Spring training is here and, as the played-to-death line from Pope’s An Essay on Man echoes around baseball this time of year, "Hope springs eternal". That hope has been dashed a bit by the news from Seattle’s camp the first few days, but it still does exist in Peoria as it does in every other camp since it isn’t confined to just the fans of the 30 major league teams. Hope lives within the young athletes showing up to compete in Arizona and Florida, hoping that they can set themselves apart and maybe make a surprise showing strong enough to vault their status within the organization. Colin did a great job of covering the competition for position battles on the 25-man roster as the Mariners prepare to get underway in Peoria, but there are also some prospects not currently on the roster that -- if they can produce the strong spring which their hope foretells -- could be in the mix for some major playing time with the M’s in 2014.
In Colin’s piece linked above he makes detailed note of the obvious battles and roster construction issues facing the Mariners, but his first paragraph is what leads to this post from me. Seattle has "a lot of uncertainty", indeed, and that means that there is a lot of room for players to make impressions and squeeze their way on to the roster. However you may choose to describe it, this club is in a desperate situation to get results on the field, and that means that if a player (or players) can set themselves apart with their performance (not their stats) in spring training then there is a good chance that the Mariners will make the necessary moves to get them on the roster.
Several M’s minor leaguers who placed in my recently completed Top-50 prospect countdown have a legitimate shot at big league time in Seattle this coming year, but following are the six who I feel have the most realistic chance at an extended opportunity for regular action for the club.
Bawcom is one of five players who were added to the 40-man roster in November by Seattle and one of two players I’ll cover here that spent the entire 2013 season at the minors’ highest level. The right-hander was acquired from the Dodgers in the Brandon League trade in 2012 and has been pitching almost exclusively in late, high leverage situations throughout his minor league career. He’s thrown well, getting a 27.8% strikeout rate and 41.2% ground ball rate over the last three seasons, and has pitched more than one inning frequently, lining him up well for a potential middle inning spot if the M’s should need that throughout the year, and most teams do.
Leone is the M’s prospect who had the most helium during 2013, going from the mid-90s to the upper-90s with his fastball and impressing with his cutter as well on his way to Double-A. 2014 is just his third season in the organization and he only has 18 innings above A ball under his belt, but the 2012 16th rounder really impressed everyone who saw him last season, including Mariners’ coaches, and that’s important. He pitched well to his environment last year, getting his best ground ball rate (54.7%) where he needed it most in High Desert, but he sports a 48.8% rate in his 97 pro innings so far. His fastball works routinely up to 98 and can touch higher and his cutter (which he learned by watching Mariano Rivera on YouTube) gets to 92. If he can show that his command of those two pitches has taken another step forward and continue to improve his slider this spring and early in 2014 then he’s a pretty safe bet to see some big league innings in the coming year.
Ruffin is the most familiar name here as by now nearly everyone who follows Seattle has surely seen him throw for the big league club a time or two. He isn’t flashy, doesn’t have truly plus stuff and hasn’t exactly blown through the minor leagues since coming over to the M’s in that trade that we all hate, but he does have coveted big league experience and has a decent enough mix that he can survive in the middle innings and get some strikeouts. He started throwing more curveballs last year when he went down to Double-A as a starter, taking some off of the fastball. That trend continued even after he went back to the pen and finally back to Seattle, but he still has 94 or 95 in him at times. If the curve proves to be an effective weapon against lefties and if he can keep the ball in the ballpark then Ruffin could be a serviceable middle innings guy.
Smith has the best numbers of the bullpen arms, but he also has the type of stuff that make him the most likely of this group to make a big impact in the Mariners’ bullpen long term. Owning a career ground ball rate of thanks to some funky mechanics, his slinging arm slot and two plus pitches, Smith’s biggest concern right now is consistency. Because his fastball has so much movement and because his mechanics aren’t exactly clean and easily repeatable, there have been times when he simply can’t locate. But when he gets in a groove, he’s a tough guy for righties to hit against. He got 67.3% ground balls in Double-A last year and has only allowed three home runs (only one to a right-handed hitter and only one outside of the launching pad at Adelanto) in his 112 pro innings to date. His hard slider (87-88) flattens out at times and that pitch will get punished in the big leagues, so Smith definitely has some improvement still to make, but he’ll be a ground ball machine when he’s locked in.
Acknowledging that I’m higher on Romero than most, I can envision a scenario where he sees a ton of at bats at the big league level this year, particularly now that Franklin Gutierrez has once again fallen on Franklin Gutierrez-esque hard times. Romero doesn’t have a lot of plus tools, but he gets his edge from his mental preparedness and his approach to the game, something that even Chris Gwynn admitted to me that they see as setting Romero apart. That’s not to say that he isn’t talented, and my post following his two-homer showing in the Fall Stars game in November covered the type of hitter I think he can be. The outfield is a huge question mark for the Mariners and the outfield, if we’re being honest, is still a huge question mark for Stefen Romero. But he is young and athletic and actually played a very solid second base in 2012 as I had a few scouts tell me he was among the best in the league defensively there during that year. And as Jack Zduriencik, Lloyd McClendon and Chris Gwynn each mentioned when talking about him during the annual Media Luncheon, he hits right-handed. And that is a big checkmark in his favor. Even though there were some encouraging late season signs last year, Stefen isn’t going to walk much and I don’t think that he’ll ever show 25+ homer power in the big leagues, but he can hit. And the Mariners need hitters. Particularly from the right side.
This one is a bit of a long shot, but the M’s primary need appears to be right-handed hitting, and their primary source of that on the farm in a difference making fashion lies with Peterson. Now, D.J. happens to only have pro playing experience at third base at this point in his career -- a position manned in Seattle by Kyle Seager -- and the designated hitter situation is already murky, at best, but Chris Gwynn and I spoke about Peterson’s athleticism last month and although the club is not ready to move him just yet, there seems to be an expectation within the organization that he could handle other positions. He was really eating Midwest League pitching alive at the time that errant fastball broke his jaw and ende his season, lifting and driving the ball more consistently than he was while in Everett, homering seven times in a 23 game stretch (basically a 50 HR pace for a whole season). Mike Zunino made it to Seattle in about a year’s time and Peterson -- who a few scouts compared to Jeff Bagwell as a hitter to me last year while in Everett -- has the potential to do the same as a mature, polished hitter. If the Mariners have even a remote shot at the playoffs in the season’s second half and Peterson is tearing it up in the minors, this could be a shocker move that the M’s make to ‘go for it’.
Those players are the big six; four right-handed relief arms and two right-handed bats without a true defensive home. But there are several more prospects in the upper minors who could potentially see time in Seattle, too. Alphabetically, those players are outfielders Xavier Avery and Jabari Blash, right-handed reliever Tyler Burgoon, first baseman Ji-Man Choi, left-handers Roenis Elias, Anthony Fernandez and Kyle Hunter, outfielder James Jones, utility guy Ty Kelly, right-handed reliever Stephen Kohlscheen, outfielder Julio Morban, reliever Forrest Snow (after his suspension), shortstop Chris Taylor and infielder Carlos Triunfel. Several of those names are further down the depth charts at their respective positions, obviously, but as we are already seeing just a day into spring training, strange things can happen with the roster throughout a baseball season.
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.