This is how lazy and lame I am: when I started researching for this article, I made of list of things the city of Seattle is known for… coffee, rain, sports teams that don’t win championships, Citizen Dick, and WarGames. I didn’t get very far before I realized three things. First, that making a reference to the movie Singles without mentioning the Xavier McDaniel cameo is a daft move. Second, that WarGames still holds up over time, despite its anachronistic qualities. And third and finally, that I was creating an elaborate diversion, because writing about the Mariners system doesn’t interest me a great deal. I'm just being honest.
Of course, it's not like my apathetic response is justifiable, as the Mariners system has a lot of promise, with a powerful one-two punch of Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda, and several low-level jumpers who have tremendous upside. In fact, when I made a list of the prospects I’m most looking forward to seeing in person this spring training, Esteilon Peguero and Phillips Castillo were in the top 10. Of course, I also included WarGames on that list—it’s on every list I make.
Like the other two articles in this series, I’m going to focus on the top five prospects in the Mariners system, and forecast what could go wrong in the upcoming season. My list won’t contain any surprises, although I tried to talk myself into including a 17-year-old without any professional experience, but I just couldn’t make a convincing argument.
Prospect #1 Michael Pineda
Who: After an elbow injury cut short his 2009 campaign, Pineda exploded in his return to action in 2010, reaching Triple-A and positioning himself as the top prospect in the system. Pineda has a delicious—that’s right, delicious—assortment of pitches, starting with a plus-plus fastball that has 80-grade velocity in bursts, adding to that a hard, tumbling changeup, and finally a slider with two-plane break and bite. Put that in a 6-foot-5, 250-pound vehicle, add in the ability to throw strikes, and you have a pitcher with top-of-the-rotation potential.
What could go wrong '11: The step forward from control to command is Pineda’s biggest challenge. His stuff is among the best in the minors, and his ability to repeat his delivery not only allows for deception and secondary execution, but it also allows him to throw each pitch for strikes. This is a good thing. Of course, throwing strikes is different from throwing quality strikes, and the talent at the major-league level is quick to point out those differences.
Pineda should reach the majors at some point before the summer, with a chance to break camp on the 25. When he reaches the highest level, the command/control variable will set the tone for his success. Despite an excellent fastball, Pineda has to live beyond the guise of “pounding the zone”; if the zone in question happens to be over the heart of the plate, big-league hitters can time 97 mph fastballs, and will no doubt exploit strikes that are loose in the zone. I can’t stress this enough that, given his natural, easy velocity, and his already promising secondary pitches (they still need some refinement, but they both look to have plus potential), the ability to put his fastball where he wants could be the difference between a future innings eater and a future star. I don’t say this very often, but I actually believe he could be special. Pineda is legit.
Prospect #2: Dustin Ackley
Who: The second overall pick in the 2009 draft, Ackley struggled out of the gate, but then again, he started his professional career at the Double-A level. Eventually, he found his rhythm at the plate, finishing the season at Triple-A Tacoma and then smashing the Arizona Fall League. Ackley might have the best hit tool in the minors, with a calm, smooth swing and excellent barrel awareness that should allow him to hit over .300 at the major league level. His overall approach is well above average, with the pitch-recognition skills and patience to reach base at a high clip and work himself into exploitable counts.
What could go wrong in '11: Expectations of superstardom follow Ackley, given his draft position, his present polish, and his offensive skill set and athleticism, Ackley has been tabbed as a star in the making. If you believe that he is going to be a star, you are setting yourself up for a letdown in 2011 (and beyond). Let’s quickly re-examine who Ackley is:
An excellent athlete with a good frame to hold some additional strength; someone armed with a plus-plus hit tool and an advanced approach that will produce high batting average and on-base ability; some pop in the bat, but the power tool looks to have fringe-average projection; he's new to his position, but isn’t an above-average defender at second base, with good range but a fringy arm and suspect footwork; he brings plus speed, but that will slow if he attempts to add power to his game, and he lacks elite quickness, which in turn limits his overall potential as a base-stealing threat.
So, a great player, right? Yes, but a special player? No. The lack of a power is one of the major knocks on Ackley, but that won’t prevent him from being a very good #2 slot hitter in a major-league lineup. Again, this is all about expectations. If you look at his current/projected skills, you can easily see a .300 AVG/.400 OBP guy with 10-homer potential, 10-15 steals a season, and a glove that will play to average at second. That’s a fantastic player.
If you look at his draft status and buy into the superstar label often attached to his name, you aren’t going to be satisfied with the production he offers at the major-league level. He’s going to be good, and it is not going to take long for him to reach a high production level, but those waiting for the hero might need to adjust the expectations, because Ackley isn’t going to be a star.
Prospect #3: Taijun Walker
Who: An ultra-projectable first-round selection in the 2010 draft, this 18-year-old righty can already pump mid-90s fastballs over the plate. He also flashes a promising curveball, and offers command projection based on his off-the-charts athleticism and body control.
What could go wrong in ’11: Everything. Walker’s raw talent in combination with his body give him extreme upside, but he is as raw as he is projectable, and the developmental process could lead to some funky results on the field. At the lower levels, Walker will be able to find success with his plus (to plus-plus) fastball if he can throw it anywhere near the plate. Command of that fastball is going to take years to harness, but his athleticism makes it easier to dream on, and it should consistently miss bats throughout the process.
Projecting his secondary pitches requires a more abstract approach, as they are still in the infancy of their development. The arm looks good for a curve and he can already make it flash, so there is promise there. It’s going to be ugly before it gets pretty, but I’ve seen some plus projections on it giving him the potential for two plus pitches. The changeup is a zygote at this stage, and if the developmental plan forces heavy repetition of the pitch (which it should), the growth will come at the expense of his statistical line. It’s too early for me to have a good take on it, and changeups are feel pitches, so it’s going to take time.
Unless Walker loses five inches of height while gaining 50 pounds of fat, or starts throwing in the low 80s, or decides to leave baseball behind to pursue another sport, his 2011 season will be positive as long as he can stay healthy and log innings. The results might be a little ugly, but his future is anything but.
Prospect #4: Nick Franklin
Who: The 27th overall selection in the 2009 draft, Franklin surprised many scouts by hitting 23 homers in the power suppressing Midwest League. Franklin has a well-rounded skill-set, with fringe-to-solid average tools across the board, and will play the 2011 season as a 20-year-old.
What could go wrong in '11: The power displayed in Low-A could prove to be a one-season aberration, making him more of an interesting prospect, rather than one who fits comfortably in the top 100 of most prognosticators’ lists. I’ve only seen Franklin a handful of times, but enough to see that his mechanics at the plate are a little jumpy, and his ultra-quick trigger makes me conclude that either, 1) his bat speed is well above-average and so is his trigger, or 2) his bat speed is above-average, but he cheats into the zone early, and I just think he has a lighting quick trigger, or 3) “WarGames.”
Even if he is cheating a bit, he still has a swing conducive for power, with a smooth, leveraged stroke with loft and excellent extension from contact point to follow-through. What could go wrong in 2011, assuming he starts the season at the Double-A level (which is entirely possible), rests on the expectation that pitchers will have far superior stuff to the Low-A arms Franklin feasted on, and will no doubt look to exploit Franklin’s power charged swing.
Despite the accolades I just bestowed on his swing, it isn’t without holes, and his aggressive approach could crush his contact rates against more advanced pitching. Look for Double-A arms to bust Franklin with fastballs high and inside, daring the 175-pound switch-hitter to muscle up the ball. It might take a few seasons of lumps to normalize at such an advanced level, but if the in-game power doesn’t suffer under the weight of his aggressive approach and swing length, the sky is the limit for the still physically maturing infielder. I’m just not sold that his power will remain an in-game attraction.
Prospect #5: Guillermo Pimentel
Who: A Dominican outfielder who signed for $2 million in 2009, Pimentel held his own in the complex league, showing impressive in-game power as a 17-year-old. Despite the five-tool label often affixed to his name, his power potential is the only one of the five that stands out on a field, and he isn’t overly athletic.
What could go wrong in '11: Pitchers will stop throwing him fastballs. Pimentel doesn’t have a bad swing, but there are certainly things about it that need to improve in order for his power to manifest outside of the Arizona facilities. I bet it won’t shock you to learn that Pimentel is ultra-aggressive at the plate, itching to power-up on weak fastballs Little League’d up over the heart of the plate. Because of this fact, it also won’t shock you to learn that Pimentel really struggles against lefties, losing contact ability and, in turn, the power that stems from the hit tool.
Pimentel is very young, and he is going to improve as he matures, but the 2011 season might not look too hot on paper, especially if pitchers get the memo that he struggles with off-speed stuff. It’s way too early to label him Pedro Cerrano, but it's not too early to keep an eye on how often he is making contact. His power potential is through the roof, but if the hit tool doesn’t improve in the process, the power will be nullified when it matters most: in games.