Hello and welcome to the playoff wrap-up version of State of the Farm. The entire MiLB season is over! Can you believe it? A lot went down over the last few months, from the sudden rise of Zack Littell to the season-long mashing by Tyler O'Neill to the news that the Mariners will have two new affiliates starting next season. The offseason is long and we will dive into all of this over time. For today, you'll get a quick rundown on the new affiliates and the aforementioned playoff wrap-up:
The New Affiliates
Double-A: Arkansas Travelers
The Travelers will replace the Jackson Generals, who are now officially affiliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks. In some ways the switch is a bummer, because the Generals were filled to the brim with good people and the club has been an affiliate for so long (ten years) that they truly felt like a concrete part of the organization. That being said, the shift to Arkansas brings with it a newer ballpark (by nearly a decade), larger crowds, and a move to the Texas League. Dickey-Stephens Park plays in an extremely pitcher-friendly manner, as explored in this article and this article. It's also worth noting that the Travelers were the Angels' Double-A affiliate from 2001-2016, which obviously includes the years Dipoto worked for the Angels.
High-A: Modesto Nuts
The Modesto Nuts replace the Bakersfield Blaze, who as of this moment are probably packing up and setting sail for the Carolina League. The Nuts were the Colorado Rockies' High-A affiliate from 2005-2016.
The biggest thing of note here is that the Mariners didn't just sign a development contract with the Nuts, instead choosing to purchase a majority share of the club in addition to a four-year contract. MLB organizations purchasing majority shares of minor league teams isn't unheard of (see: San Jose Giants, whole damn Braves' organization), but it's definitely uncommon.
Similar to the Travelers' switch, this move represents a significant upgrade in location, facilities, attendance, and so on. John Thurman Field is another old stadium, having been built in 1955. It received renovations in 1997 and is nowhere near as silly in its dimensions as Bakersfield's Sam Lynn Ballpark.
One last thing I'll note on these switches, because we have had a few people ask about it in the last couple MiLB articles: the Mariners will not lose the players that played for the Generals and Blaze, nor will they gain the guys that played for the Travelers or Nuts. Players are contracted to the MLB clubs, not the MiLB clubs. Tyler O'Neill is still very much a Mariner.
AAA Tacoma Rainiers
Final Finish: PCL Semi-Finals
The Rainiers entered the PCL Semi-Finals with dreams of a championship, but without arms and a lot of the hitters who helped them reach the playoffs, they were completely steamrolled by the El Paso Chihuahuas. After winning Game One by a score of 7-6, the Rainiers were outscored 19-5 over the next three games and were swiftly eliminated in the best-of-five series.
Stefen Romero was the team's juggernaut all year, finishing the season with a slash of .304/.361/.541. His 21 homers were second-most on the team, trailing only Dan Vogelbach (who hit most of his 23 homers with the Iowa Cubs). The team never had much help on the pitching front all year long, with top pitching prospects Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla both vaulting from Double-A to MLB without a stop in Tacoma. They relied on a bevy of fringy prospects and so-so veterans.
AA Jackson Generals
Final Finish: Southern League Champions
The Generals finished off their marvelous year (and their time in the Mariners' organization) with a bang, defeating the Mississippi Braves in the Southern League Championship. The championship proved particularly challenging after the team had several key players bumped up to both Tacoma and Seattle (Heredia, Diaz, Altavilla, Peterson, etc...), but they managed to pull it off with a who's who-type of roster.
OF Tyler O'Neill was the unquestioned MVP of the team, capturing endless recognitions and awards over the course of the season. O'Neill was a wrecking ball all through the regular season and that carried over to the playoff seamlessly. Other year-long contributors for the Generals included Timmy Lopes (.284/.358/.355), Benji Gonzalez (.271/.342/.386), and Ian Miller (49 SB, .331 OBP).
While they lost a significant amount of pitchers they still boasted a fairly strong rotation at the end of the year, with Andrew Moore (3.34 FIP), Paul Blackburn (3.30 FIP), and Ryan Yarbrough (3.30 FIP) leading the way.
A+ Bakersfield Blaze
Final Finish: California League Semi-Finals
Try as they might, Sam Lynn Ballpark and the Bakersfield Blaze ran out of magic in the California League semi-finals against the Visalia Rawhide.
From a prospect standpoint, the Blaze weren't the most interesting affiliate, as a lot of their key players were older guys such as Chantz Mack and Kyle Petty, but them making a playoff run while facing the inevitable doom of the organization provided a hell of a story to root for.
SS Drew Jackson was the top-rated prospect in Bakersfield and for the most part had a so-so year, but he did manage to put up a 140 wRC+ over the last full month of the season (8/12-9/12). The biggest story on the pitching side was Zack Littell, who didn't plop onto the radar as much as he walked onto the damn boat and punched a hole in the machine. With Bakersfield, Littell posted a 3.20 FIP over 68.0 IP.
A Clinton LumberKings
Final Finish: Midwest League Runner-Up
Clinton won series over the Peoria Chiefs and Cedar Rapids Kernels before falling in the championship series to the Great Lakes Loons. The LumberKings had a terrific 2016, finishing the regular season with an 86-54 record.
The LumberKings had perhaps the most intriguing batch of prospects in the system, with top prospects such as Alex Jackson, Luiz Gohara, Nick Neidert, Luis Liberato, Zack Littell, and Braden Bishop all playing for the team for a significant duration of the season. Kevin Gadea (2.54 FIP) and Pablo Lopez (3.19 FIP) also established themselves as arms worth paying attention to in the coming season.
A- Everett AquaSox
Final Finish: Northwest League Runner-Up
The AquaSox came just one win short of winning the Northwest League Championship, falling to the Eugene Emeralds in a decisive Game Three.
Everything I could say about the AquaSox was said here. They were a wonderful team that overcame losing star outfielder Kyle Lewis to nearly win the whole damn thing. They weren't the most talented team we've seen come through Everett, but they were definitely one of the more memorable groups.
R AZL Mariners
Final Finish: AZL Champions
Another championship! The AZL Mariners are comprised of a ton of new guys and access to game info is pretty limited, so unfortunately they didn't get nearly as much coverage as they probably deserved. Top prospects such as Brayan Hernandez, Chris Torres, and Joe Rizzo helped lead the Mariners to a victory over the AZL Angels in the Championship. Ryan Uhl and Steve Clevenger even popped up at the end to help the guys out.
R DSL Mariners
Final Finish: DSL Semi-Finals
The DSL Mariners fell in the semi-finals to the Red Sox back in early September. They enjoyed a wonderful season, finishing 48-23 in the regular season. There wasn't much on the team in terms of notable top prospects, especially after Brayan Hernandez was bumped up to the AZL Mariners, but it was a fun team who came up just short of a championship appearance.
It was a pleasure covering all of these teams and players throughout the season. Thank you all for coming along for the ride. State of the Farm will continue in the offseason, but obviously the format/focus will be a bit different. It was a fun year full of playoffs and championships and restored hope. The farm is still lacking from a talent perspective, but the direction they're heading in is overwhelmingly positive.
'Til next time.