The Seattle Mariners are getting a boost at the big league level this season from the performances of Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda. Those two young guns are bringing a lot of excitement to the fan base, but who are the other players in the organization that will help the Mariners turn from pretender to contender in the American League West?
Let's take a look at the top 10 prospects in the organization.
Marcus Littlewood—the Mariners second pick in last June's draft out of a Utah high school—signed late in 2010 and stayed in Instructionals all season. This season, he was initially assigned to the Clinton LumberKings in the Midwest League, but after struggling to a .158/.236/.211 start, he was sent back to Peoria to work things out in extended Spring Training, presumably with an assignment to the short season Everett Aquasox to follow.
Littlewood offers an advanced approach, switch-hitting, medium pop, an advanced defensive tool-set at shortstop and fantastic instincts. He'll likely eventually move to third base, but the 19-year old has great makeup and comes from a baseball family. Best case scenario for Littlewood is that he gets the bat going and can hit enough to garner a look at third for the 2014 Mariners.
Mauricio Robles—a stocky left-handed pitcher—was obtained from the Detroit Tigers in the Jarrod Washburn trade in 2009. He is currently recovering from minor off-season surgery, but when he is healthy, Robles' repertoire is impressive: a fastball that has reached the upper 90s at times, a tight breaking curve, an improving changeup and a sinking fastball or cutter that he also mixes in.
If he can regain his form once he returns from injury, Robles could be a possible contender for either a rotation or bullpen spot in 2012 for the Mariners.
I like James Jones a lot, but I'm not as bullish on him as some, as a well known ESPN analyst opened some eyes with where he ranked Jones this past offseason. Many in the baseball world fancied him a left-handed pitcher when the 2009 draft came around, but the Mariners saw Jones as an outfielder all along.
He hit well through his first two pro seasons for the Mariners, but has struggled so far this season in the hitter friendly California League and has yet to tally a homerun in 2011.
He is very athletic in the outfield and, of course, has a great throwing arm, but strikeouts are starting to become a problem. If he can refine his strike-zone judgment and regain the power stroke, the 22-year old Jones could be a very nice outfield corner option for Seattle, possibly in 2013.
James Paxton has first round talent, in fact, he was taken 37th overall by the Blue Jays in 2009, but the left-hander and his agent, Scott Boras, failed to reach a contract agreement with Toronto prior to the deadline.
Since he had hired an agent, the junior couldn't return to Kentucky to complete his college career and (following a lawsuit) instead Paxton turned to the Independent Leagues and then re-entered the 2010 draft.
The concerns over his demands and the extended layoff from top competition allowed him to slip to the fourth round, where the Mariners gobbled him up and actually ended up signing him for a reasonable bonus.
The left-handed starter sits in the mid 90s and can reach the upper 90s on occasion, and he also throws a good slider, a curveball and a change up that is still a work in progress. Now that he is in pro ball (Clinton in the Midwest League) and facing top competition, he figures to move quickly and could make it to the big leagues by mid-2012.
Kyle Seager was labeled as too slow with not enough power and no real defensive position when he was drafted out of the University of North Carolina.
But you know what?
The kid can hit, and the organization appears to really like him. He led the entire minor leagues in hits and runs last season while hitting .345 and he hasn't slowed down any this season.
His well balanced left-handed bat offers a patient, line drive, moderate gap power all over the field approach and he has held his own at second base. Results sometimes overrule scouting, and Seager may be one of those cases. He could make it to the majors with the Mariners as early as late 2012 in a utility role.
Obtained in the Brandon Morrow trade, Johermyn Chavez was voted as having the best outfield arm in the California League last season and he has the best right-handed power bat in the entire system for Seattle. Though he tends to get a little pull happy, getting out front and leading to strikeouts, he does have plus raw power to all fields.
While the strikeouts could be a problem and he doesn't have ideal instincts in the outfield, I am a firm believer in the bat and think that he has a future as a corner outfield option and middle-of-the-order bat in the major leagues. He still needs time to develop his approach and batting eye but, by mid-2013, I think he will be ready for a major league role.
Taijuan Walker was drafted out of a California high school, where he was an all-world athlete across multiple sports. The M's see a lot of promise in "Sky" Walker's right arm, which they feel could develop into front-of-the-rotation material with time. Time, because Walker is only 18-years old and has just 19 2/3 pro innings under his belt at this point.
He has a great frame (6'4" and 200 lbs) and is pretty good mechanically for a high school draftee. He has a mid-90s fastball with good sinking movement and a big breaking curveball that he can get outs with now.
As with most high school arms, he hasn't had to really develop any other pitches to succeed at this point, so the rest of the arsenal will develop as Walker moves through the system. Best case scenario probably lands Walker in the big leagues in late 2014 or spring 2015, but many feel he has top-of-the-rotation ability.
Carlos Triunfel had taken quite a dive in all of the various prospect rankings over the past few seasons as he had failed to perform up to his potential and many felt he had a work ethic-issue. But I had the opportunity to see him first-hand this spring for the first time and I was very impressed.
The tools are off the charts and there is no doubt in my mind that he can stick at shortstop. And with that, the issue of how much power is in the bat becomes much less of an issue.
Though he has seemingly been on prospect lists forever, Triunfel is still a prospect to watch for Seattle. He has lightning quick bat speed, makes great contact and this season he has an improved approach and is finally starting to show the power that scouts thought was in there when he signed way back in 2006.
Come 2013, the question may be who the short stop is: Triunfel, or...
Mariners fans hated this pick. Everyone hated this pick. The 27th overall pick in the 2009 draft on a high school shortstop with no apparent plus tools? No one thought that Nick Franklin would be a prospect. And no one thought that he would lead the Midwest League in home runs as a skinny 19-year old. But guess what...he did, and he is a legit prospect.
The switch-hitting Franklin needs some work defensively—though he has good range and plenty of arm—and he still isn't hitting left-handers well (though he is already showing improvements this season), but he is just getting started in his pro baseball career. He is showing a better approach, leading to more walks and fewer strike outs, although the power hasn't shown itself as often thus far.
If Franklin can sustain the surprising hitting prowess he has shown and continue to improve his plate discipline and defense, there is no reason to doubt he could be up with the Mariners late next season or early 2013, possibly as the starter at short.
Dustin Ackley was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft behind Stephen Strasburg and he came into pro ball with the label of "most polished college hitter in a decade." But when he struggled with the bat and the switch to second base, the doubters began to appear. He, of course, has turned things around in a big way, obliterated pitching in the Arizona Fall League on the way to that circuit's MVP award and has caught fire again this season.
A call to the big league squad is coming very soon and Ackley's potent line-drive bat and advanced plate approach should be a very welcome addition to the punchless Mariners offense. And in my opinion, the concerns over his defense at second base are simply nitpicking...he'll be just fine there, and the bat will carry him regardless.