Evaluating Mariners' top prospects

Ed Zurga

As we eagerly anticipate the development of up-and-coming stars like Taijuan Walker, D.J. Peterson, and Danny Hultzen, let's take a look back at some of the M's first draft picks.

With the wealth of information at our disposal these days, it's hard to remain uninformed about the Mariners' latest prospects. From rankings to interviews to scrutiny of every minute minor league detail, the state of the M's farm system is up for discussion and dissection almost as much as their major league counterpart.

This month, both Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs revealed their rankings of the Mariners' top 10 up-and-comers in 2014, with slight variation in their valuations. If you haven't seen them yet, the lists are laid out in the table below:

No. Baseball Prospectus FanGraphs
1. Taijuan Walker Taijuan Walker
2. D.J. Peterson D.J. Peterson
3. James Paxton James Paxton
4. Victor Sanchez Victor Sanchez
5. Edwin Diaz Danny Hultzen
6. Luiz Gohara Tyler Pike
7. Chris Taylor Edwin Diaz
8. Tyler Pike Luiz Gohara
9. Tyler Mariette Chris Taylor
10. Gabriel Guerrerro Austin Wilson

Over the next decade or so, we’ll be able to monitor the progress of the prospects listed above. It’ll become apparent which projections were off and which were on target. Maybe Taijuan Walker will live up to his billing as a No. 2 starter. Maybe Danny Hultzen won’t be able to bounce back from rotator cuff surgery as quickly as we’d like, if at all.

While it’s difficult to predict how these prospects’ future careers will pan out, we can take a look back at some of the Mariners’ former first-round draftees and see if they held true to their scouting profiles. Thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame, we have limited access to scouting reports from the 1970s and 1980s.

Let's take a look at Seattle's first three first-round draft picks* and see how they fared.

*Excluded is 1978 first-rounder Tito Nanni, whose scouting reports were not made available on baseballhall.org. To compensate for his absence, I included 1980 pick Darrell Coles.

1977: Dave Henderson

Minnesota Twins' scout Lee Irwin, 1985:

"David Henderson is a slightly better than average outfielder. He plays either right or center with equally [sic] ability. His arm is average for both fields. He makes average contact and with average power. He has never played to his maximum potential. He has the reputation of being a "dog" on the field. His reputation off the field is also poor. He could not help the Twins."

Seattle Mariners’ scout Steve Vrablik, 1986:

"Chance – has never reached his potential. Tries to pull everything – need bat discipline. Extra base power. Had physical problem – knees – chronic hamstrings. Has tools – mental approach?"

At 18, Henderson went in the first round of the 1977 draft pick, the 26th pick overall and the Mariners’ first of their burgeoning franchise. He bypassed Double-A in his minor league development, playing his first full Triple-A season at 21 years old and breaking into the majors the following year. The jump from Single-A to Triple-A met with a sharp drop in offensive production – where Henderson had dominated in San Jose, batting .300 with 27 home runs and 19 stolen bases (in 23 chances), he could only maintain a .279 average in Spokane, hitting 7 home runs and getting caught in 10 of his 26 stolen base attempts. In the majors, the 22-year-old faced even more adjustment, batting under .200 in 59 games with 6 home runs and just two stolen bases.

By the time the above scouting reports were written, Henderson had reached the end of his time with the Mariners. Over six years, he averaged a batting line of .257/.317/.433 as the M’s center fielder. The best days of his career, including two MVP nominations, a game-tying shot in the 1986 ALCS, and a World Series championship were all ahead of him.

1978: Al Chambers

Major League Scouting Bureau’s Brad Kohler, 1979:

"Super body, features of Dave Parker […] Power and overall tools. Ball jumps off bat, like shot out of cannon, bat generation with outstanding power. Potential, amazing speed for his size, keeps improving. Arm strength playable for LF. Mostly straight away but has pull power. Arm strength not seen to be major league. Average. Can play LF with it. With pro playing time and instruction fielding will be average. In outfield, tools better suited for LF. Seen in 2 games plus outstanding workout, seen more of his overall tools in workout than possible in H.S. games. Defense major-league with power plus speed. Has improved time to 1B."

Minnesota scout Lee Irwin, 1985:

"Albert Chambers is built like Superman. He puts on quite a show during BP hits balls out of sight. He has a poor arm almost unusable. Also appears to be a poor defensive player."

The first No 1. pick of the Mariners’ franchise, Chambers found his way to the major leagues after a quick ascension through the farm system. Despite having the unique combination of Superman’s finesse and an "unusable arm," he wasn’t given more than a month of solid starts, and finished his first year with just 31 games on the books.

The two ensuing and final years of his career followed much of the same pattern. Chambers was used as a utility outfielder but collapsed at the plate, batting just .208/.326/.292 through 57 games with two home runs and two stolen bases in four attempts. By 1985, Chambers had been released.

Perhaps the saddest thing about Chambers’ rollercoaster of a career was its ultimate demise. In an interview with the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone in 2004, he revealed the confusion and hurt that underlined his time in the major leagues.

"I was clearly proving to them I belonged," he said. "You’d think they would have said, ‘We’re going to let Al Chambers play, see what he can do.’ No, they sent me back down. And that was my break. You only get so many breaks."

1979: Darnell Coles

Seattle Mariners’ scout Bob Harrison, 1984:

"Player outstanding for me at 3rd. Made plays that only people like DeCinces and Nettles can make. He is still going to make his share of errors for a while but he has a chance to be a real good one and he’s a cinch to hit .300 with 15 or more HRs someday in the major leagues when given the chance to play regular. He would be my 3rd baseman on the big club now and he would play every day. I know he still has some growing up to do but I would let him do it at the major league level. Best young talent that I have ever seen."

Mariners’ scout Bill Kearns, 1984:

"Excellent athletic body – strong and agile. Outstanding talent in all phases of the game. Seems to lack concentration at times – not always ready on defense. Should be able to play any position – but mentally perhaps the OF could be his best spot – has enough speed arm and power. Still young – play and play and play!"

Although Coles received glowing recommendations from several of the club’s scouts, the 21-year-old was not thrust into the major leagues to master the learning curve. He was given a leash of 27 games in his first year, and never saw more than 50 appearances in a single season with the Mariners, at least the first time around.

As Lee Irwin revealed in his 1985 report of the 23-year-old shortstop, Coles bounced back and forth from the minors to the major leagues until he fractured his left hand on an errant pitch. Irwin noted that the Mariners were in a position to trade the infielder, and wasn’t too far off in his assumption – Seattle dealt Coles to the Detroit Tigers for outfielder Tracy Jones just a season later, where he immediately took Harrison’s advice to heart, hitting 20 home runs and batting .273 on the year.

Coles returned to the Mariners in 1988, five years after his major league debut. When he finally got a shot at a full season’s worth of work with the Mariners, he split time between third base and right field, batting .252/.294/.359 with 10 home runs in 146 games. It was the last time he would see more than 100 games and 10 home runs in the major leagues. For the remaining six years of his career, Coles bounced from team to team, watching both his average and his potential decline.

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