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Minor Leaguers of Note, June

It's time for another glance at the activity down on the Mariners farm. Here we go:

Where are they now?

Looking back at the first post from April here are some updates worth mentioning about players highlighted then.

Chris Taylor and Mark Lowe both got promoted to the majors. Taylor struggled and got sent back down, but Lowe has stuck and been a revelation in the bullpen. I wrote that his triple-digit heat isn't returning, but I was mistaken.

Stephen Landazuri was promoted from AA Jackson to AAA Tacoma but has struggled mightily. I haven't had a chance to see him in Tacoma yet so I don't know exactly why he has been so bad, but AAA has been a rude awakening for him.

Tyler Marlette, Edwin Diaz, Trey-Cochran Gill, and Gianfranco Wawoe all earned promotions up to AA Jackson since April. Diaz in particular is enjoying a bit of a breakout season. He will represent the M's in the MLB futures game in a few weeks and has cemented himself as the M's best pitching prospect at the moment, or at least the most promising one close to the majors.

Now, time for some new players of note:

Tacoma (AAA)

  • Leon Landry, OF - Landry was acquired from the Dodgers a few years ago with a similar skillset to James Jones and (if you remember him) Abe Almonte. He was stuck in AA and seemed destined to be nothing more than organizational depth. However, he got an early promotion to AAA this year and has hit well, particularly with a bit of surprising power. Maybe he is having a lucky year, or maybe he has taken a step forward.
  • Forrest Snow, RHP - Snow is enjoying the best season of his pro career. He has been a great organizational depth pitcher for the M's, though he does have a nice, lanky 6'6" pitching frame with a fastball that sits in the low 90s. I think it would be a nice gesture for the Mariners to bring him up for at least a cup of coffee in the majors at some point, and this September would be a logical time.
  • Tyler Smith, SS - Smith, unlike almost everyone else in the M's minor league system, has plate discipline! He walks a ton and plays a premium defensive position. His tools fall short of other M's shortstop prospects - namely Ketel Marte (who somehow I haven't written about extensively yet) and Chris Taylor - but he provides organizational depth with some upside to be a decent option as the 25th guy on a roster.
  • Anthony Fernandez, LHP - Fernandez just had his first start of the year and I wouldn't be surprised if he is in Tacoma soon. Fernandez is working back from Tommy John surgery. He's never been a high-profile prospect, but he had an assortment of solid breaking balls with good command pre-Tommy John surgery. He could easily be an option at the back end of the M's rotation going into spring training next year, which is why I'll be tracking his starts closely the rest of the way.
  • Tyler O'Neill, RF - O'Neill is raw but producing in his own way. He is a violent free-swinger, with 10 walks, 83 strikeouts (!!), and 26 extra-base hits (including 15 home runs.)  The power is impressive for a young man who just turned 20 years old a week ago. He has major work to do on his plate discipline and/or contact rate, but he has time and at least one tantalizing tool (that power) to work with.
  • Paul Fry, LHP - Fry recently participated in the California League all-star game, and rightfully so. He has racked up 62 strikeouts in 47.2 innings. He doesn't throw incredibly hard, and is a bit old for the league, so his results are a product of his refined command and off-speed offerings. Still, results are results, and he has emerged as a lefty relief prospect.

I've got nothing for this team. Nothing. It's been a bizarre year in Clinton. The players of note have either been demoted to Everett now that their season is underway or promoted up in the system. It looks like a long summer in Clinton.

I'll devote a post just to the short-season teams in the near future. Stay tuned.

Walker's Progress

The Taijuan Walker that shut down the Angels last night is the not the Taijuan Walker that took the mound in April for the Mariners. His early season struggles were well documented, and now his hot streak is garnering just as much attention. I, for one, said that he needed to stay in the majors when he was struggling because his biggest problem was how well hitters were doing when Walker was ahead in the count. He needed to figure out how to put MLB batters away, and I wasn't convinced AAA hitters would provide enough of a challenge for Walker to take this next step.

Here are what Walker's count maps look like now. A reminder that the map on the left shows wOBA by count with red bad and green good. The map on the right shows frequency of counts, with darker shades occurring more often:



Right now Walker is on an incredible walkless tear, with only three this month (!!) However,  I could go out on the mound and walk that few batters in a month by simply grooving pitches. Sort of similarly, throwing strikes wasn't really Walker's problem early in the season. His inability to put away batters once he got ahead was his main problem, so part of the reason he walked more batters was because they hung around long enough to draw four balls if they couldn't find a way to square up a pitch before that. Now, Walker is back to destroying batters when they get behind, and his walk rate has predictably plummeted.

However, that is only half the story. Walker has also improved his command slightly but noticeably. 0-1 continues to be his most frequent count, but both 1-0 and 1-1 counts have diminished while 0-2 and 1-2 counts have increased. So, not only is Walker much better in pitcher's counts, he is also forcing batters into more pitcher's counts.

Some of Walker's turnaround is probably some simple regression to the mean. He flashed dominant ability when ahead in the count in his cups of coffee with the Mariners the last few seasons. Now his 2015 numbers look more like that version of Walker too. He will likely have some wild starts between now and the end of the season where he looks more like the April pitcher that had so many worried, but now his overall body of work this season looks more like what was reasonable to expect at the start of the season.

Taijuan Walker has undeniably found his identity again. There's no reason to think he can't keep up the good work as long as he is blessed with his golden fastball, and just as importantly, above average command of it. Walker's secondary stuff, particularly his changeup of late, is good enough to flummox batters once he is ahead in the count, but the high wOBA averages when he gets behind suggests that batters can make Walker very one dimensional when he gets behind. So, his next area of growth is harnessing an offspeed pitch (or two) enough to really start mixing up pitches in all counts. If he can do that, then he'll take another step forward and be a true front-of-the-line starter. However, even if he can't figure that out, he'll be what he is now - a good pitcher that gives his team a chance to win when he's on the mound.

Mariners Could Exploit a Seller's Market

The Mariners remain in a precarious position, to say the least. Although they did not play yesterday, the A's did, and won - which puts the Mariners in the AL West cellar. However, Fangraphs still projects the Mariners to have the best winning percentage in the AL West the rest of the season. Of course, this is simply an analytical way of saying what any fan has easily noticed so far: the Seattle Mariners have badly underperformed so far this year.

Interestingly, Fangraphs still places the M's playoff odds at 18.4% - basically suggesting that if this 2015 M's team, from the position they are in right now in the division and league they are in right now, would find a way to make the playoffs about once in five attempts.* Frankly, that's a higher percentage than I expected. It speaks to how good the Mariners could (and should) be because the projection assumes that the Mariners revert back to that team projected to be the best in the AL West from now to the rest of the season.

*Some of this is due to the extreme parity in the AL. The top four playoff odds at the moment all belong to NL teams, which is especially amazing when you consider there are only five playoff spots up for grabs in each league. This includes three NL Central ballclubs (Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs) with odds ahead of every AL team.

I remain worried that Jack Zduriencik will feel some heat on his job and make some deadline deals to go for it and make the playoffs this year. The playoff odds suggest making the postseason is not an impossible task for the Mariners, but bolstering the roster is a different story. The following tweet came from respected MLB reporter Ken Rosenthal today:


The trade deadline market projects as an extreme seller's market because so many teams think they have a shot at the playoffs. In an odd way the Mark Trumbo trade already looks better than expected in hindsight, even with Trumbo's mighty struggles, given that the Mariners completely one of only two significant trades during the season so far. The other also included the Diamondbacks, who shipped Bronson Arroyo and top pitching prospect Touki Toussaint to the Braves for Phil Gosselin. Gosselin is basically a glorified version of Willie Bloomquist. Advantage: Braves in a landslide. The Mariners gave up nobody of Toussaint's caliber to get a (theoretically) superior player in Trumbo.

Perhaps the Diamondbacks are just dumb, but even if that's the case, at least the Mariners took advantage.

Both logic and reports like Rosenthal's strongly suggest that whoever decides to sell players and build for the future will get deals they almost never would get in other markets, particularly in the offseason. Even though the Mariners have an outside chance at the playoffs, I believe there is some wisdom to exploring and exploiting this trade market to reload for 2016. I'm not suggesting that this team needs to get blown up. What I am suggesting is that the 2015 Mariners have some players that contenders might like to have who do not ruin the M's chances in 2016 - especially depending on who the M's can get back in a trade.

Here are five Mariners who could get traded at the deadline that might not harm the M's chances of competing in 2016 at all, especially if the Mariners can acquire some talent in return:


'Kuma is an impending free agent
(image posted on Wikimedia commons by LiAna Davis)
Hisashi Iwakuma - Iwakuma is a free agent at the end of this season. Moreover, the Mariners all of a sudden have a bit of a glut in the starting rotation with the emergence of Mike Montgomery. Although Iwakuma would be a rental for a contender, he comes with a track record of success, a very affordable contract, and his injury this season might work in his favor. It has limited Iwakuma's innings, which means if he can have a couple of solid starts between now and the trade deadline, other teams should have confidence that Iwakuma won't lose any gas in a potentially deep playoff run.

J.A. Happ - Similar to Iwakuma, Happ is a free agent at the end of the season. Safeco Field makes him look a bit better than he actually is, but that hasn't stopped teams in the past from acquiring Mariners (remember when the Tigers traded for Jarrod Washburn at the deadline?) It wouldn't make sense to trade both Happ and Iwakuma away unless one of those deals netted a decent starting pitcher in return. Then again, Vidal Nuno could jump in the rotation for the rest of the season and a guy like Danny Hultzen could add depth in 2016.

Austin Jackson - Jackson will become a free agent at the end of this season. This limits his trade value, but the whole point of going into the market is because it's an extreme seller's market. Jackson might still demand something more than usual. Trading him away would only make sense if A) The Mariners get a center fielder back in the trade or B) They decide to get creative from within their own ranks. A three-way trade which brings Ben Revere from the Phillies could make some sense, or perhaps giving Brad Miller an audition in center field which would clear room for Chris Taylor and/or Ketel Marte at shortstop for an audition between now and the end of the season.

Willie Bloomquist - A popular target to get DFAd, maybe somebody in the National League wants him for his defensive versatility and veteran presence. He is another free agent at the end of the season, and with the M's infield depth in the minors I don't see a spot for him moving forward. Might as well ask around and see if anyone would give up a player for his services.

Fernando Rodney - Hey, if Rodney gets hot and a team sees him as closer insurance, why not? Rodney is a free agent at the end of the season anyway. I doubt he nets much in return in a trade, but you never know until you ask.

Perhaps none of these impending free agents appeal to other clubs, but if the market is as devoid of available players as it seems to be, I would think a few of these players would generate some interest. None of them would create holes for the Mariners that do not already exist (with the possible exception of Austin Jackson). Again, this isn't about blowing up the team and starting again. It is about prepping for 2016 a little early and exploiting a market where the vast majority of teams are hungry to bolster themselves for a pennant chase this year.

I doubt the Mariners would get major prospects in return, but I like their chances to get a few useful role players that they do not have at the moment. That may not sound huge, but then the Mariners would have a little bit of time the rest of this season to season some rookies and find out what they have going into 2016. Moreover, a little more organizational depth in the right places (like catcher...) would allow Zduriencik and company to focus on one or two major additions this offseason. Assuming this year is a fluke, which both traditional scouts and statheads agree could be the case, the Mariners could be in line to win something like 90 games next year.

Or the Mariners could blow all their depth in trades to try to squeak into the playoffs this year and then lose a fifth (or more) of their roster in free agency and scramble for replacements. Or, perhaps more likely, the Mariners could stand pat at the deadline and hope their current roster catches fire and passes up the rest of the American League, then worry about replacing all their impending free agents in the offseason.

I know which path I would explore at this point.