We're going to do this slightly differently than in previous years. From the Mariner perspective, the point of the minor leagues is in developing prospects rather than having our affiliates win games (if you are a huge fan of one of our minor league teams then sorry), and therefore it's more important to focus on player performance rather than game recaps. With that in mind, I'm* going to come up with a list of what I feel are our top 10 or so guys to watch and I'll follow them week by week rather than pretending like I actually care if, say, the Lumberkings win their games. If there's a player you want to track that's not on the list, feel free to add suggestions in the comments. Don't get too uptight over the rankings, as they're all bunched pretty close once you get past the obvious.
Disclaimer: I'm not a minor league expert, nor do I claim to be. If you know more about this sort of thing than I do (not hard) please feel more than welcome to contribute.
#1: Carlos Triunfel, IF (AA West Tennessee)
Without a doubt, Triunfel has the highest upside of any Mariner minor leaguer. You've all heard a great deal about him over the last few years, so you'll know that he's reached AA at 19, has a cannon for an arm and has an incredible ability to make contact. While there are worries that the power may never develop, the real worries are Triunfel's body filling out and forcing him down the defensive spectrum. Or, at least, that was the real worry until he broke his fibula sliding into second base to break up a DP in his second game of the season, which will cost him significant development time. Make no bones about it though, Triunfel is the key to the whole system.
The story so far: In seven plate appearances, Triunfel had a single, a double, and a walk before being severely injured sliding into second base in an attempt to break up a double play.
#2: Phillipe Aumont, RHP (A+ High Desert)
Our first round draft pick in 2007, Aumont is a rare combination of talent and a complete lack of awareness as to how to play baseball. He throws a hard four seamer that can reach mid-90s, but prefers throwing a nasty sinker in the low 90s. Combine this with a power curveball and it's easy to see why he's projectable as a high-end starter or a relief ace, but in order to fufill his potential as the former he needs to work on mechanical issues (his delivery is said to impede command and development of his secondary pitches) and learn to throw a changeup that isn't totally appalling. Apparently that seems like too difficult a path to climb, as the Mariners have decided to make him a reliever after all of 56 professional innings. It's not a good move at this point in his career, and you should hope that the Aumont-to-the-bullpen-experiment is short lived.
The story so far: Aumont had two 1-inning outings in the first week of play, pitching well (no hits, one strikeout) in his first appearance but faltering badly during the second, losing command and walking three batters.
#3: Jeff Clement, C (AAA Tacoma)
Time is starting to run out for Jeff Clement. There's very little question that the lefty can hit, but with Adam Moore showing up as a catching prospect who can actually catch, Clement needs to bring his footwork behind the plate to something approaching adequacy, because right now nobody is going to be willing to give him a job behind home plate in the bigs. Unless he shows defensive improvement in Tacoma (or rakes to the point where they're forced to put his bat in the major league lineup) he'll probably be traded or moved to a different position, which would be a massive hit to his value. After Russ Branyan, he might have the most pure power in the organisation, but at 25 he risks turning into a AAAA bust.
See also: 'Jeffie', 'Captain Sexwagon'
The story so far: Clement has had an inauspicious start in Tacoma. It took him until the third game of the year to pick up his first hit (a single), although he's walked 3 times on the season. This is basically the opposite of what we'd have liked to see. On the other hand, he hasn't been moved off catcher yet. Sub-pessimal!
#4: Michael Saunders, OF (AAA Tacoma)
The second Canadian on the list (behind Gatineaux native Aumont), Saunders is a decent bet to turn into a league average right fielder. He's got the ability to hit for average and reasonable power, enough range that he's been trialed as a centre fielder, and a cannon for an arm. Like many M's prospect, he strikes out a tonne, particularly when he chases breaking pitches out of the zone. He could really use a year of seasoning at AAA to help break him of that little habit, and if all goes well he might be in the mix for a starting job come 2010. Of course, he'll have to recover from offseason shoulder surgery first.
The story so far: Rehab.
#5: Greg Halman, CF (AA West Tennessee)
Everyone's favourite Dutch baseball player had a phenomenal 2008, forcing his way up the prospect lists by hitting 29 homers and stealing 31 bases while being the youngest position player in AA. Halman's strength comes from massive power/speed potential (Dave's compared his best case career to Alfonso Soriano's) as a good defensive centre fielder, with good range, decent reads, and a strong arm. He's also a huge risk to bust unless he figures out how to recongise breaking pitches, because without him making huge strides in that regard, advanced pitchers are going to make him look stupid (we've already seen some of this in this spring's WBC).
The story so far: Halman's played three games, and like Clement didn't get a hit until his third, where he picked up a single and his first home run of the year. He's also struck out five times, which is not good news for those of us hoping for a better approach at the plate from him.
#6: Josh Fields, RHP (AA West Tennessee)
One of our many closers of the future, Fields came to us out of Georgia with the 20th overall pick in 2008, eventually signing with the team earlier this year. We've complained ad nauseum about the folly of taking a reliever with your first-round draft pick, but he's what we've got, so we may as well live with it. Fields has a good fastball (mid 90s, touches 98) and a devastating curve, and he's close to the majors. As soon as he shakes off the rust from his extended break and gets his command back, he should be dominating minor league bats and making his way up to the big league club. Between Fields and Morrow we shouldn't have much to worry about at closer for the next few years.
The story so far: On the plus side, he didn't allow a ball in play in his first outing. Of course, allowing four walks in six batters faced isn't really the result you want in your first appearance of the season. As I mentioned earlier, he's going to be rusty, and we shouldn't be expecting him to step in and pitch perfectly straight away. Watch his walk numbers closely, though.
#7: Juan Ramirez, RHP (A+ High Desert)
Another of our low-level, high upside arms, Nicaraguan Juan Ramirez mowed through the Midwest League as a teenager last year, striking out 113 in 124 innings and posting a 4.18 tRA. His bread and butter is a sinking fastball that sits in the low 90s, but he can rear back and throw mid to high 90s if the situation calls for it. When it's on, his slider can also be very nasty, but his changeup comes and goes. Command is also a little dicey, but Ramirez has plenty of time to work it out. His stuff has been compared to Raffy Soriano's, which can't be a bad thing.
The story so far: Although Ramirez only allowed 3 hits over 6 innings in his first start, he didn't really pitch that well, walking three, only striking out two, and allowing a home run. I'm not sure how much to blame the park for this, though, as High Desert has a nasty habit of forcing pitchers to nibble rather than attack batters. We need our top pitching prospects out of there, and fast. Hopefully we see less walks and more Ks next time around, runs allowed be damned.
#8: Adam Moore, C (AA West Tennessee)
The innocent bystander in the Jeff Clement Saga, Moore is a good catching prospect in his own right, and highly regarded by the current front office. Although he annihilated AA in his age 24 season, hitting 14 homers in a .319/.396/.506 season, he's staying in Tennessee rather than moving up to AAA in order to accommodate Clement. Although his strong arm means he doesn't have Clement-level trouble as a backstop, he's still below-average at blocking pitches, allowing an alarming number of passed balls last year. However, you accept some defensive issues with a catcher who can hit like Moore can. Unless he has a major breakout this year, his season is going to big dictated by Clement's play. Unfair, perhaps, but Clement's potential if he can get his defence in order is far higher than Moore's.
The story so far: Moore has caught two games and appeared as a pinch hitter in a third. He's picked up three hits, including a home run in the first game of the year, but is striking out too much, with five thus far on the year. Unlike Halman, he's a good enough hitter that the Ks probably aren't too much to worry about.
#9: Michael Pineda, RHP (A+ High Desert)
Although he doesn't have the stuff of fellow prospect Juan Ramirez, Pineda's results have been unambiguously better than Ramirez's, putting up a 3.09 tRA in Wisconsin while striking out 24% of batters faced and walking just 6%. His fastball generally sits around 90, but he commands it very well, and he has a very good changeup, which is notable for pitchers his age. His breaking stuff is still a work in progress, but the change makes him much more likely to stay in the rotation long-term than Ramirez or Aumont. His best case scenario is looking like a middle of the rotation control artist, though - he just doesn't have the stuff right now to project any higher.
The story so far: Pineda had a superficially good game in his first High Desert start, striking out seven in 5 IP while walking only two. Digging a little deeper shows that he hit three batters, which makes the outing much less impressive. If he's going to do well this year, his command has to get back to where it was last season. Not hitting 14% of batters faced would be a good start. Of course, High-Desert-being-a-stupid-place-for-pitchers caveats apply.
#10: Julio Morban, OF (??)
Probably the best Mariner prospect that you've never heard of, Morban signed with us for $1.1M out of the Dominican Republic last summer. He's got the speed to play centre, but his defence isn't the impressive part of the package. He's apparently got a great feel for hitting, the strike zone, and adequate power as a 16-year old. He's yet to play much pro-ball and probably won't be assigned to a full-season league to start the year, but this is a guy you want to keep your eye on. In this system, only Triunfel has comparable potential.
The story so far: N/A
Mario Martinez, 3B (A Clinton) - Good hitting third baseman who should develop some power. He's why Tuiasosopo will never be a long term replacement for Adrian Beltre. .222/.419/.222 so far in 12 plate appearances
Dennis Raben, 1B/OF (A+ High Desert) - Plus power, lots of walks and strikeouts. You could easily imagine him turning into Adam Dunn with defence, if you also imagined Adam Dunn being done for the year with knee surgeries.
Jharmidy DeJesus, 3B (SS Everett?) - Basically the same prospect at Mario Martinez, with a little more potential, less polish, and an amazing name. Tui is pretty boned. Everett haven't started their season yet.
Maikel Cleto, RHP (somewhere in the DR) - When you have a 100 mph fastball and some idea of where it's going as an 18 year old, you deserve to have some attention. Unfortunately Cleto is stuck in the DR with visa problems. No indication of when he'll be back.
Denny Almonte, OF (A Clinton) - All tools, no production. But the tools are pretty incredible. If he ever figures out how to play baseball, we'll suddenly have a real prospect on our hands, which is why he's worth paying attention to. .300/.462/.400 in 13 plate appearances, including 3 walks. Progress!
*And by "I'm" I mean "I am going to look at the Future Forty and the BA Prospect Handbook and do some sort of amalgamation".