This may be surprising to read or hear, but it’s been a little while since the Seattle Mariners last had a farm system ranked in the bottom half of the league. Jerry Dipoto started the farm rebuild long before tearing down the big-league roster after the 2018, including current 40-man roster additions via the draft (Kyle Lewis, Matthew Festa, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Evan White, Cal Raleigh) and international signings (Julio Rodriguez) during that initial period.

But as I’ve stated on numerous occasions the past five years, farm system rankings don’t mean a gosh darned thing. Ranking high doesnt mean your big-league team will be good, and ranking low doesn’t mean they won’t. It’s that simple, and there is no evidence to the contrary.

The Mariners’ collection of prospects — a status determined by vastl arbitrary guidelines set by, frankly, arbitrary media outlets and the ridiculously arbitrary opinions of Major League Baseball — does not rank very high right now as the 2022 season comes to a close.

Rodriguez and Kirby have joined Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Cal Raleigh as graduates to big-league stations, and the club has traded away Noelvi Marte, Edwin Arroyo, Levi Stoudt, Brandon Williamson, Connor Phillips, among others, for proven major leaguers. The cupboard isn’t dry, however. It’s just young, and the temperature of the system could change on a dime next spring.

Here are the keys to the club’s farm system taking a jump back above league-average next season.

Harry Ford, C

He’s the top prospect in the organization right now, which will go unchanged even when SS Felnin Celesten is officially signed over the winter — at least for the short term. Ford has five legit tools that project well to the majors, and he had a strong season statistically at the plate in his first full season in pro ball. Ford, however, didn’t exactly light the world on fire analytically, so there are some questions as to what kind of upside he brings offensively, and if he’s just a solid bat and not one landing on the plus side, there will be more pressure on him to catch for the long haul.

But Ford also does so many things well at the plate the smart bet remains on his right-handed swing to turn out above-average or better, and because he moves and throws well he’ll be an assett defensively wherever he ends up down the road. On the upside, the 20-year-old catches more in 2023 — he’s caught 67 games since signing, just 54 starts and under 500 inningts behind the dish this past season — and turns things up a beat at the plate where he batted .274/.425/.439 in the Cal League.

Despite the fact there are questions remaining, Ford will carry major-league traits and tools into his second full season and much like former top prospect Noelvi Marte will have a chance to explode in status if he rakes in High-A Everett. In terms of the club’s farm system and its rank and file, Ford is the key to a return to the top.

Emerson Hancock, RHP

Hancock simply didn’t take well to a four-seam approach, which drags his upside down a rung or two for me because that two-seamer doesn’t project to miss bats in a starting role. But that fact doesn’t eliminate his chances tobe a No. 3 or better starter, it simply puts more pressure on his secondaries and command. Felix Hernandez rode a sinking fastball to a Cy Young, as have many others in recent years, but all of them had two dominant offspeed pitches. For Hernandez it was a 65-grade curveball that played well off the sinker, and a 70 changeup for the strikeout. Hancock’s best breaker is a short-breaking slider, and it flashed average this season, but I wonder if his curveball ends up the better future weapon. His changeup already looks above average and it could reach true swing-and-miss levels.

Hancock getting beyond innings eater and into solid-average mid-rotation status or better would be an enormous development for the Mariners in 2023.

Lazaro Montes, OF

Montes is a ways away when we’re talking about the big leagues, but if he can get to full-season baseball next spring and make more contact without sacrificing power, that alone will tow his prospect status north. Another thing watch is his athleticsm; he’s a bigger player, but an underrated athlete. However, he’s likely to continue to gain size and any significant loss in agility likely means a move to first base, putting additional stress on the bat to play big.

Axel Sanchez, SS

For me, Sanchez started 2022 as a “guy to keep an eye on,” and not much more. He hadn’t done anything, but had athleticism and what I dubbed “very good hands, in the box and the around the bag.” But the slug he showed in Modesto suggests more offensive upside than I could have anticipated, and he’s above-average at shortstop with easy actions and plenty of arm. He’ll be 20 in December and likely starts next season back in Modesto, but any success in Everett in 2023 for Sanchez with similar promise from the bat takes him from “a guy” to a” A GUY,” and that bodes well for the club’s system.

Gabriel Gonzalez, OF

Gonzalez is probably the safest bet to hit of the group that played in Modesto this season, including traded players. When I left Stockton over the summer after seeing the Nuts face the Ports, one of my main takeaways regarding Gonzalez was that he’s not quite as athletic as I was expecting, but he was stronger, sturdier, played with more instincts. The raw power is probably more 18-22 HR than 12-16, however, and there might be a right-handed Michael Brantley here if everything works out in his favor.

Gonzalez will not be 19 until January and handled Cal League pitching just fine, and never seemed out of place or uncomfortable, not in the field, on the bases, and especially in the batter’s box. Bet on Gonzalez to hit, and mobe through the system fairly quickly.


Why Not Felnin Celesten?

Celesten will not actually be a part of the organization until January, at which time he would certainly land on this list, but doesn’t qualify until he’s officially signed. He’s a great bet to stick at shortstop and brings above-average tools across the board, and is a switch hitter to boot. He’s better as a right-handed bat, but has sound mechanics from both sides, and beings the kind of focus and energy that remind some of the recently-traded Edwin Arroyo.

 

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 and spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio. Find Jason's baseball podcast, Baseball Things, right here.