2016 M’s Minor League Preview
Just think: it can’t be worse than last year. Tomorrow’s opening day across the full-season minor leagues brings with it the usual rush of optimism and joy, but really: there’s something kind of of nice about knowing that the season realistically can’t go any worse than last year did. DJ Peterson was bad, then hurt. Alex Jackson was awful, sent to extended ST, then started showing some signs in short-season ball. Clinton seemingly lost every game in August and September. Tacoma was relatively lucky to plod along around .500 and at the periphery of a AAA divisional playoff race. It was a tough, tough season for the four full-season clubs, but with some new coaches, new development staff and some new players, I’m excited to see what the year brings. I don’t want to bury the lede here: there’s no obviously loaded, don’t-miss-this team in the system. I don’t want to oversell things, but with any big organizational shake-up, there’s always the opportunity to see some changes in *how* players progress, and what messages click with what players. Given the focus on development in the organization, I think we’re going to have to fight the urge to ascribe every hot start to a change in teaching methods and/or personnel, but I relish the opportunity to be excited about the minors again. This organization was pretty bad at extracting production from the raw material of talent, and it’s going to be fun watching that change. Because, and I really, really don’t want to be proven wrong here, the bar can’t be lower.
Class A Midwest League: Clinton Lumberkings
Last year: just…don’t ask.
The Lumberkings have a new manager in ex-Oregon State catcher Mitch Canham, and are the lucky recipients of several players who played for Everett last year…you know, the only minor league club to post a winning record. Headlining the newcomers are CF Braden Bishop, the glove-first ex-UW Husky who hit .320/.367/.393 after being taken in the 3rd round of last year’s draft. Joining him in what should be an extremely good defensive outfield are Ricky Eusebio, who started for Miami but played in the Arizona League after the draft. He’s even more of a glove-first guy than Bishop, and may need some time to adjust to the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. OF Luis Liberato flanked Bishop in Everett last year and offers a bit of power – something the Lumberkings aren’t likely to get from Bishop/Eusebio. As another guy who’s seen time in CF, the L’Kings could literally have three centerfielders patrolling the OF.
The IF is headlined by SS prospect Rayder Ascanio, a Venezuelan who just turned 20. He saw a bit of time with Clinton last year, after a push-promotion to the California League didn’t go so well. 12th round pick Logan Taylor will play multiple corner-IF positions; the righty got off to a torrid start for Everett before slumping in August.
The pitching staff is headlined by Nick Wells, a lanky lefthander the M’s got from Toronto in the Mark Lowe trade. He opened some eyes for Everett after the trade, giving up 2 runs on just 6 hits in 18 innings, and he’ll make his first start of the year on Sunday afternoon. Lukas Schiraldi (son of ex-Red Sox pitcher Calvin) gets the opening-day start, and he’ll be followed on Friday by Zack Littell, an 11th round pick out of a NC high school who’s garnered raves for his competitiveness and pitchability and who was Clinton’s best starter a year ago.
Position-player to watch: Tempting to go with Bishop or Wells, but I’m going to give the nod to Liberato. Intrigued to see what he can do against full-season pitching, and want to see if he can consistently hit some gaps in full-season ball. He’s nowhere near the defender Bishop is, but I’m hopeful he can make the leap in a tough hitting environment.
Pitcher to watch: Wells. He was only so-so in the months before the trade, but the improved command might he flashed in Everett might allow him to move quickly. The MWL might be a great environment for a fly-ball guy like Wells, too.
Opposing team to watch: Last year was all about the Astros affiliates, and the MWL was no exception, as Quad Cities dominated with a 88-50 record. Their staff combined to throw over 40 consecutive scoreless innings, they had a run differential over +200, you get the idea. They’re going to be good again, with an OF headed up by Kyle Tucker, the #5 pick in the 2015 draft and Daz (son of Mike) Cameron, whom the Astros picked at # 37.
Class Advanced-A California League: Bakersfield Blaze
Last year: 61-79
2016 marks the second year the M’s have been with Bakersfield, and hopefully this one goes a bit better. Bakersfield’s Sam Lynn ballpark is a unique environment, and for the California League (home to High Desert, for example), that’s saying something. Laid out such that the setting sun is *directly* in the eyes of the batter, the team needs to schedule its games around sunset. Further, with a gentle arc of an outfield wall, the centerfield fence is a mere 354 feet from home.
The Blaze struggled to score in the first half of 2015, but rode a hot Tyler O’Neill to a more normal mark in the second half. This year’s club is an interesting mix of holdovers from 2015 and those who’ve skipped over the Midwest League entirely. Representing the former group are catcher Tyler Marlette and IF Joe DeCarlo, while Drew Jackson (Everett’s NWL MVP) heads up the latter group. The IF looks relatively solid with Gianfranco Wawoe probably playing 2B to Drew Jackson’s 3B, and Joe DeCarlo’s 3B. Kyle Petty, who hit well in a nice winter league assignment with Adelaide of the Aussie League, will play 1B (he got time at 1B and C last year).
The OF’s a bit thinner with glove-first guy Austin Cousino in CF and linebacker-sized enigma Austin Wilson in RF. As I mentioned before, Wilson was an over-slot pick out of Stanford a while ago, and a huge, huge talent who underwhelmed a bit in college. Thus far in his pro career, he’s kicked the underwhelming into overdrive, but you never know when/if the new coaching crew unlocks some of his prodigious potential. Well-named OFs Chantz Mack and Arby Fields will also get some time, as will converted IF Brock Hebert.
The pitching staff is headed up by 2015 draft pick Andrew Moore, he of the sparkling 43:2 K:BB ratio in Everett. The raw stuff isn’t eye-popping but Moore is supposedly a guy who competes and uses his command to dominate batters, and that’s pretty much what we saw last year. Of course, the NWL is a much easier environment for college-trained pitchers, while the California League is…not. Just ask Ryan Yarbrough, who posted a 58:5 K:BB ratio before posting just a so-so line for Bakersfield last year. Another pitcher to look for is reliever Ramon Morla. If you’ve been following the system for a while, you may remember Morla as a power-hitting 3B prospect several years ago. Well, he’s now a reliever, and hey, I love position-player conversions. It’s Rafael Soriano’s fault.
Position player to watch: Gotta be SS Drew Jackson. After a middling career at the plate at Stanford, Jackson hit far better than most observers expected, and he’s shot up the M’s prospect rankings. This is a challenging assignment for him, and he’s going to need to prove he’s more than just a slap hitter who rode exceptional speed to a high batting average. Of course, exceptional speed isn’t a BAD thing: Jackson stole 47 bases for Everett while being caught just 4 times. He’s also got a plus-plus arm at SS.
Pitcher to watch: Andrew Moore. Another challenge assignment, and obviously the California League is murder on command/control guys. But if Moore can thrive here, he turns into an intriguing bargain prospect for the M’s. Oft-injured lefty Ryan Horstman didn’t pitch much in 2015, but also didn’t give up any runs, and he’s been an under the radar relief prospect who’s just struggled to stay healthy for the club.
Opposing team to watch: ex-M’s affiliate High Desert, now a Rangers affiliate, has 9 of the Rangers top 30 prospects.
AA Southern League: Jackson Generals
Last year: 53-84
Jackson’s run differential and raw stats weren’t quite as bad as their overall record, but they weren’t any good. A team that was supposed to be paced by top prospect DJ Peterson just never got the bats going, and with turnover and ineffectiveness in the rotation, it was just a year to forget. The Generals have some star power in the form of the M’s top pitching prospect, Edwin Diaz, who blew through the Cal League and pitched most of the year for Jackson a year ago. The skinny righty out of Puerto Rico can touch the mid-high 90s, and got some time in the Futures Game at the All-Star break last year. He’ll be joined by Ryan Yarbrough, the breakout star of 2014 who had some injury issues last year, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, couldn’t recapture the form he had with the AquaSox in High-A. Still, for a budget senior sign, he’s been a revelation, and now that he’s healthy, he could reclaim that top-10-in-the-org prospect status with a solid year. Dan Altivilla was a dominant Division II hurler when the M’s drafted him a few years back, and he had a good 2015 for Bakersfield as well. The right-hander had a great stretch in the middle of the year in which he struck out 58 to just 16 walks, but he fell off a bit towards the end of the year.
The big position player prospect is OF Tyler O’Neill, the stocky Canuck who hit over 30 HRs for Bakersfield, despite missing time to play with the Canandian National Team during the summer as well. DJ Peterson will get another shot at the Southern League to start out, though the 1B could move up to Tacoma fairly quickly with a hot start. 2B Tim Lopes has good speed, but the high minors will be a tough test for a guy who struggled at the plate before a minor break out in the California League last year.
The catchers are long-time M’s farmhands Steve Baron and Marcus Littlewood.
Joining O’Neill in the OF is Cuban CF Guillermo Heredia, who looked a bit rusty in the spring, which is to be expected for a guy who hadn’t played much in two years. Fellow speedsters Ian Miller and Leon Landry make this another extremely good defensive OF.
Position player to watch: With apologies to DJ Peterson, who may be getting underrated in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of prospecting, but it’s got to be Tyler O’Neill, who was one of very, very few solid raw talents to start translating that into in-game production and power.
Pitcher to watch: No surprises here: it’s Diaz, who can either make the leap into top-50 prospect or who’ll hear more and more chatter that his future is in the bullpen.
Opposing team to watch: The Cubs have had their day, so it’s not Tennessee this year. Instead, let’s go with the Brewers affiliate, the Biloxi Shuckers. The Brewers system was on life-support for a few years there, but a new front office has made a number of trades, and that’s allowed the Brewers to take a large slice of the Houston Astros prospects, and many of them are in AA this year. The group’s headed up by OF Brett Phillips, who dominated for the Astros before moving to Biloxi in the Carlos Gomez deal. C Jacob Nottingham played for Houston’s Quad Cities club last year before moving to Oakland, and then to Milwaukee in the Khris Davis deal more recently. They’re joined by an unheralded lefty starter who kept racking up results Josh Hader; Hader, you’ll be shocked here, came over from the Astros org in the Gomez deal, too. Homegrown corner OF Victor Roache was a first rounder back in 2012 after being one of the better power hitters in the minors for Georgia Southern. He hasn’t fared as well in the minors, but after a solid year in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League, he could break out if he can learn to recognize pitches a bit better. The Mississippi Braves will be interesting to watch once SS Dansby Swanson joins them from the Carolina League.
AAA Pacific Coast League: Tacoma Rainiers
Last Year: 68-76
The roster churn throughout the org, mixed with some tough positional battles for the big club make the Tacoma roster kind of a transitional one – there are lots of veterans with big league time, and only a few promoted players. That’s more and more common in AAA, but there’s still plenty to talk about with Tacoma. Perhaps the biggest name is James Paxton, who went from #3 starter a year ago for Seattle to starting 2016 in the minors. This assignment probably stings, and how he responds is going to be critical. If he wants to commiserate, he can talk to his battery mate, Mike Zunino, who’s getting a reset season outside of the big league eye. Zunino obviously struggled much more than Paxton, and is saying all of the right things about working on his swing in the minors, but it’s got to be weird when the front office signs TWO catchers and all but publicly states that he’s not getting promoted this year. Still, that’s a hell of a starter and catcher, and Zunino’s framing figures to get the entire Tacoma staff some favorable counts.
The infield will look familiar to those who saw the team last year, with SS Chris Taylor and IF Shawn O’Malley playing all over, and corner IF/OF Stefen Romero doing the same at less demanding positions. Ex-Oregon State SS Tyler Smith joins the club after spending all of last year with Jackson.
The OF’s made up of some true PCL veterans, like Efren Navarro, a long-time Angels farmhand, and Mike Baxter, who got call-ups with the Cubs and Mets. Daniel Robertson was Navarro’s teammate in Salt Lake (and, briefly, Los Angeles) last year, too. Call-up Dario Pizzano was having a solid campaign for Jackson when he got hurt and missed six weeks last year; he’ll try to pick up where he left off while fighting for team with Navarro/Robertson. The CF, and biggest prospect, is Boog Powell who made a run at a spot on the M’s bench, but will start the year in AAA and getting more playing time. The ex-Rays prospect with an excellent batting eye may make his big league debut later this year. For a guy whose ceiling has been downplayed due to a lack of in-game power, the PCL is a good place to show some development in that area.
The pitching staff is a bit thinner behind Paxton, but the bullpen figures to be interesting. Lefty Paul Fry was, statistically, a dominant prospect, but Fry struggled a bit in the Arizona Fall League. If his command and velocity are back, he could be an effective reliever in any environment: Fry gave up a grand total of zero homers despite pitching in the Cal League and in AA last year. Justin DeFratus will try to get his career back on track; he was a solid member of the Philadelphia bullpen not long ago, and then after an inning or two this year, the M’s cut him and signed him to a minor league deal instead. The pitching star of spring training this year, righty Donn Roach, starts in Tacoma. The sinkerballing journeyman had been known for an otherworldly GB% and next to no missed bats, but he started racking up strikeouts in Peoria – he’s one to watch, and you could tell that the M’s were loathe to send him down. Other newcomers like Jonathan Aro, Cody Martin and long-time Orioles org guy Steve Johnson round out the bullpen. Former Padres and Rangers prospect Joe Wieland starts tomorrow’s opener, and he’ll be followed by Cody Martin, Paxton, and then Adrian Sampson (acquired for JA Happ) on Sunday. As Mike Curto notes, they may make a roster move tomorrow after learning that C Rob Brantly passed through waivers and was assigned to Tacoma. The club already had C Steven Lerud backing up Zunino.
Position player to watch: Mike Zunino. Many of us lamented Zunino’s rush through the minors and wondered what things would be like if he’d actually had some time to develop in the minors. He showed serious red flags the first time he came through Tacoma (though he showed plenty of encouraging things, too), and now he’s back with the psychological toll of sustained failure weighing on him. This whole experiment is predicated on the idea that you actually CAN go back and make up for lost developmental time. I think that’s *probably* true, as, say, Roy Halladay shows, but that it’s also not ideal. Of course, the ideal’s been gone a loooong time, and there’s no sense worrying about that now. The new org has been stressing the importance of development, and this is their primary job. New hitting coach Scott Brosius has a great reputation, and I’m excited to see if this works. And hey, if they’ve got some developmental mojo to smear on Chris Taylor, that’d be fantastic.
Pitcher to watch: Paxton. Can he stay healthy? Can his mechanics and newfound ability to pitch up in the zone make him more consistent that he’s been? It feels weird to even talk about Paxton here, so if you’d like, we can give the honor to Roach. Spring training is weird – remember Zunino hitting like .500 last year, or Mune Kawasaki lining base hits everywhere a few years ago? – but it’s just odd to see a guy who couldn’t strike out a folding chair in 2015 tear through big league line-ups the way he did. Maybe he’s learned something.
Opposing team to watch: This feels like an easy one this year. It’s got to be Round Rock, the Rangers affiliate, and the club that’ll be starting RF Nomar Mazara, 3B Joey Gallo, ex-Rainier/M’s prospect Pat Kivlehan, and former #1 prospect in baseball, Jurickson Profar. Mazara is a top-10-in-baseball prospect, and one of the best pure bats in the game, and the club could get even better when CF Lewis Brinson (another top-10 guy, and someone who ended the year in Round Rock) joins. Unfortunately for those of us in the northwest, Round Rock won’t be making the trip to Tacoma this year; we’ll have to catch them on MiLB.tv in May when the Rainiers visit.
If you’re looking for a prospect-laden club that’ll actually travel to Tacoma, then catch the OKC Dodgers when they visit Cheney in mid-July. They feature phenom Julio Urias, one of the best pitching prospects in the game, along with Zach Lee, a prospect who bounced back from an ugly 2014 and nearly made the Dodgers out of spring training this year. Rounding out their staff is Jharel Cotten, a solid right-hander from the Virgin Islands who breezed through High-A and AA last year, and Carlos Frias, who pitched against the M’s in the Cactus League. Their position players aren’t great shakes, but who needs them with that kind of rotation?
Fresno’s got 1B AJ Reed, 3B Colin Moran and CF Andrew Aplin, and they do the honorable thing and visit Tacoma multiple times (June, and late August).