The end of the minor-league season means it’s awards season for the M’s minor-leaguers. This year the organization hasn’t added any new awards this year, nor renamed any, which means the “60 ft. 6 in. Club” lives another year as the “Adele Dazeem” of the organizational awards.
Mariners announce individual award winners for their minor-league system pic.twitter.com/x3vLZ78FYh— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) September 25, 2018
1B Joey Curletta - Ken Griffey Jr. Minor League Hitter of the Year (previous winners - ‘16: OF Tyler O’Neill, ‘17 OF Ian Miller)
This was essentially a two-horse race from the jump, if one horse was a colossal Shire draft horse and the other was a uppercutting Halflinger. The MVP of AA-Arkansas, Joey Curletta ultimately took the gold, outdoing Daniel Vogelbach (whose MLB time may have rendered him ineligible, it’s difficult to say). Both hitters altered their swings in the past year to maximize their immense power profiles, and the 6’4, 240 Curletta transformed himself from reclamation project into potential post-hype prospect. The 24-year-old 1B clubbed 23 HRs en route to an aesthetically pleasing .282/.383/.482 and a 135 wRC+ in the pitcher-friendly Texas League. I wrote about Curletta’s transformation since coming over from the Phillies (who he never played for, having previously been acquired from the Dodgers), and am eager to see him start in Tacoma next season. Unfortunately for the Mariners, Curletta may be eligible for minor league free agency after this year, so Seattle will have to be proactive to ensure their system retains one of the brightest bats they have.
RHP Matt Festa - Jamie Moyer Minor League Pitcher of the Year (previous winners - ‘16: RHP Andrew Moore, ‘17: RHP Nick Neidert)
It’s probably not a great sign for the overall organizational depth that a relief pitcher is the minor-league Pitcher of the Year, but RHP Matt Festa has had quite a year. After a strong season in Modesto in 2017 as part of the championship Nuts team, Festa went to the California League, where he was the Mariners’ representative at the Fall Stars game (and pitched a three-minute inning that was almost entirely eclipsed by the broadcast team interviewing Yankee prospect Justus Sheffield). He built on that success in 2018, working as the Travelers’ closer and collecting 20 saves with a K% of almost 33 (!) while walking only 6% of batters. Festa’s curveball has been tabbed by Baseball America as the best in the system, and he pairs that with a mid-90s fastball and a changeup that gives him lots of weapons to put hitters away. Festa’s performance at AA earned him a call to the bigs and he made his debut in mid-July at Coors Field, which feels like prospect abuse. Festa was also called upon to start a game against the Astros as “the opener” and worked a 1-2-3 first inning. Ironically, it took the normally high-K Festa until his fourth appearance, in September, to get his first MLB strikeout, but in his most recent appearance against Texas he struck out two batters in 1.1 innings. They say the first million is the hardest to make.
C/INF Dean Nevarez - Edgar Martinez PTPA Award (previous winners - ‘16: 1B Dalton Kelly, ‘17: INF Jordan Cowan)
Dean Nevarez might not be on the casual fan’s radar yet, but the 2018 19th-round draft choice is interesting on several levels, and not only because of his positional flexibility (C/DH/INF). Born in Tijuana but raised and educated on both sides of the border, Nevarez is truly bilingual, his lively Instagram stories flowing seamlessly between English and Spanish as he documents life in the AZL.
Nevarez batted .300 last year at SDSU, helping the Aztecs contend in the postseason, despite almost losing his father to an accidental shooting in an Applebee’s in Tijuana that fall. A hand injury held him to just over 150 PAs in the AZL, where he walked 12.6% of the time while striking out just 21.4% on his way to winnings the PTPA (Productive Team Plate Appearance) award—a system-wide contest that rewards players for walks, hits, lengthy plate appearances, and productive outs, and carries with it the prize of a Spring Training invite, quite an accomplishment for someone in his first season of pro ball.
RHP Jack Anderson - 60 ft. 6 in. Club Award (previous winners: new award in 2017, winner RHP Ljay Newsome)
Somehow there is only one “Jack Anderson” in pro ball (currently), and the Mariners have him. Anderson was promoted from Clinton last year to help the Modesto Nuts in their playoff push, and returned to the level this year. In the hitter-friendly Cal League, Anderson posted a 2.64 FIP and a 9.56 K/9 against a BB/9 of just 2.35, but what’s most impressive about Anderson is that he has never, in almost 150 innings of pro ball, surrendered a home run. That’s one thing in Clinton, Iowa, but quite an accomplishment in almost 75 innings in the homer-happy Cal League. This award carries with it an invite to big-league camp, so look for the submarining righty this spring.
1B Evan White - Alvin Davis “Mr. Mariner” Award (previous winners ‘16: INF Zach Shank, ‘17: INF Chris Mariscal)
The “Mr. Mariner” award goes to a player who performs in an exemplary fashion both on and off the field. It seems promising, if unsurprising, that this award went to one of the organization’s top prospects, but all accounts point to White being an exemplary competitor and teammate. The Mariners have seemingly stocked the farm with a cavalcade of pleasant individuals, but it was good to see White take strides on the field too, particularly in the second half. After working with the coaches in Modesto to find the right way to unlock his power swing effectively, White finished the season on an absolute tear, hitting a cool .394./487/.723 with a 1.210 OPS and a 220 wRC+ in his final 113 PAs. White should start off next season in AA-Arkansas. Fortunately, fans won’t have to wait that long to see White in action again - he’ll be the Arizona Fall League this October!
OF Braden Bishop - Dan Wilson “Minor League Community Service Award” (previous winners ‘16: LHP David Rollins, ‘17: OF Dimas Ojeda)
It was a bittersweet season for Braden Bishop, whose offensive prowess continued to hold up in AA, but a late-season promotion to AAA, or even an outside shot at a September call-up were cut short by a broken wrist courtesy of a poorly controlled fastball. Bishop seems a lock to start 2019 in Tacoma at least, but his work off the field is a year-round endeavor. If you’ve somehow missed the barrage of great work Bishop does, here’s the Cliff’s Notes: Bishop began his own charity - 4MOM - to help raise money for research to combat Alzheimer’s, which afflicts his own mother. This year, the entire Mariners organization threw their support behind their charismatic prospect.
I wish my Mom could see and understand all those behind her. She would be so happy and proud. I’m at the point where I’m speechless how many hands have joined in with me. THANKFUL #4Mom pic.twitter.com/K4aGetG4hk— Braden Bishop (@bradenbishop7) March 25, 2018
For anyone who has known and loved someone facing Alzheimer’s, it is difficult to overstate the heartbreaking nature of the disease. Bishop’s work continues, on and off the field, and has raised awareness as well as thousands of dollars. It doesn’t take much to root for minor leaguers at any level, but Bishop’s story and dedication make him an easy fan favorite. Fortunately, his skillset of superlative defense at every outfield spot, combined with plus-speed and what now appears to be a playable bat means the MLB should be in his future.
Single-A Clinton Hitting Coach Jose Umbria - Dave Henderson Minor League Staff Member of the Year (previous winners ‘16: then Single-A Clinton Manager Mitch Canham (now High-A Modesto), ‘17: DSL Mariners Manager Cesar Nichols)
Venezuelan-born Jose Umbria has been with the team since 2010, mostly working with the lower levels in the AZL and DSL. 2018 was his first year at A-Clinton, working under new manager Denny Hocking. Umbria is the lone native Spanish speaker among the hitting or pitching coaches above short-season ball in the system; given the shakeup with longtime Rainiers manager Pat Listach not returning next year, it will be interesting to see where Umbria is assigned next season.