The Seattle Mariners sent a very intriguing group of eight prospects to the Arizona Fall League this season to compete for the Peoria Javelinas against many of the top prospects in all of baseball. There were good and bad showings statistically, but going deeper than the stats, what did the scouting eyes see? SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall spoke with current MLB.com and Rotowire columnist Bernie Pleskoff, an Arizona resident who attended many of the games this season, to get his honest take on how the Mariners prospects represented themselves in the AFL.
The Mariners organizational talent has, of course, taken a giant leap forward over the past few years since Jack Zduriencik and his staff took over, but we started off our conversation about the Mariners by Mr. Pleskoff bringing up someone who is now a very unfortunate 'could've been'. "This team has some rising talent, but they are really missing Greg Halman right now," he said. "I truly think that he was on the verge of turning into an offensive force at the big league level at the time of his unfortunate passing." Halman showed flashes late in 2011, even squaring up several breaking balls for extra base hits while using the whole field more, but his life ended tragically just a few months after the 2011 season ended.
Turning to the AFL, we first off talked about Nick Franklin. The middle infield prospect who posted a breakout season in 2010 with a 20-20 season for Low-A Clinton, Franklin was also in the AFL last season when he took home MVP honors in the Rising Stars game. The power hasn't shown itself in the form of home runs quite as frequently since that 2010 campaign, but Franklin is still an impact bat at the plate. He hit in the middle of the order (3rd, 4th or 5th) in 15 of his 21 games (including the Championship Game) for Peoria and put up good stats, ranking 2nd overall in the AFL in RBI (22), t-10th in total bases (40) and t-15th in BB (12) while knocking out nine extra base hits. Franklin reached base two or more times in 12 of his starts for the Javelinas, and Pleskoff sees him as an impact player at the major league level, as early as this coming season.
"I've seen a lot of Nick in the last two Fall Leagues as well as in Spring Training and he's made great strides. Especially offensively, and particularly in terms of power." Pleskoff said. He continued, "I see him as a swing infielder that could spell either [Dustin] Ackley or [Brendan] Ryan defensively, but he's definitely an upgrade for them over [Munenori] Kawasaki, who Seattle had in that role last year." Asked what specifically makes Franklin a better option, Pleskoff added, "I think Franklin has big upside and he looked extremely strong this fall, especially from the left side where he consistently drives the ball all over the park. He repeats his left-handed swing much better than from the right side."
On the topic of Franklin's defense, Bernie agrees that his best position is second base, "He's only average defensively at second base and improving, but so is Ackley, frankly." The numbers back up that opinion as Franklin made only one error in over 200 chances at second during the 2012 regular season with Jackson and Tacoma, boasting a .995 fielding percentage, while he committed 14 errors in 284 chances as a shortstop for a .951 fielding percentage there. Franklin's career stats show that he actually has a higher Range Factor as a second baseman (99 games) than as a shortstop (246 games). Going further into the 21-year-old switch-hitter's game Pleskoff stated that Nick, "Has above average quickness, not speed, but his quickness and baseball instincts are above average and that will enable him to steal some bases, too."
Would the Mariners be open to starting the season with such a highly rated prospect as an MLB bench piece? As Pleskoff opined, Franklin is a better option than Kawasaki and likely better than Carlos Triunfel, too. But Triunfel has a spot on the 40-man already and Nick has only 296 plate appearances in Triple-A. Combine that with the likely lack of starts available in the middle infield and this is a tricky situation. But Franklin's offensive potential could end up forcing the Mariners hand if the club doesn't find offense through the trade or Free Agency markets this winter.
If the Mariners are looking for an impact offensive player, the most likely candidate from the AFL is Mike Zunino. Pleskoff called the 21-year-old backstop, "The impact player in the organization. His bat is going to get him to the big leagues." The numbers he accumulated in 2012 certainly back that up. After hitting .322/.394/.669 with 19 home runs in 66 games for the Florida Gators, the third overall pick in the draft hit .345/.422/.636 in 72 games (including AFL and Double-A playoffs) as a pro. Zunino had a walk rate of over 10 percent (10.16%) and a strikeout rate of under 20 percent (19.37%) and his power numbers (13.02% XBH rate and 5.71% HR rate) translated better than expected to the pro game.
"He [Zunino] is much better [with the bat] than I thought he would be at this point," Pleskoff said, "and he's a better defensive catcher than [Jesus] Montero, but he still needs some work with footwork and blocking balls." Bernie did laud Zunino for his strong arm and his ability to call a game, but he said, "His arm is strong and there is good carry there but right now his footwork is still costing him a tick or two." At this point the Mariners have only two carryover catchers on the roster (Montero and John Jaso), and neither has held down a full-time catching position as a big leaguer, but the club has stated publicly that it would prefer to see Zunino start 2013 in the minor leagues.
The Mariners Minor League Player of the Year, Stefen Romero, was on Peoria's Taxi Squad this fall, participating in all team workouts but only appearing on the active roster for Wednesday and Saturday games. A few roster shuffles due to injuries bought him more game time and that extra time left an impact on Pleskoff. "He is an under-the-radar guy that almost no one talks about and he just has an incredible bat. He has a line drive bat that I didn't believe he had. I was really impressed, he had a heck of a showing." Romero, who is still searching for a defensive home, played three games at second base and three games at third for Peoria. "I'm not sure where he'll play," said Pleskoff, "but he had a lot of scouts talking. He could be a big trade chip for them."
How much value Romero -- who was a 12th round pick in 2010 -- would have is an unknown, but he followed up on his .352/.391/.599 regular season by hitting .333/.375/.511 in the Fall League. And he has some versatility. "I saw him play second base and third base and he was passable at both. I'd like to see him more, but I was impressed," said the veteran baseball man.
Pleskoff saw a lot to like from the Mariners in Arizona, but one of the prospects that he didn't come away with good reviews on was the Mariners Player of the Year from 2011. "I don't see it withVinnie Catricala. He had a lot of strikeouts down here and I think his bat is just too slow for good pitching." said Pleskoff. Catricala did start off incredibly slow in the AFL, striking out 16 times in his first 49 at bats, but he raised his average by over 100 points and his OPS by better than 300 over his final 29 at bats. But the struggles in the AFL tacked on top of the struggles of his 2012 regular season have a lot of people backing off on Vinnie. "I had been told he was Troy Glaus," Pleskoff said. "He's not Troy Glaus. He's got some power, but I don't think he profiles that high for me."
Catricala failed to impress, but it was a higher profile guy that was a bigger letdown for Pleskoff. "I saw every one of James Paxton's starts and he's one of my biggest disappointments. He just does not repeat his delivery well." That sentiment has been echoed several times since Paxton first stepped on the field for the Mariners, but Pleskoff's concerns went deeper. "He had a high ERA and WHIP down here. There are good hitters down here, but what is he going to do when he faces really good big league hitters?" he asked. "What really stuck out to me is that he didn't really show me an out pitch -- maybe it's there and maybe he was tired, but mostly 92-93 is what I saw." Paxton -- who turned 24 earlier this month -- did strike out 16 in 12 2/3 innings and has a 10.6 SO/9 rate for his career, 9.3 in 2012, but in Pleskoff's estimation, he hasn't shown that he's ready for a big league rotation. "It's time. They're counting on him. But for me, right now, he looks like a No. 4 or 5 starter."
After two "thumbs down" guys, Pleskoff perked up when he mentioned Bobby LaFromboise. "I'll tell you who I do like as a possible LOOGY is LaFromboise. I like him a lot -- only against lefties, but he is going to get lefties out." Bobby certainly did that in the AFL, striking out 12 of the 21 left-handers he faced, only allowing one hit along the way. "If you can use him in the right situations, he's a sleeper for them. Right-handed hitters see the ball so well with that slinger delivery, but left-handers don't have much of a chance." When I mentioned that LaFromboise was one of the players that needed a 40-man roster spot to be protected, Pleskoff said, "Yes, definitely. Protect him or you lose him to Rule 5."
Of course the Mariners are currently flush with left-handed relievers, having re-signed Oliver Perez as well as having Charlie Furbush and their 2012 Rule 5 pick in Lucas Luetge all of whom performed well in 2012. The Mariners have nine guys that they'd likely want to protect but (currently) only three spots available, so someone is going to be left unprotected.
"I also like Carson Smith a lot," said Pleskoff. "He sinks the ball really well, he's going to be tough to hit. 18 strikeouts in 15 innings down here with only four walks. That's getting the job done." One knock on Carson going back to his draft profile (8th round in 2011) was that the mechanics aren't great. Pleskoff didn't see a big issue there. "When you're getting the job done and throwing strikes, don't mess with the mechanics," he said. Smith posted a 2.90 ERA in the California League out of the pen for the Mavericks in 2012. That sounds good all by itself, but when you consider that he played in the most hitter friendly park in a league where the overall ERA was 5.40 it impresses even more.
And as the Mariners' exception player (the one player the club sent with below Double-A level of experience), Smith showed very well against more advanced hitters. His 18 strikeouts tied for the 3rd most in the AFL among relievers, and the big right-hander had a 2.29 groundout-to-airout ratio while holding opponents to a .212 average in 11 games of action.
While Smith excelled, Logan Bawcom struggled with his consistency throwing strikes and getting hitters out. Eight of his 11 appearances were scoreless, but he had an ERA of 29.70 and a WHIP of 3.90 in the games that he did allow runs. Overall his numbers ended up at a 5.27 ERA and 1.54 WHIP in 13 2/3 innings. Pleskoff didn't see much from Bawcom when he watched the right-hander acquired at the deadline from Los Angeles. "His stuff was pretty straight. I do know that in Arizona the ball doesn't spin like it usually does, so cut him some slack, but he isn't on my radar."
Bawcom also struggled early in getting adjusted to Jackson following the trade before coming on strong late, but he is pretty clearly behind the other arms on this list in the opinion of most. His ceiling is probably a 6th inning guy at this point.
Within the course of our talk (and through our interactions on Twitter of late), Mr. Pleskoff mentioned several times that he is bullish on the direction and the talent of the Seattle Mariners. I asked him to step outside of the AFL and give me some insight into why that was. "I really like Michael Saunders. I've seen big improvements from Saunders and I expect him to have a big year in 2013." Saunders, of course, revamped his swing before 2012 and put together a very unexpected but very solid season playing regularly in center field for the Mariners. But one of the other guys that Bernie liked is the very player who's injury allowed Michael to play so much in 2012. "And I really like Gutierrez, if he can stay healthy. If he can, he is a really, really good player." he said.
In closing, Pleskoff said, "They're going to need to get some pitching and they're going to need one of the other outfielders to come through, but I still really like this club. There are some holes on the roster and they need to improve in areas, namely offense. But with guys like Seager -- who I wouldn't want to face with the game on the line -- they are moving in the right direction."
Mariners fans hope that direction becomes easier to see in 2013, hopefully with a few of these Arizona Fall League graduates chipping in.
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