Mariners First Half Minor League Review

Mariners First Half Minor League Review

The first half in the Seattle Mariners minor league system was filled with surprises and some disappointments. Two of the three full season clubs that have had their break entered the midway point of the season in first place. SeattleClubhouse takes a closer look at each of these teams offering up went right and what went wrong with the clubs.

Here is a look at the Seattle Mariners' three full season minor league clubs that just came out of their All-Star breaks, with a highlight of the best and worst player performances from each. Records and stats for the clubs are through first half games only.

Jackson Generals
42-28 (1st place)
Double-A Southern League

Thanks to a slew of media attention before the year started, Jackson came into the season with some lofty expectations on them. The placement of the Mariners' "Big Three" pitching prospects -- Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker -- together with some talented position players like Nick Franklin led Baseball America to tout the club as minor league baseball's "most talented team". The Generals seem to have taken ownership of that title and they cruised to a relatively easy seven game cushion at the break in the Southern League North Division.

There were some injury issues and some players lost to promotion, but the team still performed great overall during an exciting first half. Hultzen certainly warrants mentioning first as the stats he accumulated during his first half season of pro ball are nothing short of spectacular: an 8-3 record, 1.19 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and a .151 opponents' average -- the best mark in minor league baseball -- to go along with more than twice as many strikeouts (79) as hits allowed (38). It is clear that Hultzen isn't long for the Double-A level. In fact, his start in the All-Star game over the break was his last appearance at the level as he was promoted to Tacoma.

Also promoted to Tacoma was shortstop Nick Franklin. Franklin hasn't popped the home run numbers that we saw from him in Clinton two seasons back, but he is hitting for extra base power, making great contact, hitting for a high average, drawing walks and playing solid defense up the middle. He will be seeing time at second, third and short in Tacoma but the biggest thing to watch for him is his hitting from the right side, where he managed just a .170/.237/.226 split before his promotion.

The other highlights of the first half for Jackson on the mound included the right-handed flamethrowers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps out of the bullpen (combined 1.27 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, 16 Saves and a 13.59 SO/9 in 49 2/3 IP), starter Andrew Carraway (2.61 ERA before his promotion to Tacoma) left-handed relievers Bobby LaFramboise (1.01 ERA in 20 G, also now with Tacoma) and Brian Moran (1.14 ERA and WHIP in 24 games). One of the "other" starters for Jackson has also been impressive: right-hander Brandon Maurer has benefited from being around the more highly regarded starters according to Mariners Director of Minor League Operations Chris Gwynn. "I think having those three there and working in the rotation with them and seeing how they go about their business has helped him focus," he said. "Brandon's still working on his fastball command, but there is no doubt that he has big time ability."

On offense the Generals were led by Southern League All-Stars Franklin, center fielder Denny Almonte (9 HR, 15 SB and a very impressive 30 BB), DH Joe Dunigan (12 HR and 10 SB) and catcher Jesus Sucre (.306/.349/.344). Almonte is one to keep an eye on for Jackson in the second half of the season. Gwynn said of the switch-hitting centerfielder, "Almonte is an incredibly bright player. He's definitely making strides in his game this year." Aside from the improvements in his plate discipline, Gwynn also said that he likes Almonte's defense and his approach to the game. "He's a guy that really brings it every day," said Gwynn. "He can affect the game in a number of ways because of his tools."

Because of the success that the prospects in Jackson have enjoyed, the club has had a lot of promotions and as a result will have a much different look in the second half, but there is still enough interesting talent on the roster to make them a fun team to watch and a tough one to beat for their Southern League opponents.

TOP PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

Nick Franklin - .322/.394/.502, 25 XBH, 24 BB, 9 SB
Denny Almonte - .284/.367/.444, 9 HR, 30 BB, 14 SB
Danny Hultzen - 8-3, 1.19 ERA, 0.93 WHIP 75 1/3 IP, 79 SO
Carter Capps - 1.34 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 9 SV, 33 2/3 IP, 10 BB, 51 SO
Brandon Maurer - 5-1, 3.82 ERA, 77 2/3 IP, 26 BB, 59 SO

BOTTOM PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

James Paxton - 1.47 WHIP, 6.2 BB/9, only 4 2/3 average IP/start
Rich Poythress - Only 1 HR and .375 SLG (injured)
Gabriel Noriega - .202/.257/.207, 1 XBH, 13 BB, 53 SO
Chih-Hsien Chiang - .646 OPS in 20 games in 3rd time in Double-A
Mauricio Robles - Demoted and moved to pen, but still 7.8 BB/9

High Desert Mavericks
37-33 (T-1st place)
High-A California League

The California League is a tricky place to judge prospects. The warm, thin air, the high winds and the hard infields make for ideal hitting conditions and tend to inflate offensive numbers and sometimes give false readings of both hitting and pitching prospects. And the conditions in High Desert are perhaps the most extreme and the most hitter-friendly in the entire league -- maybe all of baseball. As you can imagine, there have been offensive stars aplenty in High Desert while pitching standouts have been harder to find.

But judging how players are performing here means looking beyond the basic numbers and asking lots of questions. So I not only got feedback from Gwynn here, but also from Mavericks Manager Pedro Grifol and Kevin Goldstein from Baseball Prospectus and ESPN. So who are the players that have impressed the most?

Outfielder Julio Morban earned rave reviews from each of those three, Goldstein saying, "Obviously he isn't a .380 hitter, but there is some real talent there." Goldstein pointed to the fact that it does mean something that Morban is hitting better on the road than at home, but cautioned, "Even the road games are still in the Cal League," meaning that we should all keep league context in mind and not go too crazy with projections on him. Gwynn stated that Morban was one of the players that he wasn't real familiar with in coming over to Seattle from San Diego, but he has learned a lot about him quickly. "He's obviously extremely talented and was a big international guy when they got him here, but he's shown more power than I think anyone expected...and he's still only 20." The big key for Morban, obviously, is staying healthy and staying on the field. "He's had a couple of minor injuries this year, but we're being careful with how much we play him," said Grifol. The key, he said, is keeping him healthy enough and fresh enough to maximize his talents while learning the intracicies of the game. Grifol continued, "He's a five tool player. And he has a good swing -- great hands -- and great speed."

Shortstop Brad Miller is another player that has put up great numbers offensively, but he also ranks near the top in all of the minor leagues in errors. So is he a shortstop? "Not for me," said Goldstein. "He just isn't a quick-twitch athlete and there are still too many fundamental mistakes." Grifol and Gwynn both saw this differently, Grifol saying, "I'm not one to make excuses and that really isn't what this is, but you have to consider that some of these fields are very difficult, very fast and unpredictable. Everyone gets a lot of bad hops." He then added confidently, "If you ask me, he's a big league shortstop." Gwynn answered the question this way, "I don't know a lot of big league shortstops that didn't make a lot of errors in the minors. It's part of the learning process." Kyle Glaser, who covers the Mavericks at the Victorville Daily Press told me, "Miller is the best defensive shortstop I've seen in the Cal League, bar none." And they all agreed that Miller's bat and the overall offensive approach he has is promising.

Grifol mentioned a few others when I asked him for standouts from the first half, pointing to left-handers Anthony Fernandez (since promoted to Jackson) and Roenis Elias and their competitiveness and toughness, second baseman Stefen Romero (also in Jackson now), who had his makeup praised by Gwynn, and reliever Carson Smith and his, "big league arm".

Dennis Raben -- long a player that Scout.com's Frankie Piliere has liked and praised for his potential 30-plus big league homer power -- is back with the club now. We'll see what transpires in the second half, but with Romero now gone, Morban, Raben and the catching tandem of John Hicks and Jack Marder will be shouldering more of the offensive load.

TOP PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

Stefen Romero - .357 AVG, .973 OPS, 92 H, 33 XBH, 51 RBI
John Hicks - .824 OPS, 42% CS
Julio Morban - .343 AVG, 13 HR, 1.040 OPS
Jack Marder - .355 AVG, .938 OPS, 10 SB
Anthony Fernandez - 3.68 ERA, 1.17 WHIP 5.6 SO:BB ratio

BOTTOM PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

Mickey Wiswall - .701 OPS, 59 SO
James Jones - 68 SO, .684 road OPS
Tyler Burgoon - 5.29 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 4.7 BB/9
Carson Smith - 5.01 ERA, 1.70 WHIP, 4.7 BB/9
Kevin Rivers - .236 AVG, 38 SO in 127 AB

Clinton Lumber Kings
23-45 (8th place)
Low-A Midwest League

The LumberKings haven't been swinging much lumber so far this season. The offense started the year off really struggling to score runs, and some of the guys that were being counted on to be the big bats in the lineup just haven't really kicked it in gear yet. That is the main reason why Clinton ended the first half with the worst record by six games in the 16 team Midwest League, but from what I have heard from a few sources, the losing compounded and soured the attitudes of some of the players, and frustration plays a big role in their struggles, too. The losing and the attitudes snowballed and the club was just getting beat up as the first half came to a close.

Guillermo Pimentel, Jabari Blash, Jharmidy De Jesus and Ramon Morla all got off to especially slow starts at the plate, and Morla -- who is white-hot right now with 36 hits in his last 81 at bats (.444) over the last 20 games -- is the only one that has come out of that funk to date. Pimentel has just a .585 OPS and only three homers, Blash -- repeating the level that he started at in '11 -- is hitting just .214 and falling into the same passive approach that he struggled with last year while in Clinton, and De Jesus was hitting just .216 and slugging only .331 before bieng moved up to Double-A Jackson due to injuries and positional need. And while he is certainly hitting now, Goldstein told me that Morla just doesn't look comfortable at third base. The 17 errors back that up, and even though his defense has been much better of late, Kevin isn't the first to make the suggestion that the outfield is a more likely destination for Ramon long term.

Those four aren't Clinton's only problems however, as the offense ranks 12th in the league in P{S (.677) and last in runs scored while the pitching staff ranks 11th with a 3.97 ERA. One gold star for the pitchers is that the Clinton staff as a whole has issued the fewest walks in the Midwest League.

Individual performances that stand out for good reasons include Morla, version 2.0 -- who is hitting balls hard and attacking early in the count since coming back from his DL-stint for a quad injury on May 24th -- leadoff hitter and center fielder Jamal Austin -- who is hitting .287/.329/.362 with 24 steals and started in the All-Star game -- catcher Steven Baron -- who in is third try at conquering the challenge of the Midwest League is leading the team in doubles (17) while batting .263/.301/.407 -- and two left-handed pitchers, in starter Jordan Shipers -- an All-Star himself, and one that owns a 3.75 ERA in 72 innings -- and reliever Kyle Hunter -- who has a 3.21 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 27 strikeouts and just four walks in his 33 2/3 innings of work. Another shout out went to the catchers, Baron and Michael Dowd, for completely shutting down the opposing teams' running game. Dowd even got the nod as the better of the two in that regard, and Baron has always earned praise for his defensive abilities.

Goldstein thinks that there is a good chance that Shipers ultimately ends up as a LOOGY in the long run and that Austin may end up being to small and start to get overpowered as he advances. Shipers' fastball -- which was 88-90, touching 91 at times in Everett last season -- has been mainly 85-88 so far this year, but I was told from one source that Shipers is without question the hardest worker on the team, to the point where the staff has had to reel him in at times. And Austin hit very well in college and for Pulaski last season so he could just end up being one of those guys that hits, regardless of what the eyes tell you. We need to remember that these kids down at this level are very young, most of them very raw, and all of them a long ways off -- things can change.

Hopefully the biggest thing that changes in the second half is the attitudes and the commitment from the players. They do that, and the wins and overall better baseball should folllow.

TOP PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

Ramon Morla - .297/.328/.527, 25 XBH
Jordan Shipers - 3.75 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, .180 AVG vs LHH
Jamal Austin - .287/.329/.62, 24 SB
Steven Baron - .263/.301/.407, 22 XBH, 10 SB
Kyle Hunter - 3.21 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 27:4 SO:BB, .175 AVG vs LHH

BOTTOM PROSPECT PERFORMANCES

Guillermo Pimentel - .585 OPS, 3 HR, 64 SO
Ambioris Hidalgo - 5.69 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, just 36 SO in 68 IP
Jabari Blash - .214 AVG, just 17 XBH, 63 SO
Jharmidy De Jesus - .216 AVG, .331 SLG, 8 errors
John Taylor - 4.88 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 13 BB, 14 SO in 24 IP

That does it for the reviews on Jackson, High Desert and Clinton. SeattleClubhouse will get to the Tacoma Rainiers's review following the Triple-A All-Star game which takes place on July 11th in Buffalo, NY.

Looking for more Mariners prospect player interviews, news and articles? "Like" SeattleClubhouse on Facebook and follow SeattleClubhouse's Rick Randall on Twitter at @randallball.

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