The Seattle Mariners began the season the owners of one of the thinnest farm systems in baseball. The only depth in the organization resides on the mound and all but one of the upside plays there began the season above Advanced-A ball and three of them didn’t start the year assigned to a full-season affiliate.
Player development, the biggest factor in the sinking of the farm system under Jack Zduriencik — a system once ranked among the Top 10, only to fade fast thanks to rush jobs and poor planning — is in the hands of Jerry Dipoto, Andy McKay and a supplemented staff, not a revamped one, in the minors.
Numbers only go so far in determining how well players are progressing. After each month of play down on the farm, Prospect Insider will reassess the top talents.
Here is the pre-season Top 25.
While No. 1 prospect Tyler O’Neill can’t move up in Prospect Insider’s Mariners prospect rankings, he’s done nothing but help his case to remain there regardless of what Alex Jackson does once he’s sent out — which was expected to be early this month, but we’re still waiting. O’Neill, 20, is batting .327/.387/.557 in 27 games for Double-A Jackson, anchoring the Generals’ lineup and leading the Southern League in home runs (6). He’s also second in slugging percentage, fifth in average and 10th in on-base percentage. His 11 walks all have come in the past 21 games and while his 31 strikeouts in 119 plate appearances is a bit high at 26 percent, it’s improved by four percent from a year ago and seven percent from 2014, O’Neill’s first full season in pro ball.
For the record, the walk rate is up more than three percent from last season and the power remains nearly identical.
From a scouting perspective, O’Neill has shown improved plate coverage with noticeable progress in using center field and right-center field, and even the right-field line with extra-base power. He’s still most dangerous to his pull side by a wide margin, but he’s staying back better on offspeed stuff, which allows him a better shot to hit for some average.
O’Neill is a solid-average outfielder, too, fitting well in either corner — he’s played all but one game in right so far — showing a plus arm and above-average jumps. His lateral routes are more natural than this time a year ago and he’s learning to come in on balls more aggressively. He’ll flash the leather on tough catches and is far from afraid to dive for balls, often making the catch.
Andrew Moore came in at No. 13 prior to the season and in a re-rank after a month might slide up a few spots. The right-hander, who does lack upside but makes up for some of that with the highest probability of any starter in the system, has been terrific in the California League in seven starts, boasting a 36-10 K/BB ratio and allowing just 38 total baserunners in 42 2/3 innings.
Moore has gone at least six innings in all but one start — 4 2/3 scoreless innings on April 12 — and he’s missing barrel and entire bats enough with his average fastball, fringy curveball, and average changeup. In 2016, Moore’s curveball has been tighter and the fastball has shown more life above the hitters’ hands.
Boog Powell entered the season at No. 5 overall and hasn’t lost any ground in 29 games at Triple-A Tacoma. He’s all business, and despite lacking power that plays in the big leagues, the outfielder is average or better in all other facets, including defensive range, throwing accuracy, baserunning, raw speed and the overall hit tool.
Powell is batting .283/.364/.354 with six extra-base hits, but I’d bet the farm on a .300/.370 finish to the season. At times, Powell is the toughest out in a very, very good Rainiers lineup and owns the organization’s best strike zone judgment. He’s drawn 15 walks (11.5%) and 19 strikeouts (14.6%), and his work versus left-handed pitching has improved (.273/.333/.303). Powell also is one of few Tacoma regulars not to have thrived on the road at this point. Cheney Stadium is a little more forgiving than the older version of the ballpark, but the winds and overall environments tends to favors pitching the first six weeks or so. Powell, who relies on line drives, is batting .365/.431/.462 at home and has yet to get rolling on the road, suggesting the full-season numbers are legit.
Whether he’s ultimately a very solid and useful fourth outfielder or a regular in center field, Powell will see the majors and his work early in 2016 has only convinced me more.
Honorable Mention: Tim Lopes, 2B
Lopes fell off the Top 25 after a tough 2015 but he’s stronger this season and that strength is helping his plate skills and strike zone judgment produce more solid line drives. He’s always worked counts well, but now his hard-struck balls are getting through for hits.
Lopes can handle second base and at some point may be considered for some left field duty to increase his chances to serve as a reserve in the big leagues. After 28 games in Jacksom, the 21-year-old is batting .303/.387/.358.
D.J. Peterson, 24, was sent back to Double-A Jackson to start the tyear and has been anything but strong over the first month of play. The former first-round pick sits at .241/.297/.361 in 28 games. One scout opines that perhaps Peterson was so thoroughly disappointed in the assignment that no matter how hard he tried to focus there was an “inherited distraction.”
If that’s true, perhaps we can give Peterson a break and look to his past eight games as a potential sign he’s breaking out of the slump. In those eight games, Peterson is 12-for-31 with just one strikeout and three bases on balls.
In a four-game stretch last week, multiple scouts noted Peterson was lunging toward the ball at times, pulling off the ball on the inner half and susceptible to the left-handed changeup. Furthermore, lefties have worked him effectively away all season.
Austin Wilson, No. 19 to start the season, has struggled something fierce in his repeat of Bakersfield and at this stage — Wilson is 24 years old — it appears the big right fielder simply is not going to hit.
The pitch recognition and strike zone judgment hold him back, and his swing has been too erratic to consistently make contact. He’s whiffed nearly 40 percent of the time he’s strolled to the plate and he boasts just seven extra-base hits thus far.
While there’s no reason to completely give up on Wilson, holding your breath no longer is a good idea, not that it ever was, Chris Crawford.
Tyler Marlette batted .286, .304 and .297 in his first three full seasons in pro ball. He struggled in Bakersfield last season, batting .216 in 39 games, but jumped to .258 in 50 games in Double-A. Marlette returned to Bakersfield this season and is scuffling along at .153/.228/.236 with just four extra-base hits.
Power is supposed to be Marlette’s calling card but his attempts to improve his ability to hit for average appear to have robbed him of his extra-base prowess. It doesn’t help that he’s focused very much on improving his chances to catch long term, but I have to wonder if these struggles, like with Peterson, are somewhat mental.
Peterson and Marlette are great tests for the new approach at player development; both should be better, have been better and can be better, let’s see if this year the organization can figure it out with both.
Edwin Diaz came into the season as the club’ top pitching prospect with a chance to be a No, 3 starter in time. Over the weekend, the organization decided to push Diaz to the Generals’ bullpen, almost certainly to give Diaz a chance to contribute in the big leagues this season. While it’s not necessarily a permanent move — it shouldn’t be — it’s one that actually increases Diaz’s chances to help, while speeding up his timetable to the majors.
Diaz was firing on all cylinders, making six starts and compiling a 38-5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. In a starting role, he pitches comfortably in the 91-94 mph range, setting up an above-average slider that flashes plus. His changeup still grades below average but he’s willing to throw it more now than ever before, and his arm speed is more consistent than a year ago.
In relief, Diaz’s fastball-slider combo may play up enough where he’s sitting 94 mph or better, perhaps touching 97, and the slider could prove more consistently sharp. In the interim, whether that’s this season only or goes into next season the way the Chicago White Sox handled Chris Sale and the Toronto Blue Jays with Aaron Sanchez, Diaz may be asked to focus on attacking hitters with his best two pitches while continuing his attempts to get stronger, which is something he’ll need if he wants to start long term, and refining his command.
1. Edwin Diaz, RHP (AA to AAA)
As soon as Diaz thrives for a few weeks in his new role, it’s likely he gets moved to Tacoma to continue his trek.
2. Andrew Moore, RHP (A+ to AA)
Moore may replace Diaz on the Jackson roster, so keep an eye on his next 3-4 starts. They could be his last in Bakersfield.
3. Stefen Romero, OF/1B (AAA to MLB)
There’s no room right now, but Romero’s ready for a shot to contribute in a platoon-type role.
4. Blake Parker, RHP (AAA to MLB)
Parker may be the most likely to see the big leagues next with the attrition rate of the bullpen thus far. He’s throwing the ball well and now has his first back-to-back under his belt following a lost season in 2015 due to elbow surgery.
5. James Paxton, LHP (AAA to MLB)
In a starting role, there’s no room for Paxton. All five M’s starters are on solid ground, perhaps none more so than Taijuan Walker and Nate Karns, the club’s No. 4 and 5 starters. Paxton has been really good of late, though, tallying 25 punchies in his last 24 1/3 innings while issuing just one base on balls. He’s made some adjustments, and they’ve worked. Whether he, too, is a relief option at some point this season remains to be seen, but with no room in the rotation until the club looks for ways to curb the workload of both Walker and Karns or until attrition hits the first five, Paxton likely stays in the Tacoma rotation. Come August, though, he’s likely to get starts or be inserted into the big-league bullpen, simply to have the best arms in the majors.
6. Emilio Pagan, RHP (AA to AAA)
He’s 90-94 mph with a plus slider and deception. September call-up candidate.
7. Guillermo Heredia, CF (AA to AAA)
He’s coachable, energetic and has four tools that play.
8. Chris Taylor, SS (AAA to MLB)
Like Romero, Taylor is a victim of the numbers game and while I don’t buy the swing in the majors, Taylor can play shortstop and is improving his contact skills.
9. Mike Zunino, C (AAA to MLB)
Zunino is actually hitting his first slump of the season, so let’s see how he deals with that as it’s an important part of his development this year. Once he’s rebounded and shows he can deal with all the breaking stuff down and away and all the fastballs on the outer half (he’ll need some hits to his backside), there will be no reason to keep him in the minors. We’re a ways away, though, but so far, so good.
10. Tyler Herb, RHP (A+ to AA)
Herb is throwing his offspeed stuff for strikes and commanding his fastball well, which has led to a 41-8 K/BB ration in Bakersfield in 31 innings of work. He pounds the lower half of the zone well, inducing ground balls with his sinking fastball and changeup, which plays well in the Cal League. Herb has touched 94 mph in the past but pitches regularly in the low 90s, getting swings and misses up in the zone versus right-handed batters thanks to good armside run. A challenging promotion is likely ahead for Herb later this summer.
Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016.
Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.
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