As we begin the 2013 Mariners season there is more focus on our minor league system than ever, names like Zunino, Walker, Hultzen and Paxton are commonly known. The quality of the major league team may play a role in this, but quite simply, the M’s have a lot of good prospects. And while I could write an article on any of our main prospects, plenty has already been written about them. Instead I will focus on three prospects who have not garnered as much attention but could very easily impact the big league roster in 2014 and even 2013, if everything breaks the right way. There are obvious reasons that these guys aren’t known as well, two are relievers and one is a catcher who’s last name isn’t Zunino. But these three are names that Mariners fans should keep in the back of their heads. Now, without further ado, I give you the three Mariners Minor League Breakout Players in 2013. Carson Smith, John Hicks, Bobby LaFromboise.
Carson Smith RHP AA Jackson
The first thing that made Smith pop up on my radar was his performance in the Arizona Fall League last year. He pitched in 15 innings and struck out 18 batters, only walking 4. That is very impressive, regardless of the level of competition in the AFL. The second thing that makes Smith stand out is that he actually pitched well in A+ High Desert, a stadium that would make Brendan Ryan look like Troy Tulowitzki. What makes Smith a really intriguing prospect is that he throws a hard sinker in the low-to-mid 90’s that can be both a strikeout pitch and generates a large number of groundballs. So while he does not throw 100 MPH like Capps or Pryor, he gets better movement on his fastball and has a very good slider. What could limit his effectiveness is a history of shoulder issues stemming from his pitching motion, which puts a lot of stress on his arm. However, if Smith stays healthy I see him competing for a bullpen spot as early as next year.
John Hicks C AA Jackson
A lot of attention has been paid to Mike Zunino as the catcher of the future in Seattle, and rightfully so. But do not look past Hicks as a potential backup for Zunino or at first base. Hicks hit very well in High Desert last year, but most players hit the ball well there. His results against AA pitching will be something to monitor after being drafted in 2011 and showing a strong bat in A and A+ ball. What I like about Hicks is that he has good contact skills and gap power, combined with decent plate discipline. This may not be the sexy, Zunino-esque line that fans may want to see, but Hicks definitely projects to be an effective hitter at the higher levels. He also stole 22 bases last year in High Desert so he isn’t as maddeningly slow as Jesus Montero. I doubt Hicks will see an aggressive promotion schedule with Zunino and Jesus Sucre ahead of him in Tacoma, but if (when) Zunino gets called up, Hicks will be the first in line to fill his spot.
Bobby LaFromboise LHP Tacoma
When I first saw LaFromboise pitch I was really confused. His motion was a mix of Charlie Furbush but his stuff was closer to Lucas Luetge’s. What LaFromboise profiles, as is a deceptive lefty who can hit the low 90’s but uses his offs peed stuff to great effect. He has struggled with his command, due to his side arm motion that creates a lot of movement on his fastball. After putting up a 1.01 ERA in Jackson after 20 games, LaFromboise moved up to Tacoma where he put up similar numbers. Another bullpen arm, I thought LaFromboise had a chance this spring to challenge Luetge or Furbush for a spot in the bullpen. However, he is down in Tacoma to start the year and I fully expect him to be a lights out reliever after posting 38 K’s in 39 innings there last year. If one of the LHP’s in the bullpen gets hurt or starts to struggle, LaFromboise should be on the short list of potential call-ups. If not, he should see time in the bullpen in September when rosters expand.
Those are the three names all Mariners fans should remember going into this baseball season. Out of the three LaFromboise is the most likely to make an impact on the MLB squad this year, but Carson Smith has the highest ceiling out of the three. Hicks looks to be an above-average backup catcher or even corner outfield/ first base. It is almost a guarantee that a new prospect is going to show up on the scene and cause even more excitement in our minor league system, and I think it will be one of these three players who see huge gains in 2013.