According to Matt Eddy of Baseball America, the Mariners made two small minor league signings in January, left-handed pitcher Eric Niesen and outfielder Kurt Fleming. I don’t know if they are invited to Major League Spring Training or not, but probably not.
Eric Niesen is a 27 year old who has worked mostly as a reliever over the last two years. Niesen was drafted by the Mets in the 3rd round in 2007 out of Wake Forest. He spent 2007 to 2011 in the Mets organization, with mediocre peripherals (nothing special, but nothing bad) before he hit a serious wall in AA, getting 3 chances at the level, throwing 188.1 innings split between a starter and a reliever with a kwERA of 4.94. He then spent 2012 with the Long Island Ducks, throwing 69.1 innings, mainly out of the pen, with a 3.97 kwERA. Obviously, that is not impressive numerically for a reliever in Independent ball, so what do the Mariners see in Niesen as a possible roster filler in the upper minors? According to older scouting reports, he is a guy who can reach the mid 90s. At 6-0 tall, it is not that surprising that he moved to the bullpen, but it is a little surprising that he started for so long. He also has a changeup that evidently is not very good, along with a slider that is better. He evidently had pretty big platoon splits (3.71 SIERA against lefties and 5.15 SIERA against righties in 2011) through out his career that were blamed on his 3/4 arm slot. There are actually quite a few good videos of him on YouTube that you can watch, which I did to get a better look at him throwing and his delivery. His velocity and fastball is quite impressive and passes the eye test. However, his delivery was an absolute mess with the Mets and it isn’t surprising he walked over 6 guys per 9 innings in AA. He comes closer to what I would call sidearm than 3/4ths and has a whole lot of moving parts. It starts with the leg kick, which seems to give him deception, but absolutely throws off any fluidity that you would expect a pitcher to have. His arm clearly drags, and his body motion is awkward.
His slider looks really slurvy, as it is clearly not a hard slider, and has drastic horizontal break (and not as drastic vertical break). His changeup has some occasional arm-side tail, but for the most part does not look impressive. It clearly looks like he would rather use the off-speed pitches to end counts rather than the fastballs, but it seemed like he was leaving them up. In 2011, he did have a good ground-ball rate in both A+ and AA, but he was old for the levels. The good news is that he is a guy, that even out of the pen, can throw at least two and maybe three pitches (depending on whether you want him throwing the changeup out of the pen) at good velocity and not straight. Everything seems to move pretty well, which may give him command issues, but he shouldn’t be hittable (although he has been in the past). Niesen seems to rely on the slider a lot, and it doesn’t look quite like a MLB pitch to me (which isn’t surprising since he is 27 and hasn’t made the Majors yet). He does seem to have a legit fastball though, which is always valuable from the left side. From watching video of him pitching with Long Island, it appears that he still has the same very strange delivery. There is a good chance that he plays the Steve Garrison role in 2012, pitching as a lefty in the pen or as a starter, and perhaps getting a shot at AAA.
Kurt Fleming is a 21 year old outfielder that was drafted in the 8th round by the Braves in 2010. He spent the last 3 years with the organization, mainly playing in rookie ball before a cup of coffee with the A-ball team in 2012. He played mainly centerfield with a mediocre range factor of 1.67 and career FRAA of -6.2. He didn’t really hit either, which is why he was stuck in rookie ball, with a .645 career OPS, 5.5 BB%, 18.8 K%, and .104 ISO. He still doesn’t look like he has developed fully as a player body wise, as he still looks very lanky and awkward. It looks like he has a hard time with breaking balls, and pitch recognition, which helps explain the numbers. His swing also isn’t very fluid and his eyes come off his swing very early. I timed him at about 4.21 to first base, slightly above average for a right-handed hitter, but again,if he fills out, that will regress. He is a switch hitter, but I only saw him bat from the right side. According to his career splits, this is his stronger size.
Formerly a pitcher, Fleming threw 86 MPH with a curveball (68 MPH), slider (75 MPH), and change (71 MPH) as a 16 year old in 2008 according to Perfect Game. A conspiracy theorist might speculate that the Mariners might experiment and put him back on the mound. When I went back and watched him play on MiLB.TV, he did have a strong arm, though his throwing motion was a little weird. He seemed to have decent range and athleticism out in the field, but seemed to struggle a little bit with jumps and reads.
Fleming is a lower minors guy, but he is still young. Depending on what the Mariners are planning to do with him, he should start in Clinton, or maybe even High Desert (if changed to a pitcher, he would start in extended spring training and probably the AZL).