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Prospect Talk with Conor and Jay

While we at Lookout Landing aren't exactly prospect mavens, we do at least know who to talk to. With the release of the M's BA Top 10 yesterday, I thought that it'd be a good time to pose a few questions of Conor Glassey and Jay Yencich, who, as you might all recall, are amazing. Conor works for Baseball America, and Jay runs Mariner Minors while contributing to USSM, and both are fantastic sources of information about prospects, both within our organisation and in general. So a very heartfelt thanks to both for their time in answering a few of my questions...

1) How does the Mariners system stack up against the other teams in baseball? How hard of a hit did it take with the summer trades and now the Cliff Lee deal? Did the draft do much to replenish it?

Conor: I think the Mariners system is in the middle of the pack. The Mariners traded away several young players over the summer and into the offseason (Clement, Balentien, Aumont, Gillies, Ramirez, Adcock, Lorin and Pribanic), but when you factor in a great draft class and getting some other prospects back in deals (Cortes, Robles, Chavez, French, etc.), they're still in good shape and are certainly in good hands. The goal of a farm system is to improve the big league club, either through player development or trades. So, while the M's farm system may be a little worse after all the trades (though even that's arguable), the overall organizational strength is much better.

Jay: That's certainly been something that's been in flux over the past several months.  The short answer is trending positively.  I thought that the summer trades were close to a wash.  The Snell/Wilson trade sent off Pribanic, who was running a 2.74:1 ground/fly but not striking out many, Lorin, who has that intriguing power/command combo, and Adcock, who was probably a power reliever long-term with his curve.  That stung, but we traded away our spare parts and got back Cortes, Saito, and Robles, and I'll get to them in a little bit.  For what it's worth, I think I like those three better, and Matt Eddy agreed when he did the BA chat.

The Lee trade hurt us a little more.  After that went down I spent a good few days scrambling for another couple of guys for the top ten (this is me pimping the Mariners Annual).  Of the three that went to the Pirates, Pribanic would have had a case for the top ten if you were really into his sinker, enough to overlook that he was striking out about five per nine, albeit with impressively low walk rates.  

Did the draft do a lot to help?  Every sane person out there is putting Ackley as their number one, but you also have Poythress and Franklin who I think have legitimate cases for being in the top ten.  I think that a lot of people were left cold by the fact that there were better players on the board at the time early on.  Baron was not a popular pick with arms like Paxton, Brothers, and Skaggs out there, and that the supposed "value pick" turned around and started demanding a lot more than was initially rumored, it just looked bad for everyone involved.  I love Baron's glovework, and he's easily the best defensive catcher we've had in system in a long time, but I'm also in the camp that thinks his swing needs an overhaul if he's ever going to do anything offensively.

There was a smattering of other interesting players up there too.  Jones and Cerione are both outfielders of some potential, Blandford's arm is live, and there were a handful of other pitchers (not throwers) who should at least keep us from hurting as depth goes.  I would have liked Nelubowich, who decided Cougars football was somehow more appealing than Mariners baseball, and Griggs, which was never going to happen, but there's not much to be done at this point.  The physical talents were more questionable than they would have been in a Fontaine draft, but by and large they seemed to be drafting baseball rats who are likely to make the most of their careers.  Franklin is easily the best example of this, as he's a solid all-around player who jumps out at you because the way he plays.  It's like he treats every move he makes as possibly game-deciding.  He's in and out of top 10s this offseason, but I think he's on to stay with a good showing in full-season this year.

Keep in mind that the M's were also extremely active on the international front this season.  You had Pimentel, Palma, Choi, Kim, Okuda, Quintanilla... the list goes on.  I wouldn't start to factor that heavily into the rankings until they debut, as I've seen more than my share of six-figure signings never drag themselves out of short-season ball, but it's one more thing working in our favor overall.

Without the Lee trade, someone might generously slot the Mariners around the middle of the pack, but now I think that they are probably back down to the bottom third, probably around 20 or so.  We're moving up in the world, and without the number two pick eating all our cookies (not necessarily bad, Ackley could stand to fill out a little), we might be a little more ambitious with our picks next year.

2) Who are some sleepers we should be looking out for? Shawn Kelley came out of nowhere to make the big league club out of spring training last year, and Nick Hill is poised to be a valuable member of the Mariners sometime soon. Anyone like that currently flying under the radar?

Conor: It's harder to find under-the-radar guys for the Mariners than it is for other organizations because the M's have the best blogosphere in baseball, with guys like Jay and Dave Cameron keeping a keen eye on the minor leagues and a lot of educated fans. So, I'm not including guys like James Jones, Gabriel Noriega and Nick Hill. You have to go really deep if you're trying to find under-the-radar players for M's fans!

Ricky Orta has taken nicely to being shifted to the bullpen. He runs his fastball up to 94 with a good slider and could be ready at some point in 2010.

Living out in North Carolina now, I only got to see one AquaSox game this summer, but I was impressed with Matt Cerione and, to a lesser extent, Anthony Phillips as under-the-radar guys. Cerione has a good knowledge of the strike zone and impressive power from the left side of the plate. He has above-average speed and plays hard. He needs some work in the outfield and needs to tone down his swing a little bit, though. Phillips also showed some good power in batting practice, especially for his size. But, in the game, he looked lost. He swung at everything—including pitches up around his head. He's a very fluid defender and if he can get a better understanding of his zone and better pitch recognition, he could have a chance. Definitely a long shot, but he is still young.

Righthander Brandon Maurer is also a guy I liked when I saw Pulaski this summer.

Jay: Nick Hill is definitely a good pick for it.  The numbers for him in Arizona were a bit blah, but take into account the 2.50 ground/fly he starts looking a lot better with a good infield defense backing him up.  As sleepers go, I think a couple of near-contributors would be Ricky Orta and Anthony Varvaro, depending on how much progress you think can be made in the Fall League in the latter's case.  Orta has made a case for himself the past season or so.  He was out performing his FIP by a fair amount, but it was a solid season especially by double-A standards and confirms the progress he made the previous offseason in Venezuela.  The only issue with him is that he can't seem to hold it up in the rotation and always seems to get hurt the more they keep him there, so he's probably 'penned from here out.  Varvaro is in a similar boat, but also has the issue of his command never totally coming back after TJ.  He made some progress in Arizona, again, but how much of that can be brought to normal climates remains to be seen.  Both would be power guys that you're hoping don't walk everyone once they get here.  Another recent 40-man add, Edward Paredes, was better than High Desert made him seem and could be a longer-term solution for lefty out of the 'pen, but I'd be stunned if he broke with the club.

I think Steven Hensley of High Desert, who had a strong second half and survived the perils of the league, could be a guy who moves on to more people's radars with a good showing in double-A.  He's put the elbow troubles behind him and is still throwing in the low 90s, complemented it with a quality slider.  One other name I'm throwing out mainly for kicks, as he doesn't have overwhelming stuff, is Cheyne Hann, who ran a 9.25 K/BB in Clinton last year and nearly got through the whole season without allowing more than ten runs, earned or otherwise, until he goofed it up in his third-to-last outing.  He's a fifth-year senior who hooked up with the M's after the '08 draft, throws high-80s/low-90s with developing secondary offerings.  It's one of those questions of how far his command will be able to take him or if he can develop the slider enough to keep hitters mostly honest.  

Another thing is that, as much of a fuss as I made about the draft not going after talented starters early on, Pulaski ran out two talented, teenaged summer league products in Nolan Diaz and Jean Tome, who both had impressive peripherals but ugly ERAs.  Both had FIPs a run, or a run-and-a-half in Tome's case, better than their ERA, and if you crunched the tRA numbers on them, I imagine they might come out the same way.  Add in full-seasons from Robles, Cortes, Cleto, and, arm-willing, Pineda, and our SP depth does not look bad at all.


I don't have as many picks for possible breakout hitters, as we get the High Desert effect skewing things and in general, it's easier to read how hitters might develop.  Juan Diaz kind of got lost being the seventh or eighth most interesting player on the Mavericks roster, but if he handles West Tenn, that could work him into short-term infield discussions.  Seager could open some eyes if he's able to handle second.  Same with Haveman.  Tenbrink is also of some minor interest as a utility guy.  None of the above are likely starters though. 

3) Dustin Ackley is clearly the top prospect in the organisation. It's hard to get a good read on him without hearing hyperbole, so let's keep our feet on the ground. Realistic expectations of him next year, and for his career? When does he make his debut with the Mariners?

Conor: While I definitely miss living in Seattle and going to Mariners, Rainiers and AquaSox games whenever I want, I'm very fortunate that North Carolina plays about 15 minutes from my house. So, needless to say, I saw a lot of Dustin Ackley last spring. It's not hyperbole to say he was the best pure hitter in last year's class. I think he starts the season in Double-A. A lot of how quickly he gets to the big leagues depends on how well he transitions to second base and what happens with Lopez and the Mariners current situation there. Offensively, I don't think he'll need much time in the minors. He's not going to get there as quickly as Gordon Beckham, but I could see him competing for a full-time job during spring training in 2011.

Jay: As ever, the answer is somewhere in between.  A lot of people started talking about Chase Utley when the second base move came on, for lack of better comps, really.   I just don't see Ackley averaging thirty home runs a year.  He's likely going to hit for less power than people expect when he initially gets into games.  Now, I'm being careful with my wording here on purpose, because I do think that he'll hit for power eventually, but when you look at the final season he had at UNC when he was hitting all those home runs, it wasn't a case of "hey, this guy really bulked up over the course of the offseason" (remember Griffey's comments to Ichiro when Ackley came to visit? "hey, Ichi, this guy has less of a butt than you do" or something to that effect), or even really "oh, he's finally healthy now" because it wouldn't make sense to credit an elbow surgery for power hitting.  I think it was more an instance of him finally getting comfortable enough in his home environment to start using his bat skills to turn on a pitch.  This phenomenon is not totally foreign to us (Ichiro), but it's not exactly common and you're going to run into a lot of situations where people will evaluate his power output poorly (I.E., everyone dragging Jeremy Reed or some other fourth OF into this) because he doesn't pass the eye test of a guy who could hit twenty or more home runs.

I'm more bullish on his transition to second.  I think that the claim that many have made, that Ackley would somehow take more time to learn second than he would to learn center field, is quite exaggerated.  It's true that Ackley has the raw speed to help him mask a lot of the initial struggles new outfielders have in finding routes (he may have the best wheels in the org already with Gillies gone), but he also spent his high school career at short when he wasn't pitching, and had experience on other side of the infield throughout his tenure at UNC.  I'm disinclined to think that the usually tight-lipped Zduriencik regime would be lying to us at the meet about Ackley's transition going well, so average or better defense is not an unreasonable expectation.

So, we're looking at a probable second baseman, with average or better power, left-handed, elite ability to handle a bat, and the discipline to be among the team leaders in walks... I think MVP candidate might be pushing it, but All-Star is not.  He should be up within a couple of years, be competent for the first season or two, and then start to really shine thereafter.

4) Cortes, Saito, and Robles are all interesting arms that came back to the Mariners through the trades of Yuniesky Betancourt and Jarrod Washburn last summer. How did they do in the organisation? What do you think of their potential?

Conor: Obviously both were fantastic trades for the Mariners. I would line up those three: Cortes, Robles & Saito. Cortes has the most potential, but just needs to become more consistent. Robles has a live arm and great potential. He has the stuff (average to plus fastball and a power curveball) to be a mid-rotation starter, just needs to keep working on developing a third pitch (his changeup) and to prove himself against better competition, which we'll see as he should be in Double-A next year. Saito was a nice throw-in arm, but nothing special.

Jay: This is a great question, I think.  You could really get into some interesting discussions about the starting pitching depth of the organization.  It's still a bit thin at the top, where you have French/Olson/Vargas all looking like fifth starters, with Hill possibly trumping all three if he can hack it, but as we start to move down, it may not be as thin as is the perception, it's just that there's not much in the way of elite talent.

I think that with Cortes, it's to our benefit to let the numbers slide a bit in favor of listening to the scouts.  Here we have a guy who was nothing but projection when he entered pro ball.  Tall, decent body, but 80s fastball and not much else to supplement it.  Since then, he's added height, a few if not several MPH of velocity, a plus curve, and is finally sussing out what to do as far as a third offering goes.  The worst thing about him is that his command is bad and shows no signs of getting better, and was actually worse this past season.  Then again, if he was able to improve each one of his offerings noticeably, substantially even, while locating everything better, then even the Royals might not have been dumb enough to trade him.  This is not to say that most players can just flip a switch and suddenly shave off two walks per outing.  It doesn't work like that, but given he's gone from a guy who had a top ten draft status and nothing else to a legitimate top ten prospect over the course of a few years, there's reason to think that he is both capable of adjustment and receptive to coaching in the right forms.

Robles is another interesting arm who is still working things out.  Dave and I have had some discussions about him, and I've subsequently gone back and forth on him.  He's kind of like a left-handed Maikel Cleto in that he has more range on his fastball than you might be comfortable with and is quite raw, but easy for scouting types to fall hard for when he's not facing overly experienced competition.  The most important thing to remember in his case, I think, is that he was a position player before signing with the Tigers.  Robles' mechanics reflect those of a player who has been pitching for all of four years.  Iron out those kinks, and I think we may have the resources available to help him on that front, and people could start being justifiably excited about him.  And, as Dave and I go at it about his realistic ceiling as a reliever right now, another prospecting friend of mine is wont to point out how dangerous he's been on average, WITHOUT a consistent delivery.

As for Mr. Saito, I don't have a good grasp on how they're going to use him, considering he was first out of the 'pen when they needed a starter for a doubleheader, and yet they still wouldn't totally commit to him in the rotation.  I really wanted him in the draft a few years back as a curiosity pick, a short pitcher (really, by MLB standards) who got on to his college baseball team as a walk-on (he was an engineering student) and ended up throwing harder than anyone thought he should be capable of.  He was 92-3 in college, but has been down to the high-80s as a pro as he's had trouble maintaining a release point, among other things.  So, another mechanical misfit, who could be quite interesting if they get him back to doing what he was back in the day.  I won't number him among the starters though until I see him doing it all the time, and holding up.  

5) Which team in the AL West should we be most afraid of in the next few seasons? Oakland and Texas look very dangerous right now. Does anything separate them?

Conor: The Rangers and Athletics have impressive collections of young talent, both in the majors already and coming up through their systems. I think the Rangers are the ones to watch out for, though. I like both of their pitching staffs, but the Rangers have more talent offensively.

Don't be so quick to write off the Angels, though. Even though they're an older team and look to have taken a step back this offseason after losing Figgins and Lackey, they have the most money (even if they sometimes spend it on guys like Gary Matthews) and could have a real good farm system in a couple years themselves. They signed six of the top 100 draft picks last season, along with getting a couple nice players in the later rounds. This year, because they lost those free agents, they again have an impressive number of draft picks—five of the top 40 picks.

Jay: This is one question that I might have a little trouble with.  I should probably pay more attention to rival systems than I do, but on the whole, my grasp on them is some awareness of what they're doing at any given time and fill in the rest with what I can get from the national coverage.  Let's look at both individually for a moment.

Oakland got back to basics in '09, which was strong young pitching.  Cahill and Anderson are going to get better, and Bailey came out of nowhere to be the AL Rookie of the Year, of course.  That staff is going to be solid, and cheap, for a while.  Their draft was also decent, with Grant Green up top, who could be on their infield sooner rather than later, and Max Stassi in the longterm picture at catcher, though Kurt Suzuki is obviously pretty good right now.  We also know that they can reload on the fly, and they have for years now.  Chris Carter is going to fill that void they've had at first base for years now.  He wasn't originally drafted by the A's, coming over in the Dan Haren trade, which has been quite fruitful so far.  Michael Taylor, who they got for Brett Wallace (also not originally of the system), adds additional power to their outfield and gives them another 20+ home run threat which they so sorely need.  They've got all that going for them already, and international man of mystery Michael Ynoa hasn't even debuted yet.  

The Rangers had a rather different '09 from the Athletics.  For one, their draft wasn't that good, particularly after Purke jilted them in favor of Texas Christian.  Scheppers wasn't an awful consolation prize, and he reportedly looked good, but the rest of their draft after that was nothing special.   It's also interesting to note that, for as good as their system is, they had a number of things go wrong for them this past season.  Derek Holland wasn't as good in the big league rotation as many thought he would be, Eric Hurley had the worse kind of arm surgery, Engel Beltre was lost most of the time in Bakersfield, Max Ramirez was hurt, and they're still waiting on guys like Michael Main and Danny Gutierrez to hit 100 innings in a season.  And for anyone concerned about Cortes' make-up issues, I recommend giving the other Dan a look.  At the same time, they have Feliz moving back to the rotation, much to the AL West's chagrin, Martin Perez, who is elite as left-handers go, and Justin Smoak, who was a part of that '08 first base class.  They also have good young position players like Borbon and Andrus.

If I had answered this question a few days ago, I'd probably have given the edge to the A's, because they had better luck with their younger guys this past season and their depth was slightly more interesting with guys like Weeks and Ross moving up to the high minors, where Texas looked a bit top-heavy.  However, outfielder Grant Desme, who was both the AFL MVP this past season and the minor league's only 30-30 man, decided on Friday that he'd rather be out spreading The Good Word than playing baseball.  I can't recall seeing that kind of thing happen before, but hey, minor league baseball!    That turn of events likely gives the edge to Texas, even with their recent financial issues, as their future top two in the rotation I find to be scarier, and Smoak could be a better overall player than Carter when defense and plate discipline are accounted for.  The case clearly can be made either way though.

Even though Texas and Oakland clearly have premium farm systems, I don't think that we can discount the Angels either.  Their prospect situation has not panned out as they thought it would (it's still strange for me to see Kotchman on our side), but they have the resources to spend a lot on the draft (four of their top ten, as decided by Baseball America, were '09 picks) and screw up on major league acquisitions without it killing them, at least so long as Omar Minaya still has a job.   

All those factors accounted for, we're likely reentering a period where the AL West is arguably the most interesting and competitive division in baseball.