As we covered at the end of August, the Seattle Mariners will have a group of eight prospects playing for the Peoria Javelinas when the Arizona Fall League season kicks off on Tuesday. The Javelinas have a 32-game regular season, and Seattle's players may also be lucky enough to compete in the league's popular Rising Stars Game on Saturday, November 3rd and the League Championship Game, which takes place on Saturday, November 17th.
When the Mariners' prospects headed to Arizona were named, Director of Player Development Chris Gwynn said, "We are extremely proud with the seasons each of these players have had this year and look forward to seeing all of them compete in the Arizona Fall League. The Arizona Fall League allows each player to set goals and work on individual areas of their game, while competing against some the top prospect in the minor leagues."
Of the players Seattle sent to Arizona, everyone will be most interested in watching the Mariners' top selection in this year's draft, catcher Mike Zunino., Taken 3rd overall out of the University of Florida, the 22-year-old catcher started his minor league career on fire for the Everett Aquasox in the Northwest league, where he was named a post-season All-Star despite playing less than half a season there, and his promotion to the Jackson Generals didn't cool his bat off at all. He hit .379 and led the Generals in most offensive categories in the post season as well.
With Jesus Montero looking more and more like a long-term DH as the season wore on, the right-handed hitting Zunino looks like a lock to be the Mariners future at catcher. But while seemingly every Mariners fan out there is already clamoring for the native of Coral Gables, FL, at the big league level to start 2013, the realistic timetable is for Mike to continue to get work at the minor league level – possibly returning to Double-A or possibly at Triple-A Tacoma – refining his catching skills and handling of pitchers to start the 2013 season while continuing to get more pro at bats under his belt.
Shortstop Nick Franklin is in for a second tour of duty with Peoria, having played last year when he was named MVP of the 2011 Rising Stars game after going 4 for 5 and driving in four runs with two doubles and a home run off of the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole. Franklin played great at Double-A Jackson at the start of this season and won the Player of the Month Award for May before being promoted to Triple-A Tacoma. He didn't enjoy quite the same level of success for the Rainiers, but the 21-year-old switch-hitter did still show flashes of plus power and good patience at the plate and showed good defensive actions and instincts in the field while playing both shortstop and second base.
The switch-hitting Franklin, who not too long ago was seen as head-and-shoulders above the rest of Seattle's minor league middle infield options, suddenly has a lot of competition as the top shortstop in the minor leagues for the Mariners, with Brad Miller – who was bestowed with the club's Heart and Soul Award while ranking 2nd in the minor leagues in hits with 186 – playing well at Double-A to end the year and Carlos Triunfel – once the club's most promising prospect – making his major league debut at the end of the season and showing some pop and a strong arm. Franklin played well enough in Triple-A to continue to warrant optimism about his future, but he did show that he still needed some work.
Left-hander James Paxton is probably the least heralded of the "Big Three" pitching prospects (with Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker), but he put together the most consistent season of the three. Paxton was also the only one trending in the right direction as the season ended and he shined for Jackson in the playoffs, not allowing an earned run and striking out 19 (with only three walks) in 13 1/3 innings in the playoffs. He missed time because of a knee injury in early June, but put up an ERA of 2.33 and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.60 in 10 starts in the regular season after returning.
Paxton has a big fastball that can reach the upper 90s and a hard breaking curve that leads to a lot of strikeouts, but his mechanics have been known to fail him at times, leading to bouts of control problems for the Richmond, BC native. That has been better since the knee healed up, and there was talk that the club took extra time with his recovery as it worked on a mechanical issue with his landing that may have played into that knee injury. If James continues to show a better handle on his mechanics and command as he did in the 2nd half, he could enter 2013 Spring Training as a leading contender for a rotation spot in the big leagues with Seattle.
Third baseman/outfielder Vinnie Catricala ended his first season in Triple-A with a slugging percentage more than 250 points below his 2011 mark this year, so getting him back in form in the AFL would be huge for the M's. He shot up prospect charts with his performance last year when he hit a combined .349/.421/.601 while hitting 48 doubles, 25 home runs and driving in 106 runs in 133 games and had entered 2012 Spring Training with the tag of best hitting prospect on Seattle's farm. That label looked legit through February and March as he hit the ball well in both minor league camp and with the big club. But Vinnie's bat started slow and he never really recovered for Tacoma this year.
The right-handed hitting Catricala – who doesn't have a great defensive position fit anywhere on the diamond – appears to have been passed up by a number of hitting prospects within the organization, but a return to even his pre-2011 form could turn that back around and put him very close to the big leagues.
Stefen Romero, the right-handed hitting infielder who was named the Mariners' Minor League Player of the Year earlier this month, did in 2012 what Catricala did in 2011, hitting .352/.391/.599 at the same two stops as Vinnie this season. The 23-year-old Oregon State product slipped in the draft because of a broken arm, but the 12th round pick is a career .318/.368/.534 hitter in his two minor league seasons with Seattle. Romero also hit well and showed the big league staff some good things in MLB camp with the Mariners last year and his Mariners roots run deep, as he told SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall that he has a video of himself saying he wanted to play for the Mariners from when he was just eight or nine years of age.
Romero is on Peoria's "taxi-squad", meaning that he will only be eligible to play in Wednesday and Saturday games. Primarily a second baseman to this point as a professional, one of the goals for Romero – who was a third baseman in college – in the AFL could be to get him more familiar with other defensive positions, most likely third base again and possibly the outfield corners.
Logan Bawcom was one of the Mariners' deadline additions in 2012, coming over from the Los Angeles Dodgers as part of the Brandon League trade. The 23-year-old Texan had some rough early outings as he got settled in with Jackson, but he was very good to close out the year for the Generals. His 25 saves combined for three squads this season ranked 8th in the minors and the former 17th round pick posted an ERA of an even 2.00 this year.
Though he wasn't and isn't a top prospect, Bawcom is considered a fairly safe bet to be a big league contributor soon, probably as a middle reliever. A strong showing in the AFL by the right-hander could have him fighting for one of the very competitive bullpen spots in that role with the Mariners as early as next year.
Bobby LaFromboise was remarkable this season in both Double-A and Triple-A for the M's. The 6-foot-4, sidewinding left-hander really excelled in just his second season pitching strictly out of the bullpen, posting a 1.36 ERA and 1.00 WHIP in 66 1/3 innings with 70 strikeouts. He allowed only one home run all season and held left-handed hitters to a .144 AVG in 123 plate appearances, striking out 41 of them along the way. A former 8th round pick, LaFromboise moved past some of the other left-handed relief options in the organization this year because of that ability to get left-handers out and keep the ball in the park versus all batters.
As is the case with most Mariners minor league relievers, Bobby has been used to pitch multiple innings throughout his minor league career since converting from starter. With that thought in mind, showing that he can consistently get right-handers out with an out pitch will be something to watch for in the AFL so that he has a chance to be more than just a LOOGY in the big leagues.
Right-hander Carson Smith is a fast rising bullpen arm and former 8th round pick, too. 2012 was his minor league debut season and he showed a lot of promise, getting markedly better as the season went along. He had command and control issues early, but pitching at the back-end of the bullpen for High Desert he became a shut-down closer in the 2nd half, allowing only two earned runs over his last 28 appearances (33 2/3 IP). Smith has a herky-jerky motion that causes some deception, but the stuff is real, too, and he missed plenty of bats and got a ton of ground balls in one of the most hitter-friendly environments in all of MiLB.
Drafted out of college in 2011, the 6-foot-5 Smith will be 23-years-old later this month. His age paired with his 2012 success and AFL assignment could mean an aggressive promotion timeline from this point forward for Carson. His ceiling adds to the Mariners' coffers as he is yet another power arm with late-game potential.
Stay tuned to SeattleClubhouse throughout the AFL season for updates on these players and more for the Seattle Mariners.
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