Mariners Top 5 Fantasy Prospects
1- Jesus Montero, C
There are few players that possess the upside to hit .300 or better with 25 plus home runs in the heart of an order. When you add in that they either own (in leagues with loose requirements for gaining eligibility), or are likely to own, catcher eligibility that skillset is almost completely non-existant. Enter Jesus Montero, the big get in the Michael Pineda deal for the Mariners. Montero is poor defender, and is best suited at designated hitter. The Mariners brass have said they view him as a catcher, so in the short term, enjoy the eligibility. Even if, or more likely when, he is moved from behind the plate he'll still be a fantasy asset.
2- Taijuan Walker, SP
Walker was named the Mariners minor league pitcher of the year, and it was for good reason. One year after being drafted in the supplemental first round out of high school, he posted superb numbers in Low-A. He pitched 96.2 innings, showed passable control (3.63 BB/9), and the ability to strike hitters out in bunches (10.52 K/9). Walker was a two-sport prep star, and was an outstanding basketball player. As a two-sport athlete, he was considered a bit raw, which makes his production all the more impressive. Beyond the numbers, he is a scouts dream of sorts. He's tall, 6-foot-4, has room to fill out at just 195 pounds, throws a plus velocity fastball that sits in the mid-90s and hits 98 mph and comes in on a downhill plane. His breaking ball is a 12-to-6 power curveball that he didn't learn until joining the Mariners organization and already flashes plus-plus. His third pitch, and the one that is still in the development stages, is a circle change-up. If everything develops accordingly, he has front of the rotation upside. At 19 years old, and not turning 20 until August, Walker is on pace to possibly reach the big leagues about the time he can legally enjoy an adult beverage. There is at least some possibility he bypasses High-A and begins the year at Double-A according to Baseball America writer Conor Glassey. Those looking for a “safer bet,” may wish to drop Walker a few slots behind the other arms directly behind him.
3- Danny Hultzen, SP
The Mariners shocked the baseball world when they selected Danny Hultzen second overall in last year's amateur draft. He had a great career at the University of Virginia, and is considered incredibly polished. However, don't confuse the shock in the industry and polish as meaning he lacks upside. Hultzen is a southpaw that throws a fastball in the low-90s, which is plus for a left-handed pitcher, and touches mid-90s on occasion. He throws two secondary pitches, a slider and change-up. His slider is good, but his change-up is tantalizing and earns plus-plus grades. He controls and commands his entire arsenal, and is nearly big league ready. Hultzen strutted his stuff in the Arizona Fall League in 19.1 innings. His ceiling is behind Walker's, but he's considered a “safe,” prospect arm.
4- James Paxton, SP
Paxton had an amazing year in the minors, and one that caught many off guard. He has an interesting back story that includes getting drafted by the Blue Jays at pick 37 out of Kentucky, failing to come to an agreement on a contract, and losing his college eligibility due to contract negotiations involving his adviser Scott Boras. No longer eligible to pitch in college, he played Independent League ball to prepare for the 2010 amateur draft. He didn't impress clubs as much as he did prior to the 2009 draft, and fell to fourth round where the Mariners scooped him up. Paxton pulled a 180 and went from being an unimpressive pitching prospect in Independent ball to one that embarrassed High-A and Double-A hitters. A southpaw, Paxton used a power arsenal to post strikeout rates that would be great from a reliever. He had a 12.86 K/9 in 56 High-A innings, and held most of that rate at 11.77 K/9 in 39 Double-A innings. He had control problems in High-A, 4.82 BB/9, but a funny thing happened as he moved up the ladder, his walk rate improved to 3.00 BB/9 in Double-A. Unlike some high strikeout power arms, Paxton induced ground outs at a 1.53 groundout-to-airout rate. If he's able to control his three pitch mix of fastball, curveball, change-up at a respectable rate, his ceiling rivals Hultzen's, and trails only Walker's in the system. He already showcased dominance at the Double-A level, and should see the majors this year. He could be in a race with Hultzen to arrive first.
5- Nick Franklin, SS
Ask me tomorrow, and I might rank Nick Franklin second in the system, or I may drop him off this list. After a huge year in the Midwest League in 2010 where he went 20-20 (23 home runs and 25 stolen bases to be exact) with a .281/.351/.485, he struggled in 2011. The power disappeared early in the year, five home runs in 292 plate appearances at the High-A level, but reappeared in a small sample with two home runs in 92 Double-A plate appearances and two more in 102 Arizona Fall League plate appearances. The biggest question hanging over Franklin's head is: how much of his lost power can be attributed to a concussion and bout with mononucleosis, and how much can be attributed to leaving the friendly Midwest League? This year will go a long way in determining what to expect from Franklin going forward. That said, up the middle players with the ability to hit for power, batting average, and steal bases are a rare breed and worth gambling on.
Bonus: Guillermo Pimentel, OF
Long overdue, I've decided to add a bonus player to each 5x5 list going forward. The bonus player shouldn't be considered the next guy on the list. He is simply a player worth monitoring for one reason or another. In the case of Pimentel, it is his crazy power tool. An 80 grade has been tossed around by some on that tool, making him quite interesting. He showed some of that pop off in game, hitting 11 home runs in 266 plate appearances at the Rookie-Level. He doesn't walk often, strikes out too much, and failed to crack Baseball America's top 10 list for the Mariners. Those that believe in him, such as Kevin Goldstein and Jason Parks of Baseball Prospectus, note his light tower power and the fact that if he makes it, it will be as a corner outfielder with a traditional corner outfielder's profile of mostly bat and lack of glove
Top 5 in 2012
1- Jesus Montero, C
He's the best prospect in the system, and one that's going to break camp with the team. What else needs to be said?
2- Danny Hultzen, SP
Hultzen is so polished, there are murmurs that he'll be given the opportunity to pull a Mike Leake and open his pro career (AFL not included), in the majors. The Mariners aren't going to contend for the playoffs, so this talk should probably be considered lip service from the team's brass as there is nothing to be gained from opening the season with him on the roster. Of course, the same could have been said of the team in 2011 when they broke camp with Michael Pineda in the rotation. Expect to see him in the bigs this year, the question is more-or-less when.
3- Chance Ruffin, RP
Ruffin was the player to be named in the Doug Fister trade. He was a college closer for the Texas Longhorns, and a 2010 first round pick. He already has 14 innings of major league experience, and is a strong candidate to start the year in the bullpen. His plus fastball/slider combo, and the threat of a slurvy curveball, makes him a possible candidate to close games at some point in the year if the M's deal Brandon League.
4- Tom Wilhelmsen, RP
The journey of Wilhelmsen to the majors is a crazy one. He was a one time Brewers prospect who missed the entire 2004 season because of a suspension related to marijuana usage. He walked away from the game at that point, but ended up returning to baseball in Indie ball in 2009. He showed enough there to get back into affiliated ball, spending the 2010 season in Rookie-Level ball, Low-A, and High-A. In 2011 he spent time in Double-A and the majors. He threw 33 innings for the Mariners, almost enough to make him ineligible for this list. He is eligible though, and like Ruffin, could be a dark horse for saves. He showed the ability to miss bats, 8.27 K/9, and has swing-and-miss offerings to retire left-handed and right-handed batters. It's unlikely he'd post great ratios, but saves are saves, and the small samples that relievers work in make anything possible.
5- Alex Liddi, 3B
Questions surround Liddi's glove, and his ability to make contact, but if the power plays, the player stays. Liddi has pop, and may find himself embroiled in a battle at the hot corner with Kyle Seager. Both made their major league debuts last year. Seager lost his prospect eligibility, and should be viewed as the favorite to win the job. His skillset profiles better up the middle (where he was developed), and he'll have to hit for a high average to offset his lack of power. If he struggles, Liddi will get his crack at regular playing time. He has more of a traditional corner profile of power and poor batting average. He won't win any batting crowns, but power starved owners in extremely deep mixed leagues and AL-only formats should add Liddi to their watch lists.