Organizational depth is what turns a franchise with some good top-tier talent into a franchise set up for long-term success. If a club can get the right pieces in the right places, developing top players and role players alike, the system can feed the big league club top to bottom, building a sustainable pipeline to young, cost-controlled players.
Everyone is familiar with the upper end of Mariners prospects and subscribers have seen the entire Top-50, but in these Prospect Depth Chart series we will show you what lies behind the first few prospects, giving our readers an idea as to the quality of depth at each position. This information is used by clubs in planning for draft strategies, targeting players in trades and free agency and knowing which in-house players should be the highest priority for locking up to extensions.
For the purpose of this series, we're only considering players that still have rookie eligibility based on innings, at bats or big league service time. We are also only considering players who's 2013 will be their age 26 or younger season. The depth chart standings are a combination of the player's developmental ceiling, floor and big league ETA. These rankings, while based on information and input that we have received from many sources, are the opinion of SeattleClubhouse and do not necessarily reflect the same rankings for the Seattle Mariners.
With that introduction out of the way, let's get into the first post in the series by covering the players that don the "Tools of Ignorance": The Catchers.
Last season this list was headed up by Jesus Montero, who enters the 2013 season as the big league club's number one catcher. Despite losing the highly-rated Montero, this list still has a lot of impact. Jack Marder ranked 2nd on this list a year ago for us and would again this season if he were still catching, but his concussion issues have moved him away from the position, at least temporarily.
1. Mike Zunino 21 years old, R/R, 6'2", 220 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Zunino absolutely tore up minor league pitching in his abbreviated debut season, hitting .360/.444/.689 during the regular season before crushing in the playoffs and hitting well in the Arizona Fall League. The bat looks special and he earns rave reviews for his leadership and maturity, but his defense and working with a pitching staff could still stand some more seasoning at the minor league level. The M's seem to have bought themselves some time on Zunino with the veterans they brought to camp and Mike seems to realize that the minor leagues will be his home for the start of the 2013 season, but the big leagues could call soon and once he arrives in Seattle, he figures to play nearly every day as the starting catcher.
2. John Hicks 23 years old, R/R, 6'2", 190 lbs
BREAKDOWN: If not for Zunino, Hicks -- who was named the All-Star catcher by MiLB.com for the combined "A" levels in 2012 -- would likely be at the forefront of M's prospect watcher's mind. A good hitting catcher with some surprising speed and a great throwing arm, Hicks has hit .310/.346/.466 with 17 homers and 24 steals while throwing out more than half of the attempted base stealers against him so far since being drafted in the 4th round in 2011. Perhaps a touch old for his level, Hicks' biggest obstacle right now is finding the right amount of playing time at the right level of competition with Zunino also in the minors.
3. Marcus Littlewood 20 years old, B/R, 6'3", 205 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Littlewood switched to catching from shortstop near the end of the 2011 season and he certainly passes the eye test behind the plate. And as I've been told, the Mariners didn't make this move just to try something out with their former 2nd round pick -- they believe he can stick and be a first division type player from behind the plate. His bat advanced in his second season in the NWL in 2012 as he hit .262/.390/.435. The strikeout numbers are still high, but the switch-hitting Littlewood has a lot of tools at the plate and a very strong arm behind it.
4. Tyler Marlette 20 years old, R/R, 5'11", 195 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Marlette is an offense-first catcher although he has improved his footwork and release since being drafted out of a Florida high school in the 5th round in 2011. He has big power that hasn't quite translated to game action thus far, but Tyler still led Appy League backstops in hits, doubles and extra base hits during the 2012 season. One level at a time means that Marlette likely starts 2013 where he ended it, in Everett. If his power starts to play in games more, he could move quicker.
5. Jesus Sucre 24 years old, R/R, 6'0". 225 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Sucre has only been in the Mariners' organization for two years after playing out his 6-year string with the Braves, his original organization. He's a good defensive catcher and has earned raves for his handling of a pitching staff. Sucre threw out 44% of basestealers in 2012 and was named a Southern League All-Star. The right-handed hitter hit lefties to the tune of .318/.363/.412 in 2012 and may turn into a strong platoon option/defensive backup in the future.
6. Steven Baron 22 years old, R/R, 6'0", 205 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Baron was a 1st rounder in 2009 and has been the frustration of many fans of the Mariners minor leagues since. 2012 was his third stay in the Midwest League, and while the bat picked up a bit -- thanks in part to added muscle on Baron's part -- he still only hit .241/.280/.378 and has a career minor league line of only .216/.263/.328 in 1,001 career plate appearances. That said, his defense, throwing and handling of a pitching staff is very advanced and scouts give him great marks in all of those areas -- enough so that some see a potential as a big league backup even if the bat never develops.
7. Mike Dowd 22 years old, R/R, 5'8", 205 lbs
BREAKDOWN: Dowd was Baron's backup to start 2012, but as the latter fell to injuries, the former took off while playing every day. Dowd hit .305/.363/.404 in 42 games in July and August and .294/.346/.376 for the season. There isn't a lot of home run power in his profile, but he also throws exceptionally well, nailing 47% of runners in 2012 and 49 out of 105 (46.7%) for his career. He may have a tough time winning an everyday job along any of his minor league stops with Seattle, but Dowd could still work his way into carving out a nice career as a backup if he continues to develop along this path.
A few more names to know:
Although these guys aren't fully vetted prospects at this point in my estimation, they all do have the skills and the ability to get to that point with what they can show from an improvement standpoint this coming season. At the very least, a few more names to know in the catching depth. Luke Guarnaccia (20, B/R, 5'11", 210), Toby DeMello ( 23, R/R, 6'2", 240) and Christian Carmichael (20, R/R, 5-11", 190).
The talent at the top at the catching position may be the best the organization has ever had. Zunino seems like a sure-fire bet to be a big leaguer soon and a big leaguer for a long time. But don't sleep on the other guys here, as the combination of offensive ability and defensive chops could land several more of them regular action in the majors down the line.
Next we will take a look at the depth among the Corner Infielders in the system. Come back and check it out.
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