The Mariners are generally regarded as having one of the better minor league systems in the league. They were ranked #2 by John Sickels at Minor League Ball, due to their “ good balance between hitting and pitching, strength up the middle with Zunino, Miller, Franklin; (and) potential ace arms.”
Most of the buzz before the season was surrounding Mike Zunino, and the “Big 3″ — Taijuan Walker, Danny Hutzen and James Paxton — as well as Brandon Maurer who (unfortunately?) made the rotation out of Spring Training. And that continued for the beginning or the year, particularly in the case of Zunino. He was tearing the cover off the ball for the first couple weeks, prompting some to start looking towards a call-up.
Well, that hype has since died down, as he has struggled the rest of the way. He is now hitting just .220/.290/.496, and has K’d 41 times in 33 games. Needless to say, he has not been very good, especially in the way of making contact and getting on base. It is too early to worry too much, but it is tough to see after the way he burst on to the scene last year. Hopefully the strikeout problem does not blossom into a problem for the future.
I am not going to focus on Zunino though (shoot, I just did), as this is about guys who have gone above and beyond to this point in the year, but maybe have not been getting the attention they deserve. Or maybe they have. It all depends on the player. I just wanted to highlight some of the guys who have stood out to me this year, because they often seem to go unnoticed once the season gets going — until they are called up of course.
1) Brad Miller, SS, 23, Double-A/Triple-A
2013 stats: .289/.373/.443 — .376 wOBA — 136 wRC+
Okay, maybe Miller doesn’t totally jump off the page, but I still wanted to mention him. He is one of my favorite prospects, and I fully believe he is the Mariners shortstop of the future. The best part of his game is his astounding ability to get on base. As seen above, he has a .373 OBP on the season, which can mainly be accredited to his 11.2% walk rate. He has also added 12 extra base hits on the year, which while not as powerful as last year, is still solid for a shortstop.
The big problem with Miller has been his defensive troubles. Unlike most shortstop prospects, his problems don’t stem from a lack of range or arm;, but rather from clunky hands. He has already made 9 errors this year. And as bad as that sounds, he is actually on pace for about 6 less errors than last year. Errors are obviously not a great measure of defense because of the way they are determined. But when someone has that many errors, it is probably a sign of some less-than-spectacular defense. It seems like it should be something that can be ironed out more so than a physical limitation (ie. range or arm), so I am still hopeful that he can make it at short.
He is generally underrated/forgotten about because, well, he looks weird. What I mean is, his stance is kind of abnormal, and he doesn’t always look the part. Unfortunately, some people judge players by that stuff, even when they probably shouldn’t. He kind of reminds me of Hunter Pence, but he happens to be a quality ball player. He is unconventional, but it works.
If he keeps hitting like this all year, and the defense continues to make strides, then we could see Miller earn the starting shortstop job out of spring next year. He was just called up to Triple-A Tacoma as part of the Andino, Triunfel set of moves. So he is already on the rise, and I would not expect that to stop. I really do not see any other choices, as it seems Nick Franklin is officially a 2nd baseman, and Brendan Ryan sucks.
Pay attention to Brad Miller. He is good at baseball.
2) Nick Franklin, 2B/SS, 22, Triple-A
2013 stats: .318/.441/.481 — .413 wOBA — 145 wRC+
Franklin has been absolutely raking this year in Triple-A. In his first stint in Tacoma (64 games last year) he struggled at the plate. But it seems like that is something he usually does before going on a tear later. He has supplemented his game with an improved walk rate of 17.8% — as if the 10-ish% he usually has wasn’t good enough. His power has been back up to levels similar to that of his 23 home run year in 2010, something many fans were wondering about and hoping for.
Like Miller, his bat is not his problem. It is his defense, which has forced a partial position change this year. He has played 21 of his 36 games this year at second base, and just 14 at shortstop (one at DH). There has long been rumblings about his eventual position change due to range issues. It seems even more likely now, especially after he gained tons of weight during the offseason, something that no doubt did more harm than good defensively. He is still playing at shortstop at times obviously, so they may not have totally giving up. But giving Carlos Triunfel — who is somewhat of a non-prospect at this point — the majority of the time there suggests they will permanantly make the change eventually. That doesn’t mean he can’t play at short from time to time, but I wouldn’t bet on him being there long term.
Franklin obviously doesn’t qualify as under-the-radar, but he has been so good that I couldn’t leave him out. He has all but extinguished doubts about his future with this early performance. Now, the focus is on his MLB ETA. Some people think he needs to be called up now, and replace Robert Andino on the roster, and Brendan Ryan in the lineup. While I definitely see the reasoning behind this, I don’t really agree. As I said, I think he is a second baseman. Calling him up and playing him out of position just because you are frustrated with the Decrepit-Duo. That could harm his development in the long term. Plus, I think there is a good chance he is a trade chip during the next offseason, hopefully in exchange for Giancarlo Stanton, Carlos Gonzalez or Chase Headley. Jack already traded him once for Justin Upton. What’s to say he won’t do it again?
If the organization think he can stick at shortstop, we may see him called up sooner rather than later. But I am expecting him to stay down until September, UNLESS Dustin Ackley gets send down at some point like Jesus Montero was. That is a different situation, but I don’t think that will happen either.
Ji-Man Choi, 1B, 22, Single-A+
2013 stats: .338/.429/.624 — .451 wOBA — 178 wRC+
Choi is much more unknown than the two above, but he is making a name for himself early in the season. He is crushing the ball in High Desert, but then again everyone does. It doesn’t mean he shouldn’t get credit, but the numbers have to be taken somewhat lightly.
He was signed back in 2009 as a catcher out of South Korea, but was then converted to 1st base, which sort of sucked away any high prospect ranking he may have had. Decent hitting first baseman are a dime a dozen, so Choi was nothing special. Then, he missed the entire 2011 season with an injury, which vaporized any hype he did have.
But despite being unknown, he has hit well for his whole minor league career, with a .957 OPS in 2010, and .883 last year. As I said though, everyone hits in High Desert, so his numbers have to be taken with a grain, especially since it is so early in the season. It really does not mean much unless he does it for the whole year, and continues after he moves up to Jackson. But it is encouraging, and if he keeps it up, people will start taking notice.
I am not all to confident that he will be a big leaguer in the future, but you can’t deny production until it ceases to exist. And that hasn’t happened yet.
Tyler Pike, LHP, 19, Single-A
Pike is another somewhat unknown guy, but for a different reason. He was just drafted last year in the 3rd round out of high school, so he has not had much time to make his mark. But he has made the most of the little time he has had. In 11 rookie ball starts last year he posted a 1.78 ERA and 2.75 FIP. He also struck out over 10 batters per nine innings, which shows how dominant he can be.
So far this year, it has been more of the same. In 42.1 innings for Clinton, he has a 2.55 ERA and 3.37 FIP, which is very solid for a teenager in just his 1st full pro season. His walk rate is a little high — especially considering he profiles as a control/command southpaw — but he is still young, and it is very early in the season. His BABIP also suggests some regression will take place, but that is hard to accurately predict. As long as he is pitching like he is now, he will be fine.
I am pretty high on Pike, and I am not sure why. I guess he just seems to me like he has a lot of potential. I believe — for whatever reason — that he will become the next top pitching prospect in the M’s organization, and has the upside of a #2 or #3 starter. He is still very young and is a couple years off, but if he keeps pitching like he is now, he could be on the fast track to the bigs.
Those are just a few prospects that have caught my attention this year. There are others — namely Julio Morban and Victor Sanchez — who have also played well this year. But they are more of honorable mentions compared to the 4 guys I noted above. And there are other options as well. But no matter how you slice it, this is a good sign for the organization. Notice there were 4, or even 6, players that have stuck out more than the Big 3, which means there is depth. Depth is good, because sometimes, top prospects turn out not to be.