It’s playoff time in the minors, but the season the Seattle Mariners’ farm system is now completing was a strong one. Depth was built, solid prospects progressed and raw talents turned the corner toward legitimate prospect status. Among the numerous solid performers, a small handful distinguished themselves.
Something new this year: The Prospect Insider yearly awards will be named after the previous season’s winners. So, rather than ‘Pitching Prospect of the Year’ and ‘Position Prospect of the Year,’…
Reminder: The contenders and winners of the following awards are chosen based on progress, future potential value and overall performance. This is not simply ‘player of the year’ or ‘pitcher of the year.’
The Edwin Diaz Award: Zack Littell, RHP
Diaz may have won this again in 2016 if he remained in the minors another few months, but the season Littell put together was remarkable from all angles.
The right-hander, No. 6 in the Prospect Insider rankings update, began the season at Class-A Clinton after a solid 2015 at age 20. From the get-go this spring, Littell was a different pitcher — a better pitcher and one better equipped to move forward and allow his stuff to do damage.
He spent three months with the LumberKings before the club shipped him to Advanced-A Bakersfield in a league not known to be friendly to pitchers.
Littell, pitches comfortably in the low-90s with improved movement to both sides, some life up in the zone and sink when he stays on top and attack the lower quadrants. While he’ll tease the mid-90s at times, he’s better off getting ahead and inducing weak contact or swings and misses with his curveball and changeup.
Where Littell has made the biggest jump is command and overall control. A year ago he posted a decent 6.2 percent walk rate against a strike percentage of 17.4. In 2016, Littell whiffed nearly 23 percent of the batters he faced.
“He’s overpowered the bottom of some lineups,” one scout said. “But he’s doing his thing against good bats by finding the strike zone weakness of each hitter; does a really good job of that.”
Littell was the Mariners; Round 11 pick in the 2013 Draft out of Eastern Alamance High School in North Carolina. At the time, the M’s saw a kid with a chance to develop based on solid arm strength, a quality set of mechanics and the physical attributes of a big-league arm.
Littell has a good chance to start 2017 a Double-A Jackson, carrying with him a shot for the club to produce a mid-rotation starting pitcher, perhaps a solid No. 3 if all works out well.
Luiz Gohara, LHP — 69.2 IP, 57 H, 23 BB, 81 SO
Gohara ‘s big stuff finally played up over longer stretches this season thanks to significant improvement in one category: Strike percentage. While his overall strike rate didn’t improve a lot — up to 58.5 percent from 54.8 a year ago — Gohara had numerous outings where his strike percentage was above 65.
Still equipped with 93-97 velocity, Gohara’s efficiency got through six or more in six of his 10 starts at Clinton.
Andrew Moore, RHP — 163 IP, 148 H, 31 BB, 133 SO
Moore was excellent in his first full season in pro ball and most telling he made some of his best starts late in the season, showing off his ability to throw three pitches for strikes and manage his own workload within a game.
Nick Neidert, RHP — 91 IP, 75 H, 13 BB, 69 SO
Neidert didn’t light the Midwest League on fire but the 19-year-old pounded the strike zone and repeated his delivery well while developing his fringe-average slider and changeup.
Ryan Yarbrough, LHP — 128.1 IP, 112 H, 31 BB, 99 SO
Yarbrough is a candidate for the bullpen where his 88-92 mph fastball may firm up into the 91-95 mph range where his breaking ball and deception may make for a tough multi-inning option.
As-is, the changeup improved in 2016 and there’s still a chance he ends up at least a back-end option.
Keep an Eye on
Kevin Gadea, RHP — 68.2 IP, 56 H, 14 BB, 95 SO
Gadea sits in the low-90s with his fastball but there may be more there, even in a starting role. He’s 21 — 22 in December — and a bit of a late bloomer after signing with the club for $42, 000 three summers ago.
The fastball has good life late in its path and Gadea mixes in an average curveball and solid-average changeup. There’s projection left in his 6-goot-5, 195-pound frame and the Nicaragua native shows advanced mound presence.
The Tyler O’Neill Award: Tyler O’Neill, RF
Well, this is awkward.
O’Neill has been the Mariners’ farm system’s best player since the middle of last season and he just finished a regular season heaving led the Double-A Southern League in OPS.
While contact remains a concern — after a very strong start in this area, O’Neill’s strikeout rate skyrocketed after the break but still ended up an improvement of nearly 4.5 percent from a year ago. Furthermore, the 21-year-old improved his walk rate to 10.8 percent, up from 6.5 percent last season.
“It’s simple,” offered one scout, “he got better in every area of the game. I even noticed better baserunning, better routes and decisions on defense and situational hitting … not the situational hitting a utility player is asked to do, I’m talking about his ability to hit with two strikes, hit a 95 mph fastball on the outer corner to right field and do it with authority.”
The swing-and-miss in O’Neill’s game isn’t going away, but another step in this same direction next spring and he’ll knock on the big-league door by the time the weather warms in Seattle.
Kyle Lewis, CF — .299/.385/.530, 8-2B, 5 HR, 3-3B, 16 BB, 22 SO
Lewis is electric with blue-chip bat speed, plus athleticism and a work ethic to match. His knee injury may keep him out for the first part of 2017, but he owns the highest ceiling of any prospect in the system and showed that off in Everett this past summer.
Guillermo Heredia, OF — .300/.395/.391, 13-2B, 4 HR, 3-3B, 48 BB, 47 SO
Heredia’s upside is relatively low — extra outfielder or platoon player — but he can do some things to help a big-league club with his speed and defense. He’s capable of working counts, drawing walks and making consistent contact, too, though scouts would like to see him square it up more often.
Joe DeCarlo, 3B
Surprise name here, but he was mentioned to me by scouts significantly more often than was D.J. Peterson or the club’s two Rookie ball kids — Chris Torresm Bryana Hernandez, both of whom are better prospects than DeCarlo, but didn’t do as much for themselves this season than the former M’s second rounder.
DeCarlo showed much better hands and footwork defensively at third base, suggesting he could play the position. His bat probably won’t play at the hot corner but he made strides there, too.
“I tell you what I wish,” said one scout. “I wish DeCarlo was out there (pointing to right field). Not because he can’t play third but because he’s a utility-level guy at the plate. He does have bat speed but he’s feasted on fastballs.”
The scout’s note on fastball feasting is the reason DeCarlo lands here. A year ago, DeCarlo was swinging through 90 mph fastballs in the zone far too often, and when he made contact it was rarely on the barrel. At this point DeCarlo isn’t yet a Top 20 prospect, but he helped himself this season with his defensive work and the better bat path that’s created opportunities for him to hit the ball from alley to alley.
Keep an Eye on
Dimas Ojeda, OF/1B — .266/.347/.445, 8-2B, 5 HR, 15 BB, 29 SO
There are better talents that fit here as off-the-radar, sleeper types, including infielder Luis Rengifo and catchers Juan Camacho and Dom Blanco, but Ojeda did enough to get me back to Everett in August after a scout asked me “hey, who’s this 17th-round pick in Everett?”
Well, he’s a Texas native taken in Round 17 that’s better suited at first base where he played his final year at McLennan Community College, but isn’t a slug at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds. He’s a left-handed hitter with a power swing but relatively raw hitting tools.
Photo Courtesy: Jackson Generals