The Seattle Mariners are perfectly in limbo. And no, it’s not fun. The Mariners have the best record by a solid margin among the last place teams in each division in baseball and are second among the fourth place teams. But it’s not just this season. Since losing to the Yankees in the 2001 ALCS after winning an AL-record 116 games that season, the Mariners have had a .468 team inning percentage, being not a terrible team most years but not making the playoffs a single time. How can the Mariners break the funk that they have been stuck in now for over a decade? They need the highly-touted prospects that they have drafted and acquired over the years to live up to their potential. We have seen that happen with some of their big league players this season, with Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders having breakthrough years, but if they are ever going to contend in the tough AL West, they need much more progress than that.
The Arizona Fall League features players primarily from the Double-A and Triple-A level along with talented players from lower in the minors as it is constructed, and players often go from the AFL to impact players in the big leagues within a year. In the Arizona Fall League, the Mariners get to see how a bunch of their players who are on the cusp of the big leagues are doing as members of the Peoria Javelinas in the AFL and assess the future of their franchise. They hope that with reinforcements coming from their system, the playoff berth that has eluded them will finally come into sight.
When Mike Zunino was available with the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 MLB Draft, it was a dream scenario for the Mariners. You could say that they have been waiting for a player like him for a long time. The Mariners have had just one All-Star catcher in the history of their franchise. But it’s not only about that. Much of the Mariners’ future is going to be defined by their young pitching. And to help those pitchers develop to the fullest extent, they need a strong catching presence to work with them and give them confidence to help them pitch the best that they can. And in general, the Mariners need a leader. Ichiro was the face of the franchise from 2001 up until this season, and he is an incredible players who will be enshrined in the Hall of Fame someday. But he wasn’t a leader. He wasn’t a player that the young guys on the team could look up to. He was on another level. Zunino has the ability to be the leader and be the outstanding catcher that the Mariners have been sorely lacking. Zunino, 21, has a good catcher’s frame at 6’2″, 220, and showed in his professional debut how good of a player he has the ability to be. He posted a .373/.474/.736 line in 133 plate appearances at Short Season-A Everett with 10 doubles, 10 homers, 35 RBI, and 26 strikeouts against 18 walks. From there, he went straight up to Double-A Jackson and continued to mash to close off the year, posting a .333/.386/.588 line with 4 doubles, 3 homers, 8 RBI, and 7 strikeouts against 5 walks in 57 plate appearances. Defensively, he posted a great 43% caught stealing percentage, although he had some trouble receiving, allowing 9 passed balls. Zunino has a chance to be an excellent all-around catcher in the major leagues. At the plate, Zunino stands out for his above-average power that gives him the ability to be a 25-30 home run threat. His swing has significant lift and the ball jumps off his bat, but its uppercut leads to a lot of swings-and-misses, which will prevent him from hitting for a high average. Defensively at catcher, Zunino has excellent durability, a strong arm, and smooth actions behind the plate, although he may have tried to do a little bit too much in his pro debut, messing up his receiving ability which has normally looked good in the past. In the Arizona Fall League, Zunino will look to get right defensively and get more reps at the plate against advanced pitching. The Mariners will almost assuredly start Zunino back at Double-A in 2013 and give him a chance to be in the big leagues by September of next season, maybe even sooner. They love his abilities and look for him to make needed progress over the fall and be in the big leagues before they know it.
One of the promising young pitchers that Zunino worked with during his time in Jackson is lefty James Paxton, who is 6’4″, 220 and will turn 24 in November. Unlike Zunino, Paxton may be at a really crossroads heading into the Arizona Fall League. Paxton isn’t so young anymore, and he has not developed as the Mariners had hoped this season. After dominating in 7 starts at Jackson to end 2011, Paxton was originally planned to make just a few starts there to begin this year before moving up to Triple-A Tacoma. But ineffectiveness followed by a knee injured doomed that plan and on the season, Paxton struggled. In 21 starts and 106.1 IP, Paxton went 9-4 with a nice 3.05 ERA and a 9.3 K/9, but his BB/9 was 4.6, and although his HR/9 was 0.4, his groundball rate was not so impressive at 45.8% according to Minor League Central. Paxton’s repertoire remains electric, especially considering he’s a lefty. His fastball can reach the upper 90’s, but he likes to work in the low-90’s, touching 95-96 MPH with good sink as he gets a nice downward plane on his pitches. Other than one bad month in April, Paxton stayed around the zone with his fastball basically all season and did a good job keeping the ball down and forcing groundballs to go along with plenty of swings-and-misses. The problem right now is his secondary pitches. Paxton’s 1-to-7 curveball took a significant step back at times this season, not being nearly as sharp as it had been in the past and staying up in the zone too often. Previously a mid-to-high 70’s offering, Paxton tried to throw his breaking ball harder, in the low-80’s, as he worked with his two-seam fastball more often, but it got slurvy at times, featuring the solid velocity but not much depth and not sharp enough break. If Paxton is really going to throw primarily a sinker as opposed to a fastball moving forward, the Mariners may consider scrapping the breaking ball entirely, which seems unlikely considering how promising it had been in the past, but they could teach him a mid-80’s cutter/slider to complement his two-seamer better. Paxton’s third pitch is a circle changeup that showed flashes in 2012 but he still is unable to locate it consistently for strikes. In the Arizona Fall League, Paxton is going to continue working on his secondary pitches to complement his great fastball. He has shown flashes of having the potential to be an overbearing starter from the left side, and the Mariners hope he can recapture that a strong showing in Arizona.
It was a tale of two levels for 6’1″, 180 middle infielder Nick Franklin in 2012 as he experienced a free-fall in production after getting promoted from Double-A to Triple-A. At Double-A Jackson, Franklin, 21, was great, posting a .322/.394/.522 line with 17 doubles, 4 triples, 4 homers, 26 RBI, 9 of 11 stolen bases, and 38 strikeouts against 24 walks in 57 games and 238 plate appearances. But after heading up to Tacoma, Franklin’s line was just .243/.310/.416 with 15 doubles, 5 triples, 7 homers, 29 RBI, just 3 of 5 stolen bases, and 68 strikeouts versus 24 walks and 64 games and 296 plate appearances. Franklin is an interesting prospect because he’s a switch-hitting middle infielder with power. He has a timing-oriented swing with very good bat speed when he’s on, and he hits the ball hard when he connects with power to all fields. He has a chance to be a 20-homer threat down the line. However, his plate discipline comes and goes, and that’s something he has to solidify. But his biggest problem is the disparity between his left-handed and right-handed swings. He posted a .304/.372/.507 line as a lefty (against right-handed pitching) compared to just .190/.260/.284 as a righty. Franklin features better hitting ability, power, and plate discipline left-handed and it isn’t even close. There has been talk of the Mariners telling Franklin to ditch his right-handed swing for a while. Is the Arizona Fall League where that process finally starts? Franklin’s speed is just average, something you can certainly deal with thanks to his power, it plays a part in his enigmatic shortstop defense. Between average range, a slightly below-average arm, and inconsistent actions, Franklin has continuously struggled at the shortstop positions. He looks like a fine fit at second base, but that’s useless to the Mariners since Dustin Ackleyis already there. In the Arizona Fall League, the Mariners are going to figure out a plan of attack for maximizing Franklin’s offensive talent, whether that involves dropping his right-handed swing or not, and get Franklin more reps defensively at shortstop so he can make the necessary improvements to stay there. Franklin is a talented player, but there are several kinks that need to be worked out before he can make a big league impact, and the Mariners hope that process can start in the AFL.
Often the Arizona Fall League is used as a chance to get players who missed time because of injury some extra playing time. Other times, a player just has a tough year and you send him to the AFL to try to piece him back together. Vinnie Catricala, a 6’3″, 220 third baseman who will turn 24 in October, completely faltered as the Mariners were aggressive in promoting him to Triple-A after just a half-year at Double-A, posting just a .229/.292/.348 line with 23 doubles, 10 homers, 48 RBI, 4 of 6 stolen bases, and 88 strikeouts versus 37 walks in 122 games and 507 plate appearances. Catricala has stood out thanks to good power despite a compact swing. But in 2012, we saw the flip-side of that. Even though Catricala’s swing is compact, when he stops being so selective at the plate and makes too much contact, his power disappears and his average plummets. Catricala simply couldn’t hit the ball with any authority in 2012. The real top-of-the-top power hitters manage to hit for great power without striking out very often. Catricala is not that guy. Catricala’s raw power is above-average, not anywhere near elite. In order to profile at third base- in order to profile anywhere- Catricala has to maintain the above-average bat speed he has shown in the past. If he swings and just hopes that his strength is going to lead to hits even if he doesn’t connect squarely, that’s a losing strategy. Catricala has to have more of a gap-to-gap approach and just let his power flow naturally. He has a chance to be a .300 hitter with 20-homer power and he can’t try to be anything more than that. Catricala has to adjust his approach and improve his plate discipline. Defensively, Catricala’s arm is just decent and his speed is below-average, but he has solid hands and has made strides towards being at least a passable defender at third base. As a member of the Javelinas, Catricala will look to get his approach at the plate back in sync and continue working defensively to move towards his potential as an impact bat at the big league level.
One of the minors’ breakout stars in 2012 was 6’3″, 225 second baseman Stefen Romero. In the AFL, the Mariners will see whether he’s for real. Romero, who will turn 24 in October, had an enormous season as he moved up from High-A High Desert to Double-A Jackson, posting a .352/.391/.599 line with 34 doubles, 7 triples, 23 homers, 101 RBI, 12 of 17 stolen bases, and 72 strikeouts versus 27 walks in 116 games and 516 plate appearances. And unlike Franklin, he actually improved heading to the higher level, upping his OPS from .973 to a ridiculous 1.012. Romero has rapidly made a name for himself thanks to his outstanding bat speed. Romero shows incredibly quick hands to go along with excellent lift in his swing and above-average power. He is able to explode through the zone with his bat to make a ton of contact and get the ball on the barrel. His big problem at the plate right now is a lack of plate discipline, something that could severely handicap his power if it’s not corrected, but he does a pretty good job recognizing breaking balls and getting his bat on them. Defensively, Romero moves well for a bigger guy, featuring average overall speed, and shows a solid arm, although with Dustin Ackley on the Mariners, he will likely end up in left field at some point. Romero has jumped onto the scene this season and with continued work on his plate discipline, he has a chance to go from unheralded prospect to impact big league bat within the span of a year. The Mariners hope to see Romero tear up the Arizona Fall League and make the necessary improvements to give him a chance to do the same in the big leagues.
The relievers in the Arizona Fall League are an interesting group. The vast majority of the time they’re don’t have nearly the prospect luster of the rest of the AFL’s prospects, but with a strong showing they can get on the fast-track to the big leagues and make a big league impact almost immediately. After a strong pro debut this season, Carson Smith, 22, looks to solidify himself as a big league option for the Mariners in the very near future. The Mariners’ 8th round pick in 2011, Smith went 5-1 in 2012 with a 2.90 ERA, a 4.1 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and 15 saves in 49 relief appearances across 62 IP for High-A High Desert. His ground ball rate was an outstanding 56.5%. Smith stands out thanks to a mid-90’s sinker, a sharp slider, and a decent changeup. His sinker is an outstanding pitch as he gets a good downward frame on it thanks to his 6’6″, 205 frame, and although he struggles to control it at times, he does a good job keeping it down. His slider is a plus pitch when it’s at its best, but he has problems selling it as a strike, limiting its effectiveness. His changeup is a straight change and has to continue working on his arm action in order to keep using it effectively. If Smith can show improvement controlling his slider and selling his secondary offerings, he has a chance to be a late-inning bullpen arm for the Mariners. The Mariners hope to see that process be expedited over the fall.
Acquired from the Dodgers in the Brandon Leaguetrade, Logan Bawcom gives the Mariners a chance to recoup a little bit of League’s value out of the bullpen in the majors without too much of a wait. Bawcom, a 6’2″, 200 right-hander who will turn 24 in November, had a great season between High-A in the Dodgers organization and Double-A in both the Dodgers and Mariners systems, going 6-4 with 2.00 ERA, a 10.7 K/9, a 5.3 BB/9, a 0.3 HR/9, and 27 saves in 51 relief appearances spanning 63 IP. His season did end in alarming fashion- despite staying in the Double-A Southern league as he was traded from the Dodgers to the Mariners, walking 15 compared to 15 strikeouts in 14.1 IP at Double-A Jackson across 12 appearances after posting a 9.3 K/9 and a 4.2 BB/9 in 27 appearances at the Dodgers’ Double-A Chattanooga. The Mariners hope that he just had a tough finish to the season. Bawcom has very good stuff, featuring an explosive mid-90’s fastball with late bite along with a slider with sharp break. But he struggles to command both pitches and the more advanced hitters at Double-A were able to lay off his slider as he was unable to sell it to them as a strike. Bawcom has the ability to overpower hitters, but he has to find some way to stay around the zone and polish his slider enough that it can be a consistently effective second pitch for him. The Mariners hope Bawcom can make progress at doing that in the AFL, and if he does, he’ll start 2013 at Triple-A and will be in the big leagues at some point over the course of the season.
Lefty reliever Bobby LaFramboise, 26, was an afterthought as a prospect for the Mariners entering this season, but after a great year, the Mariners will send him to Arizona and see if he could be a little more than that. LaFramboise, a 6’4″, 190 left-hander, worked his way up from Double-A to Triple-A in 2012 with a great season, going 6-2 with a 1.36 ERA, a 9.5 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.1 HR/9 in 47 relief appearances across 66.1 IP. He definitely was lucky to allow just 1 home run all season, but he did post a 47.9% ground ball rate according to Minor League Central. The problem with LaFramboise: since he hasn’t been a prospect, there’s no word about his stuff. The MLC stats, though, do give us a solid guess. On the season, LaFramboise had an above-average strikeout rate, 9.5 per 9 innings compared to the 7.3 average of the leagues he played in. He struck out 26.9% of the batters he faced compared to the 18.8% average. 24.2% of the batters he faced struck out swinging compared to just 2.3% striking out swinging. Pitchers almost always strike out more batters swinging than looking and by a considerable margin, especially the farther down you go in the minor leagues. But it’s staggering that LaFramboise struck out 24.2% of the hitters against him, well above the 13.5% average of the leagues he played in compared, but his strikeout looking rate of 2.3% that was barely half the average of 4.5%.
What does any of this rambling mean? It’s a lot easier to locate a fastball in the strike zone than a breaking ball and therefore you’re going to get a lot more strikeouts looking on it. Basically LaFramboise’s fastball is unimpressive, also the reason why no one considered him any sort of prospect. Considering his groundball tendencies, I would guess that LaFramboise throws a high-80’s sinker that doesn’t miss any bats. Where do all his swings and misses from? It would seem like he has an excellent breaking ball, presumably a slider since he throws a sinker, that forced a lot of swings and missed. He must also throw a changeup. LaFramboise really got lefties out this season, holding them to a .183/.255/.263 line. He has a chance to be a solid situational lefty reliever. Those players are rarely prospects unless they’re former prospects who completely implode and that’s the only major league career they can salvage. But they’re still important parts of the teams they’re on. The Mariners will see if LaFramboise can get lefties out as he moves up the ranks and whether he has the ability to contribute anything to their team in some capacity over the few years. With a good performance in the Arizona Fall League, LaFramboise will likely find himself in the big leagues next season.
What’s interesting about the players that the Mariners are sending to the Arizona Fall League is that it’s a group of mostly older prospects, but at the same time there’s a lot of talent here. These players have a chance to be big parts of the Mariners’ future. But what their age does is it makes the AFL a key crossroads in their careers. Strong performance to go along with necessary improvement means that big league careers and maybe a prosperous ones could be ahead. If they look overpowered some of them may never recover. The Mariners hope to see these prospects start putting everything together over the fall and give them something to look forward to in the near future.
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