Top Ten Prospects: Seattle Mariners
Complete Index of Top 10s
By Jim Callis
Baseball America's Top 10 Prospects lists are based on projections of a player's long-term worth after discussions with scouting and player-development personnel. All players who haven't exceeded the major league rookie standards of 130 at-bats or 50 innings pitched (without regard to service time) are eligible. Ages are as of April 1, 2004.
2. Clint Nageotte, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 200.
Background: 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.
Strengths: Nageotte’s slider ranks with those of Francisco Rodriguez, John Smoltz and Ryan Wagner as the best anywhere. Nageotte throws his at 84-87 mph with late, hard downward break. Sitting on his slider does hitters no good and just sets them up for his 90-95 mph fastball.
Weaknesses: Nageotte rarely throws his changeup, leading some scouts to project him as a reliever. It should be effective once he starts using it more. He throws his slider too much, which led to elbow tendinitis that kept him from closing for Team USA in the Olympic qualifying tournament. He can improve his command and his work habits.
The Future: The Mariners want Nageotte to start 2004 at Triple-A Tacoma and make it to Seattle as a starter. He could help them immediately as a K-Rodesque reliever if needed.
3. Travis Blackley, lhp
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 6-3. Wt.: 190.
Background: 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 in 2002. He was even better in 2003, pitching in the Futures Game, winning the Texas League pitcher of the year and tying for the minor league lead in wins. His brother Adam pitches in the Red Sox system.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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. Both of his breaking balls need a little refinement.
The Future: 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.
4. Jose Lopez, ss/2b
Age: 20. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 170. Signed: Venezuela, 2000.
Background: 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.
Strengths: While Lopez has impressive tools, 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
The Future: 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 he spends a season in Triple-A and Rich Aurilia’s one-year contract expires.
5. Shin-soo Choo, of
Age: 21. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-11. Wt.: 178.
Background: Choo signed for $1.335 million after the 2000 World Junior Championship, where he starred as a pitcher. 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: Though Choo hasn’t 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, but he’ll have to close his swing and adjust his Ichiro-like approach to tap into his power.
The Future: This offseason, Seattle signed Ichiro Suzuki 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.
6. Chris Snelling, of
Age: 22. B-T: L-L. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 165.
Background: As usual, Snelling produced at the plate and spent time on the disabled list in 2003. 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.
Strengths: Snelling is such a gifted hitter that former 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. Instinctive and driven, he has an average arm and can play solid defense on either outfield corner.
Weaknesses: Snelling plays so aggressively that he can’t stay in one piece. The knee injuries and 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 a year, fringy for a corner outfielder.
The Future: After his second knee surgery, Snelling should be 100 percent for spring training. He’ll probably go to Triple-A to get some much-needed at-bats in 2004. Next year he could replace Edgar Martinez at DH.
7. Rett Johnson, rhp
Age: 24. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 211.
Background: 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
The Future: Several scouts say Johnson profiles better as a reliever along the lines of Jeff Nelson, whom Seattle traded last August. Johnson could make the big league bullpen in spring training.
8. Cha Baek, rhp
Age: 23. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-4. Wt.: 190.
Background: Baek was Seattle’s first big international signing, agreeing to a $1.3 million bonus in 1998. He and Shin-Soo Choo were high school teammates. 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.
Strengths: 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.
Weaknesses: 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.
The Future: 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.
9. Adam Jones, ss
Age: 18. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 6-2. Wt.: 180.
Background: 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 as it did with former position players Rafael Soriano and Jorge Sosa.
Strengths: 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 superb athleticism as he fills out. He has a cannon arm to go with good hands and actions. He has plus speed, and the Mariners believe he’ll hit for average with some power.
Weaknesses: 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.
The Future: It will take time to turn Jones’ tools into baseball skills. He’ll move up to low Class A in 2004.
10. Jamal Strong, of
Age: 25. B-T: R-R. Ht.: 5-10. Wt.: 180.
Background: 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.
Strengths: One of the fastest players in the minors, Strong has true 80 speed on the 20-80 scouting scale. He understands that 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 very good range in center field.
Weaknesses: Strong’s swing is a bit long and he can be pounded inside with fastballs. His approach isn’t conducive to producing much power. He doesn’t always take the best routes on fly balls, though his speed covers up his mistakes. His arm is just playable.
The Future: Ticketed for Triple-A, Strong is on the bubble between big league regular or a fourth outfielder. His bat will determine his future, though he has little chance of cracking Seattle’s starting lineup.