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Mariners minors season in review: Modesto Nuts (A+)

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Take all these tickets and get yourself something nice.

MiLB TV

Now that the Arkansas Travelers are out of the playoffs (SNIFF), the MiLB season has come to a close for the Mariners. That means it’s time to go through each affiliate and review their seasons. So far we’ve covered the Rookie levels (DSL and AZL), the short-season Everett AquaSox (A-), and the Low-A West Virginia Power (A). We move up one more rung to the High-A Modesto Nuts, whose position as a prospect pit stop made for an inconsistent roster at the plate but a pitching powerhouse.

Overall record: 65-75, 3rd in California League North

Season in Review:

On Opening Day, Modesto seemed to be the odd affiliate out, with the Power and the Arkansas Travelers receiving most of the system’s prospect clout. Cal Raleigh and Joe Rizzo were the two most well-regarded offensive prospects, while 50% of the initial outfield - Anthony Jimenez & Gareth Morgan - was released by June. The rotation didn’t seem terribly compelling, with Ljay Newsome coming off an unremarkable 2018. Only the bullpen seemed to hold much intrigue, with Joey Gerber and Sam Delaplane holding things down. As the season progressed Modesto played host to several notable names - Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert arrived, began to dominate, and moved on up. Two of the Mariners’ midseason prospect acquisitions ended up in Modesto as well, with Jake Scheiner (Jay Bruce) and Jose Caballero (Mike Leake) providing a late spark. But even with a Nuts pitching staff that exceeded expectations and set a franchise record for strikeouts, breaking the nearly 40-year-old Cal League record in the process, Modesto’s late run at a playoff spot, inspired by a few reinforcements from West Virginia, fell short.

Key promotions:

Modesto’s end-of-season roster has a glimmer its camp-breaking squad did not. Raleigh, Newsome, Gerber, and Delaplane all earned promotions by around two-thirds of the way through the year, as did surprising standouts Ian McKinney, Jake Haberer, and Reggie McClain. Nonetheless, the final few weeks of the season were electric. Modesto received Julio Rodríguez, Devin Sweet, Jake Anchía, and Dayeison Arias from the Power and finished with a torrid 7-3 stretch that fell just short of the second playoff spot for the Cal League North.

MLB Top-100/Mariners Top-30 prospects at the level:

OF Julio Rodríguez (MLB - #17 The Athletic, #34 BA, #39 BP, #46 FG, #51 MLBP | M’s - #2 BA, #2 FG, #3 MLBP), INF Joe Rizzo (M’s - #20 MLBP, #25 BA), RHP Devin Sweet (M’s #28 FG), INF Jose Caballero (M’s - #30 BA)

Top position player: C Cal Raleigh

Calboy predictably demolished Everett last year, which was good but showed us little about an advanced college bat fresh off handling the ACC. He leapfrogged West Virginia entirely and brought the beef to the Cal League. In 82 games and 348 PAs Raleigh led the Nuts in **checks notes** pretty much everything. His 22 HRs led the team, as did his .274 ISO, 134/151 wRC+/DRC+, and 51.9% FB%. Paired with Keegan McGovern who joined midseason after a strained oblique sidelined him, the Nuts were graced by The Beef Boys. While McGovern had an inconsistent season beyond his power, Raleigh made documented strides behind the dish and at the plate, and was a core component of the leadership growth emphasized by the Mariners mental skills efforts.

Honorable mentions: Joe Rizzo, Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodríguez, Luis Liberato

Top pitcher: RHP Ljay Newsome

This award could easily have gone to four or five players. Three veterans - Penn Murfee, Scott Boches, and Ian McKinney - put themselves on the map with exceptional turns in the rotation. Mariners and LL minor league pitcher of the year Logan Gilbert made 12 brilliant starts in California. Sam Delaplane and Collin Kober, well, just hang on. This award, however goes to the 22-year-old Gas Camp graduate who went from a typical low-minors upper-80s velo with control pitcher to a low-90s command maven with a prospect sheen. 124 SO in 100.2 IP with the Nuts led the league at the time of his promotion and he both had the highest K% and the lowest BB% because you can’t spell Ljay Newsome without C the Z, so long as you do something with the extra letters.

Newsome’s go-to was his four-seam fastball, nicknamed the “GOAT ball”, which has high spin and increasingly efficient use at the top of the zone. There’s a bit of arm-side run, but more and more Newsome manages to get the ball to “ride” with a well-rehearsed release.

That helps the pitch play up, and the best aid to any off-speed pitch is an increasingly challenging fastball. Newsome’s work using a slider, cutter, and change-up helped him settle in once promoted to AA, though in Modesto he was able to rely on the heater more often than not.

Newsome and the rest of his competition for this award should all start in Arkansas next year, but Modesto will likely see at least a few of the 2019 draft class members make an appearance next year.

Honorable mentions: Ian McKinney, Penn Murfee, Logan Gilbert

Top bullpen arm: RHP Sam Delaplane

While I waffled on this a bit, there’s simply no way to deny Delaplane, even if BABIP meant his ERA doesn’t quite reflect the dominance he had in High-A. Delaplane led all of affiliated ball by striking out 45.8% of batters he faced, and just shy of HALF those he faced in Modesto. The recipe is straightforward in reliever parlance: a low-to-mid-90s fastball and a powerful breaking ball, but it’s absolutely staggering how effective Delaplane was this year. The off-speed, which is functionally a high-speed, tight, late-breaking 12-6 curveball, is the engine of the operation. He can throw it here at a more leisurely level...

...or crank it up to even harder velos for a rending bite that resembles some of the better sliders you’ll see at any level.

Delaplane sat down with us earlier this year and talked about how working with the M’s organization on tunneling his pitches has helped him become this monstrous version of himself.

If you missed it, it’s truly a worthwhile read, especially for Delaplane’s discussion of how his unique pitches allow - and encourage - him to work in the zone consistently because of the relatively shallow depth of drop on his breaking ball, but its exceptionally late movement window. 62 strikeouts to just 14 walks in 31.2 IP with the Nuts and equally dominant numbers at AA means Seattle is imminently in the future for the 2017 23rd rounder.

Honorable mentions: Collin Kober, Nick Duron, Matthew Willrodt

Pop-up performer: LHP Ian McKinney

The truest answer here is Newsome, but in the effort to spread awards around we’ll go with the undersized former Cardinals 5th round pick who Seattle snatched up. After bouncing between A+ and AA for a few years McKinney was cut loose, signed on with the independent Sioux City Explorers, and caught the eye of the M’s. He posted his best strikeout rates, lowest walk rates, and consistency despite returning to the rotation after two years away.

At 24, he’s old enough to be expected to handle High-A, but improved process and, to echo Delaplane, an emphasis on tunneling his fastball and big breaking ball, along with a good old-fashioned shift to the other side of the rubber helped unlock a player who will start in AA and hope to finally break through at last next year.

Honorable mentions: Scott Boches, Penn Murfee

Need to see more from: OF Keegan McGovern

Modesto’s pitching staff is pretty nit-free, considering it was comprised of very few people expected to have prospect shine and still cracked heads all through the Cal League. A couple players had disappointing offensive seasons, however. After missing the first two months with an oblique strain suffered in Spring Training, OF Keegan McGovern was playing catch-up. He reset quickly through West Virginia but was a more worryingly three-true-outcome type in Modesto. Striking out in a third of your plate appearances isn’t a death sentence in the majors with commensurate power, but doing so as a 23 year old in a hitter-friendly High-A league isn’t great. A healthy full offseason hopefully will get the second Beef Boy on track, because his power remains impactful enough to be a TTO contributor if it simply reclaims the stage from the whiffs somewhat.

Other performances of note:

Modesto was home to Mariners minor league coach of the year, pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr., who earns emphatic praise no matter who you talk to. They also had Penn Murfee, winner of the “60 ft, 6 in Award” for the pitcher who best utilized the C the Z tendencies. Murfee’s season began as a reliever in AAA but ended with 122 SO in 102.2 IP in High-A. At 25, it’s harder to get excited about those numbers than even 24 year olds, but he’ll likely move fast as a bullpen piece, hopefully with the tools engaged in Modesto to have some versatility in the upper levels. The bullpen was a turnstile, but for largely positive reasons, including Reggie McClain shooting all the way from California to Seattle. LHP Ray Kerr leapt up to 100 mph on the gun and had a 66/27 K/BB in 54.0 IP once he transitioned to relief full-time in late May. 2015 6th rounder RHP Kyle Wilcox reached similar velocities and earned a late call-up with his whiffs & walks ways. RHP Collin Kober brought the flow from below with a low side-arm approach and some luscious locks.

On the offensive side, Modesto made for a tough eval. 2B Joseph Rosa, 3B Jake Scheiner, and OF Jack Larsen all had good seasons at the plate, but Scheiner is probably the only one who will move up to Arkansas to start next year. Raleigh, Kelenic, and OF Luis Liberato all made it to Arkansas already with strong numbers in Modesto, and Joe Rizzo should follow suit. With an offseason to heal from a fastball to the hand, deadline acquisition 2B Jose Caballero will hopefully continue hitting and moving well on the basepaths. Next year’s squad will likely be centered around Julio Rodríguez, who absolutely laid waste to the level in his first 72 PAs, and may be joined by 3B Austin Shenton among others. Lastly, a huge shoutout to Nuts announcer Keaton Gillogly, who makes the most of every game and has helped us showcase more about this club than we could’ve ever hoped for.