Baseball America’s Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player’s long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven’t exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
Pat Gillick�s four-year reign as Mariners general manager ended when he resigned following the 2003 season. Though he had little choice but to let franchise icons Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Lou Piniella leave town during his tenure, Seattle averaged 98 wins under Gillick, including a record-tying 116 in 2001.
The Mariners advanced to the American League Championship Series in Gillick�s first two seasons, and fell just short of a wild-card berth in the last two. While Gillick extended his reputation as one of the more successful GMs in baseball history, he was unable to take the franchise to the World Series for the first time in its 27 seasons of existence.
That responsibility now falls to Bill Bavasi. The GM for the Angels in 1994-99 and most recently farm director for the Dodgers, Bavasi has reshuffled Seattle�s front office. Roger Jongewaard, vice president for scouting and player development since 1989, was moved to special assistant to the GM. Benny Looper, who along with Detroit assistant GM Al Avila was a finalist to replace Gillick, was promoted from farm director to Jongewaard�s old job.
Frank Mattox, who has run the last six drafts for the Mariners, moved from scouting director to farm director. The new scouting director is ex-White Sox farm director Bob Fontaine Jr., Bavasi�s scouting director in Anaheim. Bavasi resigned after the 1999 season rather than accede to then-Angels president Tony Tavares� demands to revamp the scouting department. Gillick will serve as a consultant to Bavasi.
Bavasi also has been busy reconstructing the big league team. He let Mike Cameron and Arthur Rhodes walk as free agents and replaced them by signing Eddie Guardado and Raul Ibanez. He reworked the left side of the infield by signing Rich Aurilia and Scott Spiezio, then traded Carlos Guillen to Detroit.
Whether the Mariners actually improved themselves remains debatable, but Bavasi did avoid blocking most of the wave of young talent that�s almost ready for the majors. Shortstop Jose Lopez and outfielder Chris Snelling could replace Aurilia and Edgar Martinez when their one-year contracts expire after 2004. Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley and Rett Johnson, among others, should be able to pitch their way onto the big league staff in the next couple of years.
All five of those farmhands starred at Double-A San Antonio in 2003. The Missions won the championship, placed seven players on the Texas League all-star team and swept the league�s major awards. Third baseman Justin Leone was MVP, Blackley was pitcher of the year and Dave Brundage was manager of the year (as well as BA�s choice for Minor League Manager of the Year).
The Mariners� free-agent spree will cost them their first two picks in this year�s draft, though they�ve become accustomed to going without a first-rounder. They gave up theirs in 2000, 2001 and 2003, and failed to sign John Mayberry Jr. when they kept it in 2002.
Seattle has compensated for that shortfall on the international market, where it has found four of its top five prospects.
Top Prospect: Felix Hernandez, rhp
Age: 17 Ht.: 6-3 Wt.: 170 Bats: R Throws: R
Signed: Venezuela, 2002
Signed by: Pedro Avila
Background: The Mariners expected Hernandez to be good when they signed him for $710,000, but not this good, this fast. Seattle is not inclined to challenge teenagers with an assignment to the short-season Northwest League, populated mostly by former college players, but when Hernandez threw in the mid-90s last spring, he punched his ticket to Everett. The youngest player in the NWL by nearly eight months, he was dominant despite being kept on tight pitch counts. He pitched scoreless ball in five of his 11 outings. He was an easy choice as the NWL�s No. 1 prospect. Promoted for the low Class A Midwest League stretch drive, he responded with two quality starts in as many tries. In the season finale, he shut out Kane County with 10 strikeouts in seven innings. Hernandez succeeded against even more experienced hitters this winter, going 1-1, 4.23 in six starts for Lara in his native Venezuela. The Mariners shut him down in December so he wouldn�t exceed 100 innings in 2003.
Strengths: Hernandez has scary upside. He�ll open this season as a 17-year-old and he doesn�t need to develop any more stuff. The only guy in the organization with a comparable arm is big leaguer Rafael Soriano. Hernandez has the best fastball in the system and commands his mid-90s heat well. He regularly touches 97 and could reach triple digits as his skinny frame fills out. Hernandez� curveball is also unparalleled among Mariners farmhands and gives him the possibility for two 70 pitches on the 20-80 scouting scale. Though he�s young and can easily overpower hitters at the lower levels, he understands the value of a changeup and is developing a good one. He can pitch down in the strike zone or blow the ball by hitters upstairs. He has poise and mound presence beyond his years.
Weaknesses: Hernandez just has to learn how to pitch. He needs to tweak his command and refine his pitches. Typical of a teenager with a lightning arm, he�ll overthrow at times but should grow out of that. Arm problems would appear to be the only thing that could derail him from stardom, and Hernandez has been perfectly healthy so far. The Mariners will go to great lengths to make sure he isn�t overworked in the minors.
The Future: Seattle wants to move Hernandez slowly, but he may not let that happen. He�s not going to need to spend a full season at each level and might need just two more years in the minors. He�ll probably start 2004 back at low Class A Wisconsin�the Mariners concede he could have spent all of last season there�and could be bucking for a promotion to high Class A Inland Empire by midseason. It�s easy to get overexcited about young pitchers, but Hernandez has the legitimate potential to become the best pitcher ever developed by the Mariners.