Dave beat me to the punch, but anyway, BA released its top ten prospects list for the Mariners, which can be found here. There aren't too many surprises, save for Emiliano Fruto coming in at #8 - yeah, he was pitching in AAA at 21, but he's a reliever with spotty command and a bit of a home run problem. It says something about the organization's depth when you have a guy like that finishing so high on the list.
It's a thin system, but if nothing else, there's finally some depth behind the plate - counting Johjima, there are three catchers on that list, meaning that it's going to take a pretty considerable stroke of bad luck for the Mariners to need to find another backstop any time soon. It's also worth pointing out that any system is going to look worse when its only recently lost the likes of Felix Hernandez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez, and Jeremy Reed. That's a lot of young talent that's come out of the farm, as all four players are going to be starters on the 2006 team with a combined age below 100.
If you look at the list, you'll find three catchers, two corner outfielders, one center fielder, "two" shortstops, and two pitchers. In other words, the organization has practically zero depth right now at first, second, and third base. But is that really a big problem? Jose Lopez is 22, so he'll be around for a while. Adrian Beltre has a death grip on the hot corner for the next four seasons. Richie Sexson is no spring chicken, but he's still got another three years left on his contract, and first basemen aren't all that difficult to find anyway, since you can shove any decent prospect bat with an iffy glove over there and come out looking pretty good.
In Clement and Jones, you have two impact prospects who could be as little as a year away from breaking in. In Betancourt, Lopez, Beltre, and Reed, you have a ton of youth that's going to be with the team for at least the next four seasons. The Mariners could stand to find themselves a young corner outfielder or three, but what it really comes down to is that they're in good shape for a long time at key positions. When you have that kind of organizational attribute, it takes a lot of the emphasis away from developing a consistently productive minor league system. Bavasi (and the next guy) won't have to worry about having San Antonio and Tacoma churning out prospects every month or two in order to remain competitive. That's a luxury.
The problem remains on the mound, where the Mariners have little in the way of real upper-class young talent in the system. Felix establishing himself at the Major League level takes some of the sting away, but the best pitching prospects in the organization right now are Nageotte, Foppert, Bazardo, and Livingston, along with a handful of intriguing relievers (Update: I don't know why I keep forgetting about Carvajal). That's not very good. I guess you could throw Blackley's name out there, but I don't think anyone's particularly optimistic about how he'll return, so that doesn't seem prudent. To make things worse, the ML rotation is pretty bad behind Felix, and Washburn is the only guy who's essentially guaranteed to return in 2007, so at least one of these prospects will have to take a big step forward this summer if the Mariners want to have any hope of building a competent rotation down the road without having to spend a ton of money.
It's a difficult situation, but with the position players looking reasonably good for a while, it can be overcome by putting a lot of effort in the short-term towards accumulating talent and depth on the mound. And besides, given the volatile nature of pitching prospects, you never know when a guy's going to come out of nowhere and harness his ability, so we could have a totally different picture in September. I don't know how likely that is, but there are more guys in the system who could take a big step forward than there are guys who could take a big step back, so call me cautiously optimistic.