If you traveled around the league and posed the question of what the state of the Seattle Mariners organization happens to be at the present time, odds are that you'd get a handful of opinions.
Some might suggest that the system is depleted of the star-potential type talents that typically litter a top farm system. Since Felix Hernandez has already cemented his roster spot in the big leagues, this would be the correct assessment.
Others might say that the club makes up for the lack of blue-chip prospects with solid depth and an improving level of balance. This, also, could very well be true, to some extent.
The rest of those who responded to such an inquiry would be those who took the path of brutal truth.
The Mariners farm system is, quite simply, not very good - and this is not a fresh concept.
Since drafting Ken Griffey, Jr. in 1987, Alex Rodriguez in 1993 and Jose Cruz, Jr. in 1995, the club has failed miserably through the First Year Players Draft.
These failures have help set up a dark, gaping hole in the organization, a hole the front office has no choice but to fill with money-hungry free agents.
In 1997, the M's tabbed right-hander Gil Meche as their first-round selection. Meche was a flamethrower with a 95-mph fastball out of Lafayette, Louisiana.
Nine years and 115 games later, Meche is on the verge of being non-tendered, after a 44-36 record and a 4.70 ERA in the big leagues.
The M's 1997 draft resulted in 6-foot, 11-inch Ryan Anderson being released last April, never having taken the mound in a Mariners uniform.
The club's draft woes continued in 1998 and 1999 when Seattle chose Junior College left-hander Matt Thornton and high school catcher Ryan Christianson.
Both fought injuries and underachievement while climbing through the minor leagues. Thornton's time in Seattle has been less than promising while Christianson has likely played his last game in the organization - without a single game played in the majors.
The reaching and missing in the high rounds of the draft aren't the only factor in the demise of the M's farm crop. In 2000, the club had no first round pick, due to free agent signings from the previous winter.
The club's first choice that June was southpaw Sam Hays. The fourth rounder compiled a 2-3 record in 18 games before succumbing to arm injuries.
The misery rolled right into the new century, and beyond, as the club reached for name-recognition and selected shortstop Michael Garciaparra with the 36th pick in the 2001 draft.
Garciaparra still has a chance to excel, but clearly, spending a high pick on such a raw athletic talent was neither a wise choice, nor a fruitful one.
In 2002, the M's failed to sign first-round pick John Mayberry, Jr., who was re-drafted this past summer by the Texas Rangers.
The M's seems to have done well with 2003 first rounder Adam Jones, drafted as a shortstop and recently converted into a center fielder.
After two so-so campaigns, Jones took off in 2005, proving his worth as the 37th pick overall two years ago.
The M's blunder that winter occurred when Pat Gillick ignored the draft compensation regulations and signed bench bat Greg Colbrunn, who cost the club a first round pick. Arizona used that selection to snag Conor Jackson, one of the better offensive prospects in all of baseball.
But this is when things began to change - for the better.
Newly-hired General Manager Bill Bavasi brought in Bob Fontaine to be his Director of Scouting and handle the draft.
Without a first or second round choice in the 2004 draft, Fontaine squeezed out a strong draft, selecting shortstop Matt Tuiasosopo in round three, catcher Rob Johnson in round four and Sebastien Boucher in round eight. All three are among the top 25 prospects in the organization.
Thanks to draft protection rules, the Mariners retained their first round pick from the '05 draft, despite the free-agent signings of first baseman Richie Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre.
The change in philosophy came with the change in personnel, and the payoff has already shown great promise. Taking USC catcher Jeff Clement with the third overall pick in this year's draft was both safe, and the right choice.
Fontaine and his scouting staff have significantly improved the system's depth at three positions that were nearly empty entering 2004.
Johnson and Clement join 2001 second rounder Rene Rivera to provide valuable depth at the catcher's position while Tuiasosopo's power potential could blossom, giving the organization their only legitimate power-hitting prospect.
The M's drafted several college arms the past two seasons, providing depth in the pitching department and supplying the system with enough solid pitching to avoid rushing the younger arms that need further development.
With the draft a colossal mess for the better part of 10 years, the Mariners used the international scene to supplement their farm system, signing top talents Chris Snelling, Travis Blackley, Shin-soo Choo, Jose Lopez, and, of course, Felix Hernandez.
Pacific Rim Scouting Director Ted Heid, Director of Professional Scouting Ken Compton, and Director of International Operations Bob Engle have successfully scoured Latin America, Australia and the Asian countries to land premium talents to fill many of the holes the draft left wide open.
With continued success through the draft, and the work of Engle, Compton and Heid outside North America, the system is headed in the right direction. But it's certainly not deep, and is clearly void of a satisfactory lot of true blue-chip talent.
The organization might be in worse shape if it weren't for the independent league signings of left-handers George Sherrill, Bobby Madritsch, and right-hander Jeff Harris, all of whom have contributed positively to the big-league roster.
You can thank former M's scout Charley Kerfeld for the above trio, just don't count on the club taking advantage of the indy leagues like they use to. Kerfeld is now scooping talent for the San Diego Padres.
The club is without a legitimate crop of pitching prospects, leaning on 1999 fifth rounder Clint Nageotte, newly-acquired right-hander Jesse Foppert and 2001 fourth rounder Bobby Livingston to provide the necessary depth from the minors.
Most of the promising arms have yet to reach Triple-A Tacoma with the M's, including Yorman Bazardo, acquired in the trade with the Florida Marlins for Ron Villone, 2003 eighth round pick Thomas Oldham, 2005 draftees Justin Thomas, Stephen Kahn and Robert Rohrbaugh, and Venezuelan right-handers Marwin Vega and Edgar Guaramato.
Without a real-life power hitter in the upper levels, the club is forced to fill offensive shortcoming via free agency. Tuiasosopo is at least three years away, Wladimir Balentien has more holes in his approach than a Top Flite has dimples, and is probably two or three years away, if he can make adjustments.
The catching position is in solid hands, led by the bat and work ethic of Clement, the defensive prowess of Johnson, whose bat may be better than average after all, and Rene Rivera, a defensive specialist who may develop into a viable backup at the major league level.
The middle infield, once an area of abundant talent, is void of the highly-regarded shortstop with Jones moving to the outfield and the likely position change of Tuiasosopo.
Oswaldo Navarro is a solid defender with a below-average stick, and Garciaparra's health is still a major issue, as is Ismael Castro's knee, lack of athleticism and long-term defensive abilities.
The top two talents in the middle are shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera and Luis Valbuena, both Venezuelan signings.
Cabrera is the defensive wiz while Valbuena makes his mark offensively, leading the Northwest League in home runs and RBI this past season.
The outfield crop still boasts of Choo and Snelling, and now has a future center field prospect in Jones. Add Balentien to the group, and slide 18-year-old Michael Saunders and 25-year-old T.J. Bohn into the fold and it doesn't look quite as bare as it could have.
Where the organization lacks talent is at the corners. With just two first base prospects showing up on the radar screen, Bryan LaHair and Thomas Hubbard, the composite slugging percentage of the corner infielders in the system was well-below .500, a benchmark for the two positions.
Overall, the system is in decent shape, but the current scouting and player development departments are still trying to make up for the blunders that took place between 1996 and 2003.
With the scouting and player development doing a better job, and the coaching much improved, thanks to the efforts of Pat Rice, Rafael Chaves and Roger Hansen, the kids are in pretty good hands.
The M's system probably ranks somewhere in the lower-middle of the pack among the 30 teams in the league. But it's on the rise, and there's more to come.
It's no secret that the Mariners have relied on their farm system the past year or so, but not since the pre-Lou Piniella days have they sought so much help from the kids.
With the opening day roster consisting of first or second year players Jeremy Reed, J.J. Putz, Matt Thornton, and Greg Dobbs, The transformation from "veteran-laden" to "youth-induced" was nearing completion.
Fast-forward six months and you'd find that more than half of the 25-man roster was under the age of 30, a far cry from the roster that opened the 2004 season with an average age of over 32.
Expectations were abound for Reed, the multi-tooled talent acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Freddy Garcia trade.
Reed brought with him a reputation for high batting averages, good on-base skills, medium power, good speed and solid defense.
While it's clear he has all of those skills, his rookie year did very little to prove he could turn those talents into production at the major league level.
The system also produced Greg Dobbs, an Oklahoma University product who filled a bench role for much of the season.
As the season fell by the waste side, the M's began beckoning talent after talent from Triple-A Tacoma, starting with the likes of Justin Leone and Shin-soo Choo, and ending with Mike Morse, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Chris Snelling, Rene Rivera, Clint Nageotte, George Sherrill and Felix Hernandez.
Morse opened some eyes offensively, until the honeymoon ended and his defensive shortcomings became all too relevant.
Betancourt used Morse's deficiencies to began his career as the starting shortstop for the M's.
Offensively, Morse was surprisingly good for two months in Seattle, after posting sub par numbers in Tacoma. Then, as he received fewer at-bats and more time in the outfield, his offense sank, as did his value to both the Mariners and any other club that may have interest.
Betancourt was nothing short of sensational defensively, and was far from a black hole with the bat. His extra-base pop was evident at each level this season, including his time in the big leagues. He may already be the best glove man at the position in the American League, with a few apologies to Orlando Cabrera, yet none whatsoever to Derek Jeter.
Jose Lopez is the kid making the slowest progress, but much of that can be attributed to his injury problems the past two years.
Blessed with quick wrists and solid power potential, the 21-year-old fought through a hand injury to put up solid numbers in Tacoma, before struggling mightily in Seattle.
His re-call after more time in the minors may have been a wake-up call. During a four-week stretch in August and September, Lopez hit .273/.334/.447 with two home runs, eight doubles and 13 RBI in 25 games.
Defensively, Lopez improved, but still has work to do in that department.
Ah, Chris Snelling. The kid can hit. The best hitter in the farm system, and maybe the second best pure hitter in the entire organization, behind only Ichiro. A healthy Snelling was hitting, and to the tune of a .382 on-base percentage and a .448 slugging percentage.
Out until at least June, don't count Snelling out for 2006. Of all the things he does well at the plate, his most defining characteristic is his resolve. The kid will be back and as good as ever.
Sherrill just picked up right where he left off in 2004, dominating minor leaguers and doing much of the same in Seattle, especially versus left-handers.
If you are not a Mariners fan, and have a weak stomach, please look away, scroll down an inch and continue reading.
Sherrill owns stock in left-handed hitting, limiting them to seven hits for a .156 BAA. The former indy leaguer whiffed 18 of the 36 lefties he faced, and did not walk a single left-handed batter.
It's safe to say that Sherrill has a place on this team, especially considering that prior to his bad outing on the final day of the year, was limiting right-handers to a .233 average.
Sherrill can pitch. Period.
Nageotte has the worst luck of all time. He's been called up four times in his career. Twice, he was suffering from his worst bout of back spasms of the entire year, the final, an August call-up in 2005, disallowed him to pitch.
Of the other two instances, only once was Nageotte feeling strong, this past season when he made three relief appearances.
Chalk up Nageotte's 2005 as experimental, but the club has yet to finalize their future plans for the 25-year-old right-hander.
Most are convinced that Hernandez is the end-all. Most believe he's the savior that could bring the M's to the promise land.
Most might be right - in both regards. But either way, it's clear that the 19-year-old phenom is the best pitcher the club has ever developed, and is touted as the top young pitcher of the past few decades.
There isn't much left to say about the Venezuelan sensation, so keeping it simple is probably the best bet.
Hernandez is filthy. Nasty. Dirty. His stuff, dubbed "the filth", is only going to get better and that bodes well for Mariners fans, and very, very bad for opposing hitters. The Mariners' opposition finally has something to fear when coming into Safeco - besides the unfriendly confines
|2005||Felix Hernandez, RHP|
|2004||Clint Nageotte, RHP|
|2003||Chris Snelling, OF|
|2002*||Ryan Anderson, LHP|
|2001*||Ryan Anderson, LHP|
|2000*||Ryan Anderson, LHP|
|1999*||Ryan Anderson, LHP|
|1998*||Ryan Anderson, LHP|
|1997*||Jose Cruz, Jr., OF|
|1996*||Jose Cruz, Jr., OF|
|1995*||Alex Rodriguez, SS|
*Rankings from 1995-2002 by Baseball America
Felix joins fellow blue-chippers Alex Rodriguez (1994-95) and Ken Griffey, JR., (1988-89) as potential Hall of Fame talents. Rodriguez and Griffey are surefire first-ballot legends, while Felix has a lot to accomplish before those words can be thrown in his direction.
But the talent is there, and then some. Hernandez makes a case to be in the same prospect conversation as both Rodriguez and Junior, perhaps two of the best players of all time.
Soriano was Baseball America's choice as the M's top prospect in 2003, due to the injury status of Snelling and the emergence of Soriano, a converted outfielder.
In 2004, BA tabbed Hernandez No. 1, while InsidethePark.com stuck with Nageotte, coming off his best season and another year of leading his circuit in strikeouts, rather than choosing a 17-year-old pitcher, considering all the risks involved.
Next: The Graduation Class of 2005. Those no longer eligible will get their season's dissected with a scout's view.