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State of the Farm, 4/4/19: How to watch MiLB Opening Day, what to watch for, who to follow

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What to watch for as the Mariners’ minor leagues open play today.

Kate Preusser

Welcome back, folks! The inaugural State of the Farm of 2019 is here, and WOW is this going to be a fun season of Mariners minors. At Lookout Landing, we pride ourselves at being your go-to source for Mariners minor league coverage over the course of the season, but for those of you just now dipping your toe into MiLB, I’d like to recommend a couple of resources. First and foremost, I’d encourage you to check back here for our weekly State of the Farm reports, where you can catch up on the happenings from the past week throughout the Mariners system and chime in with your own thoughts or questions as well. Additionally, I strongly recommend giving @MiLBMariners a follow on Twitter for quick updates on probable pitchers, hot streaks, and player movement, among other helpful info. And for those of you who prefer to watch for yourself, an MiLB.TV subscription is far more affordable than MLB.TV, and while the quality and availability of video can sometimes be lacking, I’d rather watch grainy video of Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, and Logan Gilbert than 4K video of just about anything else! If you have an MLB.tv subscription, you can add MiLB tv on for just $25, or if you order it separately, use the name of your favorite minor league team (i.e. “Power”) for ten dollars off.

With the MiLB season opening today, we wanted to give you an idea of what storylines should be exciting to follow for the 2019 season. Next week (and for 40-something weeks after that), check back here for updates on those stories and to stay tuned on the development of many more!

(AAA) Tacoma Rainiers

First Pitch: 7:05pm PT @ Sacramento River Cats (MiLB.TV)

Trio of Infielders Looking to Prove Ready for Big League Roles

While the 2019 Rainiers will feature far more prospect prowess than last season’s veteran-laden club, the star attraction will likely be Tacoma’s middle infield, where offseason acquisitions J.P. Crawford and Shed Long look to wreak havoc on PCL pitching. Crawford will look to reclaim some of the future-star status that has faded since he was named MLB.com Prospect Pipeline’s #2 overall prospect—ahead of the likes of Andrew Benintendi, Victor Robles, and Ozzie Albies—as he opens the season in Tacoma after appearing in 72 games in the major leagues over the last two seasons. The heir apparent to the Mariners’ shortstop position (assuming Tim Beckham chases that nine-figure contract next offseason), Crawford was actually one of Philly’s stronger bats once he returned from injury last summer, posting a 156 wRC+ through 15 games in September and October.

Crawford’s double play partner Shed Long comes to the Mariners system via a much different route. After being selected in the 12th round of the 2013 draft, Long evaded top prospect lists for much of his career prior to a breakout 2016 season that saw him flirt with 20-20 status and a wRC+ of ~150 across two different levels of A-ball. After posting a 120 wRC+ and continuing to demonstrate a keen batting eye at the Double-A level in 2018, he’ll get his first taste of Triple-A ball in 2019. He’s expected to serve as the team’s primary second baseman, but will likely also receive work at third base and even the outfield as the club attempts to groom him for a super-utility role at the next level. The converted catcher actually saw more time at third base than second during through 11 games on the Cactus League circuit, and with Tacoma’s roster currently listing four second basemen and not one third baseman, don’t be surprised if you see Long at the hot corner tonight.

Anchoring an infield chock-full of guys with established minor league careers, perhaps nobody has produced a single season as impressive as Joey Curletta’s 2018 season. Following his Texas League Player of the Year Award-winning season in which he slugged 23 homers and posted a 135 wRC+, the 6’4”-245 first baseman was rewarded with an invite to big league camp this spring, although he never saw game action as he was sidelined with an oblique injury. He’s apparently healthy now, and will have the chance to prove last year was no fluke while he receives everyday at-bats down in Tacoma.

Ex-Yanks Out to Give Pitching Depth Shot in the Arm

Two-thirds of the Mariners return from the New York Yankees for James Paxton will open the 2019 season in Tacoma’s starting pitching rotation in the form of Justus Sheffield and Erik Swanson. The headliner of the deal, Sheffield will attempt to build upon an impressive spring as he opens the year in Triple-A after receiving big league action last season with the Yankees. Sheffield ranks as the top organizational prospect and the #5 left-handed pitching prospect in all of baseball, so hopes remain high for the stout southpaw as he joins his third professional organization.

Swanson returns to Triple-A after appearing in 14 games with the Yankees’ Triple-A affiliate, where he actually outperformed his more highly touted rotation-mate. The big right-hander will look to prove himself to his new club after a somewhat rocky spring facing big league talent. After seeing his strikeout rate jump to 10.3 K/9 and limiting his walks to 2.2 BB/9 last year, he’s got perhaps just as good a chance to emerge as the club’s top right-handed pitching prospect as anyone in the system.

Bishop Fights to Stand Out from Suddenly Crowded Outfield

Two years removed from being the #2 outfield prospect and #4 overall prospect in the system, Braden Bishop finds himself as the 4th-highest rated outfielder and down to #11 overall despite posting the strongest campaigns of his career over that timeframe as a result of some offseason acquisitions and breakouts from other players within the organization. The UW alum was showing off some newfound pop and in the midst of a 115 wRC+ season at Double-A last year when a hit by pitch to the hand forced him out of action for the remainder of the year. After a red hot spring (and a Mallex Smith injury), Bishop found himself on the M’s opening day roster; however, he’ll likely spend a majority of 2019 with the Rainiers.

Will the Next Stud Reliever Please Stand Up?

Despite their record on the the year, the Mariners are struggling badly in one area of the game through their first eight games: the bullpen. Tacoma’s bullpen is shaping up to be packed with guys with one or two standout skills, but who are often complemented with a glaring issue. Strong performances from David McKay, R.J. Alaniz, Dan Altavilla, Robinson Leyer, Matt Tenuta, Ryan Garton, or a handful of career minor leaguers to start the season could easily result in a permanent big league job should the guys currently in Seattle continue to struggle. Keep an eye on the McKay/Altavilla/Tenuta trio, as they each posted a K/9 north of 9.0 and a WHIP under 1.00 during (limited) Cactus League play.

(AA) Arkansas Travelers

First Pitch: 5:05pm @ Tulsa Drillers (MiLB.TV)

Dunn Out to Prove He Can Stick as Starter

In his first season working exclusively as a starting pitcher in 2018, right-hander Justin Dunn made strides to prove he can last a full season in the rotation, starting 24 games over two levels in the Mets’ system. While he struggled slightly with walks (3.5 BB/9), his strikeouts also reached new levels (10.4 K/9) as he averaged 5.2 innings per start. The former Boston College closer received a surprising amount of work this spring, logging the 3rd-most innings (12.0) of any Mariners pitcher, and he did enough to earn the opening day nod for the Travs.

Star-Studded Outfield to Provide Plenty of Offense

While 2016 first rounder Kyle Lewis may not have been acquired this offseason like Jake Fraley and Dom Thompson-Williams, with whom he’ll be patrolling the Travelers’ outfield, he looked every bit like a new man this spring. After posting back-to-back sub-100 wRC+ seasons, he finished 2018 as one of the system’s hottest hitters, and parlayed his hot finish into a strong spring. The former Golden Spikes Award winner looked every bit the part during Cactus League play, slashing .393/.452/.857 including three homers over 28 at-bats. He’s moved fairly slowly since being drafted—due in no small part to a torn ACL he suffered back in 2016 that appeared to impact him as recently as last season—but could make up for lost time in a hurry if he continues to hit like he has been as he opens the 2019 season.

Both Fraley and Thompson-Williams arrive in the organization following breakout 2018 seasons, and each has shown an appealing blend of hitting ability and speed. The duo spent most of last year at High-A as members of Tampa Bay and the Yankees’ systems respectively, and posted wRC+’s of 172 and 147 for their respective clubs. Along with Lewis, the trio of outfielders could easily be the most lethal in the Texas League.

White Proving He’s More Than Strong Defense

You’ve likely heard the legends of Evan White’s truly elite defense at the first base position, and 2018 saw the former first-rounder prove his bat is nothing to sneeze at either. Following a swing change, he flashed some of that 50-grade power he’s been assigned by Prospect Pipeline, hammering 11 homers and posting a 127 wRC+ last year for High-A Modesto. Along with the aforementioned outfielders, the Travs should field quite a formidable lineup this season.

Which Relief Arm Will Stand Out Above the Rest?

While the big league club continues to experience their share of bullpen struggles, the minor leagues remain full of exciting relief options, several of which are set top open 2019 in Arkansas. Art Warren and Wyatt Mills have each had their moment in the sun, but submariner Jack Anderson will join them in what should be an area of strength for the club. Any of the three could follow in the footsteps of 2018 Traveler Matthew Festa and make the jump to the bigs if they prove dominant this summer.

(A+) Modesto Nuts

First Pitch: 6:35pm @ Lancaster JetHawks (MiLB.TV)

We Have a Catching Prospect!

Perhaps no 2018 draftee made a bigger impact in his debut professional season than Cal Raleigh, who wasted no time getting to work clobbering dingers for the Everett AquaSox last season. In just 38 games, the switch-hitting backstop went deep eight times and posted a 149 wRC+, earning him a big league invite this spring. It speaks volumes about the club’s faith in his skills that they’re starting him in High-A, considering he was midway through his junior season in college this time last year.

There’s Going to Be A Loooot of Strikeouts From the Bullpen

A few of the best kept secrets in the system will make their home in the Nuts’ bullpen to start this summer. The quartet of relievers that is Sam Delaplane, Collin Kober, Joey Gerber, and Kyle Wilcox compiled 319 strikeouts over 204.0 innings in 2018, and will look to replicate that success in 2019. While none of them come with the greatest of prospect pedigrees—only Gerber is listed among the team’s Top 30 prospects—they’ve flashed upside that will pique any club’s interest. A strong follow-up from any of them could put the squarely on the map for potential 2020 major league duties.

Which Hitters Will Emerge?

Outside of Raleigh, there isn’t a whole ton to get excited about on offense for this team. No other hitter is listed within the top 20 organizational prospects, however infielder Joe Rizzo (#23) and outfielder Keegan McGovern (#29) are more part of the Top 30. McGovern in particular may be one worth keeping an eye on, as he swatted 15 homers and slashed .271/.351/.518 across two levels after being plucked out of Georgia in the 9th round last season. Unfortunately, he’s set to open the season on the injured list.

(A) West Virginia Power

First Pitch: 4:05pm @ Greenville Drive (MiLB.TV)

Julio and Jarred

You’ll be hard-pressed to find a pair of players for any team in MiLB that have as much buzz surrounding them entering 2019 as Power outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Rodriguez, an 18-year-old phenom signed out of the Dominican Republic, made waves last season as he won the Team MVP Award for the DSL Mariners by slashing .315/.404/.525 and posting a 161 wRC+ through his first 59 games of affiliated ball. He joins West Virginia for his first year of regular season action stateside after going 4-for-7 in the Cactus League against much more advanced competition.

The “veteran” of the two, Kelenic jumps to A-ball after splitting 56 games among two levels of rookie ball following his sixth overall draft selection out of a Wisconsin high school. The centerpiece of the deal that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the Mets, Kelenic profiles as a quick-twitch athlete that has a real chance of carrying all five tools, each of which received at least a 50 grade from Prospect Pipeline, throughout his career. Some growing pains are to be expected, but these two guys are going to be must-watch (MiLB.)TV this year.

Our Most Recent 1st-Rounder Debuts

At the 2018 Draft, the Mariners made Logan Gilbert the first college arm they selected in the first round in ten years. After leading Stetson University to the an NCAA postseason berth and finishing as the nation’s top strikeout pitcher, it was revealed that the 6’6” right-hander had mono, and the Mariners wisely shut him down for the remainder of the season. That means that when he toes the rubber for the Power’s inaugural game as a Mariners affiliate tonight, it’ll also be the inaugural start of his professional career. Armed with a four pitch mix featuring a mid-to-high-90’s fastball in addition to an above-average curve, slider, and change-up, he represents one of the highest-upside arms the club has selected this decade.

We Have Another Catching Prospect(?)!

Unlike fellow-2018 draftee Logan Gilbert, 7th-round selection Jake Anchia was able to make his professional debut in 2018, however he too missed time due to injury. After slashing .340/.402/.713 with 22 home runs in 51 games for Nova Southeastern, where he broke J.D. Martinez’ school home run record, the Miami native posted a wRC+ of 89 through 15 games before his season was cut short. He’ll make the move from Everett to West Virginia and hope that his bat makes the trip with him. If he can refine his plate approach and minimize the amount of swing-and-miss in his game, he, along with Cal Raleigh, could go a long ways towards reshaping the state of the organization’s depth at the catcher position.

We’re excited about the players on the farm this year, and excited to follow them along with you. Check in this season for the State of the Farm articles, minor league recaps, and profiles of prospects. Happy MiLB Opening Day!