Combined M’s Top 10 Prospects
It’s the eve of the Cactus League, and the M’s minor leaguers are already flooding back fields and batting cages in Peoria. It’s March, so they’re all in better shape than expected, fortified with new pitches and new approaches, and wiser by far thanks to the lessons learned over a long season in 2015. It’s a hopeful time, of course, but realistically, the M’s know their system is a bit light on talent. It’s not bereft of it, by any stretch, but part of the reason they’ve focused so much on development (like installing a PD guy who’s never managed as the M’s field manager) is that they know they simply have to get more out of this group than the scouts and prospect ranking folks expect. Baseball America has this system ranked at #28. MLB Pipeline would be close, with the position players ranking 22nd and the pitching coming in at 29th.
Teams like Texas have a wealth of talent in the high minors, ready to step in if their big league depth falters. Lewis Brinson and Nomar Mazara will probably make their Texas debuts this year, and Joey Gallo will see if he can cut his K% in a longer call-up. The Astros remain a deep system despite trading a number of players for big league help. Colin Moran figures to be ready to help the big club this year, and the minors’ top HR hitter last year, AJ Reed, can step in at 1B/DH if Jon Singleton struggles again. On the pitching side, Francis Martes and Joe Musgrove figure to begin the year in the high minors. On the other end of the spectrum are the Angels, who struggled with depth in the few years that Jerry Dipoto ran the show, and then saw Billy Eppler ship everything that was left to Atlanta in exchange for Andrelton Simmons. There’s no one to call for the Angels, meaning they’ll have to get creative or constantly scan the waiver wire if they need some help. Oakland’s done a decent job of rebuilding their system after cashing much of it in during their 2014 playoff push, and they’re particularly stocked at the shortstop position, thanks to top prospect Franklin Barreto (#8 in baseball) and three more shortstops who each rank in the BA’s top 50 by position: Richie Martin, Chad Pinder, and Yairo Munoz. Their pitching depth is a bit weaker, but Sean Manaea is a top prospect who could see the majors this year.
How about the M’s? Unfortunately, much of the strength of the system is further away, though a bounce-back year from DJ Peterson and a great spring from Boog Powell will ameliorate this. Powell in particular seems to have a legitimate shot at a big league job this year as Leonys Martin’s back-up, and his OBP-heavy, high-floor, low-ceiling projection isn’t the kind of thing that requires service-time manipulation. Peterson, though, is something of an enigma – a great hitter who simply couldn’t drive the ball at all in 2015, leading some scouts to conclude his hit tool/power grades had been inflated before. Peterson isn’t alone as an M’s prospect coming off a terrible statistical 2015. Brazilian lefty Luiz Gohara repeated short-season ball, and while he was better, he still got hit way harder than you’d like for a top-5 prospect in the system. #1 prospect Alex Jackson’s year was, if anything, even worse – an abysmal start after a challenge assignment in Clinton, and then a so-so year in Everett with solid production but sky-high strikeouts. The M’s coaches, many of whom are new to the system, have their work cut out for them.
With that said, here’s the M’s top ten prospects, averaged over five rankings. For this exercise, we’re using Baseball Prospectus, Baseball America, MLB Pipeline, Rick Randall’s SeattleClubhouse list, and Jason Churchill’s Prospect Insider top 25. Each prospect gets an unweighted average ranking. There are clear differences in approach between these five lists, with some focusing on ceiling and others on floors. BA’s list gives high rankings to Drew Jackson and Braden Bishop, whose defense may help them get a look in the majors, while Randall ranks Austin Wilson – incredibly gifted athlete who just hasn’t tapped into his potential yet – higher than the rest.
The top 5 or 6 are fairly consistent, but the back end of the list is variable. MLB has Luis Liberato, a toolsy OF who had a solid year for Everett, as the 7th best prospect, but he ranks just 27th in Churchill’s list. Andrew Moore lurked in the 12-15 region, but Baseball America like his command and change-up, and pushed him into the top 10. The other divisive player is former UW Husky Braden Bishop, who gets as high as 7th in BA’s list but doesn’t make the top 20 in Randall’s. Like Drew Jackson, Bishop’s defense in CF and great speed mean he’s got a bigger margin of error with his bat, though scouts seem divided on if he’ll ever be able to clear that (lower) bar – his bat to ball skills were surprisingly good in Everett, but a 2% walk rate and sub-.100 ISO show that he’s going to need to for average consistently. Philosophically, I think I’m closer to the BA list this year, in that I’m fairly sure Andrew Moore will move quickly up the ranks (though I’m not sure what kind of impact he’d make in the bigs), and I think Drew Jackson’s defense, helped by his howitzer arm and plus speed, will keep him moving even if his bat doesn’t come close to matching his 2015 slash line again. As mentioned, I think Powell may be a touch low, though I completely understand many/most view him as a fourth-outfielder, which takes some of the shine off of the fact that he’s all but assured to have *some* kind of big league career. The same thing’s at play with relievers. I thought Carson Smith was far too low on many lists last year, and I think the same might be said of guys like Paul Fry this year. But if there’s one player who’s almost assuredly too low, it’s Tony Zych, who will most likely break camp on the 25 man roster and is coming off a successful 2015 capped off by an eye-opening cup of coffee with the M’s. Yes, some high-bonus international free agent may have louder tools and, should he make it, be much more valuable, but Zych is already here, already contributing.
For the system to make a big jump forward this year, the M’s will need more than a nice draft. They’ll need continued development from the HS arms they took last year, especially Nick Niedert and Dylan Thompson, development from the college kids who overwhelmed short-season competition last year (Moore, Drew Jackson, Braden Bishop), and rebound years from Alex Jackson and DJ Peterson. More than that, though, they’ll need to finally tap into the potential of some players who’ve always tantalized scouts but whose skills haven’t translated into consistent production. Austin Wilson and Gohara head the list, but catcher Tyler Marlette (who’ve I’ve seen as a top 10 guy for years, but who simply hasn’t hit enough), OF Brayan Hernandez and Gareth Morgan, too. As Jay mentioned a while back, the M’s brought in a lot of boom or bust, high-power, low-contact hitters, and outside of Tyler O’Neill’s brilliant/surprising 2015, they don’t have a lot to show for it. They still have a bit of time with these guys, and a new staff and new approaches may unlock something that the last regime couldn’t.