This post marks the first of several minor league season reviews Kate and I will be bringing you this week. We’ll be starting things off with the Everett AquaSox, the Mariners’ Low-A affiliate and member of the short season Northwest League. The AquaSox were loaded with fun players to watch, including several high-round selections of present and past. How’d 2016 go for them? Who were their shiniest stars? What exactly is an AquaSox? We answered
all most of those questions below:
After putting up a subpar first half that saw them finish with an 18-20 record and the third place spot in the division, the Everett AquaSox caught fire, posting a .711 winning percentage (27-11) in the second half en route to the division title. It was a remarkable run that left the AquaSox with a 45-31 overall record, second only to the Eugene Emeralds (54-22).
On an even more impressive note, a lot of the damage came after star center fielder Kyle Lewis was knocked out for the season with a knee injury. Their best stretch ran from August 8th to August 27th, when they won sixteen of nineteen games and vaulted out to a big lead in the division.
The AquaSox started out the playoffs strong, merrily skipping their way to a sweep of the Spokane Indians in the best-of-three semi-final series. The clinching victory came at Safeco Field in front of a small, but enthusiastic crowd.
In the championship series, they squared off with the Emeralds, the Chicago Cubs’ Low-A affiliate. After splitting the first two games, it all came down to one final game in Eugene. Starter Reggie McClain and three relief pitchers kept the Eugene offense in check, but the bats were powerless against Manuel Rondon and the Emeralds’ bullpen. The AquaSox fought hard and nearly managed to tie it at one point, but they’d ultimately fall, 2-1, leaving them one win short of a NWL Championship.
Top Position Player Performances
Kyle Lewis: The Mariners’ first round pick in 2016 didn’t disappoint in his brief pro debut. The center fielder from Mercer was beating up Low-A pitching pretty badly and a promotion appeared imminent before he suffered a season-ending knee injury. I don’t expect the injury to do anything more than slow his development by a year and potentially push him into a corner spot in the outfield, but it was still a hell of a bummer for Lewis, the organization, and all the fans in Everett who Lewis had won over so quickly.
Eric Filia: If you don’t know Filia’s backstory by now, it’s absolutely worth a google search. He appeared to be heading towards a fine baseball career at UCLA when a series of academic issues and injuries knocked him out of the game for two years. He returned to UCLA and put together a decent final season, doing enough to convince the Mariners to use a 20th-round selection on him. He responded by going completely mental in his first professional season, putting up a 168 wRC+ on the year and capturing the Northwest League MVP honors. Filia is incredibly old for a short season player at 24-years-old; it’ll be interesting to see how he performs against tougher competition in the future and how quickly the Mariners are willing to move him if he succeeds.
Nick Zammarelli: Zammarelli was plucked out of Elon with an 8th-round pick in 2016 and proceeded to do nothing but rake all summer long. There are questions about whether he’ll be able to stick at third or not, but the bat looks great at the moment and he could turn out to be a nifty steal for the Mariners.
Donnie Walton: Walton was late getting to the Mariners after he and the Oklahoma State Cowboys went on a deep postseason run that ended in the College World Series, but he didn’t miss a beat when he arrived. Walton boasts a mature approach at the plate, striking out just a tad more than he walked, and possesses the tools to play several different positions adequately. If his skill set reminds you of a former Mariner at all, just take a look at this comparison:
SPOOKY! Walton is built similar to Bloomquist and will likely develop into a utility guy, too! And they both went to a state school! And both have a ‘W’ in their name! Wow.
Pitching: A Few Players To Watch
Similar to the position players, the pitchers in Everett represent the first real glimpse of the Dipoto-era draft class. Perhaps as a nod to Jerry’s own experience, the first pitcher drafted in the Dipoto era was a reliever, hard-throwing lefty Thomas Burrows out of Alabama. Unsurprisingly, players drafted or acquired in the Dipoto era were ones that had showed a previous ability to control the zone. Some, like Burrows or Jack Anderson, a submarine righty, continued to build on their success. Others, like relief pitchers Paul Covelle and Robert Dugger, failed to replicate the excellent K/BB ratios they had in college.
I don’t know which scout is in charge of Pennsylvania, but whoever it is has been extremely busy over the past few years. Dan Altavilla may be the Ur-pitcher for small-school Pennsylvania pitching prospects, but Millersville (Lancaster County, Amish Country!) righty Brandon Miller is close on his heels with his list of accolades. I’m starting to feel like someone in the organization just made a list of everyone who was a finalist for the Tomko award.
Jack Anderson continues in Jerry’s mold of loving relief pitchers from Pennsylvania schools. Anderson, drafted in the 23rd round, was Penn State’s top pitcher in 2016, sequentially lowering his ERA every year to a paltry 2.14 by his final season as he settled into a bullpen role. He only played two games with Everett, as a September call-up, but in the AZL had a 1.89 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 21 innings. (Hate to drop into Kate’s piece here, but she didn’t mention that Anderson is a SUBMARINE pitcher and submarine pitchers are everything that is right with the world! - EN)
Are there any pitchers left in D-2 schools in Pennsylvania? Festa is a starting pitcher, at least. He was the highest draft pick ever out of East Stroudsburg University, a place I wouldn’t recognize except I drove by it once or twice on my way to the Poconos, and like fellow PA D-2 pitcher/Seattle Mariner Dan Altavilla, Festa was also a finalist for the Brett Tomko award for D-2 Pitcher of the Year. Festa continued through the NW League just as he had in college, posting respectable K rates (23%) and walking hardly anyone (5.5%).
Elliot Surrey is a soft-tossing lefty, wearer of sport goggles, and majored in film and media studies at UC Irvine, and I love him so much, you guys. While he won’t overwhelm batters (his fastball is in the mid to high-80s), his K/9 of 10.23 and BB/9 of 2.56 show the ability he has to command the zone, and he has leadership experience, as part of the UCI team that went to the College World Series. Ethan won’t tell you about Surrey because he pitched a CGSO against Cal State Fullerton in 2016 but don’t worry, I am here to spread the truth. Zot zot zot!
A few players who don’t get the prospect love, but might take a step forward this year:
1B Kristian Brito
When I saw Kristian Brito at the playoff game in Safeco, I didn’t recognize him as a player at first. With his full beard and standing 6’5”/240, he looked like The Mountain standing out at first base. When he tapped Austin Grebeck on the back I was concerned for his teammate’s safety (Grebeck runs 5’8”/150). Brito has been muddling along in the lowest levels of the organization since being drafted out of Puerto Rico in 2012, but this year marked a significant improvement for him; his 9% BB rate is a career high, and he cut his strikeouts down to 26%, a ten percent decrease from his 2014 rate. His .298/.360/.483 slash line is also a career best, and shows he has nothing left to prove at the short-season level. I’m sure it was frustrating for Brito to be sent back to Everett after being in Clinton last year, where he slashed .219/.264/.323, but really he probably shouldn’t have been promoted to Clinton in the first place, as his 2014 line from Everett was almost identical to what he did in Clinton. Brito’s sharp uptick in walks reminds me of the step forward Tyler O’Neill took this year. Bright things might yet be on the horizon for Brito, who is still just 21 years old.
SS Bryson Brigman
In a system starved for middle infield talent, Brigman is a bright spot. He played most of his games at shortstop this year, but also played some second base. Drafted out of college in his sophomore year, Brigman is still very slight, at 5’11/180 (having seen him in person, I think there are some exaggerations on both ends there), and as a result, didn’t show a ton of power in Everett this year. However, Brigman shows a great sense for the strike zone, with his walk rate (12.9%) almost equal to his K rate (13.5%). If he can hone his defense, bulk up enough to gap the occasional double, and get a little craftier on the basepaths (17 SBs vs. 12 CS), Brigman will be a great asset.
Michael Koval, RHP
Michael Koval is the nerd we all deserve; he should be the official Lookout Landing Prospect. A National Honor Society and honor roll student in high school, Koval C’d the heck out of the Z at Cal Poly, posting a K/BB ratio of almost 3:1 and surrendering just six extra base hits in 180 ABs, earning him the CCAA Pitcher of the Year award. His numbers fell off a teeny bit in Everett, with 10 walks to 25 Ks in 35 innings (perhaps adjusting to pitching out of the bullpen?), but the strikeouts are still there, and he should only improve as he adjusts to pro ball.
Reggie McClain, RHP
McClain’s ERA of 4.47 doesn’t tell the whole story of his 2016 performance. Sure, he gave up a lot of hits (45) in his 48 innings of work. But he also recorded 55 strikeouts and just five walks for a bananapants K/BB of 11. Or 26.2%, if you like percentages. That isn’t surprising, as McClain had the third best K/BB ratio in the nation in college. McClain has a fastball and a change-up and is working on developing a slider, which will be key to his ability to stick as a starter.
Most Improved Frog Award
Just looking at his ERA, it doesn’t look like 2014 draftee Lane Ratliff improved a lot this year (from 7 down to...6 something?). But the lefty doubled his strikeouts this year in virtually the same amount of innings pitched, from 23 to 46, and cut down the number of homers he allowed from 6 to just 1. Keep on keepin’ on, Lane (who you can find on Twitter @lanehoodratliff, which is definitely in the top-five for Mariners prospect handles).
Next Year’s Outlook
It’s hard to predict how Everett will fare next year, since half the roster hasn’t even been drafted yet. After dominating the AZL, Jack Anderson and his funky submarine should see a full season with Everett next year (Jack Anderson and His Funky Submarine would be such a great Parliament cover band). There will be an influx of talent from the champion AZL and DSL Mariners. As for candidates for advancing, Matt Festa would be a valuable addition to the rotation in Clinton, and I’ll be interested in seeing how his stuff holds up over a long season in the Midwest League. Burrows will probably join him there, although Modesto might be in need of a closer if Thyago Vieira starts the year in AA. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Zammarelli get an early season promotion; even if he starts the year in Clinton, he should be smacking doubles in Modesto soon. Eric Filia is already a little older than his most of his draft class and destroyed the Northwest League this year, taking home MVP honors. Expect him to skip over Clinton and start the season in Modesto, and don’t be surprised if the team is aggressive with him again if he’s hitting well at the All-Star Break. Top prospect Kyle Lewis’s path is probably the hardest to predict of all, as it depends on how quickly he’s able to resume baseball activities. His Instagram bio is currently “Counting down the months…” Us too, Kyle. Overall, it will be interesting to see how Dipoto’s first draft class fares next year, and even more interesting to see who gets selected next.