By Hudson Belinsky

Seattle began 2011 with what looked like a very promising team. Their rotation included Felix Hernandez, Doug Fister, and Jason Vargas. The minor league system saw the graduations of Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley, who were both major contributors for the major league team. They had the second pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft and used it on Virginia left-hander Danny Hultzen. So, as the Mariners look to build off of a season that saw them lose 95 games (including 17 in a row in July), what’s going on in the farm system.

1. Taijuan Walker, RHP

An athletic kid with a projectable 6-4, 195 lb. frame who throws hard, Taijuan Walker is one of the most exciting prospects in the game. In his first full season as a pro, Walker struck out 113 batters while walking only 39 in 96.2 innings. The 19-year-old has a filthy repertoire; his fastball has some movement and comes in in the mid-to-upper 90s and he mixes it with a power breaking ball and a changeup that may someday be average. The Mariners could send him to High Desert, but they may choose to have him skip the brutal Cal League and push him to Double-A. The Rangers chose that path with Martin Perez a couple years ago.

2. Danny Hultzen, LHP

Hultzen falls behind Walker only because of Walker’s ceiling. Hultzen won’t be an ace, but should find a spot as the second or third starter in a big league rotation. He features a mid-90s fastball with a filthy changeup and a respectable slider. Hultzen has above average command and control of his pitches, as well as an easy and repeatable delivery. The 22-year-old has a high floor and a modest ceiling and he could make it to the majors as soon as 2012. Expect to see him in Double-A come April.

3. Nick Franklin, SS

Franklin fought illness in 2011, but still has plenty of upside, reaching Double-A in his second full season. There are questions about where Franklin will end up playing, but if he sticks at shortstop he could be a very nice option in fantasy baseball and may even become an all-star. The 20-year-old has average power and a pretty swing to go with decent discipline at the plate. Franklin should continue to improve as he gets more at-bats and could find himself in Seattle’s infield by 2013.

4. James Paxton, LHP

Paxton exploded onto the scene in his first season of affiliated baseball, striking out 131 batters in 95 innings between Low-A and Double-A. The 22-year-old has a mid-90s fastball and a plus curveball, but he needs to find a third pitch to maximize his potential. He’s been said to have been working on a changeup, but even if it fails he has a future in a major league bullpen. His ceiling is as high as a middle-of-the-rotation starter, but his floor is as an electric reliever. He might be ready for the majors at some point in 2012, but he may get blocked by the guys already in Seattle.

5. Vincent Catricala

A ridiculous bat launched Catricala onto the prospect scene in 2011, as he posted a .349/.421/.601 slash line with 25 homeruns and 48 doubles. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Catricala being the most successful hitter in this bunch, but he, like many others in the system, doesn’t have a ton of defensive prowess. The Mariners tried him at third, first, and left field in 2011, but it remains unclear where his future lies. Either way, I think he’ll be a terrific hitter at the major league level and could be in Seattle as early as 2012.

6. Chih-Hsien Chiang, OF

I’m a bit high on Chiang, but I just love the guy’s swing. He has excellent bat speed and keeps his hands in to maximize power. He’s never going to hit 40 homeruns in the majors, but he has the bat to be an above average big league hitter. Outside of his hit tool, nothing about Chiang is all that impressive, but I really, really love that hit tool. Look for him to hit his stride in Double-A or Triple-A with a chance to help the Mariners on their quest to become the 29th best offense in baseball.

7. Guillermo Pimentel, OF

The Mariners have another high upside bat in Guillermo Pimentel. The 19-year-old has ridiculous power projection and eye-popping bat speed. He’s far from polished and he’ll swing at anything that reaches home plate, but the upside in his swing is clear. The rest of his tools are basically nonexistent, so he’ll have to realize his hit tool to progress through the Mariners’ system. Pimentel’s approach needs to be ironed out, but if he corrects his issues he could be a monster.

8. Jose Campos, RHP

A lot of people fall in love with 18-year-olds who throw hard, but there’s much more to pitching than that. Campos dials up his fastball to the upper 90s, but has yet to show strong feel for a second pitch. His delivery is clean and he repeats it well (especially for his age), but he has issues with his release point when throwing different pitches. You can get away with that stuff in Rookie ball, but it won’t fly in the upper tiers of the minor leagues. Don’t get me wrong, Campos has plenty of upside, but he’s very far away. Look for him to try to make the jump to full season ball in 2012.

9. Francisco Martinez, 3B

Martinez is another young hitter with a pretty swing in the Mariners system. He needs to work on his approach, but he has an abover average bat and average power. Martinez has a little bit of speed too, but his ability to play third is in question. The 21-year-old may be ready to tackle Triple-A in 2012, with a shot at a late-season cup of coffee. His ceiling is as a guy who can hit toward the top of the order, but his future depends on his approach issues.

10. Forrest Snow, RHP

It’s easy to get caught up in bad minor league numbers, but despite his suspect numbers in 2011, Forrest Snow has true big league potential. Don’t expect to see him as a starter though; he pitched well in a relief role in the Arizona Fall League and profiles nicely as a middle reliever very quickly. Look for him in Seattle in 2012

Guys to Keep An Eye On

Erasmo Ramirez – Tons of command, but lacks lights out stuff. Could be a back-end starter.
Daniel Paolini – Solid hit tool with power for 2B.
Chance Ruffin – Bullpen arm with late-inning upside.
Johermyn Chavez – Tons of power, but will the hit tool come around?
Mauricio Robles – Solid 2010 campaign and all over the place in a messy 2011. Still young.
Alex Liddi – Solid power, but not much else in the tools department. Bench bat.

The Mariners offense can only improve in 2012 and there could be a lot of help coming, but the fans will have to be patient. The rotation is filthy and may allow them to move a starter or two to acquire offense.

Filed under: Prospects

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