Everyone and their mother is doing their annual prospect rankings right now and all of the lists are different. That is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. That is because -- as I explained on this very site with my first post for Lookout Landing -- everyone has different criteria for what makes up the "best" prospects in their eyes. Ceiling. Floor. Most likely outcome. Proximity to making the 25-man roster. And, of course, tools.
Oh, those tools.
People fall in love with radar gun readings and tape measure BP homers, but as time goes on you find out that what makes a good major league baseball player lies much more between the ears than in the forearms or trunk. But you can go too far in that direction, as well.
What am I getting at exactly? I’m getting at the fact that this is my countdown of the 10 best Seattle Mariners prospects right now, but that I expect there to be disagreements. I expect there to be, "How in the world can you put X ahead of Y?!" questions. This isn't meant to be an, "I’m right, you’re all wrong" ranking. Please, if you hunger for knowing more, read them all. And see the players with your own eyes, too. Gain knowledge. Form your own opinions. This post is meant to open the discussion. And to hopefully teach you more about some of the prospects in the M’s organization that I consider to be the best the club has to offer.
Without further delay, my Top-10 Seattle Mariners prospects:
10. Austin Wilson, Position: RF 2014/Opening Day Age: 22/Acquired: 2013 Draft, 2nd round
Wilson -- a physically built, 6-foot-5, right-handed hitting outfielder -- somewhat surprisingly got to the Mariners at pick number 49 in the 2nd round of the 2013 draft. He has all of the tools and physicality that scream "right-field profile" and was offered seven figures coming out of high school as a late draft pick, but the Stanford stigma and lack of explosiveness shown in games during the Pac-12 season likely scared some teams away. Wilson started very slowly in Everett after Seattle assigned him to the Northwest League, but the seventh outfielder taken in that 2013 draft went on a tear late for the AquaSox. Putting an early August hamstring issue behind him, Austin hit .323/.391/.677 over his last 18 games in Everett, knocking out 10 extra base hits (including five homers) in 69 plate appearances.
He finished the season with the 13th best OPS (.732) and 4th best SLG (.414) of those who qualified in the NWL while posting decent overall plate discipline numbers (7.5% walk rate, 18.6% strikeout rate) and being named as the number 5 prospect in the league by Baseball America. He showed enough in my numerous in-person looks that I was comfortable naming him as one of my picks for the outfield on the Mariners All-Prospect Team at the end of the year.
Wilson is the most promising right-handed hitting outfielder in Seattle’s system right now, boasting easy, loose, plus bat speed, plus power potential, an accurate, plus throwing arm and a strong work ethic and baseball intelligence. There is still some learning and growing and he won’t beat the two outfielders I have above him in the rankings here to the big leagues, but he has the potential to be quite a bit better than both of them if everything clicks.
9. Victor Sanchez, RHP/19/2011 Int FA
The first thing that everyone who has ever seen Sanchez pitch notices is his size. More specifically, his girth. He’s 6-foot, 255 pounds with a large trunk and monstrous hands. His teammates nicknamed him Ray Lewis because of that size and one of his coaches in Everett told me, "He’s built like a fire hydrant". Maybe that isn't the type of tags you want put on a pitching prospect, but it is what it is. The second thing that people who are intrigued by Sanchez notice is also not really a mark in his favor; he doesn't throw that hard for a top pitching prospect. His fastball can reach up to 94, but the big guy usually works in the 90-92 range with his two-seamer. The third thing that everyone usually notices is probably the most important, though. Sanchez can really pitch.
For the story that I did about Clinton’s roster, talking to a non-Mariners’ scout about the team, said scout gushed the longest about Sanchez. "You can say 'pitchability', but I don't think that really covers it all." Sanchez understands pitching, changes speeds, works to all quadrants, sets hitters up, adds and subtracts and does it all very quietly. Watching a Sanchez start, you can get to the 4th or 5th inning before you take a minute to realize how well he’s throwing. The strikeout rate (6.3 K/9 in 2013 for Clinton, 7.3 in 2012 for Everett) looks on paper like he’s more fooling hitters than anything else, but make no mistake; Sanchez can be dominant. His changeup is his second best pitch and it is MLB-quality now. His breaking balls are both average, though the curve has flashed better at times. But the command he has of his entire repertoire and his consistent ability to work down in the zone is extremely advanced.
Despite the body, Victor has a nice, clean, easily repeatable delivery -- which includes a Felix Hernandez-esque twist -- with balance throughout, works from the standard high three-quarters arm slot and he finishes in good fielding position. Sanchez is a still a teenager and has faced much older competition since his amateur days in Venezuela, but the jump to Double-A -- which could be in the cards for him to start 2014 -- is a big one for almost every prospect. He might find the going a little tougher in 2014 and into 2015, but the Mariners like their prospects to deal with challenges along the way, and Sanchez has the makeup and everything else at his disposal to come out the other side a better pitcher. He has mid-rotation, big inning upside and could potentially reach the majors in late 2015.
8. Julio Morban, OF/22/2008 Int FA
Although he once again succumbed to a major injury that cut his year short in Jackson, Morban put together a strong season for Jackson in his Double-A debut and still presents a tantalizing combination of tools. The left-handed hitting outfielder came in at 17th on Baseball America’s ranking of the best players in the Southern League this year and the 21-year-old was among the league leaders in batting average for a good stretch of the season, finishing 6th in that category by hitting .295 on the year. But even before the broken leg that ended his year, Morban was once again battling hamstring issues. Those are the nagging injuries that have kept him out of the lineup the most often during his five year pro career.
While he’s managed to stay healthy, Morban has hit .283/.338/.463 for his minor league career, including better numbers on the road than at home in 2012 with High Desert. He hit left-handers very well in 2012 and had a big falloff there in 2013 (36.8% strikeout rate in 87 plate appearances) and he has some contact issues overall (29.1% strikeout rate in 2013, 26.6% in his minor league career), but he;s been playing against more mature competition his entire career. Morban, who has been known to wear a "Singles Suck" T-Shirt during batting practice, has a big personality and can be a little demonstrative at times, but he also loves the pressure situations. He hit .354 with runners in scoring position for the Generals this year, but more importantly, when he’s up in those spots you can tell that he is very confident.
Morban bulked up before the 2012 season in an effort to try and get stronger and stay healthier, and while that hasn't exactly worked out, the added weight has allowed his game power to show more often. His extra base hit rate has been right around 10% for the last two seasons and he showed off some power in big league spring training with a two-homer game in March. He has at least average power potential that comes from great hands and plus bat speed. Morban has played a decent amount of center field and is pretty good out there currently, getting good jumps and taking good routes, but his injuries are going to force him to focus on a corner very soon. He has a solid throwing arm and solid foot speed, again, when healthy. A healthy season that nets him 400-plus plate appearances could do wonders for Morban’s development; perhaps 2014 is the year that finally happens. If so, he could see Seattle before the year is up.
7. Stefen Romero, OF/25/2010 Draft, 10th round
Coming off of an enormous 2012 season that rightfully earned him Minor League Player of the Year honors from the Mariners, Romero was limited to 98 games by nagging injuries and hit just .277/.331/.448 in the PCL this year. He followed that up with a .212/.278/.333 slash in his second swing through the Arizona Fall League as a 25-year-old, leading many to turn their attention away from the converted infielder. But while the overall numbers aren't great, Stefen showed signs late at both stops. He hit five of his 11 regular season home runs over his last 11 games with Tacoma, when he also slugged .609, and he hit .333 (12-36) with four home runs in his last 11 games for Peoria if you add in the Fall Stars game. Small samples, sure, but proof -- at least to me -- that there is still enough power in his bat to warrant a chance as a corner outfielder.
As a corner outfielder, Romero’s bat will need to carry him, and to do that he’ll need to (and reasonably should be expected to) improve on his splits versus left-handed pitching. The right-handed hitter managed just a .213/.316/.363 slash against southpaws for Tacoma in 2013. And while many people had, in my opinion, improperly figured he was a future 30-plus homer guy after his 2012, his line drive bat remains what it was a year ago. He releases the top hand in his finish, which sometimes limits power, but routinely manages to hit the ball hard to all parts of the park. He wasn't a plus defender at either second or third before the conversion and he isn't a plus defender in the outfield now, but he has the athleticism and throwing arm to still be a solid defender at any of those three positions in my opinion.
Romero was one of the four players added to the 40-man roster last week by Seattle, and as the roster stands right now he realistically has a spot at outfield time in 2014 for the M’s. As I covered the night he hit those two homers in the Fall Stars Game, those two at bats showed something. Discounting a bat like his too early is a mistake that the Mariners can’t afford to make, and I think that the same can be said for prospect evaluators.
6. Chris Taylor, SS/23/2012 Draft, 5th round
Drafted with the profile as a defense-first (some said only) player, Chris Taylor has been a pleasant surprise with his bat since day one. But that surprise grew to a new level in 2013 as the right-handed hitting Virginia alum cruised through High-A ball and earned an early promotion to Double-A Jackson. There he performed well enough to put together a year worthy to be acknowledged as the Mariners’ Minor League Player of the Year following the season. Taylor was also given a nod from Baseball America as their 11th best prospect in the California League after a season that saw him hit .335/.426/.524 for the Mavs and .293/.391/.383 for the Generals.
The slugging numbers that he put up for High Desert can probably at least be partially attributed to league environment, but Taylor has hit .328, .304, .335 and .293 at his four stops while climbing up the organizational ladder for Seattle, and the label of his bat being an afterthought is all but gone now. He drew a system-best 84 walks in 2013 and has a 12.8% walk rate overall in his 183 game minor league career to date. Taylor was a strong performer in the Arizona Fall League for Peoria, too, where he hit .294/.351/.426 in 18 games and was one of eight nominees for the MVP. Taylor, who bats and throws right-handed, collected six extra base hits, drew six walks and stole five bases in seven attempts for the Javelinas while playing defensively at both shortstop and second base.
Taylor’s best tools are on the defensive side of things, where he has great hands, quick reactions, a great first step that leads to good range, a shortstop’s arm and phenomenal instincts. He has above average speed on the bases, especially once underway, and he’s shown to be a deft base stealer to this point. At the plate, pitch selection and plate discipline are his strongest attributes, but Taylor has shown better than expected ability to drive the ball to the gaps, and not just to his pull side. He’ll never be a power hitter and he doesn't have plus bat speed, but he has enough strength and a short enough stroke to handle fastballs all over the zone.
5. Tyler Pike, LHP/20/2012 Draft, 3rd round
I mentioned Pike back in April here at Lookout Landing and have been touting him since he signed on my site, and he showed a lot of people in baseball why he shouldn't be ignored in 2013. He had no trouble jumping from the Arizona League to the Midwest League as a 19-year-old, getting swinging strikeouts and a lot of weak contact in a league that had a lot of hitting talent this year. They're different types of pitchers and Pike was about seven months older, but the numbers he put up this year for Clinton (6.0 H/9, 0.4 HR/9, 1.18 WHIP) are pretty comparable to those that Taijuan Walker put up when he was with the LumberKings in 2011 (6.4 H/9, 0.4 HR/9. 1/12 WHIP). And while Pike doesn't have the upper end stuff that Walker does, they do have some other similar attributes.
First and foremost, Pike -- like Walker -- is a very good athlete. He fields his position well and has a strong, athletic build. I had a scout tell me, "He's the Tom Glavine of the Midwest League," this year because of the way he works the corners with his fastball/changeup mix. He didn't strike a ton of hitters out in 2013 for Clinton, but he clearly didn't need to. He has thrown 161 pro innings and allowed just 107 hits so far in his career. He's allowed two earned runs or fewer in 28 of his 33 career starts and has never allowed more than four earned runs in an outing to date.
Pike doesn't throw in the mid-90s (yet), but he commands the fastball pretty well for his age at 88-91 and compliments it with a good changeup that can flash as plus. His breaking ball is inconsistent and presently fringe-average, but there is a lot of projection left for all of his pitches and in his abilities overall because he has a good build, long frame and good arm action with a simple, repeatable delivery and very good overall athleticism. He needs to work on his consistency and tighten up his fastball command a bit before he's one of the prospects talked about with the Top-100 in baseball, but I believe he has that type of ability in him. Pike could be another young arm that moves quickly for Seattle with a chance to be an innings-eating No. 3/4 starter by late 2015 if he continues to progress and improve with his competition.
4. Danny Hultzen, LHP/24/2011 Draft, 1st round
Regarded as a "safe pick" when the Mariners took him 2nd overall in the 2011 draft, Hultzen -- of course -- missed much of 2013 due to various shoulder discomforts and injury. And word came after the year that further examination of his arm annoyances revealed that Danny would need surgery to repair his rotator cuff, labrum and capsule, so we now know that he is highly doubtful to throw any innings in 2014. Disappointing, for sure. Especially considering the talents that the M's passed up to get him, including Washington's Anthony Rendon and NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez. Hindsight is 20/20, of course, and TNSTAAPP, so whatever has happened since the draft and where the M's are now with Hultzen needs to just be accepted. It's a bummer, but it can't be changed.
And even though Hultzen went through some struggles in 2012 when he reached Triple-A, a look at his overall numbers so far -- a 2.82 ERA (3.07 FIP), 6.1 H/9, 10.0 SO/9 and just five home runs allowed in 159 2/3 innings -- seem to back up the talent that the Mariners thought he could be when they took him number two overall. His unorthodox delivery may have led to his injuries, but it is also a lot of what makes him a tough pitcher in the first place. What are you gonna do? C'est la vie. What we are going to do here is focus on what Hultzen still can be down the road for the Mariners and what the future can still hold once he's recovered.
When he was healthy early in 2013 (and at the Double-A level in 2012), Hultzen showed the complete package that made him a sound pick at No. 2, with a few varieties of the fastball that consistently got to 93-94, a plus changeup and a sweeping slider, all of which were good enough to get swings-and-misses consistently. He has been downright dominant against left-handed hitters -- a .168 average and just five extra base knocks in 189 plate appearances -- and really has only been hurt when he's created trouble himself by walking batters. And as his college modus operandi and draft profile was that of a clinical carver of the strikezone, and he's shown the same abilities outside of a handful of starts towards the end of a huge workload 2012, I think that the Danny Hultzen that returns from surgical layoff in 2014 should still be looked at as a potential No. 3 starter for the M's.
3. James Paxton, LHP/25/2010 Draft, 4th round
Paxton had an up-and-down year in 2013, being very pedestrian -- even disappointing -- at times, but flashing overpowering, dominant stuff at others while pitching for Triple-A Tacoma for the first time. His ERA was in the 5's or 6's nearly three times as much as it was in the 3's on the season, but there were still shining displays of talent among the poor outings. The disappointing outings were nowhere to be found in his late season coronation to big league action, however, as the lefty hurled four very strong starts, ending his year and whetting fans' taste buds with a dominant 10 strikeout, no walk, seven shutout inning performance against the Royals at Safeco on September 24th.
Unsightly ERA aside, Paxton's season for Tacoma featured some great outings -- including his first two pro complete games and first career shutout -- and some stinkers, but he put together a stretch of nine very good starts at one point where it was clear that he altered his approach a bit, cutting down on his pitch totals and getting opposing batters to put the ball in play rather than trying to strike everyone out. Even when he isn't "trying" for strikeouts, though, James' stuff is still good enough that he'll get he's whiffs regardless. He struck out more than 23% of lefties he faced in Tacoma and just under 20% of righties on the year. And all 10 of the home runs he surrendered in Triple-A were hit by right-handed hitters. Interestingly, left-handed hitters at the big league level hit Paxton for a .313/.353/.438 clip while right-handed hitters hit a meager .141/.208/.268.
Although the mechanics will remain a focal point and a determining factor for what level Paxton can ultimately reach, his stuff is unquestionably plus. The fastball can reach the mid- to upper-90s even late into ballgames, and as he told our Scott Weber in Podcast episode 13, he simply does not tire. He backs that up with a curve (80-83), cutter (86-89) and change (84-87) that all can do damage of their own when they are on, but each very clearly play off the fastball. Paxton's success for Seattle was aided by a very high strand rate (88.5%) and very low BABIP (.203), but the now 25-year-old looks ready to be a part of the big league rotation and should be looked at as a potential workhorse arm for the club right now.
2. D.J. Peterson, 3B/22/2013 Draft, 1st round
Peterson, Seattle’s selection at 12th overall in the 2013 draft, started his pro career in Everett just as 2012 top pick Mike Zunino did the year prior. And just like Zunino, he quickly made it clear he was too good to play at that level. Despite only being with the AquaSox for a month, D.J. was named as Baseball America’s 3rd best prospect in the Northwest League, and he almost surely would have cracked the Midwest League list had he been there long enough to qualify. That may have happened if he hadn't missed the season’s final 10 games after taking a pitch to the face that required two surgeries, requiring his jaw to be wired shut for a month. Still, BA ranked him as the best pure hitter and the number two power hitter taken in the 2013 draft after the season ended. The surgeries led to Peterson losing 30 pounds, but he has reportedly recovered from that part now, too. And as far as any lingering effects of being hit, he told Shannon Drayer, "It was a freak accident. It literally took one pitch and I was good to go. The confidence was back."
Confidence is a powerful thing for baseball players. We saw what happened this year when Tom Wilhelmsen lost his, and it would be a shame if an up-and-coming prospect like Peterson had anything shake his. But we're going to believe his word at this point that there will be no such issue. And if that is truly the case, the Mariners could very well have another prospect knocking on the door of the big leagues within a year of being drafted. In fact, the similarities between the first seasons for Peterson and Mike Zunino are kind of eerie: both played 29 games in Everett and led the Northwest League in HR and RBI while they were there. Both ended their debut season with 13 home runs. Both were among the minor league leaders in RBI during their time on active rosters. Zunino's jump from Everett was to Double-A while Peterson went only to Clinton, but it was very clear with both hitters that these were special guys.
Peterson, quite simply, is built like a power hitter, with a thick trunk, wide shoulders and short hitter's arms that feature strong forearms and wrists. He whips the bat through the zone without much of a leg kick while still delivering plus power to all fields, showing that he has tape-measure strength to the pull side. His weight transfer really moves his lower half through the ball, but his hands are doing a lot of that work. When he was struggling in Everett early it appeared that he was dropping his back shoulder and trying to lift the ball too much, but once he settled down and hit the ball up the middle a few times, he got locked in and really showed great hitting mechanics. Peterson put in a lot of work defensively at third base and improved as the season wore on. He doesn't have great range or a great arm, but he makes the plays on the balls that he gets to, including charging the softly hit balls and throwing on the run. D.J. is already the best bat in the system, and probably the only one that projects to have middle of the order ability at this point. Making sure he's back to full strength and not lacking any confidence in 2014 will determine how quickly he makes it to Seattle.
1. Taijuan Walker, RHP/21/2010 draft, s-1st round
Considered the jewel of the organization for a while now, Walker made his highly anticipated major league debut in September and did not disappoint. He showed ability and poise beyond his years, but perhaps more importantly, the young and relatively new to pitching right-hander showed an understanding of pitching. He backed off the fastball, he pitched to contact, he worked down in the zone. He showed why so many have such a high opinion of him. On that note, Walker ranked 4th on BA’s Southern League list and 6th on their Pacific Coast League list of Top-20 prospects following the completion of 2013. It stands to reason that will be the last minor league list he’ll be making in his career.
Taijuan became the youngest M’s pitcher to win his MLB debut when he beat Houston on August 30th, and even though that was his only win, the talent he possesses at such a young age was just as tantalizingly apparent in his other two starts. He was a Southern League All-Star selection this year and a two-time Futures Game All-Star and ranked as MLB.com’s No. 5 prospect before 2013. He struck out 28 and allowed just 12 hits in 20 innings over his final three starts for Jackson and had more strikeouts than hits allowed in seven of his 11 starts for Tacoma. Southern League hitters managed just a .195 average off of Walker and PCL hitters hit just .249 off the right-hander.
The tool set for Walker is the collection that talent evaluators dream about when scouting for pitching prospects. His fastball sits in the 93-95 range and he routinely and effortlessly reaches as high as 98. Thanks to Walker’s size and his tall delivery, his fastball comes in on a steep downward plane and he consistently pounds the lower half of the zone with the pitch. But when he needs to, Walker is not afraid to climb the ladder with the pitch, something that few prospects his age do correctly. Taijuan showed that he knew how and when to do it in his three starts with Seattle, getting 16 of his 22 swinging strikes on the pitch at or above the upper quadrant of the strike zone. His second best offering currently is a cut fastball that he just started throwing in 2013. The pitch is 90-93 with varying amounts of glove-side movement and some sink. Walker throws that pitch to both lefties and righties, working as his second pitch to both. He compliments those two hard offerings with a 12-to-6 curve that is usually 73-76 to right-handers and a changeup that can come in hard, like Felix Hernandez’s, but with nowhere near the movement. Both pitches flash at times but both are average pitches currently due to the inconsistency in quality and command. Some say he telegraphs the curve at times. Even though Walker is far from a finished product, his current repertoire is good enough to consistently get swinging strikes and get hitters out. The total package comes together great with off-the-charts athleticism and great poise, mound presence and demeanor -- something that he improved on a lot throughout 2013. Barring something drastic occurring, he’ll open the season in Seattle’s rotation and he has a chance to be an outstanding No. 2 behind Felix for years to come.
The Mariners graduated a lot of very good players to the major league roster from their minor league ranks in 2013, so this list may not carry quite the vitality that the same list had a year ago. But I think that it should be clear that the cupboard isn't bare here, either. The Mariners do still have a decent amount of talent on the farm. And the overall depth of the system is still very good.
While this Top-10 list is relatively informational and should give everyone an idea on the prospects covered here, I'll start breaking down my annual M's Top-50 prospect list at my site next Monday (and each Monday thereafter for 10 weeks) in even more depth for those interested in just how well the system stacks up. Those breakdowns will include a lot more input from scouts, front office personnel and other eye witness accounts and quotes than are found here.
But to wrap this up, how about we do another Lookout Landing prospect chat?
Start thinking of your questions -- on these players or any others in the system -- and I'll do another thread Q & A early tomorrow afternoon.
Rick Randall regularly contributes on Mariners prospects here at Lookout Landing. You can catch his more frequent and more detailed takes on those prospects, and the entire Mariners system, at his website SeattleClubhouse. He can also be found on Twitter, where he loves to answer questions, at @randallball.
More from Lookout Landing:
- With the Mariners' offseason, it's hard not to worry—is it getting late early?
- Mariners Memories: 1996-2000
- A year of mistakes, in review
- Evaluating Mariners' top prospects
- Spending money on the bullpen