Top Ten Prospects: Seattle Mariners
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Jim Callis
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, 2005.
Background: Celebrating his 18th birthday the day before his first outing in 2004, Hernandez turned in the most dominating season for a player that age since Dwight Gooden was BA’s Minor League Player of the Year in 1983. He allowed more than three earned runs in just four of his 25 starts, and he was named the top prospect in both the high Class A California and Double-A Texas leagues, just as he had been in the short-season Northwest League in 2003. He was the youngest player in both circuits, just as he had been in the NWL. Hernandez also worked a perfect inning at the Futures Game, highlighted by an effortless strikeout of the Mets’ David Wright. His $710,000 bonus now looks like a huge bargain, as he has become unquestionably the best pitching prospect in baseball.
Strengths: It’s difficult to project Hernandez’ ceiling because his ability seems limitless. All three of his pitches are above average, and the Mariners won’t even let him use his best offering. His fastball and curveball are the best in the system, each rating a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, and some club officials give his 60 changeup top billing as well. Hernandez has true power stuff, as his fastball sits in the mid-90s and touches 97 mph while his curveball arrives in the mid-80s. He has yet to completely fill out, so his radar-gun readings could climb. His changeup was inconsistent early in the season, but he has refined it into a pitch that repeatedly throws hitters off balance. Word is that Hernandez’ 88-90 mph slider puts his other pitches to shame, but Seattle is keeping it under wraps in the interest of his health. Considering his age, his command and savvy are as extraordinary as his stuff. He can blow the ball by hitters up in the strike zone but excels at keeping it down, as evidenced by his 2.3-1 groundball-flyball ratio in 2004. His mechanics are sound and his arm action is electric. Hernandez also takes care of the little things, such as holding baserunners and fielding his position. Despite all the hype swirling around him, he hasn’t let it get to him.
Weaknesses: At times Hernandez will overthrow when he’s in a jam, forgetting that each of his pitches is good enough to get outs. He needs to locate his fastball a little better to help set up his curveball and changeup. He may have to watch his weight as he gets older, though his work ethic isn’t a concern.
The Future: An injury is all that could derail Hernandez from stardom, and the Mariners are going to great lengths to keep him healthy. Besides taking away his slider, they’ve held him to strict pitch and inning counts and persuaded him to skip winter ball in his native Venezuela this offseason. They plan on him beginning 2005 in Triple-A, though he could force the issue of a big league promotion in spring training. Regardless of where he starts the year, Hernandez will get to Seattle and become the No. 1 starter soon enough.
Background: Reed ranked as the White Sox’ No. 1 prospect after leading the minors with a .373 average and .453 on-base percentage in 2003. When they traded Freddy Garcia, the Mariners insisted on Reed in a package that included Miguel Olivo and shortstop prospect Mike Morse. He batted .397 in his big league debut.
Strengths: A natural line-drive hitter, Reed controls the strike zone and makes consistent sweet-spot contact. He runs well; his instincts make him a stolen-base threat. His September performance convinced Seattle he can handle center field. His arm is average.
Weaknesses: Scouts from other clubs aren’t as sure he can stay in center—particularly in spacious Safeco Field. He needs to improve his jumps and routes on fly balls. Reed may max out at 15 homers a season, which would be below-average power if he has to move to left.
The Future: Already having proven he’s more qualified than Randy Winn, Reed should open 2005 as Seattle’s center fielder. He should fit nicely behind Ichiro Suzuki in the No. 2 slot in the order.
Background: Choo dominated the 2000 World Junior Championship as a pitcher, winning both the gold-medal game and MVP honors. The Mariners signed him afterward for $1.335 million and made the two-way star a full-time outfielder. The organization’s 2004 minor league player of the year, Choo played in his second Futures Game and set personal bests in average, homers and steals.
Strengths: Choo keeps his hands back and stays inside the ball, slashing liners to the opposite field. An above-average runner, he improved his aggressiveness and basestealing success in 2004. His plus-plus arm rated as the best among Texas League outfielders.
Weaknesses: He has the strength to hit 25 homers, but Choo’s approach isn’t conducive to power. He’ll need to close his swing and do a better job of recognizing inside pitches to produce more pop. His outfield instincts are lacking and limit him to the corners. His throws could use more accuracy.
The Future: Choo has moved one level at a time and should spend most of 2005 at Triple-A Tacoma. He has right-field tools, but figures to be Seattle’s left fielder of the future unless Ichiro moves to center.
Background: Nageotte cruised through the minors, leading the minors in strikeouts in 2002 and topping the Texas League in whiffs in 2003. But when he got to the majors last season, his stuff declined and he got throttled. He threw six shutout innings against the Astros for his lone victory.
Strengths: Nageotte has one of the nastiest sliders in baseball, as it has violent break and tops out at 87 mph. He also owns a power fastball, working from 92-97 mph. That dynamic combination has led several scouts to project him as a closer.
Weaknesses: In order to remain a starter, Nageotte will have to refine his changeup and throw it more often. He’ll also have to throw more strikes with his fastball. He tried to be so fine with his pitches in Seattle that his heater dropped to 88-93 mph and his slider regressed to a slurve. He uses his slider too much, leading to concerns about his durability that weren’t eased by elbow tendinitis in 2003 and a lower-back strain in 2004.
The Future: Nageotte needs some time in Triple-A to straighten himself out. The Mariners will leave him in the rotation for now.
Background: His father Manu and brother Marques played in the NFL, and Tuiasosopo seemed destined for football as a University of Washington quarterback recruit. The Mariners changed that by giving him a third-round record $2.29 million bonus. He homered in his first pro at-bat, a prelude to being named the top prospect in the Rookie-level Arizona League.
Strengths: Tuiasosopo has the swing and strength to be a middle-of-the-order run producer. Advanced for his age, he forced a promotion to short-season Everett and held his own. The best all-around athlete in the system, he has a strong arm and good speed. Seattle raves about his makeup as much as his tools.
Weaknesses: Though he made progress with his footwork and release, Tuiasosopo likely won’t be able to stay at shortstop because his actions are too long. He’ll have to tighten holes in his swing that older short-season Northwest League pitchers were able to exploit.
The Future: Tuiasosopo should be able to handle an assignment to low Class A Wisconsin, where he’d share shortstop with Oswaldo Navarro and also see time at third base. His bat should play anywhere.
Background: While the Mariners were zeroing in on Choo at the 2000 World Junior Championship, they also discovered Blackley. He tied for the minor league lead with 17 wins in 2003, but like Nageotte had a difficult time handling his first big league trial in 2004. His brother Adam pitches in the Red Sox system.
Strengths: At his best, Blackley confuses hitters by mixing four pitches and draws comparisons to Mark Buehrle. His changeup is his best pitch, the key to his consistent success against righthanders. He also uses an 87-92 mph fastball with natural cutting action, a curveball and a slider.
Weaknesses: Blackley tried to pitch away from contact in the majors, with disastrous results. He lost his command and his fastball dropped to 82-85 mph, losing separation from his changeup. He needs to find a consistent breaking ball to get lefties out. He does get good spin on his curve, and it was the one pitch he got major league hitters to miss.
The Future: Blackley continued to get rocked after his demotion to Triple-A in August, so he’ll return to Tacoma to begin 2005. The Mariners believe he’ll learn from his adversity.
Background: Snelling never has hit less than .305 in six pro seasons, and former manager Lou Piniella wanted to give him a big league job in 2001 when he was 19. But he never has stayed healthy for a full season, playing just 96 games in 2002-03 because of left knee problems that required multiple surgeries. A deep bone bruise in his right wrist cost him all but 10 games in 2004.
Strengths: Snelling’s explosive hands generate hard line drives to all fields. His instincts and drive allow him to maximize his tools. He has average arm strength and can handle either outfield corner.
Weaknesses: Given his injury history—which also includes breaks in his left hand, right thumb and right ankle, plus a strained left wrist—Snelling needs to tone down his aggressiveness. He hurt his right wrist because he was so eager to come back that he took too many swings. The knee operations have left him with slightly below-average speed. His power ceiling may be 15 homers, subpar for a corner outfielder.
The Future: Snelling had a setback late in 2004, so the Mariners had him take the winter off. The goal is for him to be 100 percent for spring training and able to help the big league club after a tuneup in Triple-A.
Background: Jones lit up radar guns with some 96s as a high school senior, leading many clubs to target him as a pitcher. The Mariners liked him both ways and granted his wish to play shortstop after signing him for $925,000 as their top pick in 2003.
Strengths: A premium athlete, Jones continues to draw gasps with his arm, rated the best among Midwest League infielders. He hit 11 homers as a teenager in low Class A, and there’s more power coming. He has a sound swing and has been compared to Reggie Sanders, who also began his career as a shortstop. Jones runs well once under way and has solid range at shortstop.
Weaknesses: Jones needs to improve his grasp of the strike zone and his ability to work counts. He did show aptitude for making adjustments, overswinging less and using the whole field more later in the season. Though he could outgrow shortstop, he should retain his athleticism and at worst would become a center fielder.
The Future: The Mariners like to work their shortstops at multiple positions, and Jones will get a taste of that in 2005. He’s ready for high Class A, as is fellow shortstop prospect Asdrubal Cabrera.
Background: After winning home run crowns in the Rookie-level Venezuelan and Arizona leagues the previous two years, Balentien continued to mash in 2004. Counting the California League playoffs and Olympics (he played for the Netherlands), he hit 20 home runs in 98 games.
Strengths: Balentien has extraordinary power to all fields and has the tools to be more than just a slugger. His speed and arm strength are average. His primary 2004 position was center field, though he’s destined for right.
Weaknesses: Balentien tries to pull every pitch 500 feet, so he has poor discipline, makes infrequent contact and struggles against breaking balls. He worries solely about his hitting, leading to poor jumps and lapses in the outfield. He needs to prepare to play hard every day, and he’ll have to watch that his big build doesn’t lose its flexibility.
The Future: The Mariners have a number of outfielders established in the big leagues or ahead of Balentien on the system’s depth chart, but none of them can approach his power. They hope he’ll mature in all phases of the game at high Class A Inland Empire in 2005.
Background: Cabrera was the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League’s all-star shortstop in his pro debut, showing enough aptitude that the Mariners skipped him past the Arizona League in 2004. He repeated as an all-star in the Northwest League, where at 18 he was the youngest regular in the league.
Strengths: Polished for his age, Cabrera’s all-around game is similar to that of Orlando Cabrera (no relation). A switch-hitter with some gap power, he may have the most pure bat among the system’s shortstop prospects. He’s also one of its better athletes. An acrobatic defender, Cabrera covers plenty of ground and has reliable hands. He has average arm strength and better accuracy.
Weaknesses: Cabrera’s lower half looks like it could get too thick for shortstop, but he’s so smooth that Seattle doesn’t foresee that he’ll have to move to another position. He’ll need to show more patience to fit into his projected No. 2 spot in the batting order.
The Future: The Mariners are ready to jump Cabrera a level again, deeming him ready for high Class A in 2005. He’ll split time at shortstop with Adam Jones after doing so with Oswaldo Navarro in 2004.