Trades to attempt to prop up the MLB pitching staff decimated the organization’s pitching depth this year, as we had to bid farewell to both big names (Gohara, Yarbrough, Littell) and less-recognized names that sting nonetheless (Pablo Lopez and Tyler Pike, I miss you). The upside of this swiss-cheese roster construction is that younger or less heralded players got opportunities, and we got to see players like Nick Neidert make his Double-A debut as a 20-year-old, or Nathan Bannister, drafted just last year, pitch well in spot starts for Triple-A Tacoma.
Nick Neidert, Double-A Arkansas
Neidert is the Mariners’ best pitching prospect, and he took a significant step forward in his development this year. Neidert dominated the hitter-friendly Cal League with a 26% K rate (and just a 4% walk rate) before being promoted to AA, where his numbers tailed off slightly, as one would expect for a pitcher who is four years younger than the average age for the level. However, the numbers don’t matter so much as the experience Neidert gained from being at that level: he had the opportunity to face some of baseball’s top prospects and learn from seasoned veteran pitchers in the organization, which is especially valuable considering Neidert won’t be part of the AFL this year.
Nathan Bannister, A+ Modesto
“Big Game Banni” had quite a debut season after missing short-season ball last year while rehabbing an injury sustained in the CWS. Bannister was a rock, pitching 145 innings for Modesto and also making spot starts in Tacoma, where he acquitted himself well against MLB veterans. Bannister is a polished college arm who throws strikes and doesn’t walk anyone; he became the de facto ace in Modesto after Neidert was promoted to Double-A, and looks to follow his teammate there next season.
Ljay Newsome, A Clinton
Ljay quietly put up some of the best numbers in the Mariners’ organization for a pitcher but was overlooked on a Clinton team that simply wasn’t very good. Even though he was saddled with a losing record, Newsome posted an FIP of 3.61 over 130 innings, showing he is as durable as he is effective. He is the C the Z king, striking out 21% of batters and walking just 3%.
Reggie McClain, A+ Modesto
Reggie McClain didn’t get a chance to make a start in the Nuts’ dazzling postseason run, which feels unfair for the team’s innings pitched leader. McClain was an absolute workhorse, throwing 153 innings and going at least five full innings in all but four of his 27 starts. McClain is as resilient as they come: on June 24, he had his worst start of the season, surrendering 7 runs in just 4.2 innings. He came right back five days later to pitch a complete game, allowing just one run and striking out 9.
Lindsey Caughel, Double-A Arkansas
Okay. Lindsey Caughel is 27 and has a reconstructed shoulder and was signed out of indy ball. He is not what you would call “a prospect.” BUT. Caughel was the ace for Arkansas this year, pitching 157 innings to an FIP of just about 4. He doesn’t strike out many batters, but he also doesn’t walk many, and he controlled his home run rate (about 1 per 9). After struggling a little to begin the year, Caughel steadily lowered his ERA month by month until he had brought it from 6.06 in May to 1.29 in September. His best performance was a Maddux he threw at the end of August: he allowed 3 hits, no runs and no walks, only needing 83 pitches to complete the CGSO.
Art Warren, A+ Modesto
A move to the bullpen has transformed Warren from “useful depth piece” into “MLB-quality player.” His fastball has skyrocketed from high-80s to mid-90s, and can reportedly touch 97. He pairs that with a good, hard curve that elicits lots of swinging strikes, and while he has another two or three pitches he can throw, those two alone are enough to make the 24-year-old a viable weapon out of the bullpen. Warren will head to the AFL this fall, then most likely Double-A Arkansas, and if all goes well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him promoted straight to MLB from there.
Matthew Festa, A+ Modesto
Festa and Warren were an embarrassment of riches for the Nuts’ bullpen this year. Both have similar profiles: former starters who can go multiple innings with a starter’s mix of pitches. Warren throws harder, but Festa is the strikeout king, running a ridiculous 34% K rate this season. The two will be teammates again this fall, holding down the back end of the Peoria Javelinas’ bullpen.
Darin Gillies, Double-A Arkansas
After tearing through the Cal League last year, the 24-year-old Gillies was challenged this year at AA, seeing his strikeouts fall off some as his walks rose slightly. However, his 3.92 FIP was right in line with his performance last year. He’ll get a chance to continue to develop against some of baseball’s best prospects at the AFL this year.
JP Sears, A Clinton
Taken out of the Citadel this past spring, Sears moved from Everett to Clinton this year and put up filthy numbers at each. At Everett, he struck out 51.2% of the batters he faced; at Clinton, that number fell all the way down to 43.3%. In 17 innings at Clinton, he didn’t give up a single earned run.
Wyatt Mills, A Clinton
Like Warren and Festa, Sears and Mills are an unfair combination working out of the Clinton bullpen: both have wipeout sliders, although Mills’s comes from a sidearm slot. The Gonzaga grad struck out 35% of batters at Clinton with an FIP of about 2 between Everett and Clinton.
Seth Elledge, A Clinton
Why have one reliever with a 40% K rate when you can have three? Like his bullpenmates Mills and Sears, Elledge punches out batters at alarming rates, although he works more with a heavy sinking fastball and a curveball. Elledge actually pitched better when he was moved to Clinton, dropping his FIP by a full point.
Thyago Vieira, Triple-A Tacoma
It was a little surprising that the “Brazilian Bazooka” wasn’t included in roster expansion, but he does still struggle to throw strikes. Hopefully some extended time with Lance Painter in Tacoma will help the dynamic Vieira harness more of his control.
2018 Rebound Candidate: Chase De Jong
Chase De Jong didn’t have a good year. I would tell you that, he would tell you that; the numbers will certainly tell you that. But before he was sent down to Double-A, De Jong had managed to pull himself out of his early season tailspin, thanks to a mechanical change inspired by Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter. De Jong had one solid start when he returned to the Texas League—a league he’d dominated just last year—before falling back into his old ways. The organization did Chase a disservice moving him from Triple-A and Painter’s watchful eye just as he was beginning to regain his 2016 success. Hopefully he will have ample support to work on things over the off-season.