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The 2019 LL Mariners Minor League Awards

We’ve rolled out the green carpet for the most prestigious awards ceremony in the western hemisphere.

Seattle Mariners on Instagram

Thank you all for joining us for the most exciting morning of the year - Lookout Landing ‘s Minor League Awards Ceremony. It’s an annual brand-new tradition unlike any other thing we realized we should do now that Seattle’s farm system doesn’t send us to a thesaurus every week searching “barren synonyms”. I’m wearing the best suit my largest uncle would lend me, and I’m sure you’re all similarly well-regaled. Our staff deliberated and voted on 12 discrete awards this year, as well as a “Best Tools” roundup. While I will be your emcee adding the flavor text, these awards are the combined wisdom (or lack thereof) of our whole crew putting their brains together. Let’s get started!

Most Improved Hitter - INF Joe Rizzo

This award can be tricky to dole out in the minor leagues. You’d expect every player to be improving a good deal each year. Hopefully that’s the case. But few players salvaged their situations like Rizzo did this season. In his second full crack at High-A, Rizzo held his walk rate steady, cut his strikeout rate by about 1/4th, posted a career-high ISO and double-digit HRs, and cranked his batting average from .241 to .295. Thanks to continued maturation and a swing change inspired by the organization’s efforts pointing to other undersized players like Justin Turner who have unlocked power, the 21 year old had the best year at the plate of his career. He’ll begin next year in AA-Arkansas at 22 with a chance to catch some eyes with further improvement.

Others receiving votes: Evan White, Julio Rodríguez, Jake Fraley, Jarred Kelenic

Most Improved Pitcher - RHP Ljay Newsome

Much like young Rizzo, this award could go to a couple top names, but in terms of players who leapt from seemingly known quantity to an entirely new level of intrigue, nobody in the system outdid Ljay. Beyond inspiring one of my favorite pieces of the year - Almost Live from Modesto - Ljay was the most stunning of a few “Gas Camp” success stories this season. A specialized offseason training regimen combined with specific mechanical adjustments put Newsome on league-wide strikeout leaderboards and earned him the 13th-best K-BB% of any pitcher in minor league baseball. Ljay saw his velo bump from 86-89 to 90-93. It plays up with what seems to be well-tunneled releases on his off-speed, helping him to 169 SO in 155.0 IP across A+ and AA. His strikeouts dropped off significantly as the 22 year old hit AA, but he continued to have success in his first taste. Another offseason at Gas Camp is potentially in store, so hopefully Newsome can be a back-to-back contender for this award.

Others receiving votes: Ricardo Sánchez

Most Improved Defender - INF Joe Rizzo

Defense is tricky to evaluate for scouts in person, much less for us when we’re limited to occasional in-person opportunities to see mostly Everett and Tacoma. As such, many of our staffers opted out of voting here, and for a few of the defensive categories. Rizzo was a player we heard direct reports on from scouts, specifically with regards to the work being put in, improved footwork, and the strides that had been made with the glove. He’s still not an adept fielder, but handling 3B, 2B, and 1B can keep him in the lineup so long as the bat keeps improving.

Others receiving votes: Donnie Walton, Cal Raleigh

Most Impressive 2019 Draftee - 3B/2B/LF Austin Shenton

The tightest debate thus far was between the Mariners’ 5th-round pick and their 1st-rounder here. Shenton gets the gold here in no small part thanks to offering a heartier body of work than his pitching counterpart(s). While Kirby was dominant in scheduled short stints, Shenton rapidly showed himself more than a match for Everett and handled himself ably in Low-A West Virginia as well. We got a full 226 PAs from Shenton, showcasing impressive power despite a spray approach. In the live action of the Power I personally attended, Shenton was the only player able to match the exit velocity and sound at contact of Julio Rodríguez. The reviews on his defense are far from rave, but much like Rizzo the club appears inclined to supplement versatility in the absence of eminence. Shenton could have a season on a similar track to Keegan McGovern did in 2019, starting in Low-A again but moving quickly to High-A Modesto.

Others receiving votes: George Kirby

Most Impressive Newcomer (non-draftee) - SS Noelvi Marte

Whether this was a confusingly phrased category or an NFL MVP/Offensive Player of the Year situation is uncertain, but Marte was unequivocally impressive in his DSL debut. The 17 year old slashed .309/.371/.511 with power and base-stealing speed. He’s more talented than nearly anyone in the DSL, but Seattle keeps their international prospects there all the same to benefit from their academy. I could see him struggling more than Rodríguez in his stateside debut, but at a premium position with the tools and quickness to stick on the dirt there will always be a bit less pressure on his bat.

Others receiving votes: Jarred Kelenic, Nick Stillman

Most Concerning - RHP Sam Carlson

The awards ceremony is by and large a chance to look back at who made strides, but it’s worth acknowledging who had frustrating or worrisome seasons. Unfairly, the most troublesome campaign came from a player who didn’t throw a single live pitch outside a few simulated games in extended Spring Training. SCarl’s recovery from Tommy John surgery ultimately carried through the whole season. As a prep pitcher Carlson was already expected to be brought along slowly, but his future is murky at the moment. Per Ryan Divish, Carlson pitched in a few games in Arizona and the next steps will be working up to full bore at high performance camp this fall before starting affiliated ball again next spring. The other players receiving votes here were a pair of AA outfielders who had middling and/or inconsistent seasons in Arkansas, along with the M’s second-most highly regarded international signee of 2017 who struggled in the AZL this year.

Others receiving votes: Dom Thompson-Williams, Kyle Lewis, Juan Querecuto

Most Surprising Pop-Up Prospect - RHP Devin Sweet

Halfway through the year, this would’ve been a lock for Ljay Newsome. An undersized 26th-round pick tearing through High-A? Sign us up. But then Devin Sweet moved back into the rotation in West Virginia, and started putting on a clinic.

The undrafted 22 year old finished the season in Modesto after narrowly beating Newsome by one spot for 12th in MiLB at a 24.6 K-BB%. He spent part of 2018 and his offseason in the Mariners Dominican Academy, as the organization sends all their new draftees and signees there at the end of their first season for training, bonding, and planning. Sweet’s task was to develop his slider, which he was able to do to make it a reasonably deceptive offering. That was enough to allow his 90-94 mph fastball work, and his Bugs Bunny change-up wreak havoc. Thanks to his Jharel Cotton/Fernando Rodney-style change, Sweet had the second-highest whiff rate of any qualified pitcher across Low-A, High-A, Double-A, and/or Triple-A. Not bad for a kid who thought he’d be getting his engineering degree a year ago.

Pour that drink on their head, Devin.

Others receiving votes: Ljay Newsome, Jonatan Clase, Dayeison Arias, Jack Anderson

Highest Upside - OF Julio Rodríguez

We might as well have called this the Julio Award. The size, the results, the attitude, the maturity, the youth, and the style all combine for the most dream-able, hype-earning prospect in the system. Surer bets than him have flamed out before, but it’s easier to look at what Rodríguez has done and imagine a star than any other player in the system.

Others receiving votes: None.

Unsung Hero - INF Jordan Cowan

The Arkansas UTIL was the only player someone answered for this question, so while he had a commendable impact it is worth noting he won by default. The 24 year old has been injury-bitten for much of his career, but played a team-leading (tied with Donnie Walton) 124 games for the Travelers in 2019, mixing between 2B, 3B, and SS.

Others receiving votes: Keaton Gillogly, Rob Marcello, Instagram Stories posted by DSL players of them playing baseball, Modesto’s black jerseys, @MarinersMinors on Twitter, Matthew Roberson, Installing a winning culture in the minors

Reliever of the Year - RHP Sam Delaplane

This could have been a number of players, including RHPs Joey Gerber, Dayeison Arias, Reggie McClain, Wyatt Mills... you catch my drift. It was a good year for minor league bullpens! But 2017 23rd-rounder Sam Delaplane earned UNANIMOUS honors in this selection by building on his hilarious dominance at Low-A Clinton last year with both the highest K-BB% (37.0%!) and pure strikeout rate (45.8%!!!) in all of minor league baseball. The 24 year old’s bread and butter was a low-90s heater that fed into his devastating curveball. The pitch has a high spin rate but is accentuated by coming in a tight 12-6 package that comes straight over the top like the fastball. A 0.49/1.99 ERA/FIP in 37.0 innings with AA-Arkansas will do just fine, thank you.

Others receiving votes: None.

Pitcher of the Year - RHP Logan Gilbert

Once again, a truly dominating choice set themselves apart from a number of solid ones. Gilbert’s first pro season went, truthfully, much better than expected. His velocity loss from late in college appears to have been nothing more than fatigue from over-use as he was back at his peak levels. That easy 92-95 from the 6’6 righty helped all his offerings play up.

Given the explicit goal of utilizing his off-speed pitches more in AA, the changeup, curveball, and slider all continued showing more unique definition and command. He was finally shut down after 135.0 IP in his debut campaign, but not before rocketing up two levels and striking out 165 batters. Seattle went heavy on pitchers in the 2019 draft in an effort to shore up a lack of depth in the rotation for the present and future, but no bigger positive has emerged towards fixing that issue than Gilbert.

Others receiving votes: None.

Position Player of the Year - OF Jarred Kelenic

This was a two-horse race, but a wild fastball to Julio’s hand in April kept this from being a true competition. Kelenic’s talent divided evaluators on draft day and through his first season, ranging from average all-around projections to five-tool star proclamations. Kelenic responded with a 20-20 season this year, consistently excellent power numbers across three levels, good plate discipline, and a capacity to absolutely wallop the ball. Like many young players he still gets fooled by good breaking balls at times, but that increasingly is the only way to stifle him even for pitchers consistently 3-4 years his senior. He’s inspired a thousand wistful tweets and even a song.

But most of all he’s provided the Mariners with a shot at a young, talented core that, with great development and savvy spending, can make the 2020s a decade worth looking forward to in Seattle.

Best Tools Round-Up

Best Power - Julio Rodríguez

Others receiving votes: Cal Raleigh

Best Contact - INF Donnie Walton

Others receiving votes: Eric Filia, Jarred Kelenic, Jordan Cowan

Best Strike Zone Discipline - INF Donnie Walton

Others receiving votes: Eric Filia, Trent Tingelstad

Best Baserunning - OF Jonatan Clase

Others receiving votes: Jarred Kelenic, DeAires Moses

Best Outfield Defense: OF Luis Liberato

Others receiving votes: Ian Miller Memorial Protest Vote

Best Infield Defense - 1B Evan White

Others receiving votes: None.

Best Fastball - RHP Justin Dunn

Others receiving votes: Joey Gerber, Dayeison Arias, Jake Haberer, Logan Gilbert

Best Command - RHP Ljay Newsome

Others receiving votes: George Kirby, Sam Delaplane

Best Breaking Ball - RHP Sam Delaplane

Others receiving votes: Logan Gilbert

Best Changeup - RHP Devin Sweet

Others receiving votes: None.

Think we got it right? Feel like you have a dissenting opinion? Please feel free to leave your own ballot in the comments and/or what other categories you’d like to see litigated. See you next year!