M’s Minor League Preview
The rosters are (finally) set, and the M’s affiliates in Clinton, IA, Adelanto, CA, Jackson, TN and Tacoma, WA are finally ready to begin their 2013 campaigns. Let’s take a look at who’s playing where, and what to look for this season:
1: The most interesting roster from a prospect point of view is AAA Tacoma. The two top lefty SPs, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, begin the year in Tacoma’s rotation, and IF prospects Nick Franklin and Stefen Romero add interest to the line-up. Forgotten man Alex Liddi, fresh from a very successful stint with the Italian team in the WBC, returns to play 3B. Carlos Triunfel will split the middle infield innings with Franklin, and injury-plagued IF Nate Tenbrink finally moves up to the AAA level where he may see some time in the corners in the infield as well as in LF. If that weren’t enough, 1B Rich Poythress moves up as well, after spending the last two seasons in AA Jackson. To make room for all of these infielders, Vinnie Catricala will start off in AA Jackson. And in perhaps the most aggressive promotion, top prospect Mike Zunino will start in AAA to catch Hultzen and Paxton and prepare for his ascent to the majors. Jeremy Bonderman accepted his assignment to AAA, and looks to build arm strength alongside AAA vets Andrew Carraway and DJ Mitchell. The bullpen has loads of experience, starting with Brian Sweeney, who’ll make an appearance with Tacoma in the seventh year. His first appearance with the Rainiers was in 1999, when Raul Ibanez and Mike Blowers played with the club, and he’s coming off some solid performances in the WBC. Jhonny Nunez and Danny Farquhar have AAA experience from the right side while Bobby LaFromboise and Brian Moran were dominant lefties for the Rainiers in 2012.
Team should be: really, really good. The PCL as a whole is as stacked as its been in recent memory, but this is the 2nd or 3rd most talented team in the circuit. Only Memphis is a step above in raw talent, with Las Vegas close behind in 3rd.
Interesting starter: Danny Hultzen. Is that weird Steve Dalkowski impression a thing of the past? If so, he would be ready for the majors in short order.
Interesting reliever: I was somewhat surprised to see Logan Bawcom move up ahead of guys like Forrest Snow or Jonathan Arias, but the righty (whom the M’s picked up in the Brandon League trade) had a solid spring after a stop in the Arizona Fall League. It’s not crazy to think he could see some time in Seattle in September.
Interesting position player: If Mike Zunino’s pitch blocking improves, it may be hard to keep him down come July. This is as good a position-player prospect as the M’s have had in a while. People point to Jeff Clement, but Clement’s initial seasons in the minors, in winter ball (he played in the old Hawaiian league) and in AAA weren’t stellar. We remember his insane half-season in AAA, but he stumbled out of the gate. Zunino hasn’t stumbled, or come close to stumbling, at the plate in his brief career. If he keeps that up in his first taste of AAA, the M’s will look to move Kelly Shoppach.
2: AA Jackson isn’t far behind Tacoma in prospect interest. Taijuan Walker returns to AA with a new curveball grip and a new pitch (a cutter) to refine. Brad Miller also returns to AA, a victim of the IF-heavy Tacoma line-up, and the desire to get consistent playing time for Nick Franklin, Carlos Triunfel and Miller. Miller opened a lot of eyes in training camp and may have passed Franklin as the presumptive SS of the future, but Franklin’s AAA experience and ability at 2B keep him in Tacoma. The rotation behind Walker isn’t as interesting as last year’s, but does include Anthony Fernandez, the lefty who was solid in 2012 in high-A and AA, and Chance Ruffin, the reliever who suffered through a horrific 2012 in the Tacoma bullpen. The most interesting assignment was probably Hector Noesi, who will try to rebuild his career in AA after a disastrous 2012 in Seattle/Tacoma, and an even-worse spring training. He’s lost none of his velocity or movement, but he’s getting shelled regularly. For the first time in a while, Jackson will be without pitching coach Lance Painter, who’d become perhaps the most important coach in the M’s system (Painter’s down in High Desert this year), so Noesi will work with newcomer Terry Clark instead. Noesi’s problems seem predominantly mental, so we’ll see if the change in environment helps or hurts his progress. There’s something of a jam in the outfield in Jackson, as Abe Almonte (the prospect the M’s got from New York in exchange for Shawn Kelley) figures to play alongside former 3B Francisco Martinez, who starts his first year as a CF. Julio Morban can play CF too, but may see more action in the corners with Almonte/Martinez on the roster. And, just to keep things interesting, James Jones and Leon Landry move up from High Desert. The starting OF moves up from one level, but the incumbents haven’t really moved, as Martinez remains the presumptive starter and Denny Almonte’s been replaced by yet another Almonte who can play some CF.
Team should be: Not quite as good as last year, but will be a playoff team in the Southern League. Jacksonville and potentially Mobile have equivalent talent, but the Generals have very solid depth in pitching and, of course, the OF.
Interesting starter: Taijuan Walker has the highest ceiling of anyone in the system, and one of the highest in the minor leagues. He showed his talent in the spring, and the fact that he was able to throw his cutter for strikes is encouraging, but his curveball wasn’t ready, and hitters were able to time his FB when he wasn’t able to get his new curve over. That’s fine – he’s still only 20, and he’ll have another opportunity to improve his stamina and consistency in the familiar environment of the Southern League.
Interesting reliever: Carson Smith was lights out in the Arizona Fall League, and continued his dominance in the spring. The Texan possesses one of the best, if not the best, slider in the entire system, and has the best sinker – a hard 93mph pitch thrown from a low arm slot that sinks and has all kinds of arm-side run. Righties don’t stand much of a chance, and lefties tend to roll over his sinker. He could be this year’s Stephen Pryor, despite being nothing at all like Stephen Pryor.
Interesting position player: I’m tempted to go with C John Hicks, but I think it’s got to be Julio Morban. The oft-injured OF was something of a surprise addition to the 40-man just before the Rule 5 draft, but he had a great spring following a great 2012 (at least while he was healthy). He could provide some much-needed OF depth behind the Tacoma group of Denny Almonte, Carlos Peguero and Eric Thames – who will probably be as insanely productive as they are strikeout prone.
3: High Desert’s days of seeing the M’s best pitchers skip over High A may be coming to an end, as Jackson’s pitching coach Lance Painter moves down a level to the California League (it’s not really a demotion; he’s just closer to his off-season home). The team includes several pitchers who will make their High-A debuts a bit later than initially thought – Seon-Gi Kim and George Mieses suffered through poor 2011 campaigns and injury-riddled 2012 seasons. Cam Hobson, Jordan Shipers and Robert Shore all move up from Clinton; none really has the pure stuff or statistical record that would’ve made a AA start a possibility, but it’s good to see that the M’s are willing to put somewhat interesting pitchers in the…unique environment Adelanto provides. The offense has its share of boom-or-bust hitters like Jabari Blash and Dan Paolini, but it’s balanced a bit by SS Chris Taylor and IF Ji-Man Choi, who showed his back problems were behind him by playing in the Australian winter league this year.
Team should be: Middle of the pack, with some potential. There’s just a lot of risk in the pitching staff, and not just because of the whole pitching-in-a-wind-tunnel thing. Mieses, Hobson and Kim had very poor results last year. Sure, they’ve got raw talent, but the roster needs a few more players who’ve put together solid pro lines. Guys like….
Interesting starter: Trevor Miller threw 150 very good innings, with a walk rate well under 2 per 9, and decent K rates. He got hit a bit more than you’d like in Clinton, giving up 11 HRs and a hit an inning, but he’s clearly earned the promotion and had a chance to start in AA. He pitched down the stretch in High Desert, so this isn’t a completely new assignment for him. George Mieses and Jordan Shipers are also worth keeping an eye on.
Interesting reliever: Matt Brazis was a four-year player at Boston College and signed with the M’s after being selected in the 28th round. To get on the radar, he needed to post some eye-popping numbers. In his brief 27+ inning introduction to pro ball, he struck out *51* batters against only 5 walks and a paltry 11 hits. Yes, yes, sample size and age-relative-to-league and that. But the point was, Brazis needed to put up a special line, and he did exactly that.
Interesting position player: I’ll go with Chris Taylor ahead of Choi and Paolini. Taylor signed to an above-slot bonus after having the reputation as a defense-first shortstop at Virginia, but he showed a bit more control of the strike zone than I would have thought – he posted a .900 OPS at short-season Everett with more walks than K’s. That can be discounted a bit considering his pedigree and college training, but that’s a college-heavy league, and you can’t really ask for more from that line. John Hicks had a similar reputation coming out of Virginia as a defense/leadership-first catcher, but impressed a bit in his initial pro games and then took off in High Desert in 2012. Here’s hoping Taylor does the same in 2013.
4: Clinton’s a fascinating team this year, with some of the college bats from the 2012 draft moving up from Everett and then a slew of players arriving straight from the Arizona League – skipping Pulaski and Everett entirely. All told, they look like a very good offensive team, though anyone can struggle -especially early on- in the pitching-friendly Midwest League. The big name here is Gabriel Guerrero, Vlad’s cousin, and one of the most talented players in the system. Guerrero opened a lot of eyes in the Arizona League and in the Dominican, and who appears in the 10-20 range of a number of M’s prospect lists. This is an aggressive assignment, and he could struggle here just as Guillermo Pimentel did last year. That said, Pimentel’s raw power was always accompanied with some holes; Guerrero should have a much better hit-tool than Pimentel, but there’s still plenty of risk here. Catcher Tyler Marlette brings his impressive tools to A ball after a solid season at Everett. He’s going to have to learn to walk a bit more, and the power that caught the eye of Tom McNamara still hasn’t shown up consistently, but if things click for him, he could be exciting. Corner IFs Patrick Kivlehan and Taylor Ard dominated the Northwest League last year and will take their shot at the much more difficult Midwest League this year. Kivlehan’s stats were great, but he’ll have to cut down on his strikeouts this year, and Ard is going to need to put up some power numbers as a college-trained hitter in A-ball.
Team should be: Very good, unless the Midwest League swallows Guerrero the way it did Alex Liddi and Greg Halman. Even if it does, they should have enough bats with Kivlehan, Ard and Dario Pizzano. A great blend of youngsters like Timmy Lopes, Guerrero and Marlette along with older players like the aforementioned college bats and 2B Brock Hebert.
Interesting starter: With the exception of Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara, no one’s shot up the prospect rankings this year like Tyler Pike. The 3rd round pick out of a Florida high school pitched brilliantly in the Arizon League with more polish and a touch more raw stuff than people had seen coming into the draft. That got the lefty noticed, first in the Arizona League prospect lists, and throughout instructs. He ended up cracking Baseball Prospectus’ M’s top 10, which kind of takes the phenomenon to its logical extreme. He’s a very projectable lefty who receives a lot of plaudits for his competitiveness and demeanor, and backs it up with solid stuff. Again, this is a very aggressive assignment, considering Pike was drafted in 2012, but it underscores the confidence the player development staff have in him. Matt Anderson’s worth watching too.
Interesting reliever: RHP Grady Wood was a college starter turned reliever for Everett last year. He doesn’t have elite stuff, but his mechanics hide the ball fairly well, and he’s been tough to hit in college and in his Northwest League stint. He provides the steady, college-vet balance to the upside of guys like Pike.
Interesting position player: Timmy Lopes is getting criminally overlooked here, but there’s no question that the answer is Gabriel Guerrero. One of the few legitimate five-tool players in the system, it’s not crazy to think that Guerrero could end up in the top 5 of the M’s prospect rankings next year. Of course, he could talk to his teammate Guillermo Pimentel about the downside of prospect hype and how full-season pitching staffs are not exactly equivalent of those in the Dominican League. For all the M’s have spent on Caribbean prospects, they don’t have a ton to show for it -especially after they cut guys like Jharmidy DeJesus this winter. Guerrero’s better than Pimentel, and the best they’ve had since Carlos Triunfel, and I’m a lot more nervous than I was before I started writing this sentence.
As always, milb.tv is a good way to follow the upper-levels of the minors, as all of Tacoma’s games and a few of Jackson’s are televised. You can also catch some of Clinton’s games through the broadcasts of a few of their MWL rivals, and there’s a single California League team participating as well. Given that AAA/AA are where the bulk of the M’s best prospects will be, it’s a better year than most to try it. MiLB audio is free. For local readers, the Rainiers are broadcast in the South Sound on AM 850. The radio guys for the AAA and AA teams both have very good blogs to check regularly – Mike Curto’s blog is here and Chris Harris’ is here.
Here’s to a successful, and *healthy*, 2013 for the M’s full season affiliates!