Let’s start with this: Last year was a disaster in the Mariners’ farm system.
Outfielder Alex Jackson, the system’s brightest light, flat-lined when over-promoted to Low-A Clinton as a 19-year-old, and first baseman D.J. Peterson, a first-round pick in 2013, saw his power and production sharply plummet.
Outfielder Gareth Morgan, a second-round pick in 2014, continued to strike out at an alarming rate. Outfielder Austin Wilson, a second-round pick in 2013, stayed healthy but didn’t hit.
Dominican bonus baby Brayan Hernandez, another outfielder, bombed in his pro debut. Catcher Tyler Marlette stopped hitting. Even outfielder Tyler O’Neill, who hit 32 homers, raised more eyebrows by striking out a ton.
“I was a little disheartened at the overall strikeout rate in the minor leagues,” new general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “You’ve got a lot of guys striking out a lot.
“(The Mariners have) very talented players with a lot of upside to tap into, but it’s only going to happen if we can somehow develop more contact. That’s going to be step No. 1 from a development aspect.”
It’s too early to give up on any of the above-mentioned prospects. Each one appears either on this year’s Top 10 list of the organization’s top prospects or its accompanying Watch List.
Jackson remains No. 1 on the list despite batting a combined .207 with just eight homers and 38 RBIs in 76 games at Clinton and Short-A Everett. But Peterson, 24, slipped from No. 2 in last year’s ranking to Watch List status.
Their struggles and others prompted Dipoto to clean house in the player-development staff, which now operates under Andy McKay, whose primary charge is to change the attitude and reverse the malaise of the underachieving system.
“We will be creating a plan in spring training for every player,” McKay said. “The way this process will work is every 25 days that player will sit down with his plan and his coaching staff to update the plan and check in on the plan.”
A key element in every player’s plan will be improvement at controlling the strike zone. It’s telling that this spring’s list of nonroster invites to big-league camp includes outfielder Dario Pizzano, who shows laudable on-base skills.
Pizzano, 24, ranks No. 7 on this year’s list after batting .308 last season with a .363 on-base percentage at Double-A Jackson while limited to 58 games because of a hand injury.
While the Mariners rewarded Pizzano for his approach, there might be no prospect who better represents the organization’s goals than shortstop Drew Jackson, who merged plus (above-average) speed a year ago with a refined hitting approach.
Jackson, 22, flirted with .400 for much of the season at Everett after being selected from Stanford as a fifth-round pick. He ended up at .358 in 59 games with a .432 on-base percentage and was picked as the Northwest League’s top player.
The Mariners then included Jackson in a select group of prospects for a January hitting summit at their year-round complex in Peoria, Arizona, to reinforce the organization’s new approach under hitting coach Edgar Martinez.
“They went over this hitting philosophy,” Jackson said, “and it was a lot of what I had been working on the past year or so. It was really refreshing to hear. My approach caters toward trying to get on base as much as I can.
“I feel my biggest asset is my base-stealing threat. Their whole system, I think, works well with me, and I’m just going to keep trying to work with it.”
Jackson is No. 3 on this season’s Top 10, which is compiled each February after consultation with Mariners officials plus scouts and player-development experts from rival organizations.
The annual ranking seeks to combine an evaluation of a prospect’s high-end potential and his likelihood of reaching that potential. Weight is given to players likely to contribute to the big-league club in the short-term future.
The latter factor played a major role in placing reliever Tony Zych at No. 2 in the rankings. The only qualification for inclusion is that a player meet rookie qualifications — generally fewer than 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched.
Drew Jackson isn’t likely to come close this season to playing in the big leagues. Instead, club officials expect to face a choice this spring of starting him at Clinton or High-A Bakersfield.
Jackson’s challenge this year is to do what several of the organization’s top prospects couldn’t do in recent years: build on his success as he advances through the minor-league system.
“I’m sure I’m going to have to adjust (to playing a full minor-league season),” he said. “Learn how to take care of myself better. Eat healthier and do the little things that are going to increase my longevity throughout the season.”
“Just stick with my type of baseball,” he said, “and don’t get outside of my planned approach. That’s what the new front office is preaching: stay within your approach.
“As long as I stick to my same approach all season long, I think I’ll be happy with the result.”
Chances are, the Mariners will be, too.
RANKING THE MARINERS TOP PROSPECTS
1. OF Alex Jackson (Bats right, throws right, 6 foot 2, 215 pounds, age 20 on opening day, first-round pick in 2014). His dismal first full pro season symbolized why new general manager Jerry Dipoto gutted the player-development staff. Still has all the tools to be an impact middle-of-the-order bat in the big leagues.
2. RHP Tony Zych (R-R, 6-3, 190, 25, fourth round in 2011 by Chicago Cubs). Acquired last April from the Cubs, Zych unlocked his stalled potential after making a small change in his mechanics. Now seen as a possible closer in the future.
3. SS Drew Jackson (R-R, 6-2, 200, 22, fifth round in 2015). Viewed as an underachiever through much of his college career at Stanford, he found his form midway through his junior year and carried it into his first pro season. Must now validate that breakthrough in a full-season league.
4. OF Boog Powell (L-L, 5-10, 185, 23, 20th round in 2012 by Oakland). Has always displayed the on-base skills so desired by the Mariners’ new brain trust He could be a regular in the big leagues as soon as 2017.
5. RHP Edwin Diaz (R-R, 6-3, 195, 22, third round in 2012). That Diaz is generally viewed as the system’s top rotation candidate says more about the system than Diaz’s skills. Even so, there’s potential here as he continues to fill out a frail frame, but it’s time for a breakout year.
6. RHP Nick Neidert (R-R, 6-1, 180, 19, second round, in 2015). He battled elbow tendinitis as a high school senior, which is one reason why the Mariners limited him to 35 1/3 innings in 11 starts in the Arizona Rookie League. Draws comparisons to Tim Hudson (man, the Mariners would love that).
7. OF Dario Pizzano (L-R, 5-11, 200, 24, 15th round in 2012). An under-the-radar prospect for much of his four pro seasons, Pizzano got an invitation to big-league camp because of his .383 career on-base percentage. A left fielder whose defense must improve.
8. LHP Paul Fry (L-L, 6-0, 190, 23, 17th round in 2013). Has improved steadily in climbing through the system. Picked last year as the organization’s reliever of the year after compiling a 2.02 ERA in 50 games at High-A Bakersfield (28 games) and Double-A Jackson (22).
9. OF Tyler O’Neill (R-R, 5-11, 210, 20, third round in 2013). It’s notable that despite hitting 32 homers last season in 106 games at Bakersfield, O’Neill didn’t get a nonroster invite to big-league camp. It’s also easily explained: 137 strikeouts in 407 at-bats. That lack of contact in Single-A ball raised concerns.
10. C Tyler Marlette (R-R, 5-11, 195, 23, fifth round in 2011). His production dipped sharply last season after two encouraging years, which is troubling because he’s never been a smooth receiver. Like O’Neill, it’s notable that he didn’t get a camp invite.
PROSPECTS TO WATCH LIST
(in alphabetical order):
RHP Jonathan Aro came from Boston in a trade and could pitch his way into a big-league job with a fastball-slider-changeup repertoire. ... Former UW Huskies OF Braden Bishop had an encouraging first pro season at the plate to complement his speed and top-flight defensive skill. He needs to build on that. ... LHP Luiz Gohara is still just 19, but it’s time for him to harness at least some of his potential after going 5-17 with a 5.75 ERA in three pro seasons. ... OF Brayan Hernandez didn’t do much last year in the Dominican Summer League after getting a $1.85-million bonus as a 17-year-old in 2014. ... LHP Danny Hultzen is switching to the bullpen this season. Maybe that helps his troublesome shoulder hold up. ... OF Luis Liberato, then 19, was probably over-promoted last season in a jump from the Arizona Rookie League to Low-A Clinton. He was better when reassigned to Short-A Everett. ... RHP Andrew Moore is a pitchability guy who had a great pro debut last season at Everett. But he’ll have to prove his stuff at every step in the farm system. ... OF Gareth Morgan won’t be 20 until April 12, but 2014’s second-round draft pick struck out 162 times in 377 at-bats over the past two years in the Arizona Rookie League. ... Has anyone’s stock fallen farther than 1B/3B D.J. Peterson? A year ago, he was No. 2 in out Top 10. Then all sorts of red flags surfaced. A key year looms large for him. ... RHP Dylan Thompson is a 19-year-old who had a strong pro debut last year in the Arizona Rookie League. It will be interesting to see whether the Mariners jump him to Low-A Clinton. ... OF Austin Wilson is another high draft pick (second round in 2013) who hasn’t panned out. Health issues stalled him in 2014, but he batted just .239 last year in 109 games at High-A Bakersfield. Still loaded with tools, though. ... LHP Ryan Yarbrough regressed a bit last season at Bakersfield after a double jump following a fine pro debut in 2014 at Short-A Everett. Has a plus sinking fastball and could make a major move if he develops another reliable pitch.
– Bob Dutton