The standard industry narrative regarding the Mariners’ farm system paints a grim picture. It goes more or less like this:
General manager Jerry Dipoto and his lieutenants inherited a mess from predecessor Jack Zduriencik, that said mess was the key factor in Zduriencik’s dismissal, and that Dipoto made things worse through a series of win-now deals.
For example, ESPN.com’s Keith Law recently ranked the Mariners’ system at No. 28 among the 30 clubs for a second straight year while citing “years of poor drafts,” and pointing to Dipoto dealing “three of the team’s top dozen prospects.”
Dipoto tacitly acknowledged the farm system was a shambles shortly after taking command in September 2015 by cleaning house within the Mariners’ scouting and (in particular) player-development departments.
And, yes, this winter saw the Mariners deal away outfielder Alex Jackson, left-handed pitcher Luiz Gohara and right-handed pitchers Ryan Yarbrough and Paul Blackburn among others.
While Jackson has been a disappointment since his selection as the sixth overall pick in the 2014 MLB Draft, he nonetheless entered the past two seasons ranked by Baseball America as the organization’s top prospect.
Gohara was generally ranked by various services as the organization’s highest-upside pitching prospect.
Now for the defense.
“We feel like we’ve added a lot of talent,” Dipoto countered, “and I’d also like to, at least personally, express that we’ve done it without stripping the minor leagues. I think that is a narrative that’s just wrong.
“Many of the deals that we’ve made in recent months have been more trading major-league players for major-league players or prospects for prospects.
“We’ve added younger players to our mix, and we feel like we’ve held on to the foundation of what we were doing in player development because that has been a big part of what we want to do.”
The Mariners had soured on Jackson, who batted just .243 last season as a third-year pro in Lo-A ball while striking out 103 times in 333 at-bats. He went to Atlanta along with pitcher Tyler Pike, who has 301 walks in 530 2/3 career innings.
In return, the Mariners obtained two pitchers, Rob Whalen and Max Povse, who are closer to the majors and who, Dipoto said, could be “sneaky good acquisitions.”
Povse ranks No 9 in new TNT Top 10 ranking of the organization’s prospects.
The bigger point, in the Mariners’ view, is they held on to their top two non-pitching prospects in outfielders Kyle Lewis and Tyler O’Neill, who rank one-two in the TNT rankings (as they do in nearly all other major preseason assessments).
Lewis, 21, was their first-round pick last June and appeared poised to make a quick move through the system before suffering a major knee injury in his 30th game. He is still recovering from surgery and not expected back until July.
“His mind-set is tremendous,” player-development director Andy McKay said. “He’s in good spirits, but it was a massive injury that he sustained. I would expect some time around the All-Star break that you’ll see him on a full-season club.”
That probably means Lo-A Clinton.
O’Neill, 21, was the most valuable player last year in the Double-A Southern League after leading Jackson to the title. He was also picked as the organization’s hitter of the year and is ticketed to start this season at Triple-A Tacoma.
“I just want to show everybody that I can play everywhere,” he said. “That I can hit, I can play in the field, I can run, I can take the extra base and do the little things right … do whatever I need to do at any point in the game.”
While the Mariners surrendered Gohara, who figured to start this season in A-ball, they retained right-handers Nick Neidert and Andrew Moore, a pair of second-round picks in the 2015 draft who rank No. 6 and No. 8 in the TNT Top 10.
Further, Dipoto’s deals over the last eight months added four players who appear in the TNT rankings: Povse, first baseman Dan Vogelbach (No. 5) and outfielders Mitch Haniger (No. 3) and Ben Gamel (No. 7).
All but Povse are strong candidates to break camp on the club’s 25-man roster.
Now add rookie outfielder Guillermo Heredia, who heads the TNT Watch List — a supplemental group of notable prospects that includes Whalen and other trade acquisitions such as lefties Dillon Overton, James Pazos and Zac Curtis.
“We actually have acquired quite a few young players who we feel … are sustainable pieces of our foundation moving forward,” Dipoto said.
Maybe the narrative needs to change.
TNT Top 10 and Watch List
To qualify for our Top 10 and Watch List, a player must still meet rookie qualifications entering the 2017 season. Rankings are based on scouting evaluations by those within and outside of the Mariners’ organization.
Our ratings are a mix of high-end potential and the likelihood of reaching that potential with weight given to those likely to contribute this season to the major-league club.
OF Kyle Lewis (Bats right, throws right, 6 feet 4, 210 pounds, age 21 on opening day, first-round pick in 2016). Generally viewed last season as the nation’s top college player. The biggest question is whether Lewis makes a full recovery from a devastating knee injury. Expected to return in mid-July.
OF Tyler O’Neill (R-R, 5-11, 205, 21, third round in 2013). Made immense strides last season when, after a solid 2015, he bought into the organization’s new control-the-zone approach. Could make big-league debut later this year.
OF Mitch Haniger (R-R, 6-2, 204, 26, supplemental first in 2015 by Milwaukee). Much is expected this year from Haniger, whom the Mariners obtained from Arizona in a November trade. Projects as starting right fielder after breakout season in the minors.
RHP Dan Altavilla (R-R, 5-11, 200, 24, fifth round in 2014). Switched last season to the bullpen and excelled in 15 big-league outings after a late August promotion from Double-A. A power arm with closer capability.
1B Dan Vogelbach (L-R, 6-0, 250, 24, second round in 2011 by Chicago Cubs). Obtained last July from the Cubs in a trade, he projects to get regular duty on the strength of a strong minor-league resume. Defense remains suspect.
RHP Nick Neidert (R-R, 6-1, 180, 20, second round, in 2015). His velocity spiked last year which, in addition to his plus command, makes him an intriguing prospect. Likely to start at Hi-A Modesto. Still a year or two away.
OF Ben Gamel (L-L, 5-11, 187, 24, 10th round in 2010 by New York Yankees). Another trade acquisition who could win a roster spot and, perhaps, get regular duty. He was the player of the year last season in the Triple-A International League.
RHP Andrew Moore (R-R, 6-0, 195, 22, second round in 2015). Picked last season as the organization’s top minor-league pitcher, his command and pitchability continue to impress. Probably a year away.
RHP Max Povse (R-R, 6-8, 220, 23, third round in 2013 by Atlanta). Still another newcomer, he showed an improved ability last season to repeat his delivery — always a key mechanical hurdle for tall pitchers.
SS Drew Jackson (R-R, 6-2, 200, 24, fifth round in 2015). Plus speed and defense mark him as a solid middle-infield prospect, but his bat dipped last season in making a two-step jump to Hi-A after a potent pro debut at Short-A.
TNT WATCH LIST: Outfielder Guillermo Heredia, a Cuban defector signed last March, just missed the Top 10 after a better-than-expected bat helped him end the season in the big league after opening the year at Double-A…the Mariners protected right-handed reliever Thyago Vieira last November by adding him to the 40-man roster after he flashed triple-digit velocity in the Arizona Fall League. He figures to start the season at Double-A Arkansas but just might be this year’s Edwin Diaz, who made the made the jump last season directly from Double-A.
Two starting pitchers obtained in off-season trades, right-hander Rob Whalen (from Atlanta) and lefty Dillon Overton (from Oakland), got a taste last season in the big leagues. Both should start at Triple-A Tacoma but normal attrition positions each as a likely call-up candidate…much the same holds true for two lefty relievers also acquired in trades: James Pazos (from the Yankees) and Zac Curtis (Arizona). Pazos logged limited big-league time over the last two years, while Curtis made the rare jump last year to the big leagues from Hi-A before settling in at Double-A. Both will get a chance to break camp with the Mariners but are more likely to open the season at Tacoma. The same goes for another lefty reliever, Paul Fry, a 2013 draft pick who has moved steadily through the system.
Catcher Marcus Littlewood should see time at Tacoma after batting .307 in 56 games at Double-A…doubts remains about first baseman D.J. Peterson, a first-round pick in 2013, even though he resurrected his prospect status last season after a disappointing 2015. He faces another “prove it” year at Tacoma…similarly, outfielder Boog Powell has a chance to rebuild his career at Tacoma after a second drug suspension, which extends a little over a week into the upcoming season.
Third baseman Joe Rizzo, a second-round pick last June, proved as an 18-year-old that he can spray the ball around with a sweet line-drive swing, but he might lack the pop to stay at a corner position…outfielder Brayan Hernandez, still just 19, started last season to show the tools that prompted the Mariners to shell out a $1.85 million signing bonus in 2014…three middle infielders to put on the radar: shortstops Christopher Torres and Bryson Brigman and second baseman Greifer Andrade. All are a few years away.