It’s a small sample size — most of the affiliates have played six or fewer games on the schedule — but a positive start is better than a negative one and several noteworthy prospects in the Seattle Mariners farm system have done just that — start fast.
That group is led by the draft class of 2013, including the club’s first three picks last June, and the previous class highlighted by rounds 3-6. Dom Leone, that class’ 16th round picks, joined No. 3 overall selection Mike Zunino in the big leagues late last week.
It’s early, but here are some scouting notes that include some looks from scouts left over from spring training.
Clinton LumberKings — Class-A | Midwest League
Tyler O’Neill is off to a promising start to full-season ball after being selected in Round 3 a year ago and being considered a bit raw for a prep draftee. He won’t turn 19 until late June but creates great torque and top-end bat speed with strong hands, wrists and forearms. His lower half is sturdy and despite the explosion that occurs at contact, O’Neill his head still and on a swivel as he rotates his hips and shoulders through the ball.
He’s just 7-for-27 thus far (.259/.333/.519), but has three extra-base hits, including two long balls. Perhaps the best sign is that he’s not chasing pitches out of the zone.
“I haven’t seen that yet,” one scout told me via text Thursday. “He’s been unfazed by the assignment (to Class-A from rookie league) and he looks comfortable in the outfield even though he needs to keep working on the fundamental there.”
Austin Wilson may not be long for Clinton if he continues what he’s started this season — .296/.387/.481 — after finishing strong at Short-season Everett last summer. He’s putting on impressive BP sessions, one club’s pro scouting director said this week, and the swing continues to progress with consistency.
Wilson could find himself in High Desert by mid-June and that may not be the end of his trek in 2014.
Clinton’s catchers have been hot early on, but it’s Marcus Littlewood‘s defense that is the real topic. He’s 9-for-18 with just one strikeout — contact has been an issue for the former second-round pick — but defensively he’s making slow, steady strides after transitioning from shortstop two years ago. His catching mate, Christian Carmichael, is better fundamentally than is Littlewood, but that only helps him remain steady in his work. Receiving is perhaps Littlewood’s biggest obstacle, but he has the hand strength to do the job and he’s already shown the ability to shift laterally. His pop times have shaved down under two seconds but there’s work to do getting off quick throws without sacrificing accuracy.
Carmichael, too, has hit early on and there’s a couple of pro scouts who believe he could be backup in the big leagues with the right work ethic. He was suspended last year for violating baseball’s JDA, so there are questions about that very thing — work ethic — Carmichael will have to answer.
Right-hander Edwin Diaz is the LumberKings best arm and he’s picking up where he left off last season in rookie ball. Diaz, who just turned 20 last month, continues to get stronger — he’s up to about 173 pounds after weighing in at 155 before signing two summers ago.
Diaz has made two starts and punched out 13 of 39 batters faced and allowed just six hits. “Everything is explosive,” the pro scouting director said of Diaz. “He’s got that Pedro Martinez build and even some of the athletic actions. I had him 90-92 and up to 95. There’s ride to his off (glove) side and he knows how to use his slider.” That slider is typically 78-82 mph and his changeup, while behind his other two pitches, is a full grade better than when the M’s popped him in Round 3 in 2012 Draft.
Keep An Eye On: Clinton has two other arms to keep an eye on as the season progresses. Emilio Pagan, who is pitching in long relief in preparation for a starting role later on, has been nails, led by a 92 mph fastball and two average off-speed pitches that play up out of the bullpen. Carlos Misell, who was signed as a minor league free agent and has a JDA suspension in his past, has terrific arm speed and shows the potential for a plus change and slurve. He’s likely a reliever but is starting for Clinton.
High Desert Mavericks — Advanced-A | California League
It’s a haven for home runs, long games and crazily poor field conditions that make it even more difficult to prevent runs, but the Mariners assigned left-hander Tyler Pike to start the season there. Pike, in two outings, has held his own, lasting five innings twice and allowing just two earned runs despite six bases on balls. Pike lacks premium, bat-missing stuff so he’ll have to throw more strikes and command his fastball better if he’s to reach his ultimate potential as a No. 3 or 4 starter.
Gabriel Guerrero already is teasing scouts with his plus raw power, bat speed and easy swing, but despite his ability to square up fastballs one has to wonder if he’ll learn to be a little bit more selective. He’s failed to draw a walk this season in 32 plate appearances after just 21 a year ago.
He does handle right field just fine and offers a plus arm and the bloodlines — in case you didn’t know, gabby is Vladimir Guerrero’s nephew — but watch his walk and strikeout rates. He doesn’t have to walk a lot, but if he’s striking out 25 percent of his plate appearances, he’ll need to counter that some with a few walks to go with his power. One scout wondered aloud if Guerrero was the second coming of Jeff Francoeur at the plate. That wouldn’t be fun, and the good news is Guerrero is just 20 and has time to polish his game.
Third baseman Patrick Kivlehan, a middling prospect for me, is hitting again in the Cal League, but I do believe it’s somewhat telling that he was reassigned to High Desert after spending last year with the Mavs. This may be because the club doesn’t expect D.J. Peterson, also a third basemen, to remain in Adelanto very long. If Kivlehan started in Jackson and Peterson was promoted in June, Kivlehan would have to be demoted. This way, the club avoids that scenario.
Both players are hitting early, though Peterson has made some fundamental errors in the field fueling the fire that he’ll have to move to first base. Ignore the errors; Peterson’s shortcomings in the field at the hot corner are about range, not really hands and arm, though both grade out as merely average for the position. The Mariners believe Peterson is the kind of worker that can turn him into a passable third baseman — very much the way Josh Donaldson did after going from third base in college to catcher back to third base.
He’ll likely play primarily third base until the club is convinced he can’t do it, then he’ll move across the diamond and become the club’s long-term first baseman. “He’s a good bat,” an NL East scouting coordinator told Prospect Insider Thursday. “He’ll hit .280 with walks, some strikeouts and 25-30 home runs.”
Keep An Eye On: Jordy Lara, who will be 22 in May, has a sweet right-handed swing and may be putting it together in High Desert. He’s 12-for-30 with six extra-base hits — two home runs — in his six starts. Lara is athletic for a first baseman and he can throw. He began his pro career as a third baseman.
Jackson Generals — Double-A | Southern League
Jabari Blash returns to Jackson where he was perhaps the most improved player int he system a year ago. He’s a tad old for the league at 24, but he’s not likely to be there long if he performs. He’s begun the season well, showing some pop to go with his natural patience. Sometimes he’s too patient, leading to high strikeout totals — seven so far this season — but he’s closing that gap and will be tested by Triple-A pitchers once he arrives this summer.
Right-hander Victor Sanchez skipped High Desert — good for him — but the reason he did so was command. The Mariners believed his three-pitch mix could survive the Southern League because he can throw them for strikes and with consistency. Sanchez lacks the big upside of most 21-year-old arms in Double-A; he’s listed at 6-foot and 255 pounds, suggesting there’s little to zero projection left physically. His low-90s fastball isn’t likely to improve in velocity, but his curveball teases plus and his changeup is already average or better at times, lacking only consistency.
“He’s brought that mix here, but the fastball was soft for me,” said one scout who witnessed Sanchez’s firsts tart with Jackson. “He was mostly upper 80s. I’ve seen it better, though. It’s April, he may not be loose.”
Sanchez, indeed, showed similar velocities early last season before loosening up some and hitting 90-92 more often.
Keep An Eye On: Right-hander Stephen Kohlscheen can pitch and though he’s without a big out pitch or huge velocity — sound a little like Jim Johnson to you? — he gets outs and misses enough bats. Kohlscheen, a 45th-round pick in 2010, throws downhill and pounds the strike zone with a 91-93 mph sinking fastball. Shortstop Ketel Marte makes a lot of contact and has some bat speed that helps him reach the gaps and he’s at least a 60-grade runner. There’s enough arm to stick at short and he’s smooth ranging to both sides. He’s hitting early in Jackson and doing so from each side of the plate, though he’s much stronger from the left side. Marte is just 20 and there’s some physical projection left in his 6-foot-1, 180-pound frame. For those wondering, it’s pronounced Ket-tle, just like the kitchen appliance. Maybe that’ll help you remember his name.
Tacoma Rainiers — Triple-A | Pacific Coast League
Prospect Insider’s Brendan Gawlowski went down to see Tacoma and Los Angeles Dodgers affiliate Albuquerque and wrote up what he saw right here.
Nick Franklin is doing his thing — three homers in 23 at-bats — and right-hander Brandon Maurer is showing off the 70 slider again, but neither are technically prospects, and the same goes for Jesus Montero, who has looked fine at the plate and terrible in the field at first. James Jones is a prospect and he’s hit some line drives and handled himself well at the plate overall in the early going. I’m not convinced he’s a centerfielder, but he can play right and has a big arm. If he can hit for enough average there’s a place for him on the 25-man roster.
Chris Taylor is a legitimate major-league shortstop glove and we’ll see what he can do with that swing against Triple-A pitching. It’s flat and he’s often late to good velocity because for a player without much power he loads deep, and worst of all most of that load moving his hands horizontally. He’s got some of Brad Miller’s self-scouting skills, though, and has already made some changes that have allowed him to get this far after some clubs didn’t believe he could hit beyond Class-A ball, which explains why he lasted to Round 5 two years back.
He has maintained a patient and disciplined approach at the plate, but hasn’t had any luck on balls in play just yet — his swing tends to generate ground balls and fewer line drives than is generally acceptable.
Keep An Eye On: Carson Smith is a no-brainer here. He’s struggling with command in his first few outings, but he’ll get it going and before you can say ‘Tom Wilhelmsen’ Smith will be sitting 92-95 mph with a plus low-80s slider thrown from a low three-quarters arm slot. First baseman — and former catcher — Ji-Man Choi is worth watching because he has a chance to hit for average but the power isn’t going to play regularly at first. Logan Bawcom is a solid middle innings relief prospect and should see the majors at some point this season. Xavier Avery once was a top-10 prospect for the Baltimore Orioles and could be a useful major leaguer at some point. He and Abe Almonte are redundant, however, and Almonte is clearly ahead of Avery on the depth chart, so Avery may have to wait awhile to return to the big leagues. He is swinging the bat well for Tacoma right now, though it’s all singles.
Photo: D.J. Peterson by Shari Summerfield