10 Seattle Mariners Prospects Who Could Make 2012 Opening Day Roster
There isn't a whole lot of certainty about what the Mariners' starting lineup for the 2012 season will look like. Yes, Felix Hernandez will be on the mound and Dustin Ackley will probably play at second base, but we can't take much else for granted.
It's likely that Manager Eric Wedge will keep the starting lineup relatively similar to the one we saw at the end of the 2011 season, but we'll definitely get some surprises as spring training rolls around in March.
The lack of consistency in the structure of last year's lineup coupled with the lack of consistency in a lot of players currently on the roster equates to a much-increased chance that some hot prospects will hit the bigs on Opening Day.
Obviously, there isn't room for 10 prospects to be called up, but a few of the players in the minor league system have a shot at making the cut come April.
Here's a look at the 10 prospects on the Mariners who have the best shot at making the 2012 Opening Day roster in order of increasing likelihood.
(If a player has had fewer than 50 AB or IP in the majors, I'm going to consider him a prospect since a stint that short is really only a closer look for management.)
RHP Taijuan Walker
Photo Courtesy of MLB.com
Taijuan Walker is one of the top-ranked prospects in the Mariners organization. He's been terrorizing Single-A hitting with the Clinton LumberKings, holding opposing hitters to a minuscule .202 batting average last year.
He has enormous potential as a starting pitcher, but he's still just 19, with a lot to learn about pitching. GM Jack Zduriencik and the team will not want to rush him into the majors if he isn't ready, but the 2012 rotation for the Mariners is definitely not set in stone as of now.
The only real shot Walker has at making the 2012 Opening Day roster is if both the pitchers higher up on this list and the ones who are currently on the major league roster suddenly drop off. Right—a huge "if."
Looking at the rest of the prospect field, however, you'll notice that it isn't teeming with players who are ready to burst onto the big-league scene.
3B Vinnie Catricala
Photo Courtesy of MiLB.com
Vinnie Catricala, apart from having a major league worthy name, probably isn't ready just yet for the bigs. He's in the same sort of spot as Walker: lots of talent that probably needs a little more taming before it can be harnessed for its full potential.
And no one wants to miss out on the full potential of a guy who hit a combined .349 last year with 25 HR, 106 RBI and 17 stolen bases in high Single-A and Double-A play.
Another similarity between Walker and Catricala is their placements in the "position queue." In other words, Catricala has a few guys ahead of him in line at third. With that in mind, Catricala scores about the same odds as Walker.
LHP Mauricio Robles
If Robles hadn't had to undergo elbow surgery at the beginning of the 2011 season, he may have already started pitching out of the Mariners' bullpen. Unfortunately, that set him back, and it's been a rough road to recovery.
Robles didn't post the most attractive stats during that span, but by the end of spring training, he should be back to where he would've been before the surgery.
So where would he fit in with the major league squad? Robles could be a set-up man for whichever closer Wedge ends up choosing (could Brandon League stick around?), or he could be a starter. The starter position, however, has more depth, and Robles is less conditioned for that spot.
3B Francisco Martinez
Photo Courtesy of MLB.com
The only things holding Francisco Martinez back from reaching the majors are his youth and inexperience. Martinez, who came over in the Doug Fister trade with the Detroit Tigers, has been consistently solid at the plate.
He isn't loaded with power, but the Mariners' hitting needs help all around. Since Martinez is just recently 21, it's more likely that he'll be given time to develop in the minors, but there's still a decent chance he'll make the Opening Day roster.
SS Nick Franklin
Photo Courtesy of MLB.com
Franklin is one of the highest-ranked prospects in the Mariners system. He displayed an ability to hit for power last season in Double-A, while improving on his weaknesses, which all essentially boil down to plate discipline.
He's still a young hitter, so a little more time in the low-pressure situations of Double-A would probably benefit him, but he has shown unpredictability in the relationship between his level of play and the level of competition (i.e. the specific farm level).
The current SS situation for the M's has Brendan Ryan first in the depth chart with Kyle Seager next. Ryan may be used as a trade token though, and Seager may spend more time as a utility infielder/designated hitter. That leaves some space for Franklin, but like I said, Jack Z might decide that it'd be better for him to develop a bit more in the minors.
OF Chih-Hsien Chiang
Photo Courtesy of MLB.com
Chiang came over from the Boston Red Sox in the Erik Bedard trade last July that also involved the LA Dodgers. The trade was deemed by most as favorable for the Mariners since they also acquired Trayvon Robinson, who has yet to pan out, but has a power upside that will aid in the rescue of the Mariners' last-place hitting.
Chiang didn't seem to have any problem killing the ball in Double-A Portland while he was a part of the Red Sox. When he transferred to Jackson after the trade, his production dropped, but he's still on Jack Z's A-List.
Wedge did indicate that he might have Mike Carp play in left though. If Ichiro stayed in right, that leaves just center field open, and there are lots of other viable candidates for the spot (Trayvon Robinson, Franklin Gutierrez if he's still around, Casper Wells, Carlos Peguero [haha]).
That competition could come down to spring training.
3B Alex Liddi
Here's the first "prospect" that played on the Mariners last year. Since Liddi had only 40 at-bats, however, I still consider him a prospect. And even though Liddi didn't make a Pineda-sized splash in those 40 at-bats, there's still reason to believe he has the stuff to man the hot corner for the M's.
Competition for Liddi potentially includes Kyle Seager, Francisco Martinez and Chone Figgins. Seager had a bit of a longer look in the majors last year, but he didn't demonstrate with any vigor to Jack Z or Wedge that he should be the everyday third baseman.
I'm hoping Figgins and his bloated contract get dumped somewhere before the winter meetings—or at least the offseason—come to a close.
RHP Chance Ruffin
Ruffin also saw some time in the majors last year. First with the Tigers, and then with the M's (he, too, came over in the Fister trade as the PTBNL). He pitched a combined 18 innings with a 4.08 ERA and a 9.2 K/9 ratio.
If League is sent away in a trade this offseason, Ruffin could be the new closer in Seattle. If League stays, he will likely keep his role, and Ruffin would get the job as set-up man or just short-reliever. Either way, it's fairly likely he'll start the season listed on the major league roster.
LHP James Paxton
James Paxton is ready to come up. He's 23 now, after spending last year and a portion of 2010 in the minors. His stats have only become more promising as he's scaled the farm ladder, and there's an open spot in the Mariners starting rotation.
Felix, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas are currently the only pitchers who have essentially locked up spots in the starting rotation, and it's unlikely any of them will be traded. That leaves two spots—or three if Wedge opts to start with a six-man rotation—up for grabs.
Paxton's competition will be Blake Beavan, Charlie Furbush, Anthony Vasquez and Danny Hultzen. The first three all got a chance at the end of last year to lock into a rotation spot, but none of them were particularly successful.
Danny Hultzen is another story, but I expect Jack Z and Wedge will be giving all of them a fair look during spring training.
LHP Danny Hultzen
When I say Hultzen's another story, I really mean he's the story. Hultzen was the Mariners' first-round, second overall draft pick in the 2011 MLB draft.
Advantages to including Hultzen in the 2012 starting rotation include his left-handedness, his size and his Arizona Fall League performance. The Mariners' two aces—that's right, we have two aces—are both right-handed. Adding a lefty who has similar size and power would add a lot of depth to the rotation.
Is this the beginning of the next Big Three? Yes. Yes, it is.