A year ago there was quite the debate on the American League MVP race — Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera — and Cabrera won fairly easily. The 2013 AL MVP race hasn’t driven the conversation nearly as much this season, despite both Cabrera and Trout repeating their tremendous seasons and a few others, including Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis and even Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson.

Perhaps the closest awards race in the American League this season is the Rookie of the Year chase. Through the All-Star break, it appeared Jose Iglesias of the Boston Red Sox would have the edge. He’s since been traded to Detroit, and while he’s continued to play well, and in a pennant race, the slick-fielding shortstop has been caught by Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Wil Myers.

As it doesn’t appear there is a pitcher that will challenge the two frontrunner — Seattle’s Danny Farquhar leads AL rookie arms with a 1.8 fWAR, followed by three Athletics arms and then Rangers southpaw Martin Perez — the vote may come down to Iglesias and Myers. Or will it?

Myers enters play Wednesday batting .298/.361/.496 with 13 home runs and a .366 wOBA. He’s been quality in the field, too. Iglesias hasn’t hit for power, but he’s strong on defense and is batting .313/.357/.400 in 102 games. Myers’ 2.3 fWAR leads all AL rookies, with Iglesias coming in at 2.0. There’s a sleeper in the group, however, and he goes by the name of David Lough.

Lough, 27, is the outfielder the Royals turned to when they finally jettisoned Jeff Francoeur and realized they’d traded Myers in a package that landed them pitching. The left-handed batter has been decent at the plate — .284/.306/.406 — but his glove has pushed his fWAR to 2.0, tying him with Iglesias. Lough at least deserves to be in the conversation, though despite his Wins Above Replacement number, he’d be No. 6 for me.

Since the defensive formulas within WAR are a bit behind those of their offensive brethren, I lean heavily away from WAR-based results that are clearly driven by the players’ defensive scores.

Athletics right-hander Dan Straily has posted a 1.5 fWAR in 25 starts and has solidified the back end of the club’s rotation. He ranks second among rookie pitchers in the AL in WAR, but that’s largely based on his advantage in innings. He owns a solid 4.19 FIP.

Sonny Gray has made nine appearances, seven starts, and has been better than Straily with a 2.34 FIP, but he’s logged just 48 innings. Perez has pitched 106 1/3 innings and has been solid for the Rangers.

For me, Myers is the clear leader, and I’m not sure he can be caught, unless he falls on his face the final week and a half of the season.

Others of note include Angels outfielder Kole Calhoun, who has been terrific in 46 games and if he had more time in might be challenging Myers and Iglesias for the honors, as wold Gray had been up much earlier in the season. M’s shortstop Brad Miller has been solid in his 69-game stint, and A’s southpaw reliever Sean Doolittle has been very good for the division leaders all season.

If I were voting and the ballot was due today:

  1. Wil Myers, OF — Tampa Bay
  2. Jose Iglesias, SS — Detroit
  3. Danny Farquhar, RHP — Mariners
  4. Martin Perez, LHP — Rangers
  5. Chris Archer, RHP — Rays
  6. David Lough, OF — Royals

There are only about 10 games left, so this may not change much between now and the end of the season, but it’s interesting that all but Farquhar and Kalhoun play for clubs in the playoff hunt.…

Last July 23, the Seattle Mariners traded Ichiro Suzuki to the New York Yankees, ending his 12-year stint with the club. Much of the talk in Seattle, at the time, was about the end of an era. Some were sad to see him go, but understood it was probably time. Others had been calling for such a move for years. In return, the M’s acquired right-handers D.J. Mitchell and Danny Farquhar. The Yankees received some cash to offset some of the remaining salary on Ichiro’s contract that concluded at the end of the season.

Ichiro had two solid months with the Yankees, and re-signed with the club over the offseason for two years and $13 million. Mitchell went on to struggle in Triple-A Tacoma last summer and made four unmemorable appearances in relief in the majors. Farquhar was dominant out of the pen in Tacoma after the trade and picked up where he left off this past spring. Mitchell has since been released.

Through the 2012 season, the Yankees win this deal, and it’s really not close. There’s no way to measure any value the Mariners may have gained by trading a player useless to them on the field and opening up playing time for younger players, and neither player the M’s received gave value to them last summer.

Even ignoring the salary discrepancy, that hasn’t been the case this season.

Through Tuesday, Ichiro is batting .264/.299/.350 and .285 WOBA in 140 games, and has an fWAR of 1.3. With Mitchell no longer part of the equation, Farquhar has had to carry the load on his own shoulders, and he’s handled that quite well.

The right-hander, who bounced around like a rubber pinball last year before the trade to Seattle, was called up to the majors in May to help solidify the club’s bullpen. Not only has he done his part there, he’s now the closer. With a 93-97 mph four-seamer, a cutter in the 88-92 mph range, a changeup he can show a left-hander and a curveball that may be his most important pitch — and a very good one — the 5-foot-9, 185-pound freak has saved 14 of 18 save chances. He’s struck out 13.14 batters per nine innings — nearly 36 percent of all batters faced — and has compiled a 1.8 fWAR, topping Ichiro’s by quite a large margin considering he spent the first six weeks of the big-league season NOT in the big leagues.

I don’t know that Farquhar will be the Mariners’ closer in 2014, but despite relievers being so volatile and downright unpredictable, the 26-year-old has a chance to contribute in high-leverage situations and create a rare trade victory for the Mariners under GM Jack Zduriencik.…

The Major League Baseball season is 162 games. After that 162-game schedule is complete, there are six division winners, three in each league, and four Wild Card survivors that play in October. The Playoff Picture is the focus of this week’s If the season ended today, but included is the up-to-date 2014 draft order.

In the American League, the Oakland Athletics, Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox have total control of the three divisions. Each lead their division by at least six games. Most of the contenders have played at least 149 games, leaving 12 or 13 games for those in the rear view mirror to make their move.

In the National League, the Atlanta Braves are up 10 games on the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers are 9 1/2 up on the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Central is a real race, with three clubs — Pittsburgh Pirates, St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds — at battle. The Cards and Bucs are tied at the top with the Reds 2 1/2 back.

The Wild Card spots aren’t settled, either, not in either league, though it’s much closer in the junior circuit where six clubs are within 3 1/2 games of each other.

Entering play Tuesday:

American League
Wild Card Game

Texas Rangers (81-68) at Tampa Bay Rays (82-67)

League Division Series
Rays or Rangers at Boston Red Sox (92-59)
Detroit Tigers (87-63) at Oakland Athletics (88-62)

AL Contenders’ Remaining Schedules
Boston — vs. BAL (3), Tor (3), at COL (2), at BAL (3)
Detroit — vs. SEA (3), vs. CWS (3), at MIN (3), at MIA (3)
Oakland — vs. LAA (2), vs. MIN (4), at LAA (3), at SEA (3)
Tampa Bay (+1.0, WC) — vs. TEX (3), vs. BAL (3), at NYY (3), at TOR (3)
Texas (E, WC) — at TBR (3), at KCR (3), vs. HOU (3), at LAA (4)
Cleveland (-0.5, WC) — at KCR (2), vs. HOU (4), vs. CWS (2), at MIN (4)
Baltimore (-2.0, WC) — at BOS (3), at TBR (3), vs. TOR (3), at BOS (3)
Kansas City (-2.5, WC) — vs. CLE (2), vs. TEX (3), at SEA (3), at CWS (3)
New York (-2.5, WC) — at TOR (3), vs. SFG (3), vs. TBR (3), at HOU (3)

National League
Wild Card

Cincinnati Reds (85-66) at St. Louis Cardinals (87-63)

League Division Series
Reds or Cardinals at Atlanta Braves (89-60)
Los Angeles Dodgers (86-64) at Pittsburgh Pirates (87-63)
Pirates win tie-breaker with Cardinals based on 10-9 head-to-head record, for this exercise only

NL Contenders’ Remaining Schedules
Atlanta — at WAS (3), at CHC (3), vs. MIL (3), vs. PHI (4)
Pittsburgh — vs. SDP (3), vs. CIN (3), at CHC (3), at CIN (3)
St. Louis — at COL (2), at MIL (3), vs. WAS (3), vs. CHC (3)
Los Angeles — at ARI (3), at SDP (3), at SF (3), vs. COL (3)
Cincinnati (-2.5, NLC) — at HOU (2), at PIT (3), vs. NYM (3), vs. PIT (3)
Washington (-5.0, WC) — vs. ATL (3), vs. MIA (4), at STL (3), at ARI (3)


The Houston Astros are four games up on the Miami Marlins for the No. 1 spot, with the Chicago White Sox four games back of the Fish for No. 2 and the Chicago Cubs four games behind their crosstown rivals for the No. 3 pick. The Minnesota Twins sit at No. 5, but are just a game and a half back of the Cubs for No. 4 overall.

The Seattle Mariners and the Milwaukee Brewers are just a half game apart for the No. 6 pick and the New York Mets are just a game back. The Toronto Blue Jays, who will have two picks after failing to sign first-round pick Phil Bickford this past summer, are tied with the Colorado Rockies and a half game up on the San Francisco Giants for the No. 9 pick.

As of Tuesday, the Giants will pick No. 12, with the Jays’ compensation pick ahead of them at 11, the first two of the unprotected selections in next year’s draft.

Next June the Kansas City Royals will select outside the top 15, as their first pick in the first round, for the first time since 1995. The Pittsburgh Pirates haven’t had that same distinction since 1993. The Royals and Pirates haven’t won 85 or more games in the same season since 1979. That may end this season with the Royals on pace to win at least 86.

If the New York Yankees, who are tied with the Royals and just a half game ahead of the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals, lose their way to a pick higher than 17 and do not give away the selection via free-agent compensation, it will be the first time the club has drafted that high since ’93, the year after they drafted shortstop Derek Jeter at No. 6.

The White Sox have not drafted higher than No. 4 (Alex Fernandez, 1990) since 1977 when they had the No. 1 overall choice and drafted Harold Baines. The Giants haven’t drafted above No. 20 since ’09 (Zack Wheeler, No. 6) and 2008 (Buster Posey, No. 5), and the Los Angeles Angels haven’t had a first-round pick higher than 17 since 2004 (Jered Weaver, No. 12).

The clubs in the top 10 most likely to take advantage of the protected picks are the Mets, Mariners,  Brewers and both Chicago clubs.

The ’14 draft class is deeper than the previous few, and the favorite to go No. 1 overall is North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon.  Much of the depth is in the prep pitcher class, but there also appears to be more solid second-to-sixth round talents than the past two drafts.

Rodon’s teammate, shortstop Trea Turner, is among the top 10 prospects, and the high-grade prep prospects include SS Jacob Gatewood of Clovis High School (Calif.), RF/C Alex Jackson of Rancho Bernardo High School (Calif.), and right-handers RHP Grant Holmes of Conway High School (S.C.) , Dylan Cease of Milton High School (Ga.) and 6-foot-5, 240-pound Shepherd High School (Texas) star Tyler Kolek.

One of my favorites from talking to scouts in the south is Ole Miss commit Ti’quan Forbes, a 6-foot-4, 175-pound shortstop from Columbia High School (Miss.). He’s raw, but is the youngest of the first-round talents and has huge upside with at least a shot to stick at shortstop.…

The Seattle Mariners are stumbling along toward another season full of around 90 losses. The club needs to go 9-5 over the final 14 games just to equal last season’s 75-87 campaign. Changes are necessary, starting with an ownership group that is clearly unwilling to replace those in charge. Since the ownership isn’t going to change this offseason, we’ll skip to the next 16 items the M’s should have on their to-do list this offseason.

We’ll dive into specifics, such as player names, at a later date, but for now, here’s my proposed winter outline.

Hire a new manager

The limited progress the club has made under Eric Wedge clearly stagnated sometime between last all-star break and this past summer. Wedge is good for young players in a lot of ways, but there are far too many questionable decisions that even the benefit of the doubt can’t cover for anymore.

The Mariners need their version of Terry Francona or Joe Maddon; both have leadership skills, put together lineups that have proven to be as optimal as one could expect and know how to win. Even a rookie skipper, like Maddon was in 2006, can be the right move if he’s learned under the right mentor and has the kind of baseball experience and innovation to adjust to the roster and find an edge or two.

Hire a new general manager

It pains me to say this, because I like Jack Zduriencik. I believe I understand his vision and I believe in it, too, but I’ve come to one conclusion that forces me to include his dismissal here: The 2014 Seattle Mariners have almost zero chance to contend.

Sure, the club could go out and spend some money, make a trade or two for some proven impact talent to mix with a few of the young players that earn a starting job next spring and such a roster could compete. The problem with that theory is it’s far fetched. The free agent market is thin as it is, and expecting the M’s win out on multiple bats and a No. 2 or 3 starting pitcher, among other smaller yet valuable pieces such as a veteran reliever and backup catcher, is asking an organization that, under Zduriencik, has not done any of that over the course of the five years since the club hired the former Milwaukee Brewers scouting director.

So, if 2014’s ceiling is something less than 85 wins — probably the absolute minimum number of wins it will take to compete in September for a Wild Card spot in the American League next year — we’re talking about yet another season without relevant baseball the final 6-8 weeks of the season, if not longer. That’s just not good enough.

I’ll say this now, and if the club does end the Mariners career of Zduriencik after this season, I’ll say it all winter, and beyond: A new GM probably can’t be expected to win in 2014, either. The difference is, Zduriencik has had five years to be improve a team that went 61-101 the year before he was hired and appears destined for a win total im the low-70s, with last year’s 75-win plateau looking like a long shot.

Zduriencik and his staff have done some good things in Seattle, but the most important one — winning in the major leagues — hasn’t occurred, and the “inching” toward such a feat just won’t do. At this time, I have no suggestions for GM candidates, but I will if the time comes next month.

If Zduruencik is retained, it’s not the worst decision of all-time, but I see this very much like I see a player entering the final year or two of prime and bearing down on free agency. It’s better to trade that player a year too soon, rather than a year too late.

Sign 3B Kyle Seager to a multi-year contract

He’s not arbitration eligible until after the 2014 season, but Seager is the team’s best position player, and that’s just a statement by default. He can handle third base, is ridiculously consistent and he’s just a notch below the best third basemen in baseball, entering play Sunday batting .274/.346/.451 with 22 home runs, despite playing all but three games this season and being forced to bat in the middle of the order without the support of an average set of eight lineup mates.

Before this season I suggested Seager cut down the power swing just a bit, make more contact and hit for more average, while becoming a better hitter versus left-handed pitching. Perhaps settling in around .280 or .285 with 16-18 homers and an improved on-base percentage from the .316 mark he posted a year ago, and overall looking more like an everyday player, rather than everyday player on a bad team.

He didn’t sacrifice a bit of power — he’s on pace for more extra-base hits this season than last, but has drawn a few more walks whole maintain a similar strikeout rate and taking a full step forward against lefties. He’s 25 years old — 26 in November — a contract as long as five years could make a lot of sense for both sides.

That would buy out all of Seager’s arbitration years, plus one free agent year, after which he’ll be 30 years of age. Four years doesn’t make as much sense, because it only goes through the player’s arbitration years, plus his one club-controlled season. Three years may be preferred by the player and agent, but the trade-off of the one free agent year is a bigger salary in 2014 than he’d make if the club simple renewed his contract.

Seager is a keeper, and it’s time this winter for the Mariners to do just that, save a little cash along the way and show other young players that this is what you get when you perform.

Find offense without going to the greatest of lengths to do so

You read that correctly. Contrary to my previous thought process, I no longer believe the Seattle Mariners should spend huge money on free agents this offseason. The market is awful and each of the bats comes with tremendous risk, perhaps sans their own free agent, Kendrys Morales. Good teams are clubs that build and sustain success. Those clubs use free agency to supplement or top off what they have. Using free agency to build your club doesn’t work, and there are very few exceptions.

Shin-Soo Choo cannot hit left-handed pitching — .211/.35/.247 (yes, .247 slugging percentage) in 2013, .199/.318/.286 in 2012 and .243/.340/.339 for his career. He’s also not a center fielder and he’ll turn 32 during the 2014 season. $15 million per season, or anywhere around that mark, for four or more years, is a bad idea for a platoon corner outfielder leaving the prime of his career.

Jacoby Ellsbury, when healthy, brings a lot to the table, including some pop, big-time speed, enough center-field defense to make up for his noodle arm and the ability to get on base. The problem is, he’s not healthy enough to warrant the Michael-Bourn-and-then-some contract he’s certain to get (Bourn signed for five years and $55 million last winter and probably could have gotten more if some breaks fell his way with the draft-pick compensation rules.

Ellsbury is 30 and isn’t magically going to start putting forth multiple 145-game seasons consecutively. He’s managed 130 games played or more just four times in seven full seasons, and is hurt again for the playoff-bound Boston Red Sox.

There’s not going to be any discount for the Mariners because Ellsbury is from Oregon and wants to return to the left coast, and the risk on a big-money deal is quite large. I may change my mind on Ellsbury if the market falls hard, but I don’t see that happening. Bourn’s $55 million came during an offseason when multiple center fielders changed teams, including the trades of Denard Span and Ben Revere. Ellsbury is likely to be all alone atop that pedestal.

There are other examples of bad ideas such as Hunter Pence, and I know what you are thinking: Then who do the M’s get? We’ll tackle that soon enough, but as I stated above, I don’t think there’s much of a chance the M’s can improve enough to contend in ’14, so I’d sure advise against “going for it” and loading up on bad contracts and killing the organization’s chances to find long-term success.

On top of avoiding throwing huge dollars at free agents, trading away any premium young talents — Taijuan Walker, for example — to gain a few years of a good player is a horrible plan. If it’s Giancarlo Stanton, different story, but not even Stanton is a no-brainer.

Don’t forget about the rotation

As the club searches for the right kind of hitters to add to the roster via trade and free agency, they also need two starting pitchers. One, a reliable innings eater that comes out of the bargain bin. Signing two of those might make sense, too, forcing the likes of Walker and James Paxton to earn their spot in spring training. Nobody should be handed a roster spot on a silver platter.

The other rotation necessity is someone to either pitch behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, or one that can supplant Iwakuma as the No. 2 starter, pushing ‘Kuma to the No. 3 spot. Again, we’ll discuss the names at a later date.

Do not rely on more than two of: Ackley, Smoak, Franklin, Miller

If all of the above are playing everyday come Opening Day 2014, it’s not necessarily a good sign. I think we know Smoak’s best isn’t good enough, despite some stretches this season when he was pretty good. Ackley has improved, but enough to play regularly? I don’t see it, yet. Franklin has struggled mightily of late, but he’ll figure it out and is the one I’m most comfortable with going forward. Miller, at the plate, should be just fine, though his glove still needs work.

If I had to pick two right now, it’s the two middle infielders. If Ackley or Smoak has to be a fallback option, fine. Just not both.

Say goodbye to Franklin Gutierrez

When healthy, Gutierrez is a nice player. He’s not a great player, may not even be a good player. But he’s valuable, when healthy. He’s healthy about as much as I sleep during the summers, however, and even on an incentive-laden deal, I don’t think he fits.

Designate Hector Noesi for assignment

Noesi has cleaned up his delivery and found his release point at times this season, but there’s still no useful breaking ball and he doesn’t have enough stuff to pitch in relief. He’s 55/60 fastball, 40/45 changeup, 30 breaking ball. Nope.

Decline the option on Joe Saunders

Pretty easy decision, as he’s not worth $7 million, even if he bounces back some.

Sign or trade for a veteran reliever with closing experience

I’m not suggesting a major signing for a Grant Balfour or Joe Nathan (if Texas declines their $9 million option, which they probably will), but names such as Edward Mujica, Fernando Rodney or Joaquin Benoit make some sense. The Mariners need more stability in their bullpen.

Sign or trade for a veteran backup catcher

A good catcher is most important, but bonus if he can hit left-handed, or hit at all.

Find a solid utility infielder that can play shortstop 

Clint Barmes might make some sense. Heck, at a much cheaper price than the $3-plus million he earned in 2013, Brendan Ryan could be a fit in that role. In theory, anyway. I’d bring in someone different.

Trade Michael Saunders

As much as I like Saunders’ physical tools and basic skillset, it’s pretty clear he’s not a long-term solution as an everyday player. He’s arbitration eligible and he and Ackley are a redundant pair.

There are at least a handful of clubs that will have interest in Saunders, who with the right piece of advice still could turn into something better than we’ve seen in Seattle.

This is also a route the club can take with Smoak if they find another option at first base. That position, however, is among the thinnest on the free agent market, which may leave trades as the lone avenue for an upgrade.

Re-sign Kendrys Morales

Morales’ market has faded since May when he began DH’ing regularly, creating a myth that he can’t play first base. Is he good there? Not particularly. Can he play 140-plus games there? Probably not. Can he play 80 at first and 80 at DH? Of course he can.

With proper rest, something he did not get this season because the Mariners needed their best foot forward as much as possible — see: Seager, Kyle — Morales is passable at first, enough to stave off the “pure DH” tag and add a few dollars onto the end of his contract.

Having said all that, Morales is not having a great year — he’s been solid, and very useful — and a look around the league shows that not a lot of clubs are sure to be looking for such players. This all helps the M’s make a strong bid to retain Morales without getting into the 4-year, $50 million range that appeared plausible in May.

Slapping the tender on Morales probably seals the deal for Seattle, and though nearly $14 million for one year is too high, it probably helps the club get him for two years, instead, and at a better average annual salary.

Field calls on Hisashi Iwakuma

It may not result in the kinds of offers that would make sense, but with one year plus an option year left on Iwakuma’s deal — at a very, very affordable number — the Mariners should at least check the trade market for the right-hander. He’s had a great year, but isn’t necessarily a great bet to repeat it.

Trading him now for the right package of performing 0-3 types could be the wisest move. I’m not sure what clubs would be willing to part with for ‘Kuma, but at least need to find out where the league is on him.

Make it clear to clubs that the young players are not untouchable

Not Taijuan Walker, not Brad Miller, not Nick Franklin, not James Paxton … maybe Mike Zunino, but that may be it, and that’s only because of the dearth of catching in baseball. If Seager still qualifies — OK, he does — I’ve already stated he should be signed to a multi-year deal, so he’s out, too.

It’s unlikely a deal including Walker will make sense, but you never know and it’s always valuable to find out what your players’ value is around the league. Always. Having inexpensive, talented young players, even if they aren’t yet considered established, with some experience — as Franklin and Miller have now — have good value and could be part of a package to acquire the kind of players the M’s can lean on for the long term, perhaps even a star-quality position player such as Stanton.

The Mariners are several players short of a good roster and handcuffing themselves to their own players for the sake of keeping their own players is preposterous. Most trades aren’t lopsided steals. To get good players you have to trade good talent.

I don’t know what will become of the M’s offseason. I don’t know who the GM will be in three weeks. I don’t have any idea if the big-name free agents will have any interest in Seattle. I don’t believe one offseason can flip this team into a winner.

What I do believe is that the above 16 items should be on the organization’s to-do list starting October 1.…

James Paxton has now made two solid start in the big leagues. On September 7, the 6-foot-5 left-hander held Tampa Bay to four hits and an earned in six frames at Safeco field in his big-league debut. He fanned three and issued one walk, throwing 59 of 95 pitches for strikes.

Saturday, Paxton made his first road start in St. Louis and yielded but two hits in six shutout frames. He walked two of 22 batters faced and struck out five Cardinals.

In the minors, Paxton was very inconsistent. He had stretches where he looked great for three or four innings and then came undone and his overall line ended up all crooked and unclean. He also had stretches of multiple starts where he either was terrific, or couldn’t get beyond the fourth or fifth inning, often running up his pitch count and allowing too many batters to reach base, many by way of the base on balls.

On the surface, it may just seem like Paxton has simply thrown more strikes in his two major league outings, limiting the walks and therefore holding down the runs that would ultimately cross the plate.

That isn’t true, however. In his first start, Paxton threw 62 percent strikes. In the minors, for the season, he threw 62 percent strikes. He did throw 67 percent strikes versus the playoff-bounds Cards, but that’s merely five more strikes per 100 than he’s averaged all season.

The difference is where Paxton is missing when he does not throw a strike. It’s more often been down in the zone than his typical outing in the minors. He did this in Tacoma, too, for a start or two here and there, and even for a little longer stretch the second half of the year. For the most part, however, he’d miss up and/or catch too much of the plate and get hurt.

Paxton has pitched at 92-96, toughing as high as 98, and is doing a good job of throwing downhill, creating plane. He’s following through, finishing out front and thus keeping the ball down a lot more. The curveball has been average, with a few plus editions mixed in, and he’s throwing his changeup to right-handed batters with effectiveness.

Paxton, 24, has No. 2 upside if he can find a way to replicate the mechanics he’s employed in the majors. The jury is still out, and won’t be fnished deliberating until well into next season, perhaps longer, but we know how good Paxton could be if he puts it altogether.

The Cardinals know, too.…

The 2013 minor league season is winding down. A handful of playoff series are concluding over the next few days. The regular season ended nearly two weeks ago. That means it’s time to dole out the annual awards.

These awards are based on prospect status, progress during the year — including some basis on performance — and overall future outlook as a result of what occurred this season.

Pitching Prospect of the Year | Taijuan Walker, RHP
This may seem like a no-brainer, but it wasn’t. Walker is the top overall prospect in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system, and he performed well at three stops this season, including three starts in the big leagues. He’s the top pitching prospect in the organization by a landslide, but Walker had competition in the running for the club’s pitching prospect of the year.

In the end, Walker’s ascension from Double-A Jackson to the big leagues, which was well-timed and well-earned, is a direct result of the combination of natural physical tools and the hard work the just-turned 21-year-old has put in since being the No. 43 overall pick in the 2010 Draft. In three years, he’s gone from raw, athletic and project to a very promising, high-upside potential No. 1 starting pitcher that may not spend any more time in the minors.

In 2013, Walker improved his fastball command, developed a solid cutter that wasn’t introduced to him until last summer, and his curveball is now threatening to become a consistent offering. His changeup is of the hard, splitter-like variety, but it’ also better today than it was a year ago.

We mentioned to Tai that he was our choice for the M’s Pitching Prospect of the Year, and asked him if he was going to Disneyland. He replied “thank you very much” and “no, I’m going to St. Louis!” The kid’s all business when it counts. Sounds similar to another right-hander the M’s grew for themselves, doesn’t it?

Runner-Up | Edwin Diaz, RHP — Pulaski (R)
Diaz dominated the Appalachian League for the Pulaski Mariners, which isn’t saying a whole heckuva lot, but he did so as a 19-year-old in his first full stay in the states after being tabbed in the third round of the 2012 Draft. He’s wiry at 6-foot-2 and under 170 pounds, but his loose, quick arm produces plus velocity into the 93-95 mph range, setting up a promising curveball and a changeup that’s come a long way in just one year.

Others: Tyler Pike, LHP — Clinton (A); Victor Sanchez, RHP — Clinton (A); Dominic Leone, RHP — Jackson (AA); James Paxton, LHP — Seattle (MLB).

Position Prospect of the Year | Brad Miller, SS
He’s graduated out of prospect status after his time in the majors, but Miller may be the only prospect in the system whose ascent to the majors trumps that of Walker’s. Miller, too, started the year in Jackson, and forged his way into the majors by batting .356/.426/.596 in 26 games at Triple-A Tacoma.

In his three stops this season, Miller had combined to hit .290/.352/.433 with 22 doubles, eight triples and 18 home runs in 138 games. He’s drawn 57 walks and struck out 92 times. He’s also continued to develop at shortstop.

I’m not sure Miller will ever be more than an average glove at shortstop, but he has enough arm and athleticism to be passable there, and he’s a tireless worker with good instincts, both attributes which should help seal up some holes as he gains experience.

Perhaps the most impressive statistic for Miller this year is that he hasn’t gone more than three games without a hit in the big leagues, and has just one instance where he went more than two games without reaching base via walk or hit. He hasn’t slumped all year, and as of Friday’s game in St. Louis, he’ll have as many games played — and already has more plate appearances — in the majors as he’s had in the minors in 2013.

Runner-Up | Chris Taylor, SS — Jackson (AA)
Taylor’s calling card as an amateur was his glove, and he’s still playing that part very well as pro. His bat, however, has developed enough to start wondering whether or not he may be more than organizational depth.

He’s a slightly above-average runner with a 55 arm, great hands and feet and a great feel at the plate. His swing still needs a lot of work, but he knows who he is at the plate — not a power hitter, but one that needs to hit line drives and ground balls to have success.

After batting .335/.426/.524 at Advanced-A High Desert, Taylor moved on to Jackson where he continued to hit, finishing the season at .293/.391/.383. He also stole 38 bases in 43 attempts this season.

Taylor isn’t among the top 10 prospects in the system, but on draft day in June of 2012, the thought was that he’d never hit, would dry out in the Southern League and end up Chris Woodward or Brendan Ryan at best. It’s still not likely, per se, and the upside is still limited, but there’s a chance he’s a little bit more than that.

Others: D.J. Peterson, 1B/3B — Clinton (A); Tyler Marlette, C — Clinton (A); James Jones, OF — Tacoma (AAA); Abraham Almonte, OF — Seattle.

Breakthrough Prospect of the Year | Chris Taylor, SS — Jackson (AA)
Taylor, as mentioned above, has made significant strides at the plate and has some scouts believing he’s a future something, rather than a future all-glove, no-hit option to stash in Triple-A in case of injury.

One high-ranking scout of an NL East club said this week that Taylor “has a swing I don’t recognize from two years ago,” and that’s a good thing. There’s better plane and a more purposeful load that could create legit gap power as times passes.

Runner-Up | Gabriel Guerrero, OF — Clinton (A)

Guerrero is a big, strong kid with average athleticism and big bat speed on a swing that generates searing line drives. He’s just scratching the surface in the power department, and he’s still learning to work counts and make more consistent contact — 21 walks, 113 strikeouts in 2013 — but batted .271 despite those deficiencies.

He did bat .306/.42/.395 in 74 games to finish the season, including all four of his home runs on the year. There’s above-average corner outfield upside here, and Guerrero is in the mix for a top 10 spot in the Prospect Insider Handbook.

Others:
Edwin Diaz, RHP — Pulaski (R); Dominic Leone, RHP — Jackson (AA); Stephen Kohlscheen, RHP — Jackson (AA); Tyler Marlette, C — Clinton (A); Jabari Blash, OF — Jackson (AA).

— Jason A. Churchill and Michael Schwartze

Photo of Taijuan Walker by Jeremy Daniel

To accompany the 2013 M’s Prospects of the Year, we’ve also put together the All-Prospects Team for 2013.

Unlike the POY, players that continue to hold onto prospect status qualify, so, for example, Brad Miller is not eligible, despite his being named Prospect Insider’s 2013 Seattle Mariners Prospect of the Year. Nick Franklin also does not qualify.

This is not a top prospects list of any nature.  It’s also not simply a list of players at each position that improved their status the most. It’s the top talents that performed the best and made the most progress, improving their stock and getting closer to the big leagues in the process. It’s not based on statistics and it’s not based on a player being promoted. Those are each results of what matters most — development — the most significant major factor in choosing the All-Prospects Team.

It’s worth noting that a player that conducts such development closer to the majors was given a bit more consideration, but at times the player’s upside and performance — again, not statistics — won out, too.

Pos. Player Levels MiLB Stats
SP Taijuan Walker AA, AAA, MLB 2.93 ERA, 141.1 IP, 57 BB, 160 SO
SP James Paxton AAA, MLB 4.45 ERA, 145.2 IP, 58 BB, 131 SO
SP Edwin Diaz R 1.43 ERA, 69 IP, 18 BB, 79 SO
RP Dominic Leone A, A+, AAA 2.25 ERA, 64 IP, 18 BB, 64 SO
RP Carson Smith AA 1.80 ERA, 50 IP, 17 BB, 71 SO
RP Stephen Kohlscheen AA 2.30 ERA, 66.2 IP, 25 BB, 85 SO
1B Ji-Man Choi A+, AA, AAA .295 AVG/.394 OBP/.535 SLG
2B Tim Lopes A .272 AVG/.315 OBP/.344 SLG
3B D.J. Peterson SS-A, A .303 AVG/.365 OBP/.553 SLG
SS Chris Taylor A+, AA .314 AVG/.418 OBP/.455 SLG
C Tyler Marlette A .304 AVG/.367 OBP/.448 SLG
OF Jabari Blash A+, AA .271 AVG/.387 OBP/.534 SLG
OF Stefen Romero AAA .277 AVG/.331 OBP/.448 SLG
OF Julio Morban AA .295 AVG/.362 OBP/.468 SLG

Despite a less-than-ideal final pitching line, right-hander Taijuan Walker took another step toward the big leagues Thursday, showing progress in a few key areas en route to three great innings, one awful one and one so-so one. At the end of the night, he fanned eight and allowed five runs.

Walker dominated the first three innings and flashed a plus curveball, perhaps the best two I’ve ever seen him throw, to compliment his 88-91 mph cutter and four-seam fastball that teased 97 and sat 92-96.

The bad inning came in the fourth when Walker was up in the zone and lost some balance in his delivery. He hung a curveball that was hit out by former Mariners farmhand Mike Wilson in the third and then gave up several singles in the fourth that led to four more runs. He never lost his cool, however, and fought through some command issues in the fifth to get through the inning unscathed.

Long ball aside, the curveball was better for the most part; he’s had a tendency to telegraph the pitch some, something he didn’t do in this start, and he also flashed a couple of solid changeups to left-handed batters.

In the fifth, after issuing two walks and getting two outs, Walker worked Brandon Allen to a 2-2 count and struck him out on a hard changeup.

Note: I had originally labeled the 2-2 pitch to Allen a cutter, but Walker alerted me that it was a hard change.

Walker showed maturity, a better curveball and the same fastball life and use of his cutter that suggests he’s going to be very good, very soon. He had the bad inning — it happens, and he hadn’t had a hiccup in any of his first four starts in Triple-A — but there were still reasons to love what taking place at Cheney Stadium.

Walker is likely to make his big-league debut next month.

Robbie Erlin
Tucson left-hander Robbie Erlin made the start for the Padres Thursday. He sat 88-90 with his fastball, throwing from a high three-quarters arm slot but creating some arm side run that was effective versus right-handed batters. His curveball, clocked in the 72-75 mph range, showed well above average break, but he didn’t have good command of it in this start.

Erlin’s best pitch was his 80-84 mph changeup, which he threw for called strikes and induced a few swings and misses. His fastball command did him in versus Tacoma, who stacked nine right-handed batters against him, which can be counterproductive versus a changeup left-hander.

Erlin looked like a back-end starter Thursday, but if there’s a firmer fastball in that arm, he possesses the delivery and secondary stuff to be a solid No. 4 as early as 2014.

Notes
Stefen Romero is figuring out left field fairly well, showing better reads on fly balls and better routes to the ball. His arm is fringe-average, but he threw a perfect strike to the place twice Thursday on single to left … Abraham Almonte is a popular question for me on Twitter because he’s putting up solid numbers. He’s a below-average defender in center — perhaps passable, though — but runs well (low 4’s up the line including 3.55 on a drag bunt earlier this homestand), which qualifies as 65 or 70 grade speed. He’s a decent switch hitter, but has well below average power and profiles as a fourth or fifth outfielder … Rehabbing big leaguer Franklin Gutierrez appears 100 percent healthy and is swinging a solid bat for Tacoma. He may not be activated anytime real soon, but he’s closer to being ready at the plate than Michael Morse … Morse’s timing is still way off, suggesting the long layoff has reverted him back to spring training. He needs a few more days, based on what I saw Thursday … Stephen Pryor threw Wednesday and topped out at 90 mph. I’m told that was by design, however, as he’s working through some mild soreness in his right triceps and was just working on his command. He did show off the curveball and slider. He’s still a little ways away … Carter Capps is commanding his fastball — he went Thursday and looked solid — but his breaking ball, as expected, will need more time. He’ll be back in September.…

Seattle Mariners right-hander Taijuan Walker began the 2013 season back in Double-A Jackson where he spent all of 2012 because he needed to improve in several areas and the club correctly deemed the Southern League as the best place for him to take on such tasks. Tuesday, the 20-year-old showed how far he’s come in only four months and why he’s among the very top pitching prospects in all of baseball.

Walker, a sandwich-round selection in 2010 (No. 43 overall), used his stuff, poise beyond his years and a maturity level necessary for the circumstances to toss six shutout frames at the Fresno Grizzlies, allowing three singles and two walks, while striking out four. He threw 87 pitches, 56 for strikes, and for all 87 he appeared to be every bit the phenom he’s been cracked up to be since he burst onto the scene three summers ago as a raw 17-year-old.

The 6-foot-4, 210-pound Walker featured a four-seam fastball that sat 93-95 mph and touched 97, and came to the plate with ferocious downward plane, creating a very heavy ball, one extremely difficult to square up for hitters. He commanded the pitch down all night, missing only below the zone, not up, with some occasional arm side run and natural sink.

He worked his 90-93 mph cutter in often, helping set up a much-improved 71-74 mph curveball that froze batters all night. He sawed off several bats with the four-seamer and cutter and used the curveball with two strikes or to keep the Fresno lineup off balance.

He tossed a half-dozen or so below-average changeups in the mid-80s, but kept it down or away from left-handed batters and one in particular showed some fade, though each lacked sink. He maintained good arm speed on the pitch, but it’s still a ways from being more than a show-me offering.

Walker’s velocity didn’t dip much from the stretch — he sat 93-94 with runners on — and did not let some bad luck get to him. There were 4-6 borderline pitches on which he did not get the call from the home plate umpire, but he went back to work, rather than allowing it to get to him and affect his approach.

The four-seamer induced ground balls and the cutter forced poor contact that resulted in shallow fly ball outs and pop ups, and he did miss some bats with both pitches. His curveball is a full grade better today than in spring training or at any point a year ago, and he’s taken well to the cutter and seems to know how to use it.

Walker’s delivery was very consistent with one exception: He drops his arm slot slightly and opens up early on the curveball, which could be an issue against better hitters and it’s something he’ll need to fix for general consistency purposes, if nothing else, but big leaguers will see it and exploit it.

Walker’s velocity comes free and easy without much effort, which bodes well for his ability to hold that velocity deep — which he did through pitch 87 Tuesday and has done through the low-100s in the past — and if his high three-quarter arm slot can be maintained with the curveball, there’s no reason to believe he won’t max out and become a No. 1 starter. There may even be ace material here, though we’re likely a few years away from that kind of command from Walker.

I came into this start with one objective, which was to remain as objective as possible. Even doing so, it’s difficult to suggest Walker is on a path that will lead to anything but future stardom. That isn’t likely to occur in 2013, and while he’s likely to see the big-league mound in 2014, he may not settle in and succeed at a high level right away. His stuff, athleticism and his apparent acumen for progress may prove me wrong there, however.

He was very crude coming out of high school and in less than three years has gone from high-upside project to elite pitching prospect on the doorstep of the majors. He’s raised the ceiling on all of his grades since then — here’s my 2010 draft-day scouting report on Walker for subscribers — and now the sky is the limit.

After four innings, M’s scouting director Tom McNamara tapped me on the shoulder. I looked back and he gave me a look as if to ask, “so, what do you think so far?” My response?

“I’d be excited if I were you.”

Taijuan Walker is a phenom, and it may not be long before he’s toeing the rubber at Safeco looking to back up a Felix Hernandez gem with one of his own.…

A B C D E
1
NO. PLAYER POS AGE LEVEL
2
1 Kyle Lewis RF 23 A+
3
2 Noelvi Marte 3B 16 NA
4
3 Logan Gilbert RHP 21 NA
5
4 Julio Rodriguez RF 17 DSL
6
5 Evan White 1B 22 A+
7
6 Damon Casetta-Stubbs RHP 18 NA
8
8 Sam Carlson RHP 19 NA
9
7 Josh Stowers CF 21 SS-A
10
8 Braden Bishop CF 24 AA
11
10 Cal Raleigh C 21 NA
12
11 Juan Querecuto SS 17 DSL
13
12 Bryson Brigman SS 23 A+
14
13 Luis Liberato CF 22 A+
15
14 Daniel Vogelbach DH 25 AAA
16
15 Rob Whalen RHP 24 AAA
17
16 Art Warren RHP 25 AA
18
17 Seth Elledge RHR 22 A+
19
18 Matt Festa RHR 25 AA
20
19 Joe Rizzo 3B 20 A+
21
20 Wyatt Mills RHR 23 A+
22
21 Joe DeCarlo C 24 AA
23
22 Jansiel Rivera RF 19 SS-A
24
23 Anthony Jimenez OF 22 A+
25
24 Johendi Jiminian RHP 25 AA
26
25 Ronald Rosario RF 21 SS-A
27
26 Michael Plassmeyer LHP 21 SS-A
28
27 Joey Gerber RHR 21 SS-A
29
28 Eric Filia LF 26 SS-A
30
29 Max Povse RHP 24 AA
31
30 Holden Laws LHP 18 NA
32
31 Joe Rosa 2B 21 A
33
32 Ian Miller CF 26 AAA
34
33 Osiris Castillo SS 17 DSL
35
34 Brayan Perez LHP 17 DSL
36
35 Donnie Walton 2B 24 AA
37
36 Ryne Inman RHP 22 A
38
37 Luis Veloz OF 18 DSL
39
38 Jake Anchia C 21 SS-A
40
39 Joey O'Brien RHR 20 SS-R
41
40 Arturo Guerrero OF 17 DSL