As fans of the Mariners look for reasons to not close the book on the 2013 season, it is usually a good idea to look – again – to the future. Yes, “the future” has been failing M’s fans in the present quite a bit lately, but the unknown, might-bes are almost always better than our current reality.
As I covered with Nick Franklin here, not all of these prospects are the same, and at some point one or more of them are bound to work out, in spite of their ties to Seattle. So let’s look to that unknown future and let our imaginations run a bit wild with what the possibilities of some of the top prospects in the Seattle Mariners system may hold in the not-too-distant future.
Taijuan Walker: Still just a 20-year-old kid adjusting to pitching every fifth day, Walker is having a very strong second year in Jackson. He seems to have his early season command issues under better control (half as many walks in May as in April in one more inning) and he still is utterly dominant at times. Right-handed hitters are batting just .180/.273/.287 versus Walker in 140 plate appearances and he has pitched 7 innings in three of his last six starts. With a fastball that touches 97 and 98 in starts and a cut fastball at 90-93 that has been making left-handers look lost, Walker is just a couple more strong starts and perhaps a few more overhand curves for strikes away from joining Tacoma. The change-up still needs a lot of work (or to be scrapped) but there is a very good possibility that he will see Seattle before the end of 2013.
Mike Zunino: Zunino came out of the gate on fire this season for Tacoma, but he cooled considerably – especially when he had an extended stretch where he had to hit at home. And about those insane home/road splits (.069/.159/.181 vs .352/.408/.791) – the only way to explain it is this: complete random statistical anomaly. The strikeouts are concerning, yes, but he’s being challenged with a ton of breaking balls out of the zone and fastballs up late in counts by advanced pitchers right now. Zunino is already showing signs of adjustment and he appears to be settling in to a more comfortable stretch of plate appearances and he still leads the organization in RBI (42). He also only has three passed balls in 42 starts behind the plate.
Brad Miller: His throwback look of high stirrups and no batting gloves immediately wins you over as a fan, and that look is not a mirage. Miller is a throwback player, earning everything he gets with hustle and determination that is off the charts. While that may sound like a modern day PC way of saying he isn't that talented, that isn't true. Miller has a plus hit tool, the chops to stick at shortstop and incredible balance at the plate that really lets him muscle-up on balls at times. His three-run shot in the Rainiers’ laugh-er in Colorado Springs the other night was a no-doubter up by the batter’s eye in center. Miller led the organization in walks a season ago and continues to show patience and the ability to work the count at the minors’ highest level.
James Paxton: Paxton isn't enjoying as much success as the other top M’s prospects here. He’s made it into the 6th inning or later in only three of his 11 starts and has an ERA just under 5 and a WHIP north of 1.5. What the numbers don’t show you is that he has had four or five starts where he has been absolutely cruising along with lights-out stuff before hitting a stretch of struggling in throwing strikes. He’s hovering right at 60% strikes in all on the season and that is why he hasn't been able to get an out in the 7th inning yet this year despite averaging about 88 pitches per start. As has been the case since his college days, when his command escapes him it is usually mechanically related. But Paxton also needs to overcome the urge to nibble for strikeouts to much and instead focus on getting weak contact.
Stefen Romero: I covered Romero here earlier in the season when he was hitting hot, and he’s really never let up. He has four multi-hit games in his last five which has boosted his average north of .300 again and his OPS back up over .800 on the year, and while those numbers aren't overwhelming, the good to plus hit tool that Romero offers has produced multi-hit games in 13 of his 34 Triple-A contests to date. The power isn't showing as frequently in Tacoma as it did last year in his two stops, but I think that will still come even though he is already 24 and a half. He won’t be a plus defender regardless of where he ends up, but he continues to get acclimated to left field and he has the athleticism to handle any of the corners, and I think he still could play some second base, too.
Julio Morban: Morban bulked up before the 2012 season and that helped him become more of an offensive threat than he’d ever been before. It didn't really do anything to alleviate the frequent issues he has with his hamstrings and quads, however. He just finished what is probably the healthiest month of his professional baseball career (knock on wood) and really drove the ball in that time. A left-handed hitter with an open stance, he has always handled left-handed pitching fairly well and he’s been playing a solid right field this season I’m told, too. At just 21-years-old in the Southern League and without a 400 plate appearance season under his belt, he is definitely ahead of the age and experience curve for the level. Oh, and he frequently wears a shirt that reads, “Singles Suck”, so you have to like him.
Carson Smith: Smith has mechanics like a three-legged donkey on speed, but he has a magical arm that, when he’s right, pummels the strike zone with heavy sinkers and wipes hitters out with wicked sliders. He was one of a few A-ball pitchers in the AFL last fall and really impressed with his ability to dominate older competition. He had a rough stretch with his command – which will happen from time to time because of his throwing motion – earlier in the season but is currently on one of his unhittable streaks; a stretch where he’s allowed only six baserunners while striking out 15 over his last 11 innings. He could offer another young, cheap option in the pen that could be a ground ball machine fairly soon.
Each of these players is close enough to Seattle that they could conceivably see big league action at some point in 2013. That rings especially true when you consider the volatility of the roster already to this point in the season. Seattle figures to add another name that needs to be remembered this week when they pick at 12th overall in the 2013 draft. Zunino seems like almost a certainty to break through as a big leaguer, and the injured Danny Hultzen could find his way into this group as well.
This list isn't littered with future Hall of Fame players and Seattle is absolutely desperate for a superstar, but even having a few guys break through as “solid major league regular” at this point would be a huge step in the right direction for the organization. The above players represents the best in-house probables to do just that, and maybe lead the Mariners to a place where looking to the future isn't the only place where hope resides.
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.