Sign Up! Join our newsletters, get a FREE e-Edition
The Mariners expected Hernandez to be good when they signed him for $710,000 in July 2002. But they didn't expect him to be this good, this fast. Seattle never has been able to challenge precocious teenagers with an assignment to the short-season Northwest League, populated mostly by former college players. When he threw in the mid-90s last spring, he punched his ticket to Everett. The youngest player in the NWL by nearly eight months, Hernandez was dominant despite being kept on tight pitch counts. He pitched scoreless ball in five of his 11 outings and surrendered more than one earned run only twice. 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, one of the MWL's top offenses, 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 out in December so he wouldn't exceed 100 innings in 2003. 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. Hernandez just has to learn how to pitch. He needs to tweak his command and refine his pitches on the way to Seattle. 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. 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.
Nageotte has succeeded from the day he entered pro ball. He won the Rookie-level Arizona League championship game in 2000, ranked as the Midwest League's No. 1 pitching prospect in 2001 and led the minors in strikeouts in 2002. Last year, he pitched in the Futures Game and topped the Double-A Texas League in whiffs. Nageotte's slider ranks with those of Francisco Rodriguez, John Smoltz and Ryan Wagner as the best anywhere. Nageotte throws his at 84-87mph with late, hard downward break. Sitting on his slider does hitters no good and just sets them up for his 90-95 mph fastball. Nageotte rarely throws his changeup, leading some scouts to project him as a reliever. But his changeup should be effective once he starts using it more. He throws his slider too much, which led to elbow tendinitis that prevented him from closing for Team USA at November's Olympic qualifying tournament. He can improve his command--he tied for the TL lead in walks--as well as his work habits. The Mariners want Nageotte to start 2004 at Triple-A Tacoma and make it to Seattle as a starter. He could help them as a K-Rodesque reliever if needed.
Blackley sustained a small fracture in his elbow in instructional league in 2001, but made a quick recovery and stood out as the youngest pitcher in the high Class A California League the following year. He was even better in 2003, pitching in the Futures Game, winning the Texas League pitcher of the year award and tying for the minor league lead in wins. His brother Adam pitches in the Red Sox system. Blackley expertly mixes four average or better pitches, including the best changeup in the system. He also throws a fastball with natural cutting action, a curveball and a slider. Double-A San Antonio pitching coach Rafael Chaves made an adjustment to Blackley's release that allow him to boost his fastball up to 88-92 mph. Blackley has good command but sometimes gets too cute and winds up issuing more walks than he should. He tends to rush his delivery against lefthanders, which takes away from his stuff. Lefties hit .301 against him last year, compared to .188 by righties. Both of his breaking balls need a little refinement. The Mariners refer to him as Jamie Moyer with better stuff. After a year in Triple-A Tacoma, Blackley will be ready to join Moyer in Seattle's rotation.
Lopez missed most of spring training last year recovering from surgery to remove a growth on a bone in his right foot, but that didn't stop him from making the Texas League all-star team as the circuit's youngest player. He led San Antonio to the championship by leading all playoff hitters with a .391 average and two homers in five games. While Lopez has an impressive array of tools, several Mariners officials say his greatest asset is his instincts. They rate him as the best defensive infielder in the system, while TL managers said he had the strongest infield arm in their league. He makes excellent contact and has well above-average pop for a middle infielder. He has slightly above-average speed and savvy on the bases. Lopez rarely swings and misses, but he draws few walks because he puts the ball in play so easily. He needs to work deeper counts and add a little consistency to all phases of his game. Lopez spent time at second and third base in 2003 so he'd be ready for whatever big league opening might come his way. His opportunity should come at shortstop after a season in Triple-A and Rich Aurilia's one-year contract expires.
Choo signed for $1.335 million after the 2000 World Junior Championships, where he starred as a pitcher and faced off against Travis Blackley. An all-star in his first two pro seasons, Choo helped Inland Empire win the California League championship in 2003. He missed three weeks with a broken bone in his right foot yet still led the league in triples. Choo doesn't have a below-average tool. His arm, which delivered 95-mph fastballs during his amateur days, rates a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale and is the best in the system. He's also the top athlete and defensive outfielder among Seattle farmhands. He drills line drives to all fields and has slightly above-average speed. Though Choo never has hit more than nine homers in a season, the Mariners say he has above-average pop. He's learning to be a sound hitter before looking for homers, which is fine, but he'll have to close his swing and adjust his Ichiro Suzuki-like approach before he can tap into his power. This offseason, Seattle signed Ichiro to a four-year extension and Raul Ibanez and Randy Winn to three-year deals. Choo, who's headed for Double-A, will be ready for the majors in two years, so something will have to give.
As usual, Snelling produced at the plate and spent time on the disabled list in 2003. He hit .316, matching his previous career average. He missed April recovering from surgery on his left knee, another 21⁄2 weeks in June with tendinitis in the knee and the final three weeks when he tore the meniscus in the knee. Snelling is such an obviously gifted hitter that former Mariners manager Lou Piniella wanted him on his Opening Day roster in 2001--when Snelling was 19. He has quick, explosive hands and makes hard contact to all fields. Tremendously instinctive and driven, he has an average arm and can play solid defense on either outfield corner. Snelling plays so aggressively that he can't stay in one piece. The knee injuries and natural physical maturation have knocked his speed down to a tick below average. His home run power is still developing and may not exceed 15-20 per year, which is fringy for a corner outfielder. After his second knee surgery, Snelling should be 100 percent for spring training. He'll probably go to Triple-A to get much-needed at-bats in 2004. Next year he could replace Edgar Martinez at DH.
Brandon Webb and Dontrelle Willis weren't the only eighth-round steals in the 2000 draft. Johnson slipped that far because he wore down while setting Coastal Carolina records with 133 innings and 151 strikeouts that spring. He since has gone 40-20, 2.95 while reaching Triple-A. Johnson's out pitch is a hard slider that's a notch below Clint Nageotte's. He sets it up with a heavy 91-93 mph sinker. After minor league pitching coordinator Pat Rice shortened Johnson's stride in spring training, his command and ability to pitch down in the strike zone improved greatly. He's poised and competitive. Johnson's changeup has improved but still lags behind his two plus pitches. He needs it as a weapon against lefthanders, who hit .268 against him last year (righties batted .210). There's some effort to his delivery, which led to shoulder tendinitis at the end of last season. If they had nontendered Freddy Garcia, the Mariners would have let Johnson compete for their No. 5 starter job. Several scouts say he profiles better as a reliever along the lines of Jeff Nelson. Johnson could make the big league bullpen in spring training.
Baek was Seattle's first big international signing, agreeing to a $1.3 million bonus in 1998. He and Choo were teammates at Pusan (South Korea) High. Baek blew out his elbow in 2001 and missed all of 2002 rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, then made a strong comeback last year. The only setback was a month off with elbow inflammation. Though Travis Blackley gets more notoriety, Baek has better command and feel for pitching. His delivery and arm action are smooth and consistent, allowing him to repeat pitches and throw strikes. He mixes four offerings: an 88-93 mph fastball with decent sink, a curveball he can vary speeds with, a slider and a changeup. Baek doesn't have a knockout pitch or even a plus one, leaving him little margin for error. He threw in the low 90s more often before he hurt his elbow, so it's possible he could regain a little more velocity as he gets stronger. Added to the 40-man roster, Baek probably will spend the first half of 2004 in Double-A. He projects as a No. 4 starter unless his stuff bounces back more.
Scouts were tracking Jones as a shortstop when he hit 96 mph off the mound last spring, spurring many of them to prefer him as a pitcher. But Jones wants to play shortstop, and the Mariners acceded to his wishes when they signed him for $925,000. If that doesn't work out, Seattle always can convert him to the mound like it did with former position players Rafael Soriano and Jorge Sosa. Jones has a chance to be a five-tool shortstop. Though he's tall for the position, he has a narrow waist and thus projects to retain his athleticism as he fills out. He has a cannon arm to go with good hands and actions. He has plus speed, and should hit for average with power. Though he hit .303 in his pro debut, there are still questions about Jones' bat. He's raw at the plate and will overswing at times. He also made 12 errors in 30 games at short, so he's still learning on defense as well. It will take time to turn Jones' tools into baseball skills. He'll move up to low Class A in 2004.
Strong won two stolen-base titles in his first three years as a pro, but his chances of adding a third last year ended when he tore his labrum and dislocated his left shoulder on a headfirst slide in spring training. The Mariners feared he would miss all of 2003, but he surprised them by returning in June. One of the fastest players in the minors, Strong has true 80 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. He understands his role is to get on base and create havoc, so he draws walks and hits the ball on the ground. His speed gives him good range in center field. Strong's swing is a bit long and he can be pounded inside with fastballs. His approach isn't conducive to power. He doesn't always take the best routes on fly balls, though his speed covers up his mistakes. His arm is just playable. Ticketed for Triple-A, Strong is on the bubble between big league regular or fourth outfielder. His bat will determine his future, though he has little chance of cracking Seattle's starting lineup yet.
Leone opened last year treading close to the "organization player" label. He showed athleticism and power, but he also had a career .250 average and had less faith in himself than the Mariners did. Slated to be a utilityman in Double-A, he caught a break when Greg Dobbs ruptured his left Achilles tendon in the second game of the year. Leone took over at third base and became the Texas League MVP. He led the league in runs, doubles, extra-base hits and on-base percentage while finishing second in slugging. Managers rated him the best defensive third baseman in the TL, and he capped his year by leading Team USA with three homers at the Olympic qualifying tournament in November. One of the keys was to Leone's breakthrough was letting Travis Blackley persuade him to play the previous winter in Australia, where he began to overcome his problems hitting breaking balls. Another was that he started to hit smarter, worked himself into better counts and drew more walks. He has power to all fields, good speed for his size and even better baserunning instincts. Defensively, Leone can handle second base and shortstop in addition to third. His hands, arm and actions fit at any of the positions, and he could be a Gold Glover at third base. He needs another good year to prove he's more than a 26-year-old who had his career year in Double-A. Seattle added him to the 40-man roster and will play him in Triple-A this year.
Baseball America's Independent League Player of the Year in 2002, when he set a Northern League record with 153 strikeouts in 125 innings, Madritsch made a triumphant return to Organized Baseball in 2003. A Native American who's a member of the Lakota Nation, he won the Rookie-level Pioneer League strikeout crown after signing with the Reds as a sixth round pick in 1998. But he hurt his shoulder the following year, had surgery and got released by Cincinnati in the spring of 2001. He spent two years bouncing around three indy leagues before the Mariners outbid several teams to sign him. Madritsch's bread and butter is a 90-95 mph fastball that he'll bust inside on hitters or beat them with upstairs. Lefthanders can't get comfortable against him because of his arm angle and effective wildness, and he gets righties out just as easily. His changeup improved a lot last year, as did his confidence in throwing it. The key for Madritsch will be finding a usable breaking ball. His slider is below-average and he might be better off with more of a cutter. He also needs better command after tying Clint Nageotte for the Texas League high in walks. Madritsch held up well all season and through the TL playoffs, where he won both his starts, including the finale. The Mariners project him as a starter and will use him in the Triple-A rotation in 2004. If he can't come up with a reliable breaking pitch, he could make a tough reliever.
The Mariners drafted Dobbs in the 53rd round out of high school in 1996 but didn't land him until signing him as a fifth-year senior just before the 2001 draft. In between, he went from Riverside (Calif.) Community College to Long Beach State to Oklahoma, earning all-league honors every season except for 2000, when he was academically ineligible. Dobbs has perhaps the prettiest swing in the system, a classic lefthanded stroke that has enabled him to hit everywhere he has played. The only thing that has slowed him as a pro has been a ruptured left Achilles tendon that ended his 2003 season after two games. The injury not only let Justin Leone move past him but it also left questions about whether Dobbs can handle third base unresolved. His hands, range and arm are adequate at the hot corner, but he needs to improve his footwork and throwing accuracy. The other options would be to move him to first base or left field, and Dobbs should have enough bat for those positions. He projects to hit .280-.300 with 20-25 homers while drawing a fair amount of walks. Expected to be 100 percent in spring training, Dobbs will again open as the Double-A third baseman.
Though the Marlins already had a deep stock of lefthanded pitching, they also thought that was one of the strengths of the 2003 draft crop. So they signed five southpaws from the first eight rounds, starting with Feierabend. He gave up a scholarship from Kent State for a $437,000 bonus. "You see Travis Blackley in this guy," one scout said, "with a touch more velocity and he's younger." Feierabend already throws 88-91 mph and should sit in the low 90s once he fills out his projectable frame. His smooth delivery and advanced feel for pitching let him put his pitches where he wants. His changeup already ranks among the best in the system. Feierabend throws two breaking balls and both need work. His slider is better than his curveball at this point. Adding strength is also on his priority list after he tired in his pro debut. Because he's so young--he didn't turn 18 until late in the season--the Mariners will handle him carefully. Feierabend likely will start the season in extended spring training before reporting to Everett in June.
The Mariners stole a future all-star reliever when they plucked Jeff Nelson from the Dodgers in the 1986 minor league Rule 5 draft. They may have done the same again when they picked Taylor from the Braves in the 1999 minor league Rule 5 draft. Taylor didn't immediately pay off, posting a 7.43 ERA in his first year in the Seattle system and quitting baseball briefly in 2001. After returning, he shot from low Class A to the majors in 15 months. Taylor has the raw stuff to close games but needs more polish. He has a heavy 94-97 mph fastball, and his 6-foot-5 frame allows him to drive his heater down in the zone. He's similar to Braden Looper in that he has a big-time fastball but no consistent second pitch. Taylor's slider and splitter have their moments but aren't reliable. He started to have more success late last year when he went to a slurvier slider. He also could use better command and more finesse in his approach. Taylor's 2003 season ended in early August with a small tear in his rotator cuff. His recovery was progressing faster than expected, so he may be ready for spring training. Assuming he's healthy, he should get another shot in the majors in 2004.
Balentien won both the regular-season and playoff MVP awards and added the home run crown in the Rookie-level Venezuelan Summer League in 2002. His U.S. debut last season was even better. Balentien destroyed the Arizona League home run mark and led the AZL in extra-base hits and slugging percentage. He employs a grip-it-and-rip-it mentality, swinging hard at everything that comes his way and displaying well-above-average power to all fields. First baseman Jon Nelson has arguably more raw pop than Balentien but can't match him in terms of usable power. It's unlikely Balentien's approach will work against advanced pitching. He'll need to learn to wait on breaking balls and develop more discipline. He's not just a one-dimensional slugger, however. His speed and arm are average tools. A converted third baseman, he played all three outfield positions in the AZL and fits best in right field. The Mariners may be tempted to move Balentien to full-season ball this year in low Class A.
Putz had been a full-time starter in his three full seasons as a pro, but he was so impressive in relief last spring that he might have made the Mariners if he had more bullpen experience. They sent him back to Triple-A, and he got his first big league promotion in August. Putz showed promise as a starter, projecting as a workhorse with his strong frame and average four-pitch repertoire. His stuff works much better out of the bullpen, however. His low-90s fastball became an explosive 93-97 mph heater, and his curveball went from ordinary to a plus pitch that now falls off the table. He also has a slider and a changeup from his days in the rotation. Moved from middle relief to a late-inning role at midseason, Putz had nine saves and a 0.90 ERA in his final two months in Triple-A. His control improved after that change as well. He has an effortless, easy delivery with deception to it. The Mariners might have been tempted to let him compete for a starting job had they non-tendered Freddy Garcia. Putz instead will be a leading candidate to claim a spot in the bullpen this spring, with his chances enhanced by Kazuhiro Sasaki's decision to stay home in Japan.
With a successful season in high Class A, Ketchner proved he's more than a human-interest story. He's a good pitching prospect, too. Born partially deaf, he has 40 percent of his hearing. He compensates by wearing hearing aids in both ears, which allow him to detect vibrations but not read words, and by reading lips. The USA Deaf Sports Federation named Ketchner its 2003 co-athlete of the year, making him the first baseball player honored in the 48-year history of the award. He led the California League in strikeouts, strikeout-walk ratio (4.8) and shutouts (two). He also was the playoff MVP, pitching Inland Empire to the championship with 13 scoreless innings. Ketchner throws an 85-88 mph fastball with good life, an ordinary slider and a solid average changeup. While he doesn't have a plus pitch, he has a lot going for him. He has the best command in the system and makes his stuff play much better than it is. He can put his pitches exactly where he wants when he wants, and his deceptive delivery has limited pro hitters to a .214 average. Ketchner deftly mixes his pitches and changes speeds, and he has an innate gift for sense a batter's weakness. He can watch his swing path and immediately figure out where the holes are. Ketchner opened 2003 in the bullpen but has earned the chance to start. He'll do that in Double-A this year.
A surprise 1998 first-round pick after making more of a name for himself as a basketball player, Thornton didn't win a game in college or in his first two years as a pro. He broke out in 2001 with a strikeout crown and pitcher-of-the-year honors in the California League, only to blow out his elbow and require Tommy John surgery the following season. Thornton returned to the mound within 11 months, but lasted just six weeks last season before going down with a herniated disc in his neck. His pitches weren't as crisp as they had been in the past, though that's typical for someone coming back so quickly from Tommy John surgery. His fastball dipped from the low 90s to the high 80s. His slider, the key to his emergence in 2001, didn't have the same late, quick bite. Thornton's command and changeup remain works in progress. He tends to backdoor his slider rather than trust his changeup against righthanders. Given that he's a two-pitch pitcher with durability concerns, he'd probably be best off in relief. He worked out of the bullpen in the Arizona Fall League, where he got tattooed but did get back to 90-93 mph with his fastball. If Thornton's stuff comes the rest of the way back in 2004, the Mariners could give him a look as a long reliever.
With Ryan Christianson continually snakebitten by injuries, Rivera has supplanted him as the organization's top catching prospect. The Mariners believe their 2003 Wisconsin team MVP can give them what they hoped for from Christianson: strong catch-and-throw skills and some pop in his bat. Rivera's defense is ahead of his offense at this point. Managers rated him the best defensive catcher in the Midwest League after he threw out 40 percent of basestealers. He has a strong arm with a quick release, and he enjoys running a pitching staff. As Rivera gets stronger and gets a better grasp of the strike zone, he'll have 15-20 home run power. Right now he's a free swinger who needs a more consistent approach. His stroke is sound, and he's starting to understand which pitches he can and can't hit. As with most catchers, he doesn't have much speed. Rivera will move up to high Class A for 2004.
Jensen was a 19th-round steal in 2003. The top prospect in Utah, he led Springfield High to the state 4-A title and would have gone in the top three rounds if his commitment to Brigham Young hadn't worried clubs. The Mariners reeled him in with third-round money in late August. Jensen has a quick arm two plus pitches, a 90-94 mph fastball and a hard 12-6 curveball. With his strong 6-foot-2 frame, he's more developed than projectable. Like almost any young pitcher, he'll have to get acclimated to pro ball, improve the consistency of his pitches and refine his changeup and command. He's poised and mature, so Seattle expects that he'll be able to make those adjustments. The plan for 2004 is to start Jensen in extended spring training before he makes his pro debut in the Arizona or Northwest league.
Flaig led Team USA in all the triple-crown categories at the 2001 World Youth Championship, batting .536-3-12 in seven games on a squad that also included 2003 first-round picks Chris Lubanski, Lastings Milledge and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Flaig played shortstop and also pitched, earning a save against Japan in the quarterfinals en route to a gold medal. But he tore the labrum and rotator cuff in his right shoulder in 2002, leading to surgery that still affects his throwing. After signing late in August for $710,000 he reported to instructional league, where he had further shoulder problems. Flaig required another labrum operation in November. He no longer has the 90 mph fastball he once flashed, and his arm may never be strong enough for him to play shortstop, his position as an amateur, in pro ball. He still has a sweet, pure stroke, however, and projects as a hitter in the same class as fellow El Dorado High (Placentia, Calif.) products Bret Boone and Phil Nevin. Flaig already has an advanced approach at the plate and should hit for power and average. He runs fine and has good all-around instincts. His footwork is better suited for third base than shortstop, though he'll have to prove he can make the throws from the hot corner. The bestcase scenario for now is that Flaig will be able to DH in July or August, presumably making his pro debut in the Arizona or Northwest league.
When their pitchers hit a wall in their development, the Mariners often have them drop their arm angle to see if that will help. Switching to a very low three-quarters delivery in 2002 did wonders for Looper, who shared the organization's minor league pitcher of the year award that season and reached the majors last year. He no longer is known mainly for being the son of Seattle vice president Benny Looper and the cousin of big leaguer Braden Looper. Looper's new approach added a lot of sink and cost him just 1-2 mph in velocity on his fastball, which he now throws at 88-92 mph. It took him longer to adapt his slider, but he made it into a long, sweeping pitch that he throws at a crossfire angle that's tough on righthanders. They hit just .193 against him in Triple-A last year. Lefties batted .328 because he's still refining his changeup. He'll try to backdoor his slider against lefties, but an improved change would work better. Looper has a rubber arm and wants the ball every day. He handles pressure well and is a groundball machine against righties. He acquitted himself well in his first exposure to the majors last year and should get another opportunity in 2004.
The Mariners' 2002 draft didn't exactly go as planned. They failed to sign first-rounder John Mayberry Jr. and third-rounder Eddy Martinez-Esteve, who project as possible first-round picks in 2005. Seattle may salvage something with Womack, whom they drafted in between those two. More of a football player in high school, Womack is an all-around athlete. His speed is his most noticeable tool, rating a 60 on the 20-80 scouting scale. He has some power in his bat, though some scouts worry about his stroke. He has a front arm bar, meaning he extends his right arm straight as he gets started. That makes his swing long and could allow him to get tied up by better fastballs. Womack's timing was OK in the Northwest League, but he'll have to make adjustments against higher quality pitching. He also needs to make better contact. Defensively, Womack has average range and arm strength for a center field. He'll advance to low Class A this year.
Some teams didn't list Garciaparra on their draft boards in 2001 after he blew out the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee while making a tackle as the kicker on his high school football team. He got just 12 at-bats that spring and might have flown completely under the prospect radar if he weren't the younger brother of Nomar Garciaparra. Michael had played on scout teams in California for the Mariners, piquing their interest, and they popped him 36th overall and signed him for $2 million. While Garciaparra's 2003 statistics are underwhelming, Seattle says he was the most improved player in the system, bettering himself in all phases of the game. He didn't cross the Mendoza Line for good until mid-May, but hit .269 and settled down defensively in the final few months of the season. He resembles his brother at the same age, though Nomar had better speed and has turned himself into a physical specimen. Michael shares Nomar's work ethic and has added 15 pounds since signing, but he's going to have to get a lot stronger to become an effective hitter. He has a good swing path, pitch-recognition skills and quick wrists. He has plate discipline but could use more. Garciaparra is a solid average runner and potentially a plus defender. His arm and range play well at shortstop, though he made 50 errors in 122 games last year. Most of those miscues came on rushed throws, and he settled down later in the season. He won't be the second coming of his brother, but he could turn into an Adam Everett. Garciaparra will play in high Class A this season.
Jamie Moyer's success in Seattle helps the cause of the many finesse lefthanders in the system. Inland Empire won the California League championship behind three of them: Ryan Ketchner, Cate and Glenn Bott. Cate, who put his career on hold for two years to go on a Mormon mission to England after high school, tossed seven-plus innings of shutout ball to win the postseason clincher 1-0. He excels at changing the speed on his fastballs, throwing both two- and four-seam varieties that range from 85-90 mph. His changeup grades out as slightly above average, while his slider is inconsistent but good at times. Cate's command and feel for pitching give him a chance to keep climbing the minor league ladder. The Mariners weren't sure exactly what they had when he finished second in the Northwest League in ERA and strikeouts during his pro debut. His first full season showed that he's for real, and he'll get a chance to prove himself in Double-A in 2004.
San Jacinto gets more exposure than most junior college programs, thanks to an ever-flowing talent pipeline that has included Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte. Yet Bott had to sign as a nondrafted free agent after two years with the Gators. He was overshadowed by fellow lefty Zach Parker (now with the Rockies) and didn't stand out because he's a short lefthander without an overwhelming pitch. Bott has fared well as a pro, averaging more than a strikeout per inning, because he mixes three pitches and has command. His 83-88 mph misses bats because it's lively and he locates it well. His best pitch is his changeup, and he's trying to improve the consistency of his slider. He seemed more confident in his second tour of the California League in 2003, going after hitters more aggressively and cutting down on his walks. Bott contributed to Inland Empire's title run by winning two of his three playoff starts. He'll move up to Double-A with the similar Ryan Ketchner and Troy Cate this year.
Livingston threw in the low 90s early in his senior season of high school and had a chance to go late in the first round or early in the second. His velocity dipped to 86-87 before the draft, however, so the Mariners were able to take him in the fourth. While he's projectable at 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, his fastball has inexplicably regressed. Livingston pitched anywhere from 81-87 mph in 2003. One Midwest League scout gave his fastball a 35 on the 20- 80 scale for velocity, but 55 for sink and command. He's more concerned with location than radar guns. His changeup is a plus pitch, and between his curveball and slider he should come up with an average breaking ball. He's extremely poised and fearless. He doesn't miss as many bats as fellow finesse lefties Travis Blackley, Ryan Ketchner, Troy Cate and Glenn Bott, so Livingston probably will have to regain at least a little velocity to succeed at the upper levels. The hitter-friendly California League will test his pitchability in 2004.
Yet another Mariners prospect felled by labrum surgery, Christianson hurt his shoulder in spring training and played in just four games last season. That was especially disappointing because it came on the heels of him missing two months in 2002 with a broken left foot. The 11th overall pick in 1999, Christianson has the potential to be an all-around catcher but has yet to deliver on it. Losing a year and a half of development time hasn't helped. He has natural power to all fields, but undermines himself by trying to pull and lift too many pitches. A more disciplined approach also would benefit him. Christianson has improved as a receiver and has a strong arm, but an inconsistent release affects his throws. He has below-average speed. Seattle expected Christianson to be ready for Opening Day and likely will send him to Double-A.
The Mariners signed two outfield/football prospects out of the 2001 draft. They gave Wilson $900,000 as a second-round pick, getting him to give up a scholarship to play linebacker at Oklahoma. Matthew Ware, a 21st-rounder, signed a deal that allowed him to play defensive back at UCLA. He'll likely be lost to the NFL as an early-round pick in April. Wilson is a classic high-risk, high-reward player. He's a switch-hitting center fielder with plus power and speed, but he's also raw. He had a disappointing pro debut in 2002 and had to repeat the Arizona League last year. His swing is a bit long and loopy, which makes it hard for him to make consistent contact. He feasts on mistakes and struggles against better pitching. Caught in half of his 12 steal attempts last year, Wilson will have to improve his reads and jumps to become a useful basestealer. He shows good range and an average arm in center. He did make strides in instructional league and should finally be ready for low Class A three years after being drafted.