Expect pipeline from Jackson to be turned on full

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comMay 13, 2012 

The Seattle Mariners on Saturday spent their first night of the year in a familiar place, at the bottom of the American League West. It figures to be their home for the summer, and my presumption is they slept soundly.

But the week that preceded the Mariners’ descent into the cellar was a momentous one for an organization whose future is tethered to talent it has gathered at the Double-A level. On Monday, relief pitcher Stephen Pryor learned of his promotion from Jackson (Tenn.) to Triple-A Tacoma. A few days later, starting pitcher Andrew Carraway got the same call.

The migration has begun.

While it’s too early to abandon hopes for the 2012 Mariners – we can do that during the dog days of August – I suspect the transactions column on the Scoreboard page of The Olympian will draw longer glances over the next three and a half months than the standings on the baseball page. Because starting pitcher Danny Hultzen began the season with fellow former first-round draft choices James Paxton and Taijuan Walker at Jackson, keeping tabs on the progress of a Double-A team in western Tennessee has been more fulfilling than watching a major league team in the Northwest.

The question wasn’t whether Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik would activate the talent pipeline between the Smoky Mountains and the Cascades. The question was: Who would be the first Jackson Generals player to relocate?

It turned out to be Pryor, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound hoss of a right-hander who helped anchor a Generals bullpen that has been no less impressive than that vaunted starting rotation. Pryor and his wife packed in a hurry – five suitcases, along with a stroller and two car seats – for the long flight to Sea-Tac, where they met the Rainiers, returning from a road trip.

The following night at Cheney Stadium, facing the heart of the Albuquerque batting order in the top of the eighth inning, Pryor retired the side on 10 pitches. His fastball peaked at 99 mph, but he also offered a change-up – an effective swing-and-miss pitch for somebody with superior velocity.

That Pryor wasn’t prominent on the radar screen of casual fans says more about the radar screen of casual fans than it does about the Mariners’ fifth-round draft choice of 2010. He has been dominant at every stop in the farm system except High Desert (Calif.) in advanced Single A, where he struggled with mechanical issues last season after recovering from elbow tendinitis.

Despite posting a 7.67 ERA at High Desert (given the famously inflated offensive statistics in the California League, the franchise ought to be renamed “High Numbers”), Pryor went to Jackson in 2011 and struck out 27 batters in 222/3 innings. This spring he simply overmatched Double-A hitters: 25 strikeouts, with four walks.

That trend continued through his first two appearances at Cheney Stadium, where Pryor gave up no runs and one hit over three innings, striking out five, walking one.

Then there’s Carraway. Because he’s not physically imposing (6-2, 200), and is one of the few Mariners prospects whose fastball doesn’t reach the mid-90 mph range, Carraway in Jackson generated little of the buzz surrounding Hultzen, Walker and Paxton. But he went 4-0 in seven starts for the Generals, with a 2.61 ERA, and at the age of 25, he was ready for a step up in class.

The right-hander took the mound on Friday night and gave the pitching-starved Rainiers their best starting effort of the season. He retired the first 18 Albuquerque batters until a seventh-inning single ended his bid for a perfect game. Carraway didn’t overpower anybody – he struck out four before he was relieved with one out in the eighth inning – but isn’t an 18-up-and-18-down roll overpowering in itself?

Carraway is a product of the East Cobb baseball system in suburban Atlanta, which has funneled such players as Jason Heyward, Brian McCann and Jeff Francouer into the big leagues. At the University of Virginia, where Carraway earned a degree in 2009, he was teammates with Hultzen.

Two years before Hultzen was chosen second overall in the 2011 amateur draft, the Mariners selected Carraway in the 12th round. So much for pedigrees. Not to get carried away with Carraway, but don’t be surprised if his stint with the Rainiers is brief.

The Mariners’ starting rotation boasts Felix Hernandez, an ace of unlimited ability, and left-hander Jason Vargas, who knows how to mix a serviceable fastball with a precisely located change-up. After that it’s Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi and Kevin Millwood, a trio whose combined record is 3-11.

Andrew Carraway’s Triple-A career is one game old, but if he makes five or six starts that approach the mastery he showed on Friday, there’s no reason he shouldn’t supplant Millwood on the back end of the Mariners’ rotation.

Besides, the pitching the organization stockpiled at Double-A has to be sorted out somewhere. If Carraway advances to Seattle, it opens up a spot in Tacoma for, say, Hultzen, whose 1.91 ERA ranks third in the Southern League. Or Paxton, who is 3-1 with the Generals, with a 2.60 ERA. Or Walker, who also is 3-1, with a 1.71 ERA.

(Walker is thought to own the highest ceiling of “The Big Three” Generals, but he won’t turn 20 until August. No hurry. His fast track to the bigs will be impeded by prudently installed restrictor plates.)

Any discussion of the Tennessee-to-Tacoma pipeline has to include reliever Carter Capps, whose fastball typically broaches 100 mph.

Capps’ strikeout-to-walk ratio in Jackson (24-4) mirrors that of Pryor’s (25-4).

And then there are the Jackson position players awaiting the next step. Shortstop Nick Franklin, a supplemental 2009 first-round draft choice out of high school, is hitting .318. Switch-hitting outfielder Denny Almonte, 23, a second-round draft choice in 2007, has gradually found his groove. Two years removed from a .232 season in Single-A, he’s hitting .288 with the Generals.

Third baseman Francisco Martinez, touted as the key to the trade that sent starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Tigers last summer, hasn’t shown the power you would expect from a 6-2, 210-pound corner infielder (zero homers), but he has stolen 14 bases in 15 attempts.

Francisco Martinez? Carter Capps? Denny Almonte? Get used to these names as you become familiar with Stephen Pryor and Andrew Carraway, and await the inevitable arrival of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker.

The migration has begun.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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