This fall, the Mariners sent eight minor leaguers to the annual Arizona Fall League for a tune-up. Among the five Single- and Double-A hurlers was right-hander Taijuan Walker, the only AFL selection to see any time in Seattle this season -- and the first player to leave the offseason league.
While the organization hoped that Walker would use the AFL to hone his technique and make up for time spent on the disabled list in 2014, the 22-year-old left after pitching just two games and nine innings, citing personal reasons. The official statement from the Mariners verified that his absence was not due to any lingering health issues.
Despite the loss, the Surprise Saguaros coasted to second place and a 16-15 record in the West division, a hair under the M's former affiliate, the Peoria Javelinas, for the division title. Since the inception of the AFL in 1992, the Saguaros have only claimed the title twice, as recently as 2013 against the Mesa Solar Sox.
Of course, earning a title is just the icing on top in the AFL. The predominant reason MLB teams participate in the offseason league is to help prospects refine raw skillsets, give rehabbing players extra playing time, and prep contenders for spring training. Here's how the Mariners' band of prospects fared:
Matt Anderson, RHP
Signed as a free agent by the club in 2012, Anderson made the recent transition to the bullpen after splitting 2013 among the Seattle's Single- and Advanced-A rotations. So far, the new look is a good one for him.
The right-hander started the season with the High Desert Mavericks, where he started seven games before receiving a temporary promotion to the Jackson Generals. After going 3-5 and preserving a 3.15 FIP in 13 starts for the Generals, Anderson landed on the DL with back problems. He returned to High Desert to finish out the year in the 'pen.
In his new role, Anderson struck out 18 batters and restricted the opposition to seven extra-base hits and three walks in 18 1/3 innings pitched. He finished his AFL workload on a sour note after giving up five runs, two walks, and a home run in 1/3 innings against the Peoria Javelinas.
Matt Brazis, RHP
Another right-handed reliever, Brazis didn't appear to turn any heads in the AFL this year, but he maintained a steady approach with 11 strikeouts and five walks in 12 1/3 innings pitched. The 25-year-old was taken by the Mariners in the 28th round of the 2012 draft, and spent most of 2013 and 2014 in Advanced-A before getting called up to Double-A in July.
Right now, it's Brazis' raw stuff that garners the most interest from scouts, especially with his plus fastball. Following his promotion, the righty brought his 11.44 SO/9 rate down to a cool 9.27, while nearly doubling the 1.83 BB/9 rate he picked up in High Desert. According to MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo, Brazis' effectiveness may be slightly overshadowed by his exuberant delivery, which will keep him entrenched in a relief position for the foreseeable future.
Scott DeCecco, LHP
Following Walker's decision to return home, southpaw Scott DeCecco was selected to replace the right-hander on the Saguaros' roster. He pitched just 4 2/3 innings of relief during the AFL, giving up a single hit and four walks against 18 batters.
Coming off of his first full season with the High Desert Mavericks, DeCecco was the Mariners' most unpolished pick for the AFL. Although he placed third with 97 strikeouts among California League pitchers, the 23-year-old also led the league with a whopping 27 home runs (over double his 2013 total) and 58 walks, significantly higher than the 17 home runs and 46 walks procured by his runners-up. Despite the Mavs' hitter-friendly atmosphere, no pitcher had amassed that many homers since Cibney Bello's 28 in 2007.
Stephen Landazuri, RHP
Like Walker, Landazuri found himself sidelined for a couple of months this season when he injured his oblique. He came to the AFL in order to regain some of the momentum he lost, as well as refine his three-pitch repertoire. In 22 innings of work, the 22-year-old led all Seattle pitchers with 19 strikeouts.
Selected by the Mariners in the 22nd round of the 2010 draft, Landazuri received his first Double-A promotion in 2014 after maintaining an 8.87 SO/9 and 2.47 BB/9 rate in 116 2/3 innings with the High Desert Mavericks last year. In the more temperate climate of Jackson, Tennessee, he brought his strikeout rate down to 7.43 while upping his walk rate to 3.67 in 95 2/3 innings. Although some have billed him as a No. 4 starter, Landazuri could benefit from some additional seasoning in the minors as he works up to full strength again.
John Hicks, C
Aside from Walker's brief AFL stint, Hicks carried the most experience under his belt among Seattle's Saguaros. The 25-year-old backstop ranked 19th in MLB.com's top 20 prospects in the Mariners' org, though it's his defense, more than his offense, that has received the most accolades so far. Over the last year, Hicks nabbed 38% of all baserunners and trimmed his passed ball total from 17 to two.
Hicks got his first taste of Triple-A competition in 2014, batting .277 with five extra bases, two home runs, and a team-leading 20 RBIs. Notwithstanding the small sample size, the smooth transition from Double-A to Triple-A was appreciated, especially with regard to his bat. The young catcher continued to refine his hitting skills in the AFL, with six extra base hits, two stolen bases, and a pretty .304 average over 53 plate appearances.
"I think he probably still needs that grind of playing every day in Triple-A and mentally separating his hitting from his defense at a higher level," Seattle's Minor League Coordinator Chris Gwynn told MLB.com's Greg Johns. That said, it looks like the Mariners have Hicks right where they want him.
Patrick Kivlehan, 3B
As the 32-game AFL season drew to a close, Kivlehan became the first Mariners' prospect to earn the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award for exemplary character and leadership.
"You want to be known for something that's more than being a baseball player," the 24-year-old told MLB.com's Spencer Fordin. "It's how you treat people on and off the field."
Kivlehan, a former college football player, was drafted in the 4th round by the Mariners in 2012 and made the jump from Advanced-A ball to Double-A this year. In Jackson, he powered through another minor league circuit, breaking .300 with 44 walks and 11 home runs.
This fall, he propelled the Saguaros with 22 RBIs and 18 runs scored, good for first and third-best in the AFL. More notably, the third baseman saw some variety on the field, getting reps in the outfield and first base to boot. (For more on Kivlehan, check out Colin's in-depth piece on his background and toolset here.)
D.J. Peterson, 3B
The most highly-touted of the Mariners' hitting prospects these days, D.J. Peterson put up dismal numbers in the AFL after suffering back and shoulder soreness. No significant injury was sustained, but it was enough to put a damper on what has otherwise been an extremely successful season for the 22-year-old.
The M's handpicked Peterson in the first round of last year's draft, and watched his speedy ascent through the rungs of the minor leagues ever since, excepting the last few months of 2013 when Peterson found himself laid up with a broken jaw. In 2014, the third baseman made his first leap to Double-A, where he churned out 13 home runs, 21 extra bases, and a .261 batting average in his first 58 games.
Although Peterson was unable to sustain his high numbers in the AFL, he turned his attention to more pressing matters -- like keeping his place at third base, in spite of whisperings of a transition to first base. Whether he can improve his defense enough to stick at third remains to be seen, but it appears that Peterson has a game plan in place already.
"Just being a little more consistent, working on my footwork over at third base, kind of getting the timing down with my first-step quickness," Peterson told MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo. "Those are things I want to work on."