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State of the Farm: 4/12/19

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The crops are lookin’ healthy muh friends

Welcome to our first officially official State of the Farm of the 2019 season!

It’s been a so-so start to the season for most of the organization’s clubs, but (most) of the new and highly-touted prospects are living up to the hype individually, and we’re already seeing the beginnings of what could grow into some new pop-up prospects in the system.

With small sample sizes running rampant, it’s hard to pick and choose exactly what to highlight, so if we missed something this week, let us know in the comments and keep the conversation rolling!

Note: The Mariners’ official website added a super handy new tool for this season that we’re willing to share with you only if you promise that you won’t defer to it and stop checking back here for your weekly updates.

Click here for a sortable list of stat lines on all the system’s top 30 prospects, per MLB.com’s Prospect Pipeline.

(AAA) Tacoma Rainiers

Team Record: 3-4 (3rd in Pacific Northern Division)

.279/.353/.411, 3rd in PCL in AVG

7.07 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 2nd-worst in PCL in ERA and WHIP

New Guys Anchoring Offense

It’s early, but the Rainiers’ leaders in AVG, SLG, and OPS are two of the organization’s newcomers in C Austin Nola and INF Shed Long.

Nola has been utilized in something of a three-way timeshare at the catcher position, splitting time with MLB-vets Jose Lobaton and David Freitas, but his hot hitting has earned him playing time at first and third base as well. Having come up through the minors as a middle infielder, Nola’s versatility should keep on the field as long as his bat stays hot.

The brother of Phillies’ ace Aaron Nola, the elder Nola has collected at least one hit in each game he’s played and is boasting a 214 wRC+ on the year. Typically a disciplined hitter who walks nearly as often as he strikes out, he’s seen his K% a bit higher and BB% a bit lower than he’s used to here in the early going.

The Mariners’ return in a trade with the New York Yankees for 2018 2nd-round OF Josh Stowers, Long has collected hits in bunches for Tacoma, including a 4-for-4 effort Wednesday night in which he poked his first homer of the season and also walked. Of the six games he’s started at a position on the field, he’s started at second base in half of them, third base twice, and has received one start in left field as the organization continues to work him into a super-utility role.

With a trio of multi-hit games already under his belt during his first trip through the Triple-A circuit, he’s now slashing .407/.467/.556 with a 169 wRC+. The former catcher has averaged 16 stolen bases over his last three seasons, but is yet to attempt to swipe a bag in 2019.

Bishop Itching to Make Major League Return

Right on the heels of Nola and Long in many offensive categories is OF Braden Bishop, who joined the Rainiers for their opening day after traveling to Japan with the M’s at the end of March. A swing-changer, Bishop was having a strong season at Double-A Arkansas in 2018 before being shut down following a broken hand he suffered upon being hit by a pitch.

Following a strong stint in the Cactus League during which he slashed .379/.419/.724 through 15 games, he’s seamlessly making the transition to the PCL, where his team-leading six walks is propping up a .333/.444/.500 slash line. It’s nice to see the walk rate all the way up at 16.7% after he saw it dip into the single digits last season for the first time since 2016.

Crawford’s Finding His Stroke

Despite no longer qualifying for “rookie” status, J.P. Crawford maintains his spot as a centerpiece of the Mariners re-tooling efforts, and his recent five-game hitting streak is an exciting base for the 24-year-old to build on moving forward.

Those who glance at Crawford’s full-season stats at the MLB level from the past two seasons may be tempted to view him as a below-average offensive player, but dissecting his numbers a little further reveals a player who posted a 138 wRC+ through 67 plate appearances through the end of the season following his activation from a rehab assignment in early June.

His rate stats are lagging a bit through his first six games with Tacoma, and he wasn’t particularly impressive during Cactus League play, but the club will undoubtedly look for those numbers to stabilize as he continues to see work as a middle-of-the-order bat for the Rainiers. A left-handed hitter, he’s struggled out the gates when facing RHP’s (2-for-15), which we can expect to regress to the mean moving forward.

(AA) Arkansas Travelers

Team Record: 6-1 (1st in Texas League North Division)

.233/.333/.376, 2nd in Texas League in walks

3.43 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, 2nd in Texas League in strikeouts

Thompson-Williams Well on His Way to Another 20-20 Season

The member of the high-upside outfield prospect quartet who struggled the most during the spring, it’s a bit of a pleasant surprise to see OF Dom Thompson-Williams leading the Travs’ offense as they open the season strong. Following a two-homer game in Arkansas’ second game of the season, he’s picked up a hit in each game since and is now sitting on a .304/.393/.609 slash line.

He’s opened the year with a 3:4 walk-to-strikeout ratio, a welcome sign for a guy who saw his ratios move in the wrong directions last year at High-A despite post a 147 wRC+. As long as he continues to blend a patient approach with good bat-to-ball skills, he’ll continue finding his name in the upper-third of the Travelers’ lineup card.

MiLB

Sanchez Faring Better Second Time Through Double-A

After posting a 4.06/3.87/4.48 pitcher’s slash through 13 starts with the Atlanta Braves’ Double-A affiliate in 2018, Atlanta opted to expose LHP Ricardo Sanchez to waivers back in November before trading him to Seattle in exchange for cash.

The 22-year-old hurler is finding a bit more success through his first two appearances as a member of the Mariners’ organization, allowing just two earned runs through 11.1 innings. He’s recorded 10 strikeouts and issued just three free passes so far, and has posted a GB% just north of 70% through 34 batted ball instances.

Markel Making Mark in Travs’ ‘Pen

A member of the latest crop of independent league signings, RHP Parker Markel has announced his return to affiliated ball in a big way, sporting a heater that can touch triple-digits.

Formerly a 39th-round selection by the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2010, the 28-year-old logged 41.1 innings in the American Associate in 2018, where he ran a strikeout rate of 13.5 K/9, albeit with some walk issues. He’s managed to maintain control of his arsenal so far with Arkansas, striking out 11 and walking just one through 4.2 innings. His latest appearance came on Tuesday, when he struck out the side in order in back-to-back innings against the NW Arkansas Naturals. At 6’4” 220lb., he appears to be armed with everything needed to move quickly through the system.

Strikeouts Aplenty for Dunn

Although he made 15 starts at the level as a member of the Mets’ organization last season, RHP Justin Dunn opens a season at the Double-A level for the first (and hopefully only) time in 2019.

He’s racked up 13 punchouts through his first two starts, but they—along with allowing 13 runners to reach through 8.1 innings—are taking a toll on his pitch count as he’s yet to work past the fifth inning. He’s currently running a .409 BABIP against and actually limiting walks better than he ever has before (2.1 BB/9), so he should be able to work later into games as some of that batter-ball luck regresses.

Grotz Vying for More Usage

The Travs have gotten some solid production out of RHP Zac Grotz, who the M’s signed to a minor league deal after he elected free agency from the Mets’ organization back in November. Initially slated to go to Modesto to be stretched out as a starter, the team bumped him to Double-A after a strong spring.

The 26-year-old was a 28th-round-pick out of something called Embry-Riddle University in 2015 by Houston but released less than a year later. The Mariners are his fourth organization already—or fifth if you count the 2017 York Revolution of the independent Atlantic League—but may be the one he actually sticks in he continues to perform like he has been.

Grotz made 13 starts for the Mets’ A-ball affiliate last year after being used almost exclusively as a reliever prior to that, and it appears he’ll continue to be used as a starter for Arkansas. Through his first two outings, he’s fanned nine over 7.0 innings and is yet to allow an extra-base hit or earned run. He held the opposition hitless in his most recent outing, a 4.0 inning effort on Thursday.

You might remember Grotz for being incorrectly identified as Sam Delaplane during a March 22 Cactus League game when Grotz, not Delaplane, struck out four Angels over 3.0 perfect innings.

(A+) Modesto Nuts

Team Record: 4-3 (T-1st in California League North Division)

.226/.310/.393, 1st in Cal League in HR

3.74 ERA, 1.26 WHIP, 2nd in Cal League in strikeouts

Ljay Who-some?

What on Earth has gotten into RHP Ljay Newsome? A guy we dubbed a “true strike-thrower” that “consistently throws in the mid-to-high-80’s” in our LL’s Top 50 Mariners Prospects over the offseason, Newsome tied his career-high nine strikeouts in his first outing of the season before racking up 11 in his follow-up outing. Through his first two outings, he’s already 16% of the way to his 2018 strikeout total despite being just under 7% of the way to his innings total from the same season.

If you haven’t yet read our own Nick Stillman’s in-depth piece investigating Newsome’s impressive 2019 debut, I highly encourage you to do so. From that piece:

On Thursday, Ljay mixed his pitches and spotted them on both sides of the plate but, unlike last year, he consistently ran his fastball at the top of the zone.

Another follow-up might be in order for Nick after his most recent, even more impressive outing on Tuesday.

International Outfielders Fueling Offense

Once a highly-touted international free agent signing out of the Dominican Republic, OF Luis Liberato opened this season—his third with Modesto—by homering in each of his first two games. He proceeded to pick-up his third of the season in his fourth game.

Patrolling the outfield with Liberato is Venezuelan OF Anthony Jimenez. Jimenez spent most of 2018 with the Nuts, where he wRC+’d 87 while battling through injury to appear in 102 games. In four minor league stops prior to 2018, he never posted a wRC+ lower than 126, so his hot start to 2019 that has him slashing .348/.400/.609 with a 186 wRC+ through six games embodies hope that he’s on his way to getting right at the plate and breaking through to the vaunted “upper levels” of the minors by the end of the summer.

The duo have combined for eight extra-base hits, five walks, and six strikeouts on the season and have been active on the basepaths as well, although occasionally running into outs as they’re a combined 2-for-4 in those attempts.

Rizzo Finding Success With Nuts

On the heels of a real down offensive season with the Nuts in 2018, the 21-year-old Rizzo, who was the 50th overall selection in the 2016 draft, INF Joe Rizzo has flashed the ability to hit for extra-bases as well as improved plate discipline early on in 2019.

Through six games, he’s swatted three doubles and walked four times while striking out just four times. He remains a bit undersized at 5’9” with defensive concerns, but some scouts still believe he can develop into an everyday player, and still just 21, he’s actually a bit younger than league average for the Cal League.

Strikeouts Aplenty Throughout Pitching Staff

Outside of Newsome, Modesto has gotten pretty shaky performance out of their starting pitchers, but they’ve been able to stick around in games thanks to what’s been a dominant bullpen. Consisting of some carry-overs from last year’s dominant ‘pen in Clinton, the Nuts’ quartet of RHP’s Sam Delaplane, Kyle Wilcox, Jake Haberer, and Reggie McClain has combined for 35 strikeouts over 22.0 innings.

You may be fairly familiar with Delaplane and Wilcox, who’re simply doing what they did last season when they posted strikeout rates of 15.1 K/9 and 14.4 K/9, respectively.

The relief role is a new one for Gas Camp attendee Reggie McClain, who has found success as a long relief man after starting 50 games for the Nuts over the last two seasons. He’s recorded six strikeouts through 6.1 innings while scattering five hits and walking none.

Another indy ball signee, Haberer has joined the organization pumping 100mph fastballs and some filthy secondary stuff as he’s blown away Cal League competition. A 24-year-old who went undrafted after a four-year career at Eastern Illinois, he posted good-not-great numbers in the Fronteir League in 2018, but spent the offseason building up his arm strength and developing into what is now a very intriguing bullpen prospect with a chance to move quickly.

He’s recorded more than twice as many strikeouts (8) as he has baserunners allowed (3) through 6.0 innings and has worked 2.0 innings in each of his three outings to date.

(A) West Virginia Power

Team Record: 3-4 (T-4th in South Atlantic League North Division)

.192/.289/.272, 2nd-worst in South Atlantic League in hitting

2.60 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, Leading South Atlantic League in strikeouts

Julio’s Hitting Translating to U.S.

After holding his own in limited opportunities with the big league club during spring training, OF Julio Rodriguez makes his long-awaited stateside debut this season, opening the year with the Power.

Through his first eight games of the season, he leads the club in almost every offensive category, slashing .355/.429/.452 and posting a wRC+ of 167. He’s also walked four times and struck out five.

Typically slotting into the third spot of the Power lineup and manning right field, he’s actually been deployed as the team’s center fielder on two occasions already this season, where he’s performed admirably.

Gilbert Every Bit as Advertised

Like Rodriguez, fans have been anxiously awaiting the debut of RHP Logan Gilbert, who got the nod as the Power’s opening day starter and immediately showed that the hype is justified, flashing a heater in the 96-97mph range that’s complemented by a nasty curve.

Through his first 9.0 professional innings, he’s fanned 14 and allowed just five baserunners—three singles, a walk, and hit batter. He’s topped out at 70 pitchers, but as he continues to build his stamina over the course of the season, it wouldn’t be a shock to see him routinely posting double-digit strikeouts.

Unexpected Contributions from Starting Pitchers

In addition to the dominant performances West Virginia has received from their most highly-touted pitching prospect, they’ve also benefited from strong outings out of right-handers Ryne Inman and Clay Chandler.

Inman, a 22-year-old who the Mariners selected in the 15th round out of high school in 2015, rivals Gilbert in size at 6’5” 215lb.. He’s repeating the level this season after logging 25 starts for Clinton in 2018, when he posted a 4.57/4.11/4.07 slash. After a shaky first start of the season in which he last just 4.0 innings and surrendered four runs but struck out seven, he struck out eight over 6.0 shutout innings in his follow-up.

Also repeating the level is Chander, who while also excelling at limiting runs, is doing so without the aid of the strikeout. Through 11.0 innings spanning a pair of starts, he’s surrendered just one earned run while allowing nine baserunners and striking out just seven. The 24-year-old posted a respectable 3.89/4.70/4.01 slash despite posting just 6.7 K/9. He’s done a great job of limiting walks throughout his career, posting a mark of 2.1 BB/9 through 196.0 career innings.

Notes:

Casetta-Stubbs Joins Nuts

2018 11th-round pick and Vancouver, Washington native RHP Damon Casetta-Stubbs was assigned to High-A Modesto on Thursday.

He worked 2.1 innings in relief, walking two and striking out three. At just 19 years old, it’s a bit of a surprise to see him making that jump considering he was pitching for King’s Way Christian High School at this time last year, so it’s likely that the Nuts just needed an extra arm. I’d expect him to be assigned to Everett when they open play in June.

Kelenic Breaks Out of Slump

The club’s top position-playing prospect OF Jarred Kelenic struggled to find his footing through his first week as a member of the organization, going 2-for-25 through his first seven games, however he did walk seven times during that span. He broke out in a big way Thursday night, going 3-for-4 with a double and walk.