Though the Mariners finished last in the American League West for the third straight season, general manager Jack Zduriencik is making efforts to get his program on the fast track to being competitive once again. It is clear that the Mariners want to improve the offense through Free Agency and/or trades this offseason, but as Jack Zduriencik said he isn’t going to mortgage the future by trading off the Mariners top prospects to pick up players with just one or two years left on their contract.
He also isn’t going to go long-term on any Free Agent deals, which we should already have known as the Zduriencik-led Mariners have not signed anyone to a contract of over five years during his tenure. The Mariners have a young core at the big league level, starting with Felix Hernandez, and have restocked the system in a short time, identifying quality players with their top picks—Ackley, righthander Taijuan Walker, lefty Danny Hultzen and catcher Mike Zunino—and finding value in the later rounds.
Zunino had a stellar pro debut and reached Double-A after signing for $4 million as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft. The 2012 Golden Spikes Award Winner has the chance to be fairly quick to the big leagues everyday catcher for the Mariners. While some concern was voiced over an up-and-down junior season, Zunino has outstanding bat speed and loft, which should translate to a lot of power as a professional. His swing can get long at times, but if he finds some consistency, he should hit for average and pop, just as he did during his pro debut. He’s a natural leader behind the plate who can run a pitching staff — one with an accurate arm, good hands and more than enough agility to stay there long-term. Middle of the order, run-producing catchers don’t grow on trees, but that’s what the Mariners added to their system.
Taijuan Walker is projected to be the #2 starter in the rotation by 2016 and he brings a punch to the mound. The way Walker pitched in his first full season, in 2011, helped the Mariners forget they didn’t have a first-round pick in 2010. The SoCal high school product was a multi-sport star and, as a result, is really focusing on pitching full time for the first time as a professional. So far, so good, as Walker was dominant in the Arizona League in 2010 and the Midwest League in ’11 and then held his own in ’12 at Double-A Jackson, where he pitched most of the season at age 19. The stuff is there, with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and excellent curve. His changeup is rapidly improving. That three-pitch mix, his size and athleticism could all add up to a frontline starter in the future.
Danny Hultzen, the #2 overall pick wore down at the end of last season, but remember, that was his first year in the majors and it was a long haul after pitching in the Arizona Fall League as well. While most thought Seattle would go after Anthony Rendon with the No. 2 overall pick of the 2011 Draft, the Mariners had their sights set on Hultzen all along. The University of Virginia product is the kind of college lefty expected to move quickly, but he’s more than just a command/pitchability type. Hultzen’s velocity increased in his junior season, giving him a plus fastball from the left side as well as a plus changeup. His slider isn’t quite as good as those first two, but it’s a serviceable pitch and Hultzen will work to improve it. Of all their top pitching prospects, I’d give Hultzen the best chance of landing a rotation spot, either to start the year or within the first few months.
After former GM Bill Bavasi left the team with bad contracts and a gutted farm system the past few years have been bleak, but thanks to some top prospects and front office moves the Seattle Mariner’s future appears to be a little brighter.
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