Jeff's 1-2 game thoughts below.
Last time we checked in on the more interesting talent with Seattle's class-A affiliates in Clinton and High Desert. Clinton has pretty well stacked and High Desert had some interesting guys. How do the Mariner farm teams of the upper minors stack up?
West Tenn Diamond Jaxx - Southern League (AA)
Joe Dunigan, 1B/OF (24) - In 2010 Dunigan will be trying to prove that 1.) his breakout 2009 wasn't just a product of the environment, 2.) that he can continue cutting down on the strikeouts, and 3.) that he can improve his numbers against lefties enough to avoid getting labeled as a platoon hitter. That's a tall order, but while he may not project as a sure-fire regular he is certainly an interesting athlete. Listed at 6'1/240, Dunigan smoked 30 homers but also stole 20 bases last season.
Dustin Ackley, 2B (22) - Do I really need to say anything more? The focus will be on his defense, but a strong showing with the bat would certainly be nice as well. The New Kid could be ready for regular big league duty some time next season.
Carlos Triunfel, INF (20) - Far too many fans have written this guy off after his 2009 season was wiped out due to injury, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I seem to remember some fans calling him "the next A-Rod" back in 2008, which is obviously setting him up for a pretty spectacular failure. But Triunfel is healthy, has lost all his I've-been-stuck-on-the-couch-with-a-broken-leg weight, has shown new maturity and is ready to get back on track. Triunfel figures to see plenty of time at shortstop, but will probably sneak in a few starts at third and second as well.
Alex Liddi, 3B/1B (22) - Of all the power hitters that had breakout seasons in High Desert last year, Liddi may have shown the most "real" improvement. The Cal League MVP still has a lot to prove, however. How far will his batting average fall with a normalized BABIP? His pull power should play anywhere, but can the all fields power he showed last season transfer to a tougher environment? Can he maintain his higher walk rate? Will he stick at third base defensively, or have to embrace a move to left field or first base? He should be one of the most closely monitored Mariner prospects this season.
Michael Pineda, RHP (21) - After 2008 I was skeptical of Pineda's performance because he was known mostly as a control pitcher and control pitchers with lackluster stuff have a nasty habit of carving up the low minors and getting everyone's hopes up prematurely. But then he showed up for the start of the 2009 season with reportedly better stuff and more velocity while remaining a control freak. Unfortunately, two DL stints ruined his coming out party and may have kept him from emerging as an upper echelon prospect nationally. It sounds like his stuff and velocity jumped a bit again this offseason as he continues to grow into his power forward body (he's gained something like 60-70 pounds since signing). One of the more intriguing things about Pineda is his truly unique motion. Please take care of that elbow of yours, Michael.
Dan Cortes, RHP (22) - He's a scout's dream, brings the heat and has had his curve flash as a plus pitch at times, but beyond that he's very much a project. Cortes doesn't know where the ball is going most of the time and doesn't really have anything in the way of a workable changeup, which have many viewing him as a reliever now that he's on the 40-man roster. But he's still young and was considered one of the top starting pitching prospects in baseball as recently as last offseason. This could be a make or break year for Cortes as he'll be a tempting add to the big league bullpen next spring. Of course, the main reason we love Cortes is that the Mariners got him (plus another useful arm) for Yuniesky freaking Betancourt.
Mauricio Robles, LHSP (21) - The talk of Spring Training before Pineda came along and stole the spotlight, Robles is a short and stocky southpaw who throws a four seamer in the low 90s (that would play up in relief), has dramatically improved his changeup and has a curveball that flashes as an out pitch at times. He's also started working on a sinker since coming over to the Mariners in the Jarrod Washburn trade. Like Cortes, control is a big issue and something he'll have to figure out in order to stick in the rotation.
Steve Hensley, RHP (23) - After being tagged as one to keep an eye on out of the 2008 draft, Hensley really started opening some eyes last season. He opened the season with 19.2 scoreless (and walkless) innings with Clinton, warranting a promotion up to West Tenn. After getting knocked around a bit he was sent down to High Desert, where he put together a very successful season in a tough environment. Between his three stops Hensley threw 148 innings, striking out 135 while walking just 40 (10 of which came in three AA starts). Hensley reportedly has a two seamer with good movement that sits in the low 90s, an out pitch slider and a workable changeup. Keep an eye on Hensley's health. He tore his ulnar collateral ligament in college but opted not to have Tommy John surgery.
Nick Hill, LHP (25) - Hill has developed quite a following on the internet since being endorsed by USS Mariner over the winter, but not only did he fail to make the Mariners out of Spring Training, but he was curiously bumped back to West Tenn for the third consecutive year. Hill missed some time fulfilling military obligations and spent last season as he built back his arm strength. Hill gets plenty of ground balls with a high 80s two seamer and changeup, and struck out more than a batter per inning while limiting the walks last season, but has a reverse platoon split. That's not the worse thing in the world since he'll be facing mostly righties anyway, but it would be nice if he could find a way to neutralize lefties, maximizing his utility as a reliever. Hill has a peculiar motion that features a short stride and cross firing motion.
, RHP (23) - For a guy that was supposed to be a big league reliever a year and a half ago, Fields' minor league stay is feeling awfully lengthy after just one season. He still throws pretty hard despite his size and has a filthy knuckle-curve, but Fields struggled all season with control and minor health issues (oblique, dead arm) after being unable to successfully repeat his mechanics, perhaps an ill effect of the contract holdout. Fields put up a few stretches last season where he was virtually unhittable, and just needs to find some consistency if he wants to be pitching in the big leagues.
Even with Rich Poythress starting in High Desert and Greg Halman going to Tacoma, this team is stacked. Not only does the infield feature three prospects that could be considered among the system's top five prospects and the starting rotation one through five could probably avoid embarrassing themselves in the National League, but there is very little roster filler surrounding the top prospects. The guys filling out the roster around the big names-- Peguero, Limonta, Lo, the bullpen-- are fairly interesting prospects in their own right. This squad could probably place better in the standings than many of Seattle's pre-1990s teams.
I am so jealous of anyone in a Southern League town.
Tacoma Rainiers - Pacific Coast League (AAA)
View entire roster (plus Travis Denker. Not sure why he's missing)
Michael Saunders, LF (23) - Unable to show he was ready to be a big league outfielder last season, Saunders has been given some homework. The team has been overhauling his swing since last fall and Seattle's new Director of Sports Science and Performance Dr. Marcus Elliot has noted that while Saunders has great vertical strength, he is lacking in rotational strength, which will hurt his power output. If Saunders can make the new swing work and continues on Elliot's program, he could be the leading candidate to start in left field next season if not sooner.
Ezequiel Carrera, CF (23) - Picked up in the J.J. Putz-Franklin Gutierrez trade, Carrera made a very nice first impression with the Mariners. He hit .337/.441/.416 over 405 plate appearances, the OBP leading the Southern League and among the leaders in all baseball. He also swiped 27 bags and played solid defense in his 91 ballgames. Most see him as a fourth outfielder because of his complete lack of power (which is a result of his swing rather than his physical tools), but his combination of patience and speed have some envisioning him as a future leadoff guy. That would be nice, but I see an extra outfielder who can start in a pinch.
Greg Halman, RF (22) - This is an aggressive promotion for a guy who had his worst season as a pro the year before, leading all of minor league baseball in strikeouts and posting the lowest OBP in the Southern League. This is a change of scenery move, getting Halman into a new environment with different coaches. Will Halman survive against PCL breaking balls? If he sticks there the whole season he'll have a shot at the Pacific Coast League strikeout record of 184. If he's struggling he'll obliterate it, and even if he's going well he'll have a shot at it. Bounce back or not, it'll be fun to see him in person this season.
Mike Carp, 1B (24) - There isn't much to say about Carp that you don't know already. He's a pretty unexciting player and, unless something dramatically changes, will always be the organizations plan B (or C or D) at first base. He's nice to have around, but not a guy you want to plan around. Compared to current big league first basemen, he's middling or bottom rung across the board (mostly bottom wrung). Safe, but boring. Jeff has a Tacoma promotional poster of him tacked up over his bed, however. This is fact.
Watch list: LHP Luke French, 3B Matt Mangini
Tacoma is being used as a holding pen for emergency relievers, catchers and infielders in case something goes wrong in Seattle, which is fine. The outfield will certainly be interesting, but that is about it from a prospecting standpoint with the promotions of Adam Moore and Matt Tuiasosopo. I'm glad I'll get to see Mangini, but he's a pretty solid bust at this point after being taken in the first round a few years ago. Hopefully Tacoma will get some reinforcements from West Tenn in the summertime.