We have trekked from the Dominican Republic to Arizona to West Virginia to Modesto to Arkansas to Tacoma as we’ve looked at the talent populating the Mariners system. Some of the lights have been more distant or fainter than others, but as we round into the Top 10 we come to lights that are brighter, closer, or, excitingly, both. From here on out we’ll be profiling two players a day with slightly more in-depth write-ups than our previous forty. Remember if you’ve missed any of the prior installations, you can catch up on numbers 50-11 and the introduction to the series in the main hub here.
6. OF Kyle Lewis
Sometimes you surprise yourself. It is well-documented that I am the queen of loving high-contact low-strikeout players, to the exclusion of booming power; I like loud noises as much as any other American, but the power tool is the one that draws me least, aesthetically. So it is strange that I am the high one on staff on Kyle Lewis, he of the 35-hit 65-power grades on FanGraphs, he of the 38.7% strikeout rate to a 4% walk rate in a limited MLB sample last year, he of the .324 ISO in that same limited sample. The common refrain on Lewis has been that while his rocket into MLB orbit was exciting, expect a downturn as the league adjusts to him, to which I say: what if no? Admittedly, most of Lewis’s damage in his cup of coffee was when pitchers put it on the plate for him to punish—Lewis had a +4 run value there, compared to a -3 in the shadow zone, although his overall swing/take numbers were right in line with MLB average. In fact, Lewis is better when he swings; he lost a Take run last year, but gained five Swing runs by making aggressive swing decisions. And he wasn’t just damaging the fastball; as Joe pointed out in his 40 in 40 on Lewis, Kyle averaged .333 on breaking balls during his callup.
Lewis’s knee injury robbed him of some of his explosive power, meaning he’ll need to settle in to a corner in the bigs—something that’s less pressing now that Jarred Kelenic looks primed for duties in center—where he has the athleticism and arm to more than capably handle right field. That does pressure Lewis’s bat to hold up to the big power, high-strikeout model of a Joey Gallo or Giancarlo Stanton—and requires him to edge his walk rate closer to double digits, as it was in Double-A. It’s a tall order, but Gallo rounded into that form fairly quickly, and there’s no reason to believe Lewis, with some of the loudest exit velos in the system and a high baseball IQ, won’t be right behind him. -KP
5. RHP George Kirby
“First you draw a
circle rectangle, then you dot the eyes corners , add a great big smile “K”, and presto, it’s (George) Kirby!” ~ Nintendo, Kirby’s Adventure
Despite my slightly edited intro for both the little pink ball of cosmic power and the Mariners 1st round pick, there’s little shared beyond a name for the two. Still, George Kirby produced some numbers that looked outright cartoonish, blitzing through Short Season Everett with a 25/0 K/BB ratio in 23.0 innings. The most recent walk he’s issued in a game, famously, was over 10 months ago, on May 4th while he was still early in his college season with Elon University. The Mariners have not been shy about their affinity for strike-throwers under Jerry Dipoto, and it’s been reflected in their acquisitions. Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, Isaiah Campbell, Wade Miley, Michael Plassmeyer, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc are just some of the players Seattle has targeted and given significant run as they attempt to start with command and build from there.
That building process is where Kirby’s growth will be tested. In Everett, Kirby was predictably dominant, with a 93-95 mph fastball that touched 98 in short outings. Most likely, he’ll sit closer to 91-94 going forward as he did in college when stretched out, but his compact motion is repeated impeccably, helping him avoid much fluctuation in velocity or command that some pitchers can experience (e.g. 2019 Yusei Kikuchi) with inconsistent mechanics. That consistency and velocity helps all three off-speed pitches play up, with pair of breaking balls that offer distinct movement shapes despite fairly similar velocities. The changeup also works nicely with the natural run Kirby gets on his fastball, though it could stand to add a bit more sink. Kirby likely benefits from strong tunneling thanks to his consistent delivery, and his 6’4 frame helps him offer more extension than smaller pitchers with somewhat similar profiles, (e.g. Ljay Newsome).
The term “high-floor” can be somewhat pejorative, as it implies a lack of ceiling, and to a degree that’s the calculus on Kirby. But the certainty with which a guy of Kirby’s caliber should be able to make a big league rotation (TINSTAAP/health notwithstanding) helped him sneak onto some Top-100 lists already this year, and has him ahead of more MLB adjacent guys like Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield for us already. The upside, of course, is not infinitesimal. Kirby has more tools already than most of the players Seattle has bolstered in their lauded pitching development, and if he can take further steps forward - either in sharpening his off-speed or even adding a tick or two of velocity with strength training - he and Logan Gilbert will look like a pair of big league mainstays in the rotation in the 2020s. Look for Kirby to start in High-A Modesto this year, and perhaps push up to AA-Arkansas by the season’s end. ~JT