Last Updated on April 11, 2020 by Jason A. Churchill
I’ve ranked Seattle Mariners prospects since 2004, so I can go back to that point using my own history and notes. But I wanted this project to be an all-time thing, so I spent hours researching, including dozens of electronic communications with scouts and other baseball personnel, to produce the Top 10 prospects in Seattle Mariners history.
Each prospect will be graded on the peak of their prospect status and then compared to others. ‘All-time’ means from the start of the franchise, which was 1977, despite the fact there weren’t external prospect rankings at the time.
Here’s my all-time Top 10 Mariners prospects.
1. Alex Rodriguez, SS — 1995
Rodriguez was 18 years old when he made his big-league debut in 1994, after starting that season in Class-A Appleton, which is the mid-90s equivalent of the West Virginia Power. Yeah, three minor league levels before the majors.
But A-ROD returned to the minors in 1995 and tortured PCL pitching by mashing .360/.411/.654 with 15 home runs in 237 PAs. Of his 77 hits, 30 were for extra bases. He was also playing big-league caliber defense at shortstop.
While pretty much no one will admit this, Rodriguez is the best player ever to play for the Seattle Mariners, even though he wasn’t in uniform for the club long enough to be deemed the franchise’s greatest.
There’s an argument here for Nos. 2 and 3 on this list because each spent more time as elite prospects, neither quite reached the peak of Rodriguez in 1995 before the Mariners called him up for 48 games, plus the postseason.
“Everything seemed to come so easy for him,” said a former GM. “You saw him up in Seattle early in his career. The swing produced huge power and it looked so smooth. And it was a big swing, but it was under control. He was a good athlete, too, and we don’t talk about how good he was out there at shortstop. That kid was a top-5 defender for awhile. Was a shame the Yankees moved him to third. He made (Derek) Jeter look like a child in comparison.”
“He was the most complete player I’ve seen,” said a former scouting director now serving as a special assignment scout for an NL club. “We didn’t get the chance to take him, of course, but we went to see him anyway, because he was special in high school and I wanted to see it for the entertainment value. He was plus in every area of the game. Hit, power, run, throw, field. Until (Mike) trout, he was the most complete player we’d seen since at least (Willie) Mays, and he showed that off everywhere he went in the minors. He was a man child in A-ball. Didn’t belong. He was less than a year out of high school, and got a late start, too. Just a tremendously gifted player.”
2. Felix Hernandez, RHP — 2005
One can argue Anderson should be here at No. 2, but I saw both and while Anderson was as projectable as even Rodriguez, he came with more risk because of command and control concerns, and he was generally going five innings, rather than six and seven on a regular basis — partially due to higher pitch counts, partially due to general workload concerns that followed Anderson around after he competed in a prep league that employed abbreviated counts; every batter began his plate appearance with a 2-1 count.
Hernandez, on the other hand, threw strikes and had a more complete arsenal that included a fastball up to 97 mph and a plus curveball. He had a slider in his hip pocket, too, that many believed was the best of his offspeed pitches, and he was on his way to the big leagues in short fashion.
“There’s nothing more to see here, nothing to scout anymore,” said a pro scout and former big-league pitcher. “Just water him and watch him grow.”
3. Ryan Anderson, LHP — 2000
If the 2000 version of Anderson were a prospect today, he’s be very much compared to the likes of James Paxton and Forrest Whitley, among recent arms, and there would be talk of a relief role. Outings were shortened due to control problems and he had yet to show, even in Triple-A, a consistent third pitch. He was essentially 94-98 mph and a plus two-plane slider with depth, but remained raw, despite how quickly he ascended through the minors.
Still, he was just 20 at this point, with promise of ace-like production in the near future, one often compared to the Big Unit Randy Johnson due to his tall, lanky build.
“He’s a dream prospect,” said former major league pitcher and longtime pitching coach Roger McDowell in 2002. “That’s the kind of talent you want to coach. There’s so much potential there and it’s hard not to think about what he can be. Keeping him healthy is another story.”
Anderson would experience arm and back problems that ultimately would derail his career, but he was an elite prospect until that point, overpowering hitters and flashing Cy Young stuff.
Anderson was Baseball America’s No. 8 prospect after the 2000 season in which he pitched 104 innings, allowing 83 hits and punching out 146 batters. His ERA landed at 3.98. He was 20 and spent the entire season at Triple-A Tacoma.
4. Roger Salkeld, RHP — 1991
Salkeld was the Mariners top prospect for three years in a row, missing bats with his fastball and curveball and showing improved control and he moved up the minors. When he got to Calgary in 1991, he was just 20 years of age and looked like he’d be in a Mariners uniform in short order.
But he’d have shoulder surgery and miss all of 1992 before making 16 appearances in 1993, including three with the Mariners. But the arm strength never came back all the way, nor did the command, and Salkeld’s once promising future was limited to 45 total games, including 29 with the Cincinnati Reds in 1996. By the end of the 2000 season he was out of baseball at age 29.
At his best he was up to 95 mph and was athletic for a 6-5, 220 pounder.
“I pitched against him a couple of times,” a current scout and former minor leaguer said. “He was damned good. He was in control. He was the guy we talked about as a team heading into the series. Were set to face him? What day? The stuff was good. It would play today. He was missing bats when it wasn’t all that common to do so.”
In 1991, Salkeld, at the age of 20, made 27 starts, 23 at Double-A Jacksonville and four at Triple-A Calgary, and posted a 3.28 ERA over 173 frames. He struck out 180 and tossed five complete games.
5. Ken Griffey Jr., CF — 1988
It might seem crazy that Junior sits this low, but the reality is he wasn’t in the minors long enough to wow folks with production. He was highly regarded as the son of a quality major leaguer and the No. 1 pick in the 1987 draft, but didn’t get the chance to build on that much. Having said that, there’s not a big difference between Griffey here at No. 5 and Salkeld at No. 4.
Griffey played 129 minor league games and only 17 above Advanced-A ball — Vermont in 1988 where at age 18 he batted .279/.353/.492. Impressive, but in such a small sample it was difficult to put much stock into it. He was a very good prospect, but not enough evidence to make him as elite as he’d become in the majors.
One question baseball folks had was how much power he’d end up with in the big leagues and whether or not he would he stick in center. “The two don’t often go hand-in-hand,” one scout noted. “If he adds the strength to hit 30 or 40 (homers) it likely means he’s growing out the middle of the field. Unless he’s Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. And we found out very quickly that’s exactly what he was.”
6. Marc Newfield, OF — 1994
Newfield fits nicely between Nos. 7 and 10 here, offering a blend of both Kelenic and Rodriguez. Newfield was a five-tool prospect expected to offer plus right field defense, power and some speed.
He might be one of the more perplexing prospect failures in team history, and while I can’t find evidence — let alone confirm — the club is to blame, I can’t help but wonder if things turn out better had Newfield been moved to another club earlier in his career.
In 1994 at the height of Newfield’s status, a current scout and then-player thought we were looking at a right-handed Daryl Strawberry or an Andrew Dawson.
In 1994, Newfield batted .349/.413/.593 with 44 doubles and 19 home runs at Triple-A Calgary.
7. Danny Tartabull, SS — 1985
Tartabull was given a shot to play shortstop thanks to a great arm and the fact his bat was expected to cover for any shortcomings. He’d ultimately outgrow the position, but in 1985 he was the closest thing to Cal Ripken Jr. and Alan Trammell the minors had to offer.
Of course, Tartabull would get the majors and play 18 seasons, including three with the Mariners, and he blasted 262 home runs. One scout I spoke to recalls two mistakes the Mariners made in the handling of Tartabull.
“I really thought the first move should have been to slide him over to third and give him a real shot to stay on the infield. He’d played a little third, a little second, a little short as he moved up, but they went from shortstop to the outfield, which made him a little less special.
“Then, they traded him for what amounted, even at the time, to bulk.”
The trade was to Kansas City for Scott Bankhead, Mike Kingery and Steve Shields. Of course, if Tartabull had been playing third base at the time, the Royals don’t make that deal, since they had a certain Hall of Famer named George Brett manning the position.
Tartabull’s best year in the minors came in 1985 when he batted .300/.385/.615 with 43 home runs at Triple-A Calgary at age 22. Calgary was a smaller ballpark, but the numbers were still considered enormous and Tartabull a top prospect.
8. Jarred Kelenic, OF — 2020
Kelenic’s 2019 was one of the more impressive years a Mariners position prospect has had in 20-plus seasons and there’s a chance by the time he’s a mainstay in the big leagues he’ll be top five on this list.
We’re a lot more informed in 2020 about how the minors’ performance translates and how to apply that to our analysis, but Kelenic checks all the boxes for probability, upside and ETA, which is why he’s a top 8-20 talent in all of the minors, depending on who is asked.
9. Jose Cruz Jr., OF — 1996
Cruz was the darling of the club’s system in 1996 and 1997 before being traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. Cruz was a very good athlete, similar to that of Kelenic, but he lacked centerfield instincts. He was, however, physically gifted and the Mariners believed they were giving up a future all-star when they moved him.
His career was a disappointment based on his prospect status, especially in terms of the hit tool, but he was among the better prospects in baseball at the time.
Cruz batted .293/.397/.474 with 48 extra-base hits and 13 stolen bases in 1996, split between three levels of the minors, including Triple-A. He was Baseball America’s No. 12 prospect entering the ’97 season.
10. Julio Rodriguez, OF — 2020
There’s a very good chance Rodriguez moves ahead of Cruz and perhaps Newfield before he hits the majors, but if there’s no minor league season in 2020, we’ll have to wait for his star to rise for a little while longer than we’d like.
The 19-year-old has moved up the ranks quickly — both in terms of his value and the level in which he’s competed — and has a chance to continue that trend. He may not have the “status” ceiling Kelenic has, but he’s already on the fast track to a status that means a helluva lot more: Star major leaguer.
Also strongly considered: Darnell Coles, Mark Langston, Adam Jones, Taijuan Walker, Gil Meche, Pat Lennon, Jeff Clement, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley, Mickey Brantley, Arquimedez Pozo, Dave Henderson, Tino Martinez.