With the Mariners farm system healthier than it’s been in years, we have found it necessary to update our prospect rankings mid-season to account for players acquired in the MLB Rule 4 draft, those signed internationally, and players already in the system who have progressed (or, more worryingly, regressed). We’re also taking this opportunity to make some changes to the way we rank prospects; we’re doing away with a numbered list and instead will be presenting the prospects this week in six tiers, similar to John Sickels’ letter grade system or FanGraphs’ FV system, in order to both better reflect the 20-80 scouting scale and not rank prospects relative to each other, which seems both like poor methodology and like something that would tick farm director Andy McKay off (who are we kidding, any kind of prospect ranking system ticks Andy “Everyone’s A Prospect” McKay off). In our document we’ve color-coded the tiers, which might be a helpful way to think about it if you’re a visual person. Read on for a brief explanation of the tiers:
Tier Zero: (gold): Generational talent consistently at the top of MVP/Cy Young considerations. This isn’t simply for the top prospect in baseball, but for players who separate themselves even from regular stars. Some years, there are a few players of this caliber in the league and on prospect lists, other years there are none. Mike Trout is obviously this player, potentially worthy of his own, even more minute section. For convenience’s sake however this encompasses Trout and his satellites, like Mookie Betts or Ronald Acuña. Pitchers can reach this echelon, but since durability is such a question mark it’s tougher to project them as confidently for transcendence. While we’re bullish on the new Mariners farm system, nobody in the organization currently checks this box.
Recent(ish) M’s examples: Griffey, A-Rod.
Tier One (light blue): Future perennial All-Star and occasional MVP/Cy Young candidate. For hitters, one or more elite tools complemented by above-average tools. For pitchers, front-of-rotation starter, a rich arsenal plus stuff, featured regularly with green-faced emoji on Pitching Ninja’s Twitter account.
Recent(ish) M’s examples: Prime Félix Hernández, Prime Ichiro.
Tier Two (dark blue): Everyday starter, consistently a potential All-Star. For hitters, one or two loud carrying tools complemented by average-to-above-average tools, or well-above-average tools across the board. For pitchers, front-of-rotation starter with deep arsenal and one super-plus pitch.
Recent M’s examples: Mitch Haniger, James Paxton, 2012-2017 Kyle Seager, Robinson Canó
Tiers One and Two are both shades of blue because they’re on a spectrum between “Very very good” and “ridiculously very very good”
Tier Three (purple): Everyday, above-average starter, occasional All-Star. For hitters, above-average tools across the board, or average tools with one loud carrying tool. For pitchers, mid-rotation starter with one or two plus pitches, or elite-level reliever (although most elite relievers begin their careers as starters). This is the tier at which demonstrated success at the high minors becomes a factor, with prospects who have demonstrated MLB-ready skills getting a slight bump.
Recent M’s examples: Marco Gonzales, 2013-2016 Hisashi Iwakuma, 2009-2010 Franklin Gutierrez, 2018 Edwin Díaz, Jean Segura, Domingo Santana
Tier Four (pink): Everyday, average starter. For hitters, one elite tool or a couple of above-average tools that make up for average to below-average tools elsewhere. For pitchers, back-of-rotation starter, innings-eater, often described as “knows how to pitch,” which is the “great personality” of scouting reports. Players who need to make one adjustment (improve fastball command, hit for more power) may wind up here or in the tier below, as will high-level relievers.
Recent M’s examples: 2018 Denard Span, Mike Leake, 2006-2007 Kenji Johjima, Álex Colomé, José López
Tier Five (red): Utility player, role player, or bench piece. For pitchers, spot starter, depth option, or useful bullpen piece. Fast-moving college relievers generally live here. For players who haven’t been in the system for long or had an opportunity to be scouted much stateside, an “intriguing but we need to see more.” For players who have been in the system for a while, a “might be a thing?”
Recent M’s examples: Charlie Furbush, Ariel Miranda, Wade LeBlanc, early M’s career Michael Saunders, Erasmo Ramirez, Luis Sardiñas
Tier Six (orange): The Field. There are several kinds of players housed within this tier: depth pieces who have been in the system for a while and have had success in the upper minors, although at a somewhat advanced age; players with thin scouting reports who are either new to the system or have been playing on its most distant planets; relievers with solid numbers; guys who flash one plus tool that might be a carrying tool someday.
Recent M’s examples: 99% of all Mariners prospects in 2017
Some notes on methodology:
To create these lists, we voted as a staff and then compiled the results. Mostly we voted in line or close to in-line with each other with no real extreme outliers, but next time we do this, we’ll also throw out the highest and lowest rankings, ice skating-style.
We’ve kept the list to players with no or very little MLB service time. We argued about including someone like Matt Festa, with Festa riding a near-constant shuttle between Seattle and Tacoma, but ultimately decided it makes more sense to discuss him (like Dan Altavilla before him) in the context of the big league club. The Justus Sheffield discussion was made easier by his reassignment to Double-A Arkansas. We also chose to leave off Gerson Bautista, whose prospect eligibility has been maintained on MLB’s list due to him spending the better part of this year on the IL, but who is much the same case as Festa. Braden Bishop, also on the IL for an extended period of time with a lacerated spleen, remains on the list for now, having only received 24 MLB PAs this year.
Something that’s important to recognize is that in a system as focused on player development and improvement as Seattle’s is, none of these groupings are static. A player might jump back and forth between tiers as they’re given new opportunities and chances to develop new skills. The growth process isn’t linear, in baseball nor in life. Some players might hit their ceilings at a certain tier; others will bust through those ceilings by picking up a new pitch, some extra velocity, or more power. It’s also important to remember that the band for each tier is fairly wide. FanGraphs addresses this with 45s, 55s, etc., but we prefer the ham sliced a little thinner, although without the punitive feel of a plus or minus sign in assigning letter grades. In discussing each of the bands we’ll talk about who was close to pushing for the next tier, and who might be a fringe inclusion on their current tier, as well as the reasoning behind that.
Tomorrow we’ll begin with the Red tier (5), followed by the Pink on Wednesday (4), the Purple (3) on Thursday, les Blues (2 and 1) on Friday, and circle back around to the Orange (The Field, the largest group) over the weekend, along with the complete color-coded list.