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Ten 2018 storylines to be encouraged by in the Mariners’ minors

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Even the thinnest of farms still has some diamonds in the rough.

MLB.com

The Mariners’ season officially came to an end Sunday afternoon, but it unofficially ended long enough ago that we can all start turning our attention to the future. No, not 2019--although some of these storylines may bleed into the majors next season--but the more distant future. The Mariners have been dubbed by many to possess the worst farm system in baseball, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been bright spots throughout the organization.

Even after the big league club went into “buy” mode, the system had a handful of interesting storylines to watch unfold during the 2018 MiLB season. Here are the 10 most important to the Mariners’ organization going forward.

10. Undrafted Outfielder Jack Larsen shines in second professional season

After going undrafted out of UC San Diego in 2017 despite ending his four year career with a .332 and finishing as the program’s all-time leader in walks with 144, Jack Larsen was signed by the Mariners. He went on to slash .312/.472/.541 with a 175 wRC+ through 34 games with the AZL Mariners last summer to open his professional career. His impressive debut was rewarded with a promotion to Clinton to open the 2018 season, skipping short season ball, where he appeared in 88 games, slashing .266/.384/.472 and posted a 144 wRC+.

Larsen saw his production dip substantially upon a August 1 promotion to High-A Modesto, where he posted a wRC+ of 60 through 26 games with the Nuts, but advancing three levels from in just barely over a year is pretty impressive nonetheless. The left-handed hitter will turn 24 this offseason, and in all likelihood will open 2019 back in Modesto.

9. Healthy contributions from late-round picks

If early results are any indication, the Mariners seem to have fared quite well in the 2018 draft. 9th round OF Keegan McGovern and 29th round INF selection Bobby Honeyman have been a couple early success stories. McGovern burst onto the scene his senior season at Georgia by posting a .319/.431/.644 line with 18 home runs and may be the biggest early surprise of the Mariners’ ‘18 draft class. Largely due to positional need, he essentially leapfrogged Rookie Ball and Short Season-A, jumping right into a starting position with the A-Level Clinton LumberKings in a prospect-rich Midwest League. The 6’3” left-handed hitter needed only 65 games to crush 15 dingers and slashed .268/.351/.523 while posting a 10.3% walk rate, 24.4% strikeout rate, and a 144 wRC+ through his first tour of professional duty.

Honeyman was selected out of SUNY Stony Brook and appeared all over the infield for the AquaSox, but was used mostly as a third baseman throughout the season. In 2018, he was the second-hardest DI hitter to strike out, going down on strikes just once every 30.1 at-bats. That number jumped significantly (as you’d expect) upon going pro, to once every 9.3 at-bats, but perhaps surprisingly, his batting line took a substantial step forward as well, as he slashed .346/.383/.474 with a 139 wRC+ through 58 games with Everett. He struggled to a 39 wRC+ through six games with Modesto when he was promoted due to a shortage of Nuts. With the dearth of impact middle infield performers in the Mariners’ system, a performance like Honeyman’s is heartening. We’ll see if he can repeat his impressive debut campaign as he likely receives a more natural promotion to Clinton in 2019.

8. Darren McCaughan emerges as a legitimate starting pitching prospect in first full season

No Mariners’ affiliate team struggled as badly as the Modesto Nuts in 2018, and the damage likely would have been far worse were it not for RHP Darren McCaughan. The surprise ace of the Nuts’ staff emerged just one year after being selected in the 12th round out of Long Beach State. The 22-year old averaged nearly 6.0 innings per start, which is doubly impressive considering he also lead the Mariners’ affiliates in innings pitched with 149.0. He posted a 3.05/3.46/4.13 ERA/FIP/xFIP through 25 Double-A starts, and he got only better as the season wore on, posting a 1.85 ERA, 2.59 FIP, and 9.3 K/9 over his final eight starts.

Per our own John Trupin, McCaughan commands an 87-89 fastball with lots of arm side run and a little sink, an okay curve and a legit slider that gets most of his whiffs. If McCaughan can eventually claw his way to the big leagues as a starter, he’ll be just the seventh starting pitcher since 2004 that the Mariners drafted to go on to debut for the Mariners as a starter, joining Doug Fister, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Anthony Vazquez, and Andrew Moore. Of the four right-handed starters listed in MLB.com’s Top 30 Mariners prospects--Gilbert, Carlson, Whalen and Povse--only the freshly drafted Gilbert has avoided a serious setback in his career trajectory, so a starting pitching prospect emerging out of the 12th round would be a huge boon to the system.

7. Dan Vogelbach refuses to be ignored, gets ignored anyways

If Daniel Vogelbach could play a lick of defense, he’d be firmly entrenched as a member of the Mariners’ next young core. Instead, he continues to toil away on the Mariners bench (if he’s lucky) or down in Tacoma. Honestly, the dude deserves some major kudos for--as far as I know--never making as much as a peep about his lack of opportunity in the Majors despite establishing himself as one of the elite offensive weapons in all of Minor League Baseball. In fact, he continues to, by all accounts, be an extremely likable and supportive teammate, even using Dee Gordon’s younger brother’s rap song as his walk-up music. Vogey has been one of the best bats to come through Tacoma ever since being acquired at the July 2016 deadline, and crushed the apparent cap on his talent once again in 2018, posting a line of .290/.434/.545 with a 157 wRC+ and posting a career-best walk rate of 20.4%. Most hearteningly, his batted ball profile improved to fit his powerful frame, as his GB% dropped nearly 7%, transformed instead into fly balls that, with Vogey’s power, bring value.

His defensive restrictions have long limited his ability to secure a full-time job, but his offensive output is beginning to force the Mariners’ to shoehorn him into their lineup. The jury is still out on whether we see Nelson Cruz back in the fold in 2019 and beyond, but Vogelbach has done everything he can at the minor league level to earn a DH spot at the MLB level if a team is willing.

6. A whole bunch of high strikeout, multi-inning relievers are on the horizon

An ever-present topic of conversation throughout Major League Baseball for the past few years has been the evolution of what a “starting pitcher” looks like, and, relatedly, how relievers are being used. The Mariners seem to have caught wind of the shifting of the tides, as they appear to be grooming a whole flock of guys down on the farm who have the ability to work multiple innings out of the bullpen, racking up strikeouts and shortening ball games for the rotation. We’ve yet to see the fruits of this labor extensively at the big league level--most guys still had defined roles in the Mariners’ bullpen in 2018--but that could change in the not-so-distant future. Fans who were still tuning into Mariners games in September were treated to a healthy dose of Shawn Armstrong, who posted 13.2 K/9 through 59.0 innings in Tacoma last season, but even he was bound mostly by the restrictions of the “closer” title, averaging just barely over an inning per appearance. Wyatt Mills is a name familiar to many a Mariner fans due partially to his 3rd round selection last June and partially to the fact that he was plucked out of Gonzaga right here in our backyard. Mills averaged close to 1.1 innings per appearance in 2018, and while the strikeout rate decreased to 10.4 K/9, his 1.91 ERA/2.53 FIP/3.01 xFIP line through 42.1 High-A innings are nothing to sneeze at.

But the really exciting guys, the guys who mowed the opposition down and did so for multiple innings at a time, were mostly unheralded, late round guys. The combination of right-handers David McKay (mostly Double-A), Sam Delaplane (A) and Kyle Wilcox (A) in particular were pleasant surprises in 2018, combining to rack up 279 strikeouts in 177.2 innings (14.1 K/9) and averaged roughly 1.2 innings per outing. Other exciting names to keep an eye on among that group are honorary Flow Bro Collin Kober (12.3 K/9, 1.2 IP/appearance), 2018 draftee Joey Gerber (15.1 K/9, 1.0 IP/appearance) and spindly Dominican flamethrower Dayeison Arias (12.7 K/9, 1.2 IP/appearance).

If any/all of these guys remain in similar roles as the progress through the organization, they could eventually serve as a creative route to run prevention for an organization with little starting pitching depth to speak of. Now it only remains to be seen if they end up being forced into single inning, predetermined roles as they reach the upper levels of the minors.

5. Mariners hit ground running in early rounds of 2018 draft

Insert the always necessary “small sample size” caveat here, but through their first half-seasons of professional baseball, OF Josh Stowers, C Cal Raleigh, and LHP Michael Plassmeyer all took great first steps toward carving themselves out nice professional careers. As questionable as it was at the time, the selection of outfielder Josh Stowers--he was selected 54th overall, roughly 100 spots ahead of his MLB.com ranking of 146--through his first 58 games looks encouraging. The Louisville product flashed all five tools he was projected to have, and while he sometimes struggled to put them all together at once, he finished the year with a .260/.380/.410 slash line, posted a 15.2% walk rate, hit five homers, and swiped 20 bags while running a 126 wRC+ and playing exceptional defense in center field.

Late signee Cal Raleigh didn’t make his Mariners’ organization debut until mid-July, but after a brief dry spell to open his career, he lit the Northwest League on fire. Raleigh ended his debut season with a team leading eight long balls, a 149 wRC+, and a slash line of .288/.367/.534, hitting it well from both sides of the plate. He also made 25 of his 38 appearances on the season at catcher, and hope remains that he can stick at the position going forward.

The most impressive 2018 draftee to suit up for Everett this summer however was 4th-round selection Michael Plassmeyer, who made 12 starts for the AquaSox, although he logged just 24.0 innings on account of having already thrown 91.0 innings for Missouri during the NCAA season. The southpaw would be perhaps the system’s top pitching prospect overall if you were simply scouting the statline, as he posted a 2.25 ERA, 0.93 FIP, 1.02 xFIP, and 16.5 K/9. As it stands, he’s easily the top left-handed pitching prospect in the system, and having already spent three years as a starter in the SEC, should be able to move rather quickly.

4. Kyle Lewis shows health, then rust, then potential

The Mariners’ top selection from the 2016 draft, Kyle Lewis had more buzz than any Seattle draft pick since Dustin Ackley, but had failed to generate much to be excited about since a traumatic knee injury abruptly ended his debut season. That injury bled into his 2017 season, and a combination of that and a surgery to his other knee delayed the start to his 2018 until mid-May, and through 49 games with High-A Modesto, where he was running a 92 wRC+, there was little surrounding his game to be excited about.

Regardless, he was promoted to Double-A Arkansas on July 21 following a season-ending injury to Braden Bishop, and his struggles carried over to his time with the Travs. Through his first 29 games, he was running a wRC+ of 43 and striking out (22.9%) three times as often as he was walking (7.6%). Encouragingly, the newly-23-year-old Lewis finished far stronger. In the final month of the season, Lewis upped his contact, power, and plate discipline, running an ISO of .202 in the final 110 PAs of the year and a healthier 113 wRC+. That includes a torrid final couple weeks, where Lewis posted a 193 wRC+, 20.5% walk rate, and 23.1% strikeout rate. The hot streak even continued into the Texas League playoffs, where he added another home run in the team’s opening game. Lewis also logged more than 450 innings playing center field over the course of the season, and barring any setbacks, should head into 2019 fully capable of handling the defensive demands of the position.

3. Joey Curletta takes the Texas League by storm

When the Mariners acquired Joey Curletta from the Phillies for Pat Venditte in March of 2017, the move seemed like little more than a “my junk for your trash” type of deal. Venditte, while fun because he could pitch either arm, seemed unable to pitch with either one well enough to stick in the big leagues. Curletta was entering his sixth minor league season and struggled badly in his first taste of Double-A competition.

Taking a step backwards in his first season as a member of the Mariners’ organization, he posted a 110 wRC+ at High-A, and was rewarded with a spot on Double-A Arkansas’ opening day roster in 2018. He responded with his most productive professional season to date, finishing the year with personal bests in home runs (23), RBI (94), BB% (14.6%), and wRC+ (135) while taking home Texas League MVP honors. He’ll enter next season at 25 years of age, but it remains to be seen whether that will be as a part of the Mariners’ system or not, as he’s eligible for minor league free agency. With the first base position in Tacoma seemingly up for grabs, bringing Curletta back and even inviting him to big league camp down in Peoria would be a welcome move to keep one of the most exciting breakout prospects from 2018 in the system.

2. White gets hot down the stretch

In a system chock-full of second half stars, none burned brighter than Evan White, who looked every bit worthy of his first round draft selection in the second half of his 2018 season. While his first half wRC+ of 99 was underwhelming, even for an elite defensive 1B, he caught fire following his mid-season all-star selection, posting a .320/.400/.512 line and a 147 wRC+ in 64 second half contests. The synchronized hot streaks by White and Lewis, two first round selections with major questions marks surrounding their offensive game, went a long way to re-instill hope in the hearts of Mariners faithful, and likely has the scouting department breathing a little easier. White’s defensive abilities have never been in question, so he’s going to progress as quickly as his bat does, and if he opens 2019 like he finished 2018, we could be seeing him in Seattle as a contributor alongside the young core currently in place.

1. We finally get a taste of Julio Rodriguez, and he’s even better than advertised

“Rodriguez is expected to hit for average, and he already shows good raw power. Overall, the teenager has the ability to drive the ball to all fields and he consistently makes hard contact. He has the potential to be a middle-of-the-order type of run producer in the future. On defense, Rodriguez profiles as an everyday right fielder because of his solid defensive skills and plus-arm potential.” - Jesse Sanchez, MLB.com

We waited almost a full year to see Julio Rodriguez in action, and at just 17 years old, the Dominican slugger made his professional debut, joining the DSL Mariners on June 1. Playing at almost a full year younger than league average didn’t prevent him from posting a .315/.404/.525 season. Or a 161 wRC+ with 10 stolen bases. Or winning the DSL MVP Award. Standing at 6’3”, 180 lbs, his Instagram home runs are already becoming something of legend, and best of all, he rocks #44 on the back of his jersey. He’s obviously still a long ways away, but he represents perhaps the one player in the organization that has seemingly unlimited potential, and while he’s listed as the system’s #4 prospect, he might be able to effect the future of the franchise more than any other guy on the list.