Seattle Mariners: 10 Prospects Who Could Surprise in Spring Training
The future of the Mariners rides on their minor league system.
Technically speaking, that statement makes sense for any team, but the Mariners will be depending on their farm teams pretty heavily this year for players to fill the major-league roster. Luckily, General Manager Jack Zduriencik has them stocked very nicely.
Here are 10 prospects who could be pleasant surprises in Spring Training (which starts in 10 days for the M's!).
Chih-Hsien Chiang, who came over from the Boston Red Sox last year in the Erik Bedard trade, played all of 2011 in Double-A, first with Boston's affiliate in Portland and then with the Jackson Generals for Seattle.
In 88 games with Portland he hit 18 home runs and posted a sensational 1.050 OPS. After transferring to Jackson, however, his production dropped considerably: in 32 games, he failed to hit a home run and only managed a meager .517 OPS.
Those statistics could be taken as discouraging, but they also set Chiang up for a comeback in Spring Training.
With Franklin Gutierrez coming back at 100% health, Ichiro still projected to start in right field and Mike Carp being bumped from the DH spot (by Jesus Montero), the starting outfield looks to be at full capacity. But with a lot of depth in the position, the team will probably carry at least two backup outfielders on the active roster.
If Chiang brings his best stuff to Spring Training, one of those spots could be his, but that would be a surprise, albeit a pleasant one.
At this point, the Mariners' starting rotation is probably the biggest uncertainty for the team. Felix Hernandez, yes. Jason Vargas, almost definitely. But who else?
Well, there are a number of guys who could assume starting responsibilities, some of whom saw time at the end of last year, and others who have yet to make a major league start.
In the first category, we have Charlie Furbush, Blake Beavan and Anthony Vasquez. Collectively and individually, they looked pretty rough last August and September, but Beavan showed some potential, and things could flip around this Spring.
The second category holds James Paxton and a couple of other guys that will appear later.
(Also, there is a third miscellaneous category with free agent signing Kevin Millwood and Japanese veteran Hisashi Iwakuma.)
Paxton's performance in two years since being drafted in the fourth round of the 2010 draft can best be described as stellar. He's quickly moved up through the minors, and his quality of pitching increases with the level of play.
After a midseason promotion to Double-A last year, he pitched seven games, going 3-0 with a 1.85 ERA and an astronomical 11.2 K/9 ratio. He has shown every sign of readiness for the next level, so he'll certainly be in contention for a rotation spot this Spring.
If he continues to pitch so well against the next level of talent during Spring Training, it would be a welcome treat.
Ramirez is the first of the "other two players" I was talking about who are in a situation similar to James Paxton. Ramirez started 2011 with a promotion to Double-A after he tormented opponents in Single-A Clinton in 2010.
After 19 consistent, but not wholly impressive starts with Jackson, Ramirez got called up to Triple-A Tacoma. In seven games at that level, he went 3-2 with a 5.10 ERA, but that's pretty solid considering the midseason adjustment that he was required to make.
The fact that he was pulled up to Triple-A means someone important likes the way Ramirez pitches, seeing as Paxton didn't even rise above Double-A last year.
He's a young gun at just 21 years old, but he has a developed arm that ought to be able to hold up to high-caliber hitters.
Ramirez will definitely get a good look during Spring Training, and while a major league spot is by no means reserved for him, he could surprise and make the cut.
And here is the final of the three true prospects looking to make an impact in Peoria in March.
Danny Hultzen was drafted second overall by the Mariners in the 2011 draft for his major-league readiness (this expression has become hackneyed, but it aptly describes Hultzen), so he can't be ruled out of contention for a starting spot.
In fact, he might be one of the frontrunners for the fifth spot in the rotation, even with just a few games of major-league experience in the Arizona Fall League.
He has a quickly developing arsenal that could get him going against fresh hitters at the beginning of the season—since they won't have seen his stuff...we'll call it the Pineda effect—and his potent potential could carry him through the rest of an innings-limited season.
This is Hultzen's first year out of college though, so an experience like the one I've just described would be perhaps a bit surprising.
I still love this guy's name.
Since Brandon League signed for another year at $5 million, a spot on the roster for Ruffin is a little less cemented, but I still see him making the bullpen.
The team isn't overflowing with options for relievers (since Jack Z's been trading them off pretty regularly over the past few years), and Ruffin has the makings of a future closer.
What I would like to see is for Ruffin to solidify himself this Spring as a set-up man for League, and then when League ships out (I'd bet before the deadline because he's a top closer in the league, and the Mariners probably won't keep playing into October this year), Ruffin can adjust into the closer role.
He's only 23, so he could become a franchise closer, not just another trade token in the rebuilding phase.
So there's a chance Ruffin flops, but I think we can expect a nice surprise in March.
Here's a young, promising prospect who will likely be a part of the Mariners' future success. Nick Franklin is a 20 year old shortstop with admirable determination and a natural ability at the plate.
His glove is a slight concern, but he knows that defense is an important quality on the Mariners, so he'll be working diligently to get up to (and hopefully above) par.
Franklin's hitting style is comparable to Dustin Ackley's which is good news because Ackley hit well during his time in the majors last year. Franklin is a bit behind Ackley in the development phase, but I'd bet we see him in June in a call-up scenario just like Ackley's last year.
On Opening Day, current shortstop Brendan Ryan will probably maintain his incumbency unless Franklin explodes in Spring Training. Ryan is one of if not the best defensive shortstop in the league, which is pretty important in a position like shortstop, so his value remains pretty high, especially since he can also put bat on ball respectably.
But, like I said, if Franklin surprises us this Spring, notching up his defense and picking up where he left off in Double-A, he has a shot at the 25-man roster.
Jack Z will want to be careful though, since Franklin is a highly regarded prospect across the board. He may go through a long phase in Double-A this year before he sees any major league time.
Francisco Martinez is a 21-year-old third baseman who came over from the Detroit Tigers last July in the exchange for Doug Fister.
Unlike Chih-Hsien Chiang, Martinez's numbers improved after switching to Jackson. He hit above .300 and generated some runs. He isn't the most likely candidate for the starting spot at third, but he is in the running, along with Kyle Seager, Chone Figgins and Alex Liddi.
Martinez has played at third pretty much exclusively so far, so a utility position is unlikely.
Ultimately, we probably won't see Martinez on the active roster, but he could easily give us a nice surprise in the upcoming exhibition games.
Liddi played up on the Mariners last September, but he only had 40 at-bats—it was really just a quick end-of-season look for Manager Eric Wedge and Jack Z. He showed that he can hit, but that, at that point, he was still unrefined.
He surprised us once by becoming the first player in the MLB to be born and raised Italian, so he can surprise us again next month. The question is: will he be able to outshine teammates Kyle Seager and Chone Figgins?
In addition to a decent performance at the end of last year, Seager has generated interest around the league, so Jack Z may use him to leverage another young pitcher.
Figgins was pretty disappointing in 2011, but he's a veteran player who I can see catching fans off guard with a return to his level of play from his leadoff days with the LA Angels.
This, along with the starting pitcher bout, will be one of the most interesting competitions of this year's Spring Training.
This guy hit 32 homers and posted a .315 average in 2010 with Single-A Advanced. He came over in the trade back in 2009 that sent Brandon Morrow to the Toronto Blue Jays and that also gave us Brandon League (good deal, eh?).
After a promotion last year to Double-A, he experienced a big drop-off, but he still showed a strong power upside. Chavez has similarities to Carlos Peguero, but he's shown more discipline at the plate and has less of a proclivity to strike out.
I doubt Chavez will start the season in Seattle, but he could tear up opposing pitching in March, sending out a warning to other teams in the Cactus League that the M's have revamped their offense and are on the brink of contending for a championship.
I guess we would only be surprised by Montero if he didn't live up to our expectations, which, at this point, are set pretty high.
Montero will likely take the DH spot on the major league roster, hitting from the heart of the order along with Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and the platoon catchers (Miguel Olivo and John Jaso). He only has a touch of major league experience, but it was pretty fun to watch him kill the ball at Yankee Stadium.
Things will be different with the dauntingly vast outfield of SAFECO Field in Montero's way of a home run, but as one of the most highly-touted hitting prospects, he ought to be able to adapt.
It's possible that some mishap like a freak injury could occur involving Montero this Spring, but let's hope for no surprises regarding Montero...just frequent long balls and good baseball.
Ten days until pitchers report!