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State of the Farm: 4/18/19

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It’s shaping up to be a fun summer down on the farm!

It’s been a successful opening to the 2019 Mariners Minors season, but boy is it not what we were expecting. With a significant influx of talented outfielders, it’s been the pitching that has stolen the show in the early going. And it’s not just the new guys. A handful of 2018 holdovers have seemingly made significant strides over the offseason.

The organization’s choice to exercise caution with its pitching prospects by allowing them to open the season at a level they’ve already pitched is proving fruitful and could also result in some promotions for some top prospects earlier than we’re used to.

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: 5-9 (3rd in Pacific Northern Division)

.287/.368/.445, 4th in PCL in AVG

7.40 ERA, 1.81 WHIP, Last in PCL in ERA and WHIP

Sheffield Finding Footing in Tacoma

For all the success we’ve seen from the organization’s latest influx of talent, the crown jewel of the system, #1 prospect Justus Sheffield, has failed to live up to that billing through his first couple outings. After doing everything he could to prove ready for the bigs during the spring, the M’s chose to play the service time game and option the stout left-hander to Tacoma to open the season.

He failed to make it through five innings in either of his first two starts, over which he combined to surrender five earned runs on eight walks and eight hits, but looked far better in his Wednesday outing against El Paso.

Although the bullpen blew the lead, Sheffield turned in quite the performance, striking out six and allowing just two earned runs over 6.2 innings. Although he issued three free passes, he was actually quite efficient with his pitches, needing just 80 pitches to record his final out before being replaced after a J.P. Crawford throwing error allowed the next man to reach.

Sheffield breaks off a fading change-up for his sixth strikeout on pitch number 80 of the afternoon.

Nola Out to Prove He’s More Than a Depth Piece

Never a guy known for his bat, C Austin Nola has been one of the PCL’s top hitters through the first couple weeks of the season.

The 29-year-old collected a whopping 12 total bases on Wednesday, homering twice and hitting two doubles in a game that raised his slash line to .474/.545/.921 through 10 games. The strong start to the season likely factored into the organization’s decision to trade veteran backstop David Freitas to Milwaukee earlier this week. While Nola isn’t on the 40-man roster, based purely off performance, he may be next-in-line for catching duties in the majors should the club need a replacement at some point this season.

Crawford’s Going Streaking

Continuing a trend of the organization receiving satisfactory returns on this offseason’s acquisitions, SS J.P. Crawford has been getting it done at the dish over the last week-plus. Following Wednesday’s afternoon tilt in which he went 2-for-5, he’s up to a .321/.410/.434 slash line and riding a 12-game hitting streak.

Although he’s struck out twice in each of his last two games, he’s totaled just 10 on the season and has walked seven times, demonstrating a possible return to the high-walk/low-strikeout player he was throughout most of his time as a minor leaguer in Philadelphia's system.

The defense continues to be a bit shaky over at the shortstop position, but Tim Beckham is doing his best to make sure Crawford has all the time he needs to get the defense in check.

Calixte’s Pair of Big Days

The Rainiers’ offense received an infusion in the form of World Series Champion INF Orlando Calixte this week. The 27-year-old Dominican infielder was sidelined for the first week-plus of the Rainiers’ season with visa issues, but has made an immediate impact upon his return.

After a 3-for-4 performance in his season debut on Tuesday, he started at third base and went 2-for-5 with a home run on Wednesday.

(AA) Arkansas Travelers

Team Record: 10-3 (1st in Texas League North Division)

.207/.318/.303, Last in Texas League in AVG, SLG, and OPS

2.97 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, Leading Texas League in ERA and WHIP

Dunn Continues to Rack Up K’s

For the third consecutive time to open this season, RHP Justin Dunn failed to last six innings in his start on Monday, but that hasn’t stopped him from leading the Texas League in strikeouts.

Here in his second full season working exclusively as a starting pitcher, Dunn increased his pitch count to a season-high 89 pitches on Monday, lasting 5.2 innings and allowing just one hit and three walks. After his eight-strikeout performance that night, he sits at 21 on the season and is currently boasting a 1.88/2.25/3.11 line with rates of 13.2 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9.

With 89.2 successful Double-A innings under his belt last season, it may be a surprise to see him log that many for Arkansas this season before receiving a promotion to the pitching-starved Rainiers, particularly given his success against major league talent during Cactus League play.

Rotation Fueling Strong Start

It’s been a while since we’ve seen a full rotation at any level perform how the five-man staff of starters is out in Arkansas to open the season. In addition to Dunn, the Travelers’ starting rotation consists of LHP Ricardo Sanchez, RHP Darren McCaughan, LHP Anthony Misiewicz, and RHP Zac Grotz. Combined, that group has made 13 starts and totaled 66.1 innings, posting a 1.09 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, and rates of 10.7 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9.

The strong contributions from the rotation as been a welcome surprise for a team that was expected to be carried by its offense, but currently sits in the Texas League’s cellar in most offensive categories.

The rotation is made up of a variety of arms, both left and right-handed, including guys who were drafted (McCaughan) acquired via trade (Dunn, Sanchez), a minor league free agent signing (Grotz) and guy who was both drafted by Seattle and acquired via trade (Misiewicz). Beyond Dunn, only Sanchez has ever made many waves in prospect circles, but each of the five are making an early case to be considered a viable option for mid-to-back of the rotation duty at the big league level in the future.

Strong Outings Sprinkled In Amidst Struggles for Sidearmers

Just two weeks into the minor league season, there’s already been plenty of ups and downs for sidearm relievers RHP Wyatt Mills and RHP Jack Anderson. The duo that has looked nearly untouchable at times has also proved prone to the occasional blow-up outing over the last year, which has proven to be the case already in 2019. Each reliever has already posted a two-walk and a three-walk outing, but has been spectacular in outings where they’ve had control of the strike zone.

Mills, who struggled badly in a nine-game stint with Arkansas at the tail end of 2018 after posting a 1.91/2.53/3.01 slash through 42.1 innings in Modesto, has recorded seven strikeouts over 3.2 hitless innings since his rocky 2019 debut. He did however surrender an earned run in an outing last Friday during which he walked three.

Anderson, whose three-walk performance came last Wednesday but he’s responded nicely, striking out six over 2.2 innings in a pair of appearances since then. Despite the temporary lapse in control, he’s managed to keep extend his career-long streak of now 152.0 inning without allowing a home run.

Markel Remains Dominant in Career Revival

As he continues his road back through affiliated ball, RHP Parker Markel is making an enticing case to help out the struggling Mariners bullpen as he continues to look out of place in the Texas League.

The 28-year-old indy ball signing racked up 10 punchouts over his latest pair of outings, allowing just one hit and one walk over 4.0 innings. He’s running a strikeout rate north of 20 K/9 and a minuscule 0.09/0.79 FIP/xFIP on the season.

Fraley Heating Up

After scuffling slightly to open the season, OF Jake Fraley has been every bit the table-setter the Travs have asked, slashing .291/.452/.542 over the past week. He’s also swiped four bags during that span; however, three of those stolen bases came with a knuckleballer on the mound for Tulsa last Friday.

(A+) Modesto Nuts

Team Record: 5-9 (Last in California League North Division)

.207/.301/.321, 7th in Cal League in runs, AVG, OBP, SLG, and OPS

3.56 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, Fewest walks in Cal League

Ljay Leading the Way Atop Cal League Strikeout Leaders

While Dunn clings to the Texas League lead in punchouts, there’s a valley between RHP Ljay Newsome and the field out in the Cal League. Newsome’s 30 strikeouts top not only the league, but the entire Mariners organization. In fact, no pitcher across all of Minor League Baseball has more strikeouts than Newsome, the closest of which being Shawn Semple of the A-ball Charleston RiverDogs with 26. All of this a season after Newsome posted a strikeout rate just below 8.0 K/9 in 2018.

Newsome’s early results aren’t going unnoticed or unexplained, as noted in Fangraphs’ Daily Prospect Notes from Monday:

After making 26 starts for the High-A Modesto Nuts in 2018, a level at which he’s currently dominating, Newsome could be another candidate for a promotion relatively early on in the season.

Rizzo’s Offense Coming Around

Defense continues to be an issue for the 21-year-old former top 50 overall selection, but we’re starting to see a disciplined approach from 3B Joe Rizzo. Despite only barely eclipsing double-digit walk rates in each of first two seasons and posting a mark of 7.9% with Modesto last season, he’s leading the entire organization in walks with 12 through his first 11 games.

He’s also reeled in the strikeouts so far, fanning just 10 times to date. His .458 OBP he’s running is inflated significantly by his gaudy walk total, and just three of his 10 hits have gone for extra bases—all three were doubles—but his knack for getting on base is duly noted nonetheless. He’s going to need to get the bat going here soon, which may well happen considering he’s repeating the level, but the poise and willingness to change he’s shown warrant as much reason to be excited about him has we’ve had since he joined the organization.

Trio of 24-Year-Old Relievers Thriving

Another Mariners affiliate, another stable of high upside relief arms. In Modesto, the trio that is RHP Jake Haberer, RHP Sam Delaplane, and RHP Kyle Wilcox has given the opposition little hope at the tail-end of Cal League contests. Combined, they’ve contributed 19.1 innings of 0.93 ERA, 0.83 WHIP, 16.3 K/9, 3.3 BB/9 to the Nuts efforts this season.

All three guys are pitching at the level at an advanced age due largely to the fact that they each put in at least three full years for their respective collegiate squads, but they’re doing what they can to make up for lost time.

Between the struggles of some of the organization’s top relief options and the expected sale of any bullpen pieces that are contributing come July, opportunity could come knocking at the high levels of the system before this season comes to a close, and all three of these guys should be prepared to answer.

(A) West Virginia Power

Team Record: 8-5 (3rd in South Atlantic League North Division)

.227/.314/.326, 2nd-fewest strikeouts in South Atlantic League

2.28 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 2nd in South Atlantic League in ERA and WHIP

Gilbert Proving Worth the Wait

Another arm that could benefit from a wave of early promotions, RHP Logan Gilbert has looked every bit like the future ace the Mariners were hoping he’d be when they made him their first-round selection in last June’s draft.

His 22 strikeouts through his first three appearances positions him behind only Newsome for the organizational lead, and directly in front of Dunn. The lanky right-hander saw his pitch count jump from just 66 pitches in his second outing to 93 pitches on Monday, however it’s worth noting that he tossed 70 pitches in his first start of the year.

After logging 112.0 innings at Stetson in 2018, it’d be a surprise to see the organization push him much beyond that in his first professional campaign, but the way he’s pitching, he could easily devote a significant portion of those innings to Modesto or perhaps even Arkansas.

Kelenic Justifying the Hype

When we posted last week’s edition of State of the Farm, OF Jarred Kelenic was fresh off a 3-for-4 performance, yet sitting on a .172/.351/.241 slash line. Five games and nine hits later, he’s improved those marks to .280/.410/.440 and looks quite settled into his spot near the top of West Virginia’s lineup despite being without fellow-slugger Julio Rodriguez.

Peña Stepping Up

While Kelenic has been turning it on as of late, no other Power hitter has stepped up quite like C/1B Onil Peña, who has registered 10 hits in his last 18 at-bats and has driven in seven runs through his last three games.

The product of Pepillo Salcedo, Dominican Republic entered this season, his sixth as a pro, at 22 years old. After receiving playing time at the catcher position in each of first couple seasons, he’s been listed as a catcher this year on West Virginia’s roster despite not playing the position since 2016. He’s yet to man the position in 2019, but if he can replicate the .313/.431/.521 slash line and 155 wRC+ that he’s currently sporting upon making the full-time switch to the catcher position, he’ll give the organization a lot more to be excited about at a position that’s received quite the influx of talent in the last calendar year.

Inman and Chandler Impressive Again

A couple of the most dependable arms at this level for the organization last season, RHP Ryne Inman and RHP Clay Chandler found themselves back here with something to prove to open 2019, and they haven’t disappointed.

The staff leader in ERA, Chandler spun 6.0 shutout innings on Tuesday, although he struck out just two while issuing four walks and two hits. The peripherals suggest there’s a whole lot of luck at play here—opponents are BABIPing just .204 against him—but the run-prevention has been too significant not to mention at this point.

Recording at least seven strikeouts for the third consecutive time this season, Inman further proved himself as a reinvented strikeout pitcher on Wednesday. He’s now racked up 22 strikeouts through 15.0 innings, positioning him second to Ljay Newsome on the organization’s strikeout leaderboard. He’s likely not quite the 0.87 WHIP, .170 BAA pitcher that he’s been so far this year, but it’s looking more and more likely that he’s closer to that than the guy that posted a 1.34 WHIP and allowed opponents to bat .249 last season.

There’s Impressive Bullpen Arms Down Here Too

Would it really be a Mariners farm team if there wasn’t at least a couple of impressive relievers on the squad?

LHP Benjamin Onyshko, who was a part of the same Stetson University pitching staff as Power teammate Logan Gilbert, has been one of West Virginia’s most reliable relief options this season. Through 9.0 innings, he’s yet to allow an earned run and has racked up 11 punchouts. Curiously, his first two appearances were each 3.0 inning outings, but he’s settled into a traditional 1.0 inning role his last two times out.

A Canadian who was the organization’s 24th-round selection in last June’s draft, he’s running an 80% ground ball rate on the year, and while he’s also getting his strikeouts, his single walk this year has been impressive. That said, so has his three hit batters, but for a less good reason.

If Onyshko has been the start left-handed reliever for the Power, RHP Devin Sweet has been the top right-handed option. Undrafted out of North Carolina Central, Sweet has logged 3+ strikeouts in three of his four outings and is yet to walk a batter this season.

Notes:

Swanson Earns Rotation Spot

RHP Erik Swanson received the call back to the big leagues for what’s looking like will be an extended stay after the M’s lost Wade LeBlanc for 4-6 weeks. And that was before he provided the team with an impressive 6.0 innings over which he allowed just two hits on Wednesday.

Florido Had the Whole Club Looking at Him

With Tacoma in a bit of a bind for a relief help, they summoned Venezuelan RHP Deivy Florido, who made nine starts for the DSL Mariners last season. It wasn’t entirely pretty, which, fair because he’s 18 years old, but the young strike-thrower managed to keep the opposition scoreless over his 2.0 inning stateside debut.

The Return for Freitas Assigned to West Virginia

The man the Mariners acquired in the aforementioned trade of David Freitas was RHP Sal Biasi. The organization assigned him to join the Power, where he struck out one in a perfect inning of relief.

White On the Shelf

Highly-touted 1B Evan White has missed nearly a full week after fouling a ball off his foot and being place on the 7-day injured list. He’s eligible to return this weekend.

Julio Appears to be Nearing Return

It appears we’re close to a return to action for OF Julio Rodriguez, who’s missed five days of action after taking a hit-by-pitch to the hand. He posted an Instagram post in full uniform prior to Wednesday’s action.