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2018 Mariners Minors Preview: Modesto Nuts

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The 2017 Cal League Champs eye a repeat

all my friends are dead

As the Slowest Offseason of All Time™ finally gave way to the 2018 Major League season last Thursday, organizations started assembling their rosters for the looming onset of the Minor League Baseball season.

All four of the Mariners four full-season minor league affiliates open their seasons Thursday night, and in advance of the season officially getting underway, we’re going to preview each of the M’s affiliate rosters. So far we’ve done the low-A club, the Clinton LumberKings; today we’ll look at the defending California League Champions, the Modesto Nuts.

The Starting Pitchers:

RHP Randy Bell, LHP Danny Garcia, RHP Darren McCaughan, RHP David McKay, RHP Ljay Newsome

The rotation in Modesto will have a completely new look in 2018, anchored by 26th-rounder/top Mariner pitching prospect/extremely Good Boy Ljay Newsome, winner of the terribly-named “60 ft. 6 in.” award, for which his prize was an invite to Spring Training. The 21-year-old Ljay only got three innings with the big league club before being sent back to minor-league camp, but collected four strikeouts in that time and gave up no walks, right in line with his 21% K-rate/3% walk rate. Joining Ljay will be 2017 18th-rounder Randy Bell in an aggressive promotion; Bell’s 2.85 FIP, 21% K-rate, and 3.6% BB-rate at Everett against top college draftees in the NWL is impressive, however. Speaking of aggressive assignments, fellow 2017 draftee Darren McCaughan pitched just 12 innings in the AZL, although his strong track record at LBSU speaks for itself. A scout from the area told me McCaughan was his favorite under-the-radar pick in the draft. Rounding out the rotation is 2016 15th-rounder Danny Garcia, whose ERA at Clinton was almost two runs higher than his FIP, and potentially David McKay, who was part of the fruit basket of minor leaguers the Royals sent us, although he also seems like a potential bullpen candidate. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Modesto use the last spot in their rotation as they did last year, as a flexible slot for stretching out long relievers.

The Bullpen:

RHP Jack Anderson, RHP Seth Elledge, RHP Michael Koval, RHP Wyatt Mills, RHP Jeffeson Medina, RHP John Richy, LHP Colin Rodgers, RHP Kyle Wilcox

The Modesto bullpen should be somewhat of a strength with standouts Wyatt Mills, Seth Elledge, and Spring Training surprise Michael Koval, plus tricky submariner Jack Anderson returning to Modesto. Between the sidearmers in Wyatt Mills and Jack Anderson, plus Michael Koval’s funky delivery, and Seth Elledge throwing mid-90s heat, the bullpen as currently constructed should give even the offense-happy Cal League hitters fits.

The Infield:

Bryson Brigman, Jhombeyker Morales, Joe Rizzo, Kevin Santa, Donnie Walton, Nick Zammarelli III

Catchers: Tyler Baker, Manny Pazos

The infield should be a strength for Modesto, and it features a handful of highly-drafted talents, including 2016 2nd, 3rd, and 5th round picks in Rizzo, Brigman, and Walton, respectively. Mariner fans continue to await the development of a strong hit tool for the 20-year-old Rizzo, who continues to linger near the back half of the Mariners’ Top 10 prospects. Being drafted out of high school, he’s still much younger than most of his peers, and was nearly four years younger than league average last year when he reached Modesto. After posting walk rates north of 10% each of his first two seasons, a demonstrated ability to drive the balls into the gaps would be a huge step for the left-handed infielder. After a fine debut season in 2016, University of San Diego alum Bryson Brigman never really found his stroke last season at Clinton, where he posted a 74 wRC+ and regressed nearly across the board offensively. A shortstop throughout college and for a majority of his 2016 season with Everett, the 22-year-old shifted to primarily second base last season to make way for the likes of Walton and Santa, among other promising young shortstops at the far end of the Mariners’ minor league system.

It remains to be seen how playing time will be divided among Rizzo and Brigman, who have yet to really break out, and Santa and Walton, who have enjoyed more productive offensive performances. Like Brigman, Santa and Walton have been used primarily as shortstops to date, but it’s worth noting Santa received a handful of starts at second and third last year for Modesto while Walton appeared at second, but never third.

The lefty-hitting Zammarelli figures to receive everyday at-bats at first base as he looks to continue his high-BABIP-hitting that has allowed him to post wRC+’s of 141 and 114 through his first two pro seasons.

Baker, who the Mariners selected in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft, appears set to receive starting duties behind the dish for the Nuts, and actually has done some exciting things on offense, but will need to cut his strikeout rate in a hurry if he expects to continue climbing the ranks. Pazos, who played all over the diamond last season after catching for his entire collegiate career, will serve as the backup catcher and provides unique versatility going forward.

The Outfield:

Eric Filia, Anthony Jimenez, Gareth Morgan, Jorge Solano, Logan Taylor

Like the Nuts’ infield, the outfield has some extremely interesting prospects, my personal favorite being Venezuelan product Anthony Jimenez, who has consistently hit and swiped bags at every level since being signed back in 2013. His 2017 season was cut short due to injury, but still just 22, he has plenty of time to prove himself going forward. Filia, on the other hand, has time working against him, and will be nearing 26 with zero experience beyond Advanced-A ball when he finishes serving his 50-game suspension he picked up over the offseason. That said, his tools have shown he very well likely could make up for lost time in a hurry. Former supplemental round pick and current giant human being Gareth Morgan took a big step in his development last season by showing off an improved ability to draw a walk, posting a career-high 11.5% walk rate, but still struck out a whopping 40% of the time. He finally managed to tap into his insane raw power in 2017, swatting 17 long balls, but the 14 stolen bases he added on came as a bit of a surprise. It’ll be interesting to follow the development of Jorge Solano, who caught 41 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns last season. No, I’m not crazy, but maybe Jerry is. He recently signed Saint Francis WR Jorge Solano, who’d just put the finishing touches on his college football career and apparently hasn’t played any baseball since high school.

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Outside of a few exceptions, the Nuts will be mostly age-appropriate for the level or even young, especially in the case of Newsome and 20-year-old Joe Rizzo. It should also be a fairly balanced squad, with a capable top of the rotation, a strong bullpen, and a handful of players who could bust out some power in the offense-friendly Cal League (Taylor, Morgan, Zammarelli, Rizzo). Depending on how severely Modesto is impacted by trades and promotions, there’s a good chance this squad could make a run at defending their title.