Seattle Mariners prospects get noticed at big league camp

John Hicks - Christian Petersen

The Mariners kicked off their 2013 major league schedule last night with a win. But many eyes this year will still be focused on the minor leagues for Seattle, where a lot of talent is pushing towards the big leagues. Here is a look at some of youngsters who impressed the most in big league camp.

While there was some understandably guarded optimism and even downright disbelief by some in the validity of what the Seattle Mariners accomplished as a team during spring training this season, there were performances by a few of the young prospects in camp that simply cannot be written off or ignored.

First and foremost in that discussion is right-hander Brandon Maurer. The 22-year-old, who was a high school teammate of Gerritt Cole and a 23rd round pick by the Mariners back in 2008, came to camp as the least heralded of Seattle’s (insert preferred quartet nickname here) group which included Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton. But as this long spring wore on, Maurer outperformed and outlasted them all in camp, pitching better with each appearance against increasingly challenging opposition. In the end what he showed was simply too good for Eric Wedge to pass over, despite his relative lack of experience, and the club will open the season with Maurer – who hasn’t pitched above Double-A – as their fourth starter.

Maurer has the standard starter’s four-pitch mix (fastball, curve, slider, changeup), can touch the mid-90s with his four-seamer and sits comfortably in the low-90s with his sinking fastball. Brandon showed he was comfortable using each of his pitches – his fastballs and the slider being his best offerings – in varying counts and situations this spring. I was told by the front office that Brandon learned a lot about pitching as last season wore on; understanding better how to use both sides of the plate and mixing his sequencing increasingly well during the 2nd half. That progression is great to hear. But another thing that has been made abundantly clear to me when speaking with various members of the Player Development staff is that Maurer – or any player – wouldn’t be making this leap if he didn’t have the raw stuff in his repertoire or the right mindset to succeed at this level. He does, and that is what makes Seattle confident that Maurer is ready.

Another prospect that lasted the entire camp was shortstop prospect Brad Miller. Most people saw Miller as the second best middle infield prospect in the Mariners’ system behind Nick Franklin coming into this year, but Miller showed a great approach at the plate and fielded impressively at second, short and third while chipping in with six extra base hits. While Franklin had a 23 homer season a couple of years back that really put him in the forefront of the minds of Seattle fans, 2012 saw Miller have a season reminiscent of the one that Kyle Seager turned in a few short seasons ago in the minors. Miller ranked 2nd in the minors in hits and led the organization in walks while also quietly ranking 13th in MiLB in extra base hits.

Miller’s defense at short has been questioned since he was drafted and he had an ugly error number in his time with the Mavericks last year, but those watching him in spring this year and last seem united in their belief that Brad can be a big league shortstop. That is a belief that the Mariners have, too, and I’ve been told there has been absolutely no discussion of moving him off of shortstop. The fact that the Non-Roster Invitee is still in camp, still getting starts and playing all over the infield shows you how much confidence the M’s have in the young man. He’s been lauded for his balance at the plate and has that aura of natural leadership which isn’t something that you can see by checking boxscores or stat lines.

One more standout young player who impressed more than was probably reasonably expected in Peoria is outfielder Julio Morban. Somewhat of a surprise addition to the 40-man roster over the winter, the 21-year-old left-handed hitter saw time at all three outfield spots and more than held his own in 34 plate appearances despite not having reached Double-A yet. I was told early last season that Julio was showing "more power than we expected" by the front office and that power carried through the year – where Morban hit better on the road and better against lefties in the Cal League – and through his time in Major League spring training.

He’ll start this season in Double-A where he’ll likely continue to play all three outfield spots (Jackson’s outfield is going to be loaded), but if he hits and stays healthy, we could get a glimpse of Morban at the big league level before the season is over. Even if that doesn’t happen, though, his name should be remembered as the most talented outfielder in the system.

Julio Morban - USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners are already rich in bullpen youth at the big league level, but right-handed reliever Carson Smith may soon force his way on the roster, too. Smith was the club’s 8th round pick in 2011 but just debuted in 2012. His overall numbers from last year are nice, especially considering the league and environment that he pitched in, but if you break his season down even further you’d find that the sinker-balling Smith allowed only two earned runs over his final 28 appearances and 32 2/3 innings while striking out 51 batters. Seattle rewarded Smith with an invite to the Arizona Fall League as the club’s exception player (lower than Double-A level) and the 6-foot-6 hurler impressed against the top prospects in that league, too, with 10.8 SO/9 and a 2.29 groundout-to-air out ratio. Carson – who typically sits in the low-90s with his sinker but can dial it up to 94 – has carried over the 2012 success to 2013 MLB camp as he’s allowed only three hits and one walk while striking out eight in his seven innings of work, complementing his sinker with a good slider. Smith should be ticketed for Jackson, but he could follow the same promotion schedule that relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps had last year if he pitches like he can.

The last mention that I’m going to give here goes to catcher John Hicks. Manager Eric Wedge let the cat out of the bag a few days ago to Mitch Levy on KJR that top hitting prospect Mike Zunino was headed for Triple-A Tacoma to start the season. While that certainly says a lot about Zunino and his proximity to the big league club, I think that it also tells you what the Mariners think of Hicks. Since being Seattle’s 4th round pick in 2011 out of Virginia – where he was a teammate of Danny Hultzen (and Steven Proscia, Chris Taylor, Andrew Carraway and Keith Werman) – Hicks has been viewed as a solid, athletic defender with a strong bat.

Hicks has done nothing thus far to alter that view as he’s gone 8-for-12 with a double and a home run the last two years in big league camp and the right-handed hitter boasts a career line of .312/.347/.467 in 159 minor league games. Moving Zunino to Tacoma allows Hicks to be the number one catcher and start a majority of the games in Jackson. The two may end up forming the major league catching tandem in the near future.

No one knows what exactly the 2013 Mariners will be able to accomplish with their revamped roster and the revised outfield dimensions at their home park. But this much is clear; the talent in the organization is bubbling towards the top of the system and Mariners’ fans can expect to finally see some of this talent impact at the big league level very soon.

Rick Randall contributes a bi-weekly column on the top prospect happenings in the Mariners system for Lookout Landing. Rick's in-depth daily detailed work on the ups and downs in the Mariners' minor leagues can be found at SeattleClubhouse.com.

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