lack the natural gifts that typically make up a major league all-star.

2. Top Prospects Have a Ton of Trade Value
Contrary to the belief of many, not even the best prospects in baseball have as much trade value as established major leaguers of reasonably similar age and/or natural ability. When clubs trade proven MLB players for prospects, the projected status of the minor leaguers they are getting in return usually exceed the departing player's talents and value, because the risks that come with prospects aren't measurable. In pure talent alone, the team obtaining the prospects often receives the more talented package in the deal.

3. Shin-soo Choo is a Table-Setter with a "Little Bit of Pop."
Choo's statistics may suggest that he's a top-of-the-order type offensive player, but his extra-base abilities and moderately high strikeout totals project better in the second half of the batting order. The Mariners see Choo as more of a Raul Ibanez type hitter with Randy Winn type speed, which would make him a perfect candidate to hit in the sixth and seventh spot in a given batting order.

Choo's speed and throwing arm separate him from Ibanez and Winn, and if he reaches his talent ceiling, he could hit for more power than Ibanez and provide a better defensive option than Winn in left field.

4. The Mariners Have an Uncommon Amount of Injured Pitchers
Injuries are the toughest thing to predict in sports and with pitchers it's even more difficult. Scouts look for delivery hitches and deficiencies in the player's physical history and overall health, but without a track record to go by, it's impossible to say one way or the other whether a player is an injury risk. The Mariners have experienced some bad luck with highly ranked pitchers suffering serious arm problems, but a look around the league will reveal that the only difference between Seattle and the other 29 teams in Major League Baseball is that it's happened to their top group of pitching prospects more often. Every team in the league deals with the injury bug on a yearly basis. Look no further than Philadelphia (Gavin Floyd), Baltimore (Adam Loewen) and Houston (Carlos Hernandez, Tim Redding), for example.

5. Michael Morse is an Awful Defensive Shortstop
The word "awful" and Michael Morse should really never be put in the same sentence, even when speaking of the shortstop's defense. What Morse lacks in range and to a lesser extent, footwork and instincts, he makes up for with good hands and steady, consistent play. Through 38 games, the 6-foot-5 Morse has committed just one error and has been the rock in the Rainiers' infield defense. Morse is still unlikely to play the balance of his career at shortstop, but he's yet to prove to anyone that he can't play the position.

6. Seattle Has "Several" High-Quality Pitching Prospects
After Felix Hernandez, the level of starting pitching that could help the M's at the big-league level in the next four or five years drops to the bottom of the rotation. Right-handers Jorge Campillo, 26, and Cha Seung Baek, 24, are one step from the show and Campillo could be inserted into the starting five at any point after getting some time in long relief. In Double-A San Antonio, southpaws Bobby Livingston and Thomas Oldham are quality arms that will give themselves a chance to win every game they ever pitch in, but lack the stuff that would project them to be top-end starters. Right-hander Jason Snyder already has two quality pitches and if his improving change-up reaches average status, Snyder would project as a middle-of-the-rotation starting pitcher. Injured starters Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley need to get healthy before their futures can be reassessed, but at their peaks they were both considered No. 2 and No. 3 starters. Nageotte must regain the velocity he had in Double-A in 2003 and Blackley just needs to fully recover from February labrum surgery that will keep him from action until spring training 2006.

7. Jamal Strong is an Inadequate Defensive Center Fielder
Strong has been lost in Triple-A for three seasons, but through little fault of his own. The Mariners traded for Mike Cameron, then Jeremy Reed and signed Ichiro Suzuki, leaving Strong's future with the club in question. The 26-year-old has prototypical leadoff skills, namely speed and plate discipline, and has performed at high levels in Tacoma in each of the two-plus seasons he's played in the Pacific Coast League.

So why is Strong still in the minors? Other than his knee problems last season that dragged into the first month of this 2005, there is no reason Strong shouldn't be on the Mariners 25-man roster. Most guess that he just can't handle center field – and they are wrong. Strong's defensive range ranks between a 60 and a 70 on the scouting scale and his throwing arm is probably better than that of Reed, who has been the M's starting center fielder all season. Strong should be the M's fourth outfielder and late-inning pinch runner.

8. The Mariners Have Incapable Scouting and Player Development Departments, and a Weak Front Office
If you changed the word "have" to "had" in the title header, the statement would ring true. Through 2003, the M's seemed mired in a rut that produced far too few top talents from their farm system. After Gil Meche (1998) and Joel Pineiro (2000), the previous regime (Woody Woodward) failed to produce a viable option in the starting rotation, a timeframe now going on five years, and the only two draft picks in the last seven years that have reached the majors are Willie Bloomquist, a third-rounder in 1998, and September call-up Rene Rivera, a second round choice in 2002. This shortcoming within the organization forced the club to go out on the open market and make trades and free-agent signings that other clubs, such as the Oakland Athletics and Minnesota Twins, avoided by continually producing their own talent, year-in and year-out.

Since the end of 2003, newcomers Bill Bavasi and Bob Fontaine have teamed with holdovers Lee Pelekoudas, Benny Looper, Greg Hunter and Frank Mattox to form a group of personnel executives that have a plan that they know how to execute. The philosophical differences between both Woodward and Gillick's scouting and player development departments and Bavasi's current crew begin and end with one simple word - VALUE.

The Mariners made a habit of reaching in the first round, attempting to get a top 10 talent in the lower third of the round instead of simply taking the best player still available. In recent years, they've filled that void pretty effectively with international signings such as Chris Snelling, Felix Hernandez, Wladimir Balentien and Travis Blackley.

Bavasi and Fontaine's history of drafting the best players available, as well as being active and effective in the foreign free agent department, coupled with the success that the M's have had as an organization on the international front themselves, provide the club's front office with the necessary abilities to run an effective farm system.

9. Felix Hernandez is an Automatic 20-game Winner and Cy Young Candidate
As unbelievable of a talent that Hernandez truly is, he is still a prospect – a suspect, if you will. He wouldn't be the first highly touted minor leaguer to fail miserably as a major league player. At the raw age of 19, the M's prized pitcher is naturally more susceptible to outside influences becoming a distraction, or the rigors of the game taking effect on the young mind of such a player.

Having established that, Hernandez is one of the more unlikely candidates to fail in this area, with the club guiding him along step by step and protecting their gem to the fullest extent, which would allow for his natural gifts to rise to the surface. But even that doesn't guarantee that the Venezuelan sensation is going to automatically become a 20-game winner or perennial Cy Young Award contender.

From this season on, it's the club's goal to keep Felix away from any and all distractions, disruptions and anything else that may get in the path of the right-handed flame-thrower.

If all of the above result in success, Hernandez will have just one major obstacle to leap over to reach Cooperstown – big league hitters. Stay tuned.

10. Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley Are Finished as Quality Young Pitching Talents
This statement could not be further from the truth. While there are still no guarantees, like with all young, unproven athletes, giving up on these two is a mistake. Blackley's injury certainly puts him on the backburner for the time being, but at full health, the left-hander has all the tools, including makeup and competitive drive, to be a success at the big league level.

Missing all of 2005 is a setback and the 22-year-old will probably not pitch at full strength until mid-2006, but Blackley was never reliant on velocity, making his return to form a slightly higher probability than those who pitch off the 95 mph fastball.

Nageotte has to get healthy too, but his injury could be far less severe than his left-handed teammate, as he waits out a forearm injury suffered in spring training. Nageotte's biggest problem since the start of 2004 has been the loss in velocity from previous seasons.

Typically, the 24-year-old sits between 90 and 93 mph, touching 94 or 95 on occasion, and using both the two and four-seamers to set up his devastating slider, widely considered one of the best in baseball.

For those doubting that "former" top prospects can resurface after losing some luster and become top flight pitchers, look no further than the following trio.

Jake Westbrook was a former first round pick by the Colorado Rockies and a heralded prospect in the Expos organization until he was traded to the New York Yankees in 1999, making his major league debut in 2000 and posting numbers that dropped him off the map of top young arms in baseball.

Heading into his breakout 2004 season, the 27-year-old's career ERA was 5.85 in 34 major league starts, spanning three-plus seasons. After being traded to Cleveland in the David Justice deal in 2000, Westbrook found his way back to the bigs with the Indians, giving the Tribe a viable 1-2 punch with C.C. Sabathia last season. Westbrook finished '04 with 14 wins and a 3.38 ERA in 215 innings, re-establishing himself after nearly four seasons of invisibility.

Jon Garland, 25, was the White Sox top pitching prospect in 1999 and 2000, making his major league debut in 2000, struggling through 13 starts and a 6.46 ERA. After a promising season in 2001 split between the bullpen and the starting rotation, the right-hander put up back-to-back mediocre seasons in 2002 and 2003, combining for a 4.55 ERA in 65 starts.

Needless to say, Garland is back, going 8-0 in his first eight starts of 2005 with a 2.41 ERA for the first place Sox.

Right-hander John Patterson was a first rounder by the Montreal Expos in 1996 and made his big-league debut in 2002 with the Diamondbacks, who signed the Texas native five months after the draft when Major League Baseball granted Patterson free agency after the Expos failed to formally offer the pitcher a contract within the allotted 14 days. The 6-foot-6, 200-pounder was traded to the Expos last season and made the final start ever for the Montreal organization.

Battling through nagging injuries and mysterious ineffectiveness, the 27-year-old is finally blossoming into a top-flight starting pitcher in Washington and is 2-1 with a 2.98 ERA, going six or more innings in five of seven starts.

It may take a few years to fight through some injuries, develop a change-up, or to learn how to pitch, but don't forget about Clint Nageotte and Travis Blackley. They may just turn out to be the next Jon Garland, Jake Westbrook or John Patterson.

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