"Hey! You said that Kirby Arnold's was the last in the series!"
Ok, I goofed. I had totally forgotten that Jay Yencich was scheduled to drop his on me late last week. So, I guess we get one more than we planned! Isn't that a shame? This IS the very last one though.
Of course, the real shame would be if you saw the name and asked yourself "Jay who?". Jay Yencich has been a long time contributor here at Mariner Central and has gone by the pen-name "JFromSeattle" (I can hear the collective "oh, ya!" all the out here in Colorado). Jay is the author of the blog Mariners Minors, the place EVERYONE should stroll into once the minor league season gets underway. Seriously, the guy is keen!
1 - 8 out of the 9 Mariner minor league affiliates make the post-season in 2010. Fluke?
It all depends on what your expectations are, particularly considering the sheer number of teams that make the postseason in the minor leagues. If you think that this means our system is a powerhouse in the making, whoops? Weíre not quite there yet. If you think that we happened to field good teams for the level they were at, youíre closer to the truth.
Towards the middle to end of the season, I started getting some lovely comments from people that did not take kindly to my claim that the Everett Aquasox were not that interesting. At this time, the Aquasox were in the middle of their playoff run and well on the way to the league title and breaking all kinds of team records. The trouble is that at a variety of levels, you can win without fielding prospects, just as you can win it all with teams that have a fair number of prospects (hello, 2003 San Antonio Missions). The Everett Aquasox were the second oldest team in the league, right behind the Tri-City Dust Devils. Yoervis Medina and Stephen Pryor were the teamís only two representatives in Baseball Americaís Northwest League Top 20. Does this mean we stop paying attention to guys like Robbie Anston or Kevin Rivers or Anthony Fernandez? Certainly not. A lot can happen in a few years.
That said, even if it doesnít make a whole lot of difference to the evaluators, it does mean something to the players. Most of them would take winning over not winning. Winning is a proven morale booster. I canít possibly be making this up.
2 - Who surprised you with a good performance in 2010?
There were a number of positive surprises for me this season, Iíd say. Tenbrink was the big one for me, because I donít think many people saw him improving just about every aspect of his offensive game like he did this year. He deserved that double-A promotion, though Iíll talk a little more about him later.
Two other Mavericks caught my eye this season as well. The one I probably like the better of the two is Kyle Seager, who came in with a reputation with the bat, but plenty of questions about position. He manned second base for most of the season, ran off that thirty-two game hit streak, led the minors in hits, and ranked fifth in the league in walks. I think of him more as a utility guy with Ackley and Franklin ahead of him, but you canít really complain about a competent, left-handed hitting utility infielder. The other would be Johermyn Chavez, whom I thought of as pretty one-dimensional player coming into the system, but he improved his power output and his walks while cutting down on strikeouts ever so slightly in 2010. That said, Iím not ready to trust him yet because about three-quarters of his dingers came at home, heís just someone that Iím more intrigued by than I used to be.
I guess one would also have to mention Kevin Rivers, who nearly led the Northwest League in all the slash line categories. Not bad at all for a NDFA. In his case, though, Iíd like to see him pushed and end up with the Mavericks to start the season, eyeing a promotion to double-A late in the year. If he pulls that off, heíll do a lot to establish his legitimacy.
For pitching, geez, who saw Anthony Vasquez, Tom Wilhelmsen, or Forrest Snow coming? Each have their own questions attached, because Vasquez is mostly a finesse guy, Wilhelmsen is older and still trying to build a track record after a long time off, and Snow was late draft pick who tore it up as a reliever when there was little to think heíd have the success that heís had. Honorable mention would probably go to Erasmo Ramirez, who really held his own in the jump from the VSL to the Midwest League. His command probably keeps him in conversations even without elite stuff.
3 - Who surprised you with a bad performance in 2010?
Sometimes, in this business, you hate being right. After the í09 season, I pointed to Joe Dunigan as a guy who probably wasnít as good as people thought he was, the overall inconsistencies in his game dragging down what seemed to be a fine sum of parts otherwise. Well, he hit .214/.289/.371 in eighty-one games for West Tenn this year, so I think I can say I nailed that one.
The other hitter that really had me feeling down by the seasonís end was Mario Martinez. He finally got his full season in the Midwest League and he just didnít do anything much with it at all. He can still pick it over there at the hot corner, but that was easily his worst offensive season on record, and he had been trending positively before that.
A lot of other guys happened to get injured or struggled at bad times. Nick Hill went from sleeper prospect to completely off the radar for most people after his stint in West Tenn. Julio Morban lost yet another season to injuries, and made a lot of us who were previously supporters of his look silly (not nearly as silly as Jharmidy deJesus backers though). The one that probably hit me the hardest were the bad seasons from two right-handers that I had as pretty deep sleepers in the system in Nolan Diaz and Jean Tome. Diaz was worse in every category in his second run at the Appalachian League and Tome got injured and had apparently retired by seasonís end, so now I have to find another Brazilian prospect to pay attention to (donít let me down, Felipe Burin).
Iíd mention Josh Fields and Carlos Triunfel, but that would be kicking both while theyíre down at this point.
4 - Who do you have your sights set on in the 2011 draft?
At this point, there are three big names that people are talking about. The first one is Rendon, who isnít on the level of Harper or Strasburg, but is still a pretty clear cut number one as a college hitter out of a good program. The ankle issues probably donít derail him any, nor does the fact that heís a third baseman and the Pirates already have Pedro Alvarez, as Alvarez has a reasonable chance to move to first. The ankles are also the only knock you have on Rendon: heís a plus defender at third, with good hands and a strong throwing arm, he has great plate discipline (22/65 K/BB), he slugged .801 last season, and works hard. Thereís really nothing one can complain about from him, heís just that good, and the Pirates would pass up on him at their own peril.
Beyond Rendon, the top five or so looks to be pretty heavy on pitching at this point. Gerrit Cole, who spurned the Yankees to go to UCLA a few years ago, is one of the top names that gets mentioned. Heíll top out at 98, but tends to sit in the 92-4 range and complements his heater with a slider and a change-up which both grade well. In 123.0 innings for the Bruins last year, he held hitters to a .205 average, but his command is still not a strong suit, as he ran a 153/52 K/BB. The Mariners seemed to have scouted him a bit out of high school as they ended up drafting and signing his teammate, Brandon Maurer, who could break with Clinton this year. From that angle alone, Iíd kind of like to see him in an Mís uniform because it does provide us something to talk about.
The other potential pitcher to go off the board first would be Matt Purke, a left-hander out of Texas Christian. Purke is a draft-eligible sophomore whom the Rangers were unable to sign out of high school, or rather, MLB voided the deal and they werenít allowed to sign him. His command is a lot better than Coleís and he had a 142/34 K/BB in 116.1 innings for the Horned Frogs last season. His velocity is already in the mid-90s and he has a knockout slider and a quality change-up.
Given the fact that Safeco favors left-handed pitchers, and we donít have too many of those starting that have high potential long-term, Iíd probably go with Purke. That it indirectly screws over the Rangers after the fact is merely a bonus. However, if Cole was our guy, I wouldnít complain.
5 - Can you explain the rationale behind Greg Halman starting the year at Tacoma, and then getting a September call up? Was he being showcased?
The handling of Halman has been a story in and of itself throughout. Back when he was being ranked number one overall in the system, there were rumors going around that the Mís scouting people pushed for him pretty hard. Of course, the following season he was awful and couldnít crack a .700 OPS despite hitting twenty-five home runs.
The Mariners have invested a lot of time and effort into getting him back on track after 2009. When we look at Halman, we have to understand that prior to signing him in 2004, he had basically been a baseball prodigy in the Netherlands, a triple crown contender on his entrance in the league. His first couple of professional years were his first experiences with failure as a baseball player, and it wasnít until he returned to Everett in 2007 after a rough go at Wisconsin that things started to click for him. Halmanís 2008 season got him on the charts, but he wasnít able to follow it up, and the confidence issues came back with a vengeance. In response to this, the Mariners had him working with Roger Hansen, whoís normally in employ for catching purposes, to try to get him back on track, or at least away from the boom or bust tendencies of old. Hansen even made a few trips to the Netherlands to meet with Halmanís family and the like. I tend to view the Tacoma assignment and call-up in September as an extension of that, furthering the ends of making Halman feel good about himself and what heís doing.
Whether this is actually paying dividends or not is hard to say at this point. We saw from this season something resembling a partial return to form, with thirty+ home runs and increase in walk totals (the highest of his career, despite having the fewest plate appearances of any full-season), but the strikeouts remained static and his batting average was still around .240. Still, itís probably easier to get a player to focus on improving his weaknesses when his strengths are working for him already.
6 - Who is due for a breakout season in 2011?
In spite of the fact that we didnít reload on high-level pitching as much as we might have liked in the draft (Ryne Stanek, Jon Keller, and Tyler Linehan went unsigned), most of the players I would point to as potential breakout candidates would be the arms. Brandon Maurer, whom I mentioned before, is a guy that gets talked up a bit as one such arm. He only pitched 15.1 innings during the regular season last year due to minor injuries, but logged 48.0 innings for the Adelaide Bite of the Australian Baseball League this winter, and in the last 26.0 innings, only allowed eight hits and ran a 25/5 K/BB in that span. He throws a hot fastball with a lot of sink to it, so if heís healthy and his other offerings start to work, he could move onto the radar pretty quickly.
A few other guys are worthy of mention here. As pitchers go, people have said good things about Vicente Campos, who dominated the VSL last year, and Steve Landazuri, who was signed by the same guy who signed Taijuan Walker (and a number of Royals top prospects when he worked for them). From the hitting end, we have OF James Jones, who hit .321/.387/.487 after the all-star break for the Clinton Lumberkings. Iím not quite so high on him as most people are because, even though his strikeout rate improved greatly in the second-half, his walk rate dropped significantly.
7 - What is the strongest non-pitching position in the Mariners minor league system?
At this point, Iíd probably say that itís the third base position, bolstered by a few different breakout seasons. Ramon Morla was probably the most significant of the bunch. Heís been a little slow to get going in the summer leagues, but his season in Pulaski has put him on the map and he has strong tools across the board that make him a fine candidate to stick at the position. Iíd like Morla to walk a bit more like he did in 2007 and 2008 and curb the strikeouts a bit, but hopefully both will come in time.
The other two major breakouts would be those of Matt Mangini and Nate Tenbrink. Mangini went from a .247/.307/.361 line in a season-and-a-half in double-A to a .313/.352/.521 line in triple-A this season. I know the reports on his defense were bad, I myself saw him botch a routine grounder while at Cheney late in the season, but he was also having to deal with a leg injury during the season which hindered his mobility over there. Tenbrink might have made some top ten lists if not for the concussion he had after reaching double-A. Heís always been known as a guy with good tools, but weíre starting to see results and skills out of him, and the .655 OPS he put up in Everett in 2008 turned into a .930 OPS between High Desert and West Tenn this year. At this point, defensive consistency is one of the few areas heís still found lacking.
The two other names Iíd mention are Alex Liddi and Vinnie Catricala. Liddi managed to prove that 2009 wasnít a fluke, transitioning well to double-A. His defense took a step back, but itís thought to be more of a mechanical issue than a conditioning one. Catricala was one of the most consistent offensive forces on the Clinton roster, and while I donít know that heís a third baseman long-term so much as a corner utility guy, he can hit well enough to keep on the radar.
Second strongest position for us would probably be corner outfield. Iím not as high on Chavez as some are, but between him, Pimentel, Halman, Jones, Castillo, Peguero, Palma, and Blash, something has to work out there eventually, right?
8 - What is the weakest non-pitching position?
For me, it would be between catching and shortstop.
Catching might be more visible right now in light of the renaissance in the league that has seen guys like Buster Posey and Matt Wieters (at least on potential) get talked up a lot. Where Adam Moore might have been a higher profile prospect five years ago, heís now just kind of an also-ran, and if catching is becoming a stronger offensive position for most of the league, we need to find ways of keeping up. Internally, there just isnít much to work with. The top two teams in the system had an assortment of minor league free agents taking up most of the playing time. In High Desert, Trevor Coleman was easily the worst everyday hitter on the roster. Clinton had four different backstops play thirty+ games, three of which were over twenty-three, and the last one was Steve Baron, who remains very strong on defense and just awful at anything involving the bat. Ji-man Choi is a backstop that gives people some hope at the lower levels, but at this point itís unclear as to whether heís a catcher or a first baseman or some kind of role player who does both. I reeeeallly want him to catch though.
Shortstop might be a little more surprising for people, all the issues with the position in the past years aside, simply because Nick Franklin is around and is one of the top three prospects in the system. All the same, heís not really a lock to end up at short, and doesnít have a great arm, so the hope for him would probably be that he could end up as slightly better than average at the position. Outside of Franklin though, shortstop is a wasteland, particularly after the trade of Juan Diaz earlier in the year. Triunfel is more of third baseman defensively, assuming he ever hits well enough to get anywhere, Edilio Colina is more of a second baseman and his value is mostly locked up in batting average, and Gabriel Noriega and Anthony Phillips, while solid defensively, canít hit. Iíd mention Marcus Littlewood, but Iím not yet convinced heíll stick there, so heís more in the third base conversation for me. So itís another one of those positions where most of your hopes are locked up in one guy and if that guy doesnít pan out, youíre in trouble.
9 - Is the starting pitching in the system as shallow as it appears to me?
Itís a pretty easy claim to make, and one reason I had wanted the Mís to focus a bit more on pitching in this past draft. Coming out of that, we didnít get Stanek, or Jon Keller, or Tyler Linehan, as I mentioned above, and Paxton has yet to ink with us (one has to hope heís not pulling a Matt Harrington), but we werenít without some good additions in Walker, Shipers, Landazuri, Pryor, Luke Taylor, and others, even if I am a little more suspicious of the ďThis guy is a tremendous athlete, letís teach him how to pitch!Ē type experiment we have going on with Walker. The Mís also picked up a decent arm internationally in Jose Torres of Colombia, and heís one of those projectable types who could develop into something later.
If youíre thinking of things in terms of Pineda, Walker, maybe Robles and Shipers and then a series of also-rans (Beavan is good, but probably a #4 or #5 right now), youíre probably not going to be all that impressed. Itís true that where high-end potential is concerned, weíre running a bit thin. But we do have a number of arms that could be the makings of a pretty frightening bullpen in Cortes, Lueke, Pryor, and maybe Fields and Wilhelmsen, and from the starting end, we have the guys Iíve already mentioned, plus Richard Vargas and George Mieses from Pulaski, both of whom have their fans, and Steven Hensley, if his elbow is ever right. Weíre still lacking on the left-handed side of things, but overall, weíre probably in a better position than we have been the past couple of years, we just need to continue to focus our efforts on it.
10 - Is Esteilon Peguero a "toolsy" prospect, or a baseball player?
The thing is that signings out of the Dominican arenít exactly what they used to be. The old way of doing things used to make references to kids using cardboard boxes for gloves and fence posts for bats, basically glorified stickball, unless they were under contract with one of the better buscones. Even then, there was a risk that theyíd test positive for steroids and then have to sit out for however long. These days, they have the Dominican Prospect League, which started this year and acted as a prep league where the better prospects gathered and played against each other. While itís far from perfect, it does give everyone a MLB-supervised forum in which to organize and develop more informed player evaluations.
Peguero was the consensus top prospect of that group, and displayed a number of positive traits with the bat, like speed, discipline, and gap power. While itís not the kind of pedigree where we can say ďthis guy was the top prospect in this environment, ergo he slots at this level in this organizationĒ, itís more substantive than the old evaluating metrics of ďwe gave this guy a lot of money, perhaps heís good?Ē
This question actually came in before the bonus for Peguero was decreased, so itís probably worthwhile for me to address that as long as Iím here. From what Iíve heard, his elbow might be the issue here, which is a lot better than it could be. If it were a shoulder issue, Iíd probably be close to writing him off in short order. Anyone remember Jeff Flaig? Exactly.
BONUS QUESTION AND RESPONSE!!!!
11 - What was your favorite Mariner minor league story of 2010? (player, team, whatever)
The temptation for me would be to run out and say something like Marcus Elliottís new training regiment and the dividends it paid, but I really would like more than a seasonís worth of datapoints before I start making any claims as to what itís been yielding for us. Instead, Iíd point to hitter breakouts more broadly.
Nick Franklin. Nate Tenbrink. Matt Mangini. Ramon Morla. The list goes on. While itís hard to pinpoint exactly what brought this about, we know a little about each of the players to the extent where we might be able to speculate a little. Franklin was a known gym rat, but not known for his power. Tenbrink had a whole lot of tools and yet was slower to develop skills. Mangini was a guy who, in college at least, was swinging primarily with the upper half of his body. Morla hung out in the Dominican for two years and Arizona for one, never hitting more than two home runs a season, before knocking out seventeen for Pulaski. Each of these guys managed to tweak something in their approach that led them to turn in their best offensive seasons yet, and while we donít know what that is, or even if it was something similar for each, it at least gives one the superficial impression that weíre getting better at coaching hitting than we used to be. This might provide one some hope for guys like Baron or various secondary draft picks weíve selected. It seems like there were too many of those breakouts (and away from High Desert at that) to be purely coincidental.
Runner-up: favorite personal story was Tom Wilhelmsen, without question.