M’s Mid-Season Top 20 Prospects

 The Seattle Mariners’ farm system is among the organization’s weak spots, thanks to a ton of graduations, a trade or two and mostly a failure that may lie at the feet of the player development plans of the previous regime. Things may be turning around, however, and there are a few new talents poking their heads through the sand.

The club’s strength and depth down on the farm lies in the outfield and on the mound, with names such as Tyler O’Neill, Kyle Lewis, Alex Jackson and Nick Neidert leading the way. Pitching? Yes, pitching. While there’s pretty much nothing within a year of the majors that figures to help the big club, there are numerous young arms with upside developing well in the lower levels of the minors, so the cupboard isn’t entirely empty.

Here are the position rankings in full:

1. Outfield Power Bats
2. Pitchers
3. Middle Infielders
4. Corner Infielders
5. Catchers

No. 1 — Tyler, O’Neill, RF

O’Neill, whom I covered here recentlyhas made notable progress in strikeout and walk rates without sacrificing 30-homer power. He’s still a ways off — more work is necessary in both aforementioned areas — but he’s taken a significant step in 2016 suggesting he’s not just a Dream Big prospect. He runs well and has terrific feet, allowing him to display above-average range in right field. The throwing arm is plus.

O’Neill also possesses the work habits and focus that often can be the difference between a very good athlete trying to play baseball and a baseball player that also is a very good athlete. He’s confident, and for good reason. His hand, wrist and forearm strength helps him generate big-time bat speed rivaling the top 10 percent in baseball, and he’s fearless in every way one can be on the diamond.

O’Neill remains No. 1 for me, even with the presence of the club’s 2016 first-round pick, because there’s more in the bank despite a little less overall upside. A little.

No. 2 — Kyle Lewis, CF

Lewis has quick hands that creates 30-home power from plus-plus bat speed, but also has at least a chance to stick in center field, which in the end would be an advantage he has over O’Neill. But there is work to do for the No. 11 overall pick, both offensively and defensively.

He’s very instinctual on the field, suggesting there hasn’t been a lot asked of him in terms of significant adjustments, both at the plate and in the field. His swing is lengthy, which to an extent mitigates some bat speed and makes him susceptible to pitchers with good velocity and an effective offspeed pitch. He’s been a bit anxious early in his pro career, chasing a bit more than scouts saw him do in college.

There are questions as to how long his hit tool will take to develop; Lewis regularly faced the pitching of the Southern Conference, but did perform well versus SEC-level schools in mid-week matchups and hasn’t swung through fastballs regularly.

There’s little doubt about Lewis’ upside, it’s ironing out the foundation on order to get there. He’s not likely a fast-tracker, but his bat speed and athleticism alone should help him through the lower levels fairly quickly.

No. 3 — Alex Jackson, RF

Jackson still is in the early part of his bounce back from injury and poor performance for much of 2015, but the physical tools and power remain apparent. The setup and swing probably need some work, perhaps starting with how he loads his lower half. He uses a rather demonstrative leg kick that may interrupt proper timing; not getting the front foot down in time typically limits how quickly the bat gets through the zone, suggesting velocity problems.

Jackson’s just 20 years of age, so there’s reason to give up on him, and he’s still No. 3 because the upside in the hit tool is just a small adjustment or two from being unlocked. If and when that occurs, we’re still talking about a 25-homer stick with a chance to hit .280 with solid on-base marks. Defensively Jackson took a step back last summer, but he manages in right field just fine and the arm is plus.

Focus and work ethic were two dynamics mentioned to be by more than a dozen scouts last summer as possible explanations for lack of early-career progress, and until the production is consistent and stable it will always be an aspect of Jackson’s game I question.

No. 4 — Chris Torres, SS

Torres being this high is both a testament to the kid’s tools and advanced plate skills for his age and level, but also the lack of quality in the Mariners’ farm system. No. 6 on this list is more likely a big-league player than Torres, but Torres carries more upside as a potential everyday middle infielder.

Torres being this high is  both a testament to the kid’s tools and advanced plate skills for his age and level, but also the lack of quality in the Mariners’ farm system. No. 6 on this list is more likely a big-league player than Torres, but Torres carries more upside as a potential everyday middle infielder.

His hands, feet and arm all work at shortstop and thus far he’s shown to be capable from both sides of the plate; perhaps more natural power and a better power swing as a right-handed batter, but a shorter, quicker swing as a lefty that suggests a better chance to hit for average.

He’s 6-feet and 175 pounds and 18 years of age and already is adept at working counts, showing good takes and tracking a breaking ball well. He will get out on his front foot sometimes and lunge at pitches out of the zone, but his .270/.341/.378 triple-slash at post time is impressive enough for his first year playing in the states.

Oh, and the Mariners signed Torres two summers ago for $375,000 after the Yankees backed out of their $2.1 million offer. The club’s approach in Latin America under Tim Kissner has been fun; let’s take a shot at a big-money player here and there, but not just for the sake of it. Torres was possible because the M’s had pool money left and not many other clubs did.

No. 5 — Nick Neidert, RHP

It was just 25 days ago the reports I was getting on Neidert were “OK, throwing strikes, fringe-average curveball… where’s the changeup?” Neidert was sitting 89-92 mph up to that point and the changeup he showed in high school wasn’t being used as much, perhaps by design. Since then, the club’s top pick from a year ago has whiffed 30 of the 100 batters he’s faced, walking just three and showing a firmer fastball mostly 90-92 but touching 94. The breaking ball remains slurvy, but it’s been effective in the Midwest League.  The Mariners will continue to attempt to sharpen up the pitch into more a true slider.

Neidert’s control has been terrific, but he’s hung a few breaking balls and been hurt when missing up in the zone with a fastball, serving up more long balls than is ideal.

Neidert doesn’t offer big projection at 6-foot-1, but as he fills out the fastball could freeze in the low-90s and the slider-changeup combo project as big-league average, perhaps better with the changeup which already flashes above average, despite some inconsistencies.

The right-hander’s elbow soreness from last spring have not popped up again, knock on wood, and his arm action has been cleaner. He’s attacked the bottom of the zone well with the fastball this season, suggesting he’s finishing well out front.  He’s always used his lower half well and he’s athletic and loose mechanically.

No. 6 — Luiz Gohara, LHP
Gohara remains behind Neidert and No. 11 on this list in terms of present control and command, despite some early-season improvements for the left-hander. The raw stuff is still very good, starting with an explosive fastball up to 97 mph and a promising changeup. The concerns with Gohara still include conditioning, delivery and his lack of ability to put hitter’s away and keep his pitch count to reasonable levels.

He’s throwing more strikes but the command remains below average. His breaking ball, a 79-84 mph slider with two-plane break and depth, still is inconsistent and Gohara hasn’t shown the ability to throw it for called strikes with regularity, which versus more experienced hitters will bite him.

The upside is big — No. 2 or 3 starter — but the risk is quite large, too. The above issues are more than just yellow flags, especially considering the soon-to-be 20-year-old now is in his fourth year as a pro. Getting through five and six innings steadily is a good sign for which to watch if you’re doing so at home.

No. 7 — D.J. Peterson, 1B

Peterson started 2016 the way 2015 went for him in Double-A Jackson — not good. His .213/.256/.350 slash line with a strikeout rate in the 25-percent range was worrisome, as he’s now 24 and running out of time. Then Peterson’s mechanical adjustment started to take. In his last 40 games in Jackson, Peterson batted .309/.376/.566 with 21 extra-base hits. He was still striking out a bit too much — 24 percent — but the former first-round pick was using more of the field and finding the barrel regularly.

He’s been in Triple-A all of a week, but the early returns there are good, too. More of the same probably gets Peterson to the majors in September when rosters expand. He’s average at first base, but has an above-average arm and in an emergency can handle third base in very short stints.

What Peterson becomes between now and give-up time may depend on how effective his lower-half adjustments become. He will collapse his backside and open up early, though he’s been doing so at a much more acceptable rate then a year ago. His confidence is back, and so are the hard contact rates.

No. 8 — Drew Jackson, SS

Jackson was No. 4 for me pre-season but hasn’t done enough with the bat in the California League to stop Gohara, Neidert and Torres from passing him by. Jackson will be 23 later this month and has been toiling a triple-slash in the .270/.340/.360 range most of the season. His current swing will not produce much power so the pressure is on for a lot of hard contact, high contact rates and plus defense if Jackson is to play regularly in the show.

He possesses 65 arm strength but contnues to have problems with accuracy, sometimes not getting his feet underneath him and using his natural arm slot. He has committed 15 errors this season in 71 games, 10 of them of the throwing variety. Jackson is a plus runner and has terrific instincts on the bases, but he’s not a great base stealer, as evidenced by his 10-for-17 ratio, which combined with ‘average’ hit tool projections limits how much the raw speed impacts the game

Jackson is a better athlete and glove than Chris Taylor, but there swing situations are similar. Jackson, however, is stronger and generates better bat speed, suggesting an adjustment could create a Ben Zobrist type burst in the power department — on the highest side, of course. Jackson does not create natural loft and backspin regularly and while a drastic change in the swing may be detrimental, he may not be more than an occasional big-league contributor without some kind of fix.

No. 9 — Joe Rizzo, 3B

Rizzo has been a pro for less than a month, but he’s shown laser-show ability with line drives at a high rate and while he lacks range, he does have hands and arm strength that fit at third base. I’d stick him in left field and see what happens, but Rizzo’s a hitter and the Mariners are betting on the offensive part of Josh Harrison coming to fruition for Rizzo, who also is a bit short in stature, but possesses plus bat speed and knack for putting the barrel on the baseball.

Rizzo has drawn comparisons to part-time players such as Luis Valbuena as well as a regular — Kole Calhoun, from one scout, who added “if the dream comes true, he’s Calhoun at the plate, but I don’t where that plays for him.”

No. 10 — Braden Bishop, CF

Bishop is a plus defensive centerfielder, the best in the system, and he will draw walks and get on base. He’s a 65 runner, an average base stealer but two things ate holding back the former Washington Huskies star from projecting as a regular in the big leagues.

First, Bishop has a average bat speed and his swing plane produces ground balls and some line drives — like his new teammate Jackson. Bishop lacks the strength to support too much of a fix in swing path — he might just fly out to routine depths more if he’s hitting more balls in the air. This wouldn’t as much of a concern if Bishop was more disciplined and had better pitch recognition.  He does use the backside well, but expands his zone too often for an everyday major leaguer.

Bishop, 22, still has time to polish his plate skills. He’s on a trek to being an extra outfielder, but better strike zone judgment and more fastball punishment to his pull side can change that projection.

Mid-Season Top 20 Prospects: 11-20
No. Player Pos. Note
11 Zack Littell RHP Leads the Midwest League in punchouts; 90-94 FB, CB, CH.
12 Andrew Moore RHP Command and feel arm, up to 93, sits 89-91, Avg CB, CH.
13 Ryan Yarbrough LHP  Role change possible; FB up to 94, improved command, CB.
14 Brayan Hernandez CF Still raw, but good instincts, natural alley-to-alley swing.
15 Jio Orozco RHP Average control, 45 command, up to 96, CB flashes plus.
16 Guillermo Heredia CF  Older (25), lacks upside; 55 or better CF glove, short to ball.
17 Emilio Pagan  RHP Raw stuff suggests MLB career; 90-93 (95), 50-55 SL.
1 8 Jake Brentz LHP Delivery hasn’t progressed early; power arm up to 97.
19 Gareth Morgan RF Swing length, discipline still a problem; 70+ raw power.
20 Bryson Brigman LHP Spray hitter, consistent contact, 30 power. Likely moves to 2B.

Others Deserving Consideration

Dylan Thompson, RHP: Thompson is a Top 15 arm in the system but hasn’t pitched since going home August 17 following nine appearances in the rookie league. He’s listed on the Everett roster, but hasn’t appeared despite being listed as active. Thompson has been up to 94 as both an amateur and pro and creates good sink, setting up a 73-77 mph curveball with depth. Many project a relief role for Thompson due to concern about holding velocity late enough into games; before the draft, Thompson would sit 90-93 but around pitch 75 or 80 would see that velo dip tot he mid-80s. He sat 89-91 last summer, but did touch 93 and worked both sides of the plate well.

Nick Wells, LHP: Wells remains a loose-armed, projectable left-hander but he struggled early this season with control and now is on the disabled list.

Greifer Andrade, SS/2B: Andrade seems to be a player without a position and a team, going back and forth more than once this season, and he even threw an inning on the mound. He’s a good athlete, though — good enough to be moved to shortstop by the Mariners when many clubs saw him as an outfielder or third baseman.

Carlos Vargas, SS: Vargas is just 17 years old and the early returns from the Dominican Summer League aren’t great, but the 6-foot-3, 180-pound free agent signing is an exciting prospect thanks to projected strength and leverage at the plate and terrific hands in the field. He’s playing shortstop now but profiles as a future defender at the hot corner where his athleticism and arm strength should play well.

Luis Rengifo, 2B: I was hoping Rengifo would be active once the summer league opened — and he is on the roster but hasn’t played — so he and Torres could form a nice prospectesque middle infield for the Mariners’ rookie club. The 19-year-old is a switch hitter with a little future pop in the stick and above average speed. He works counts and has shown he can hit breaking balls hard.

Luis Liberato, CF: I like Liberato enough to put him in the Top 20 but his lack of instincts at the plate and on the bases deter me. I’m told he’s the same player he was a year ago, but he’s filling out a bit and showing opposite field doubles power. The glove works in center despite fringy jumps and routes because Liberato is a 55 or 60 pure runner. The arm is average.

Juan De Paula, RHP: I was hoping De Paula would be stateside this summer, but he’s just getting under way in the Dominican Summer League at 19 years of age. The body is projectable at 6-foot-3 and 172 pounds and he’s touched 92 mph, flashing a future-average breaking ball.

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Jason A. Churchill

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