The Jackson Generals entered the season with high expectations, as perhaps one of the top five teams in all of minor league baseball. However, since it is minor league baseball, the best you have to offer at the beginning of the year is likely the deathkill by the end of it.
By that I mean, the more successful your players are the more likely it is that they'll leave you. On the other hand, the less successful they are, the less likely it is that you're as good as you thought you were.
The Generals had a little bit of both. They entered the season with the pitching trio that fans at Lookout Landing dubbed as "Cerberus,"named after the three-headed dog of Greek and Roman mythology that guards the gates of the Underworld. Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton could be deemed as as three of the best 30 or so starting pitching prospects in baseball. In addition to those three, Jackson had the best Mariners hitting prospect still left in the minors (since Jesus Montero spent all year in Seattle) with Nick Franklin at shortstop.
Those four prospects would be what made Jackson a neck-and-neck tie for best team in the Southern League, along with the Diamondbacks Mobile Bay Bears-affiliate that featured their own Cerberus of Trevor Bauer, Tyler Skaggs, and Patrick Corbin. So, how did it all turn out?
Well, the D'backs trio did not spend all that much time in double-A Mobile and finished 69-71. The Generals wound up at 79-61, the best record in the league. However, minor leagues have weird "1st half, 2nd half" winner rules and by the end of the year it was indeed Jackson vs Mobile in the Southern League Championship Series. After the Generals took game 1, the Bay Bears won the next three to capture the championship.
That's all well and good, but I'm mostly concerned about the players. How did the Mariners top prospects turn out this year? Let's take a look:
Danny Hultzen, LHP, 22
I wrote about Hultzen's massive control struggles after he was promoted to the Tacoma Rainiers in my triple-A review, but he was absolutely dominant while he was a General. Hultzen made 13 starts in his full-season debut with Jackson, and had a 1.19 ERA, 79 K/32 BB in 75.1 innings with only 38 hits allowed. He gave up 10 earned runs total during his time in double-A, and half of those came in his first start. He was unhittable, un-score-upon-able for the rest of his run. The walk issue is showing already in those numbers, and it would get much worse, but he was otherwise fantastic.
Let's just hope he can put it all together in 2013.
Nick Franklin, SS, Switch-hitter, 21
I just want to get these two out of the way that I already spoke about in my Tacoma review. Franklin had some nice moments with the Rainiers, but he got promoted because he was just too good for the Southern League. He hit .322/.394/.502 in 57 games with only 38 strikeouts in 239 plate appearances. Franklin stole nine bases, hit four home runs, walked 24 times, and had 17 doubles with four triples.
He struggled at times in triple-A but a 21-year-old at that level is an aggressive assignment and the fact that he could hit at all is impressive. He struggles as a switch-hitter, something that may have to be addressed in his future (or at the Arizona Fall League where he'll be reporting for extra duty) but is otherwise looking like a staple of the Mariners future infield.
A return to Tacoma seems likely to start 2013.
James Paxton, LHP, 23
Fans were absolutely thrilled to land Paxton in the fourth round of the 2010 draft, a year after he was a supplemental first round pick of the Blue Jays that didn't sign. He spent a year pitching in independent leagues, hurting his value and driving down his stock but no matter what happens at this point - it looks like a great pick for Seattle.
Just to get any kind of prospect in the fourth round is a major coup.
Paxton had 17 mostly-dominant starts for Clinton and Jackson in 2011, totaling 131 K in 95 innings with a 2.37 ERA. Baseball America rated him as the 52nd best prospect coming into the year. Command/control seemed to be an issue, wondering if he would ever be able to strike out enough batters at higher levels to make up for his high number of walks or vice versa, but he got off to a phenomenal start when he struck out 10 and walked none in 5.2 innings against Birmingham.
It wouldn't be long until those walk issues came back though.
Paxton walked eight batters in his third start. Five in the next. Overall, he walked 31 batters in his next 36.2 innings before hitting the DL after his May 25th start that saw him walk five and strike out one in 2.2 innings. Paxton wouldn't return until July 3rd, but he was much more efficient after that.
After walking almost 16% of batters faced in April and May, Paxton dramatically reduced free passes. He would pitch 26.1 innings in July and walk 7.5% of batters while striking out 22.6% and posting a 2.39 ERA. He pitched 33.2 innings in August and walked 9.7% of batters while striking out 23.6% faced and posting an ERA of 2.41. He was equally as good in the playoffs.
Paxton probably finished the year better than any other Mariners prospect and should start the 2013 season in Tacoma depending on how the Arizona Fall League and Spring Training go. There's a possibility that Paxton winds up in the bullpen, as there would be with almost any pitching prospect, but he's got the chance to be a very good number two starter if all works out.
Taijuan Walker, RHP, 20
Walker effectively turned himself into the steal of the 2010 draft when he dominated low-A at Clinton in 2011, striking out 113 and walking 39 in 96.2 innings with a 2.89 ERA. Baseball America ranked him as the 20th best prospect in the game and one of the top teenage prospects in baseball.
He lived up to that hype and more during the first two months of the season. Walker posted a 1.64 ERA in April over 22 innings, striking out over 30% of batters faced and walking only 7%. He was pretty good in May, striking out 18.8% and walking 8.3% of batters with a 2.82 ERA. As a 19-year-old pitching at least two levels above most players his age, this had scouts wondering if he was the best pitching prospect in baseball. It was basically down to him and Orioles phenom Dylan Bundy. Most agreed it was Bundy, but the debate was legitimate.
That talked quieted down after June.
Walker had his worst stretch as a professional, posting a 9.14 ERA in 20.2 innings in June, walking 15.4% of batters. He gave up three runs or more in seven straight starts, three times failing to reach the fifth inning. He was ineffective, hittable, and wild. Walker settled down at times (July 26: 6 innings, 2 hits, 8 K, 0 BB) but then come crashing down (August 12: 5.2 innings, 12 hits, 5 ER, 5 extra base hits.)
He gave up seven earned runs in his final regular season start over 3.1 innings, but on the bright side I guess he did strike out seven and only walk one. He also had a fairly dominant playoff finish, pitching 5.1 innings and allowing five hits, no runs, no walks, and nine strikeouts. (Overall in two playoff starts: 12.2 innings, 1 R, 13 K, 4 BB)
Walker's got something that most pitching prospects simply don't have: The "stuff" to be as dominant as anyone could hope to be. He just needs to figure it out, but it's not surprising that a guy who spent most of the season as a teenager in a league full of twenty-somethings would struggle at times. He pitched the most innings of his career and could have been fatigued but he ended on a high note. His curveball and fastball still give him the potential to be a number one starter.
After a a winter of rest, Walker could open 2013 back at Jackson (for what I expect would be a short stint to get his feet wet) or in the Tacoma rotation. His ETA will be entirely dependent upon his success, but there's a chance he gets a midseason call in 2013 with his innings closely monitored.
With the season wrapped up, I'd probably say that I'd rank Cerberus as: Walker, Paxton, Hultzen. That could always change in a heartbeat, and we saw a rollercoaster of events with these three this year, but I still think that Seattle has one hell of a trio. It's unlikely that all three will pan out, but it's also unlikely that none of them will. It's a good place for the Mariners to be in.
The reason that Jackson managed to stay good after the promotions of Franklin and Hultzen was that they found an infusion of talent from the lower levels that wasn't quite expected. Here is a breakdown of those guys.
Mike Zunino, C, 21, Bats: Right
Not long at all after playing college ball at Florida, Zunino dominated minor league pitching after being the third overall pick in the 2012 draft. He started at short-season Everett and made that look like a joke: .373/.474/.736, 10 HR in 29 games.
He was promoted all the way to double-A Jackson so that he'd be eligible for the Arizona Fall League, where he'll join Franklin and Paxton among five others. It seemed to be a formality for that reason, but instead he made it look like he was ready for the majors instead.
Zunino played in 15 regular season games and hit .333/.386/.588 with 3 HR, 5 BB/7 K and four doubles. He shows excellent plate discipline and displayed power with three more home runs in the playoffs. After years of searching high and low, spending draft picks and trading young stars, the M's are hopeful that they have finally found a franchise catcher.
Thus far, he's done nothing wrong. (Jeff Clement looked pretty awesome in the minors.) He could start 2013 with Tacoma or possibly in the majors as the opening day catcher.
Stefen Romero, 2B/3B, 23, Bats:Right
A 12th round pick out of Oregon State in 2010, nobody ever really talked about Romero because... he was a 12th round pick. That's changing now.
He hit .280/.342/.462 for Clinton last year with 16 HR and 16 SB, which isn't bad at all but won't get you on any prospect lists. He came into this year with no expectations and hit .357/.391/.581 in High Desert. But, it's literally on the moon.
How would he fair for Jackson? Pretty awful, right?
Well, he improved actually and led the Generals in OPS when he hit .347/.392/.620 in 56 games with 12 HR, 6 SB, 15 doubles and four triples. At 6'3, 225 lbs, Stefen carries the weight to continually hit for power, which he's going to have to do since he doesn't walk much. He just seemed to get hotter as the season went on and his trend kind of reminds me of Kyle Seager. Everybody was waiting for Seager to finally reach a level where he'd be outmatched and it just never happened. Instead, he's currently leading the Mariners in home runs, RBI, doubles, and a tick behind Michael Saunders in OPS.
Seager was supposed to be a utility player and right now he's one of our best hitters. He also plays 3B and Ackley plays 2B, so there's a logjam there at the moment. Luckily if you're going to get jammed up, let it happen in the infield. There's always a chance that Romero will hit well enough to be an above-average corner outfielder. The fact that he was a 12th rounder shouldn't harm how you view him, he's got excellent reports on his confidence, leadership, and clubhouse presence.
This is a guy that could open the season on the major league roster, a year after nobody outside of the organization knew who he was. In the future, he could even hit somewhere near that number three spot. Maybe the highest jump of anyone in the organization. He'll also be going to the AFL.
Brad Miller, SS, 22, Bats: Left
Another middle infielder prospect, people did know about Miller. A 2nd round pick out of Clemson in 2011, Miller sat right next to Hultzen at the press conference and so we knew of him. He hit .415/.458/.528 in a short 14 game stint with Clinton last year and began the season with Romero at High Desert.
Miller was tabbed by some as a sleeper to jump high up the rankings, and he did a pretty good job of that.
He hit .339/.412/.524 for the Mavericks with 11 HR and 19 SB in 97 games. He made his double-A debut on August 4th and mostly kept hitting.
Miller hit .320/.406/.476 with 4 HR, 7 doubles, two triples, 4 SB, 26 K/22 BB in 40 games and 170 plate appearances. Positives include an excellent eye at the plate and potential 10-20 HR power from a middle infield position. Negatives include 31 errors at High Desert, but that went down to just five in double-A. Of course, errors don't tell the whole story of a player but at least there was significant improvement there. Hopefully between Franklin and Miller, the M's have their future shortstop.
Either way, Miller could hit enough to play second base and maybe as an outfielder if he can continually hit for high average with great plate discipline. He's a legitimately good prospect and I expect him to open 2013 back at Jackson.
The "Other" Pitcher
Brandon Maurer, 22, RHP
The last player that I'll go over in great detail is another prospect that made a significant jump on prospect lists as the year went on. Maurer was drafted all the way in the 23rd round of 2008 out of high scool. He's pitched well during his time in the minors, but injuries have slowed him down quite a bit and he had never pitched more than 80 innings in a season until this year.
Getting out of a Cal League that saw him post a 6.38 ERA in 42.1 innings last year, the 22-year-old Maurer handled double-A pretty well: 137.2 innings, 117 K/48 BB, 133 hits, 3.20 ERA. That doesn't look that dominating, but he got better as the season went on, posting an ERA of 1.99 in July and 2.20 in August.
At 6'5", 200 lbs, Maurer has the build to be an intimidating starter. He's got a four-pitch repertoire with at least a couple of above-average pitches with potential to have at least two plus pitches, specifically his slider and curve though his fastball can reach the mid-90s. There's a chance that Maurer can go from fringe prospect to the ceiling of a good number three starter. Maurer should open the year in 2013 with Tacoma and possibly get some fill-in opportunities in the majors, though he needs to work up his arm to handle more than 150 innings. He just doesn't have that much experience yet.
While the M's had struggles at times with their absolute best prospects, they turned out to get a few extras in the bags that most of us didn't even know about.
Here's a quick rundown of the rest:
Rich Poythress, 1B - Former 2nd rounder hit .304/.404/.439 with 50 BB/33 K in 86 games. Great eye, no power first baseman. He's hit 17 home runs in his last 208 games.
Nate Tenbrink, INF - Formerly-interesting utility prospect missed much year with injuries, hit .283/.396/.539, 8 HR in 46 games. 23 BB/56 K in 152 at-bats. Turns 26 this year.
Joseph Dunigan, OF - Hit .254/.320/.502 with 25 HR, 72 RBI, 175 K/38 BB. Hit more than twice as many home runs as anyone on the team but 26-year-old power hitter is not a prospect.
Chih-Hsien Chiang, OF - Part of the Erik Bedard deal in 2011, M's fans were hopeful that they could Chiang their lucky stars for this prospect. Unfortunately, he's not very good. Chiang hit .252/.289/.386 in 77 games with Jackson and .245/.265/.321 in 40 games with Tacoma. No Chiang you.
Denny Almonte, OF - Sometimes I still wish that this was Danny Almonte, the former Little League star that turned out to be an 82-year-old grandfather of 17. But instead it's Denny Almonte, the former 2nd round pick that was taken one spot ahead of Giancarlo Stanton. Almonte has been a disappointment in his career, regularly striking out like every pitcher he faces is... 11-year-old Danny Almonte. He struck out 192 times in 2010 and then got it down to 161 strikeouts last year. He did have his best season at the plate in that regard: 135 strikeouts (career-low) and 52 walks (career-high) However, he hit just 12 home runs and finished at .249/.331/.401.
Johermyn Chavez, OF - Don't hold it against Chavez that he's involved in maybe the worst trade of the Jack Z era, coming in from Toronto along with Brandon League for Brandon Morrow. Chavez could have been a good prospect, he just wasn't. He was DFA'd a few weeks ago.
Francisco Martinez, 3B - Don't hold it against Martinez that he's involved in maybe the worst trade of the Jack Z era, coming in from Detroit along with a few others for Doug Fister. Martinez could have been a good prospect, he's just not. Martinez hit .227/.315/.295 in 95 games with 2 home runs and 27 stolen bases. It's so weird that he was traded because of his power potential and then he turns into a "speedster third baseman!" Not good.
Steven Proscia, 3B - Mostly worked at high-A and hit .333/.368/.567. Played 21 games for Jackson and hit .211/.259/.395 but did hit four home runs. Still an interesting prospect.
Gabriel Noriega, SS/3B - Glove-first player is still glove-first: .208/.266/.223
Anthony Fernandez, LHP - Not likely to make a major league rotation, Fernandez is still only 22 and pitched back-to-back complete game shutouts this year. 76 innings, 55 K/24 BB, 3.32 ERA.
Mauricio Robles, RP - Former prospect who has fallen apart with command issues pitched 50.2 innings, 50 K/41 BB and that's actually an improvement.
Moises Hernandez, RP - Gets to be Felix Hernandez's brother.
Carter Capps, RP - Now in the majors and probably staying there for a long time, just dominated in the minors. 50 innings, 72 K/12 BB, 1.26 ERA. Future closer, possibly future elite closer.
Logan Bawcom, RP - Acquired in Brandon League deal, pitched 49 innings for Jackson, 51 K/31 BB, 2.39 ERA.
Andrew Carraway, RHP - Opening day starter, seven starts, 2.61 ERA, 38 innings, 32 K/7 BB, promoted to Tacoma.
Steven Hensley, RP - 33.1 innings, 36 K/19 BB, 3.24 ERA.
Brian Moran, RP - 31.2 innings, 29 K/6 BB, promoted to Tacoma. Finished overall year at 68.2 innings, 82 K/18 BB, 2.62 ERA. Possible future in Seattle crowded bullpen.
Bobby LaFromboise, RP - Midseason All-Star, going to the Fall League, 26.2 innings for Jackson, 32 K/5 BB, 1.01 ERA. Another good reliever.
Stephen Pryor, RP - Did somebody say good relievers? Pryor posted a 1.13 ERA in Jackson, 24 K/5 BB in 16 innings. Should be a mainstay in Seattle's bullpen.
When it's all said and done, Jackson might be one of the greatest collections of talent that a Mariners affiliate has ever had. Look at this collection of potential future regulars:
Hitters - Franklin, Zunino, Miller, Romero, Proscia
Starting Pitchers - Hultzen, Walker, Paxton, Maurer (and good years from Carraway, Fernandez.)
Bullpen - Capps, Pryor, LaFromboise, Moran
That's a semi-ridiculous roster right there. Let's hope that it works out as best as possible.