Any team in baseball would kill to have a couple of top prospects like Taijuan Walker and Mike Zunino and both players are among the best of the best in all of baseball. Beyond that the Mariners have a host of potential mid-rotation starters at all levels of the organization, headlined by the trio of Danny Hultzen, Brandon Maurer and James Paxton all nearly ready to reach the big leagues after varying degrees of success in Double-A. Outside the Top 15 the Mariners have several boom or bust prospects that could make their way onto this list next year. It’s an intriguing system that should be fun to follow in the coming years.
1. Taijuan Walker – RHP (Last Year’s Rank: 2)
Walker’s ceiling as a starting pitcher is absolutely through the roof and aside from his high risk profile, finding fault in his game is merely nit picking. With tremendous athleticism and a fastball that can sit in the mid-90s, Walker has two base ingredients in the plus-plus range. His curveball and cutter flash as plus pitches and the progress of the rest of his game leaves scouts believing his change-up can catch up and become an average pitch. Walker’s ceiling rests as a frontline starter and after growing in Double-A last year, he could be ready for the big leagues in 2014.
2. Mike Zunino – C (NR)
The Mariners top pick last June, Zunino could be one of the first big-league regulars from his draft class. Though his profile lacks flash, he has a full complement of solid-average tools at a premium position. Zunino can struggle with consistent contact at times but he should show enough hitting ability to post averages in the .270-.275 range with 15-20 home runs. His defense needs to progress at the professional level but he has average potential and should easily be an everyday catcher defensively. With a broad skill set that should play well in the big leagues, Zunino could end up an All-Star at a thin position.
3. Nick Franklin – SS (5)
I know I shouldn’t like Franklin as much as I do, but I just can’t help myself. Like Zunino ahead of him, Franklin has a nice complement of average to solid-average tools, combined with a great feel for the game; helping his tools play up just a little bit. Franklin is a solid hitter with average raw power that should manifest in plenty of doubles and 10-15 home runs a year. Most scouts have some difficulty projecting Franklin on the left side of the infield thanks to modest range and a below-average arm, but his defensive profile can reach the average level with a move across the bag to second base.
4. Danny Hultzen – LHP (3)
Hultzen was a bit of a reach with the second overall pick in the 2011 draft, lacking a big ceiling and looking more like a number three or four starter. While Hultzen’s stuff still showed solidly in his first full season, his feel for the strike zone escaped him and he struggled to locate any of his pitches. Hultzen resides in the low-90s with his fastball, mixing it well with a plus change and a solid slider, helping him keep hitters off balance and work through lineups. With improved command, Hultzen could be ready for the big leagues by late 2013.
5. Brandon Maurer – RHP (NR)
Arguably the least heralded member of the 2012 Double-A Jackson rotation, Maurer may end up being the second best big leaguer behind Taijuan Walker. Maurer’s fastball can reach 96 mph when he reaches back for more and he sits in the 91-93 mph range consistently; relying on plus sink just as much as his velocity. Both his slider and curveball have at least average potential, giving him the pitches necessary to miss some bats. Maurer’s command of the strike zone and change-up require further development and they will determine whether he reaches his number three ceiling or comes up short at the back of a rotation.
6. James Paxton – LHP (4)
Paxton took an adventurous path to the Mariners organization after not signing right out of the draft but then pitched at Double-A for the second consecutive season in 2012. With a fastball that can reach 97 mph and rests easily in the plus range, and a curveball that sits comfortably in the same range, he has two legitimate big-league pitches. Most scouts I spoke with had very little confidence in his change-up and projected him out as a two-pitch number four starter that you always expect more from.
7. Victor Sanchez – RHP (NR)
A beefy (6-foot, 250-pounds) right-hander, Sanchez has the makings of becoming a true power pitcher that eats innings every time out. His fastball is consistently 92-94 mph and will reach higher on occasion. His curveball and change-up both flash at above-average levels but need considerable consistency to hold those grades every inning or every time out. Sanchez is extremely young and extremely raw, requiring ample development time but he has legitimate mid-rotation potential.
8. Luiz Gohara – LHP (NR)
One of the top pitchers on the international market in 2012, Gohara could explode onto the scene in his professional debut this summer. His fastball already reaches as high as 95 mph from the left side and will consistently work at 90-91 mph during his outings. He shows feel for both a curveball and change-up early in his career and if you want to dream you can see two more above-average to plus pitches in his arsenal. There is almost no telling what Gohara can become, but he is certainly worth watching going forward.
9. Carter Capps – RHP (NR)
Drafted in 2011, Capps has raced through the minor leagues and he should impact the big league bullpen in 2012. Capps’ physical frame fits his upper-90s fastball that touches 99 mph and he attacks with that heater. He also features a plus curveball that can miss bats and gives him at least setup projection with some potential to close as he settles into the big leagues.
10. Brad Miller – INF (NR)
Miller is a nice player whose only standout tool is his bat. Despite some odd swing mechanics, Miller gets the bat to the ball and shows an ability to use the whole field and hit for average. He hits line drives consistently and has good gap power that should play to 20+ doubles in the big leagues. His defense at shortstop is not pretty and he fits better in a utility role than an everyday guy at any one position.
11. Edwin Diaz – RHP (NR)
I was tempted to push Diaz considerably higher in these rankings but ultimately I need to see how his fastball and curveball play under a professional workload before I get that bold. As an amateur, Diaz showed plus velocity with projection for even more down the line, as well as a potential plus curveball. Relatively inexperienced, Diaz is extremely raw and must become more of a pitcher rather than a thrower, but his velocity and feel for a breaking ball at a young age are extremely promising.
12. Tyler Pike – LHP (NR)
A third round pick in 2012, Pike is highly projectable with a lean frame and velocity that already sits in the average range, touching 92 mph when he ramps up for a little more. Both his curveball and change-up show some promise, giving him the potential for three average pitches with good pitchability and excellent competitiveness. Pike lacks a significant ceiling but he could move quickly despite his youth and has a chance to max out as a number four starter.
13. Stefen Romero – INF/OF (NR)
If I were convinced Romero could stay on the dirt I would have ranked him among the top ten prospects in the system. As it stands now, the scouts I spoke to were pretty skeptical of his below-average range, fringy arm and modest actions at second base, projecting him better on an outfield corner. Romero has the potential to hit in the .270-.280 range with average pop and maybe even 10-12 stolen bases as a fringe-average everyday guy.
14. Gabriel Guerrero – OF (NR)
Guerrero is immensely talented an also incredibly raw in every phase of the game. He fits well in right field with solid athleticism, good defensive instincts and a true plus arm. Offensively, his approach will need considerable work but he shows some feel for the barrel and plus raw. It’s going to be a long road to the Major Leagues but Guerrero has one of the higher raw ceilings in the system.
15. Tyler Marlette – C (15)
After a solid showing in the Appalachian League and continued solid reviews from scouts, I remain optimistic about the potential Marlette offers. His defense will need continued work but he made some strides with his receiving in 2012 and still shows an above-average to plus arm behind the plate. With good pop in his bat, he can drive the ball out of the park but he will have to prove he can make more consistent contact to reach his potential.