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Mariners minors season in review: Arkansas Travelers (AA)

Oh, the places you’ll go, oh the prospects you’ll have

SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

We’re almost done with summing up the MiLB affiliates’ seasons in review, and we’ve arrived now in the high minors, where things start getting real. Some players made the jump straight from Double-A this year to the big club, and a few others were strong candidates to get the call from the most prospect-packed affiliate in Seattle’s system.

Catch up on the other clubs here:

Overall record: 81-57, first in the Texas League North

Playoff record: Lost 3-2 in the opening series to the Tulsa Drillers

Season in review:

After a first half where they smoked everyone else in the Texas League, the Travelers weren’t able to quite repeat their success in the second half, playing fine but not dominant baseball (for contrast, in the first half they posted a .632 winning percentage, a hundred points higher than the Drillers, the next-closest team). The Travs pitching staff was dinged a little by promotions to Triple-A of rotation stalwarts Nabil Crismatt and Texas League Pitcher of the Year Darren McCaughan, and they lost manager Mitch Canham around the All-Star Break when he accepted the head coaching position at Oregon State (his alma mater and self-described dream job). The Travs got reinforcements in the form of Top-100 prospects Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic, and well as top Mariners prospects Cal Raleigh, Ljay Newsome, and Sam Delaplane, among others, but it just wasn’t enough to push them past late-surging Dodgers and Padres clubs.

Key promotions:

Losing RHP Darren McCaughan mid-season to a promotion to Tacoma was a tough blow for the Travs pitching staff and also for McCaughan himself, who saw his ERA balloon from 2.89 in the Texas League to over 8 at Triple-A. Perhaps the Mariners thought McCaughan’s extreme C the Z ways would carry over against the PCL juiced ball—he walked less than a batter per 9 in the Texas League. McCaughan still won Texas League Pitcher of the Year honors, and obviously they needed a rotation spot for Ljay Newsome and Logan Gilbert, but it’s rough to look at McCaughan’s season with Tacoma and wonder how much help he could have been to the Travs in their playoff run. At least he got bigger checks. You could copy-paste the McCaughan paragraph and make it about RHP Nabil Crismatt, who was McCaughan’s major competition for Pitcher of the Year honors. On the offensive end, they faced a similar story, losing Baseball America’s 2019 Mariners Minor League Player of the Year, OF Jake Fraley, midseason to promotion.

As for players who arrived in Arkansas, the Travs outfield got a facelift with gifted center fielder Luis Liberato arriving early in the season from Modesto, where he was punishing baseballs; Liberato had to concede some playing time in center to Jarred Kelenic once he arrived after the All-Star Break, thankfully packing along the new advanced approach to breaking balls he learned in Modesto with him. Cal Raleigh didn’t proclaim ownership over the Texas League the way he did the California League, but had some moments away from the confines of Dickey-Stephens Park where he was able to send some over the fences. Pitching-wise, the Travs staff got worthy reinforcements in Logan Gilbert, who rose to the challenge of his third level in just his first year of pro ball before tiring down the stretch; GOATball-thrower Ljay Newsome, who wasn’t able to replicate his high-strikeout performance early on but got better results the more he mixed in his secondaries; and strikeout artist Sam Delaplane, who showed his stuff will play at the upper minors and was tantalizingly close to a big league call-up at the end of the season.

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

OF Jarred Kelenic (#33 Top-100/#1 Mariners FanGraphs, #24 Top-100/#1 Mariners Baseball America, #22 Top-100/#1 Mariners MLB Pipeline), RHP Logan Gilbert (#56 Top-100/#3 FG, #70 Top-100/#4 BA, #48 Top-100/#2 BA MLB), 1B Evan White (#79 Top-100/#4 FG, #75 Top-100/#5 BA, #70 Top-100/#4 MLB), RHP Justin Dunn (#97 Top-100/#5 FG, #6 BA, #70 Top-100/#5 MLB), LHP Justus Sheffield (#111 Top-100/#7 FG, #74Top-100/#3 BA, #9 MLB), OF Kyle Lewis (#8 FG, #10 BA, #10 MLB), C Cal Raleigh (#12 FG, #9 BA, #7 MLB), RP Wyatt Mills (#15 FG, #20 BA, #21 MLB), OF Dom Thompson-Williams (#17 FG, #19 BA, #25 MLB), RP Joey Gerber (#21 FG, #19 MLB), RP/LHP Aaron Fletcher (#26 FG, #27 MLB), RHP Ljay Newsome (#27 FG, #29 MLB), RP Sam Delaplane (#36 FG), CF Luis Liberato (#31 FG), LHP Ricardo Sánchez (#34 FG, #24 MLB), RP Jake Haberer (#40 FG), SS Donnie Walton (#27 BA, #28 MLB), RP Art Warren (#26 MLB)

Top position player: 1B Evan White

Readers, I confess: when the Mariners took Evan White with their first round choice in 2017 I was pleased yet...nonplussed. The Mariners didn’t have awesome draft position—this was the Jo Adell draft, who was obviously gone, but similarly-talented OF Heliot Ramos was still on the board, as were some college pitchers I really liked in Alex Faedo, David Peterson, and Nate Pearson. It’s hard to get excited about a first baseman who doesn’t hit tanks, no matter how shiny the defense is purported to be, and the goal in the draft when taking a defensively-limited college player is to get someone you know will hit (see: Torkelson, Spencer). Fast forward a few years and it’s clear the Mariners’ gamble on White was well-founded after a swing change helped the tall lefty-who-hits-righty unlock his peculiar power. Even in the righty-punishing cavern of Arkansas’ Dickey-Stephens Park, White posted his best power numbers since he was tearing up the NWL, coming just shy of hitting .300 and slugging .500 on the season. He also made an appearance at the Futures Game, where among baseball’s best and brightest prospects he recorded the hardest-hit ball of the whole game at a scorching 112.2 mph (off top pitching prospect Mackenzie Gore, nonetheless). Most of White’s homers at DSP were to the pull side, but he popped a few over to center field as well:

And then there’s the matter of White’s Gold Glove caliber defense; he is a beautiful fielder at first, elegant in a way we don’t really think about first basemen being. His defense is game-changing, and it’s going to be really fun to watch him patrolling the right side of the infield at T-Mobile Park even though some nagging injury issues (which is the one red flag for White; durability has been a problem) kept him from getting a cup of coffee this September.

This is from Modesto and I can’t find a copy of it on my computer, and it is filmed with a potato and a tin can, but this remains my favorite Evan White defensive play to this day:

White is also a genuinely kind person, a beloved teammate, and sneakily funny. He’s been a pleasure to watch blossom through the Mariners’ system, and it’s exciting to think about what comes next.

Top pitcher: RHP Justin Dunn

It seems patently unfair that, due to rocketing through the system and not spending too long at any one stop, Logan Gilbert won’t get tabbed for any of these. He’ll just have to settle for being our consensus number one pitching prospect instead. There was a lot of great pitching in Arkansas this year, but Justin Dunn went wire-to-wire for Arkansas and so earns the nod here. In his first full season at Double-A and his first year as a Mariner, Dunn lowered his walk rate, shaving it from a near-10% down to a manageable 7.1%, while boosting his already-excellent strikeout rate to 28.6%. Dunn’s fastball continues to be excellent, and he can also get strikes on his curveball, but his slider took a big step forward this year as a nasty, biting thing that forces batters into some ugly swings and is an equal weapon against righties and lefties:

Dunn will need to continue to refine his command, which can get away from him and cost him efficiency; he lost some command down the stretch, right as he was headed into his first big-league callup. But this was still a tremendous year of growth for Dunn, who in addition to getting his first big-league callup, earned himself a place on several Top-100 lists and was named to the Futures Game.

Top bullpen arm: TIE

The answer here is probably Sam Delaplane, who was a late-season promotion and carved during his tenure at Double-A, but Delaplane already had praise heaped upon him for his work at Modesto, so let’s introduce someone else. Or someones. The Arkansas bullpen was so good it seems unfair to single any one person out. It was a complete group that had (Stefon voice) a little bit of everything. Now both called up to Seattle, Zac Grotz was a reliable swingman who was like having a second starter in the ‘pen, and Art Warren dominated at the back end of the Travs bullpen after bouncing back from an early-season injury. Warren hit triple digits during one of his outings, something that was a personal goal for him, and now that he’s been called up to the big club he can cross off his entire 2019 to-do list. Jack “The Creature” Anderson and Wyatt Mills plied their sidearm wares to the frustration of Texas League batters, Jake Haberer and later arrival Joey Gerber overwhelmed with high heat, and Matt Tenuta threw baseballs with his left hand. Like I said. This ‘pen had everything! They were a shutdown group that bailed out the starters whenever someone had a bad day and preserved the narrowest of leads when the offense was sluggish. They were the Hawgs, and they were delightful.

Pop-up performer: SS Donnie Walton

It’s not exactly fair to say Walton, who has a solid track record in Seattle’s system, is a pop-up player, but this is the first year Walton has been at the same level all year and faced no major injury issues, and that consistency paid off with a career year at the plate and an eventual call-up to Seattle. Technically half-repeating a level after getting a taste of Arkansas in 2019, Walton saw his BB% jump 2.5 points, his K% drop by 1.4, an improved ISO, batting average, slugging... you get the idea. He did literally every single thing better, and even bopped 11 home runs (5 at home, in the notoriously challenging Dickey-Stephens!), over double his previous career high of 5 in Everett in his rookie year. Having just turned 25 in-season, it was put up or shut up time for Walton, and he responded admirably. Given his ability to play around the diamond, he doesn’t need to hit very much at all to be a viable big leaguer at least on a part-time basis, and his 2019 was the step forward he needed to take the next step towards making that happen.

Need to see more from: OF Dom Thompson-Williams

DTW, the least heralded piece of the James Paxton trade, had an up and down year in Arkansas. His first three months he posted OPS’s of .778, .786, and .732, looking like he had repeated his gains from 2018 in the Yankees system. He cracked two home runs in his second game for Arkansas, one of which was this monstrous blast:

From there his year went off a cliff, as he bottomed out in July with a .555 OPS and didn’t fare much better in August. While his first three months weren’t world-beating, posting a 110 wRC+, they beat the heck out of his 60 in the second half, when he struck out nearly 40% of the time and had an ISO of just .110. He lost more playing time down the stretch in Arkansas’ crowded outfield, and deservedly so. He’ll likely end up back in Arkansas—which should be less crowded—to start 2020 and needs to show something there in a hurry to keep himself interesting, as he’ll be 25 by the time 2020 starts. With his raw power and speed, he has a couple of tools that can help get him to the majors even with a relatively weak bat, but he needs more bat than he’s recently had in order to even accomplish that much.

Other performances of note:

OF Jake Fraley didn’t make this list because, like Gilbert and gold, he could not stay. Fraley sprayed doubles all over the field and handled himself in AAA before an injury-delayed MLB debut. Unfortunately a collision with Mallex Smith ended his season due to a hand injury. He should be back in 2020 to challenge for a starting spot, though the crammed Mariners outfield will require some subtractions. INF Jordan Cowan tied Walton for the team lead in games played, an encouraging number for the injury-hampered 24 year old. He may be a minor league free agent after the year but if not should start in Tacoma as UTIL depth after a respectable year at the plate in DSP. OF Luis Liberato got deserved love for his defense but his bat lagged at the dish in his first AA experience. 1B/cOF Nick Zammarelli III aka Nicky Three Sticks also hit hard times at the plate, though he did record a strikeout in his first professional relief appearance. LHP Aaron Fletcher arrived at the trade deadline and quickly established himself as the preeminent lefty reliever on staff, setting himself up for AAA and/or a big league debut next year.