[The MLB draft this year is June 12-14. Leading up to the draft, we at LL will be doing a series of articles highlighting different needs in the Mariners system, profiling players who might be good matches for the team, and giving a general draft overview to help enhance your understanding/enjoyment of the draft. This week we will be doing a positional overview of the depth at each level of the system; first up, the pitching.]
Pitching-wise, the 2017 Mariners season has ranged from “comedy of errors” to “gallows humor” to “no actually just the gallows.” But how does the pitching talent of the future look to play out, and how aggressive should the Mariners be in going after more polished college arms versus raw but high-upside talent?
The Mariners don’t currently have anyone in the system with the kind of buzz surrounding the “big three” of the early 2010s, but the system is far from the barren wasteland some would paint it as. One big-name selection with a first-round pick like Griffin Canning out of UCLA or Alex Lange from LSU would do a lot to ease Mariner Nation’s concern about the lack of potential aces in the system.
The following list is not exhaustive, but should give you a good sense of the depth of talent in each tier and how long before we might see them with the big club. For each level, I’ve divided them into projected starters and projected bullpen arms, and listed them roughly in order of what I consider their readiness at this stage.
Will be contributing soon (early 2018, possibly even 2017):
Rob Whalen, AAA-Tacoma
Whalen is only in the top spot here because I think he’s currently the likeliest candidate for a spot start at some point this year. Moore is probably the best and closest, but I think DipotoCo will be very hesitant to rush Moore into a situation where he’s not set up for success. Whalen has been recovering from a shoulder injury and is off to a bit of a slow start because of that, but he posts serviceable numbers: a K/9 around 8 and an FIP under 4.
Andrew Moore, AAA-Tacoma
Moore was called up to Tacoma after the injury bug infected the big club, and has continued his strong performance even at this higher level. His stuff doesn’t blow scouts away, but he just keeps finding ways to get guys out.
Max Povse, AA-Arkansas
Povse, acquired from Atlanta in the Alex Jackson trade, has been impressive in his first few starts with the Travelers. He isn’t going to strike out a ton of people, but his 3.13 FIP and ability to suppress home runs are both attractive assets.
Emilio Pagan, AAA-Tacoma
Pagan had a short stint with the club this year but I’m still including him on this list as it seems likely he’ll spend some extra time in Tacoma refining his approach. This year the righty reliever made his first appearance in the WBC, where he cited the exposure to players like Yadier Molina as instrumental in his development. He’s currently running a K/9 of around 13, and will probably be back with the big club at some point this year.
Zac Curtis, AA-Arkansas
Curtis is another one who got a brief look in the M’s
Endless Wheel of Sadness bullpen this year; I was a little surprised they sent him back to AA instead of AAA, but Jean Machi is accustomed to a certain lifestyle, I guess. Curtis hasn’t posted quite the sexy K/9 in AA as he did in A-ball, but he has a starter’s arsenal and big upside.
Art Warren, AAA-Tacoma
Art Warren is probably the fastest mover in Seattle’s system right now. He’s currently assigned to Tacoma (although that might just be organizational shuffling, but still, he should at least land in AA) and has been the subject of some buzz lately—check out this excellent profile of him from Bobby DeMuro detailing the mechanical adjustments he’s made since being moved to the bullpen.
On the horizon (2018/2019):
Nathan Bannister, A+ Modesto
Bannister just missed the cut for “contributing soon” and there’s a possibility we still see him early in 2018. At 23, Bannister is a polished college arm out of Arizona who’s already made an appearance at AAA-Tacoma this year, where he pitched 6.2 innings of shutout ball, striking out 6. Bannister’s timeline got slowed down a little when he missed all of last year with a UCL strain, and he had a bumpy entrance to the season, but will almost certainly be promoted to AA-Arkansas sometime this year.
Nick Neidert, A+ Modesto
Neidert, the Mariners’ top pick in the 2015 draft, continues to cruise along in his pro career. Even in the hitter-friendly California League, Neidert is destroying batters with the highest K/9 of his pro career, 10.18, against a 1.77 BB/9. His FIP of 2.70 is also ridiculously low for the Cal League. He’s young and needs seasoning yet, but Neidert is a talent Mariners fans are justifiably excited about. He’ll move quickly, but remember—this is a kid who can’t legally order a drink until this November.
Thyago Vieira, AA-Arkansas
Vieira has taken a bit of a step backwards with his command this year and isn’t progressing as quickly as I had hoped, but he still possesses an electric arm and is devastating when he’s on.
Darin Gillies, AA-Arkansas
Darin Gillies is another college arm who has been fast-tracked through the system: he was in short-season Everett after being selected in the 2015 draft, spent half of 2016 in Clinton and half in Bakersfield, and was challenged with a promotion to AA-Arkansas at the beginning of this season. The long reliever has had some struggles in the Texas League as he adjusts to the level, with an FIP in the mid-4s.
On the distant horizon:
Brandon Miller, A-Clinton
Brandon Miller was a standout at Division II-Millersville and has continued to showcase the elite command that is his calling card throughout his pro career. His walks are up a little (3/9 vs. his stellar 1/9 at Everett), but expect those to be growing pains for the polished righty. He’s still striking batters out at a good clip (8 K/9) and features a four-pitch mix that should move him relatively quickly through Seattle’s depleted system.
Pablo Lopez, A+ Modesto
Lopez, signed out of Venezuela, lost some time when he had to have TJ surgery in 2014. He repeated rookie ball in 2015 and made some noise at Clinton in 2016, with an FIP around 3 and a minuscule BB/9 of .96. At Modesto, Lopez is back to a starting role and thriving in the hitter-friendly California League. Hiding behind his 5.01 ERA is a 3.06 FIP, and he continues not to walk anyone, with a BB/9 of 1.11 against a K/9 of almost 8. Lopez, the son of two doctors who is fluent in four languages, is just twenty-one years old, and his 6’3”/200 frame will be an asset as he continues to scale the ranks of the system.
Ljay Newsome, A-Clinton
Ljay Wyatt Newsome, aside from being one of my favorite names in the system, is also a sneaky star on the rise. He’s just 20 years old but so far has put up even better numbers at Clinton than he did in both rookie ball and Everett.
Jake Zokan, AA-Arkansas
Why won’t you let me love you, Jake Zokan? The Zok has struggled with health issues over his whole pro career. A switch to the bullpen last year promised to mitigate his durability issues and Zokan was electric in Bakersfield last year, striking out 43 batters in a little over 37 innings. Unfortunately, he got bitten by the injury bug again and had to have season-ending surgery. He’s not recovered from it yet but will hopefully pick up where he left off with the Travs at some point this year.
Elliot Surrey, Short-Season Everett
Elliot Surrey might be one of the more interesting people in the Mariners organization. A bespectacled film major out of the University of California-Irvine, he posted a K/9 of 10.23 out of the Aquasox bullpen last year. He’s in extended spring training right now, set to rejoin Everett in the summer, but keep an eye on him.
Under-the-radar contributors/Potential breakout candidates/Lottery Tickets:
Dylan Unsworth, AA-Arkansas
After an impressive spring training showing, Unsworth started this year in AAA before the various injury shufflings required him to be sent back to AA. The 24-year-old South African has struggled with health problems in his career, which derailed an All-Star season for him last year in Jackson. Unsworth’s numbers don’t look great this year, but he’s wearing a pretty high BABIP and still posting a K/9 around 8, so look for his FIP (around 4) to regress back to his career mark of around 3, at which point he’ll probably get another shot at Tacoma’s depleted rotation.
Reggie McClain, A+ Modesto
McClain was the recipient of an aggressive promotion this off-season, jumping from short-season Everett to the California League. The 24-year-old has responded by turning in even better numbers than in his time at Everett, leading Modesto to a 5-2 record in his starts and only giving up one home run in the notoriously homer-happy league. His K/9 has dropped some and his BB/9 has risen, as one might expect, but his FIP sits in the mid-3s, backing up his 2.74 ERA. A largely unheralded college arm out of Mizzou, McClain’s performance so far has been eye-opening. If he can sustain this level of production there’s a good argument to be made to send him to help out the AA team sometime this summer.
Joe Pistorese, A+ Modesto
“Pistol” is doing a second tour of duty in the Cal League after serving a pretty much bullshit suspension in 2015. (Love to minor league baseball, where the judicial system is carried out with all the integrity of the tribunal in Alice in Wonderland.) The lefty WSU product hasn’t quite been striking batters out at the clip he did last year in A+ ball, and his walks have zoomed up some, but he’s got a much more manageable FIP of 3.78 and will benefit from a year of consistency at the level.
Tyler Herb, AA Arkansas
Tyler Herb is repeating AA this year, and so far things are going well. His K/9 has taken a significant leap (6.67 to 9.66!), he’s cut his walk rate, and lowered his FIP by a full point. I probably wouldn’t have put Tyler Herb on this list, except his last outing was stellar—he tied a career high for strikeouts, with 10 (which he also set this year), and gave up just one run on a solo HR in eight-plus innings of work—so I got curious about what his numbers looked like this year. In his last three outings he’s gone six innings or more and struck out 7, 8, and 10 batters. He might be poised for a breakout year.
So from compiling this list, what stands out to me is that although the Mariners seem to have enough near-ready MLB talent for the next year or so, the pickings get really slim after that. Neidert’s development will be huge for the system, but after that there are no clear contenders for top of the rotation starters. While Jerry seems to be able to transform middling starters into bullpen superstars, having even one potential ace coming up through the ranks—a Kyle Lewis of pitching—would do a lot to get people excited about this farm system again.