The richest vein in the system contains more than a few precious gems
Less than a week remains before we find out who this year’s newest Mariners are. This year the MLB draft is June 3-5. If you check out the “MLB draft” tag you’ll find the plethora of info we’ve been compiling over the past couple months for you. Leading up to draft day, we’ll be doing a positional overview of the depth at each level of the system, surveying the shelves of the pantry as it stands now before the draft. We started off with the middle infield and corner infield/catching depth and now head out to the outfield to finish off the position players. This is the deepest group in the system, and it will quickly become clear why; instead of scrambling for names to fill out each section here, I was able to luxuriously pick and choose among players to profile.
Currently in the Majors/Majors Adjacent:
This is the thinnest crop, although mostly that’s because the current outfielders with the big-league club, all acquired via trade, are tilted a little younger than in years past. Remember the days of Seth Smith, right fielder? Braden Bishop is the only real majors-adjacent prospect here, and there’s a good chance we see more of him should injuries befell any of the current regular outfielders, as he’s the best defensive outfielder of the crop, full stop. Mallex Smith has been on a mini-hot streak over the few games, perhaps feeling warmed by Bishop’s performance in Triple-A, where he’s carrying a wRC+ of 116 in his first taste of the level. Last season, after struggling to adapt some to Double-A, Bishop got hot down the stretch, only to have his season ended early by a wayward fastball. He hasn’t shown similar difficulty in adjusting to Triple-A, posting a career-high walk rate while slashing close to .300/.400/.500, and his defense in center field remains elite. The FO wants him to steal bases, and currently Bishop doesn’t have any of those, mostly because he’s been putting the ball deep in the gap or over the fence so often and hits atop a Tacoma lineup that doesn’t have any trouble driving him in, so maybe that’s the missing piece that will earn Bishop a recall to the big leagues.
On the near-ish horizon:
Lately we have been speculating idly that the Mallex Smith/Mike Zunino trade might have been the Jake Fraley trade, like the Mitch Haniger trade before him. The Rays sent Fraley to repeat High-A last season after injuries derailed his 2017 and the first two months of his 2018 season, and he responded by posting a wRC+ of 172. The Rays never moved him up, so this is Fraley’s first taste of Double-A, and he seems not to have missed a step, with a wRC+ of 150; he’s already hit more home runs than he did in more plate appearances last season. Fraley is a capable defensive centerfielder, although he might move to a corner full-time at the next level. Also acquired in an off-season trade, Dom Thompson-Williams is also adjusting well to his first exposure to Double-A, although he’s not thoroughly destroying the level like Fraley. Kyle Lewis is the youngest of the three but has the most exposure to Double-A; unfortunately, he’s also the one struggling the most, with a career-high K% and a career-low ISO mark, mostly caused by him putting the ball on the ground too often. It’s disappointing considering how incandescent Lewis looked at Spring Training, but he has also faced considerably more difficult struggles in his young minor league career, so maybe a year of playing with health and in the same place for a full season will help get him back on track. Solving the strikeout issue will go a long way towards that.
Luis Liberato and Anthony Jimenez are a step down from that crew, closeness-wise, but would be the logical replacements if any of the above are promoted, provided they’re healthy: both have been beset by injuries in their careers. Jimenez has struggled to solve High-A and finds himself there for another season. Liberato was on his third turn at the level and performing well, at one point leading the league in HRs, before being bounced up to Triple-A to fill in for a while.
On the distant horizon, shining brightly:
One of these stars got a little less distant with the news that top prospect Jarred Kelenic is being promoted to High-A. It’s an aggressive move for someone who is just 19 and will be four years younger than the average age for the league, but Kelenic was laying such waste to the South Atlantic League as to be potentially historic:
Because it came up on this week’s Wheelhouse, an update to the (absurd) context around Kelenic’s 2019. pic.twitter.com/2MSLbz8rHG
— Colin O’Keefe (@colinokeefe) May 28, 2019
Kelenic’s promotion to High-A complicates things a little when it’s time for Luis Liberato to be sent back from Tacoma; there’s not really space for him at Arkansas, unless there’s a promotion made there (Fraley being the most likely option), but the Modesto outfield is full, too, and promises to be even more so when Keegan McGovern, who has been out since the end of spring training with an injury, is ready to return. McGovern, a polished college bat from Georgia, tore up both Everett and the Midwest League last year, and should pick up where he left off in the offense-happy California League.
Also having missed time with injury this year, unfortunately pushing pause on his grand stateside debut, is top international signing Julio Rodriguez. Julio had just 36 plate appearances in West Virginia before an errant fastball fractured his wrist, but in that short sample, he offered a small taste of the power hiding in his bat. The injury creates a bit of separation between Kelenic and Julio, timeline-wise, since Julio has now missed a good portion of the at-bats he needed to keep pace with the rampaging Kelenic, but for a system that’s this heavy on outfield talent, all clustered around High-A/Double-A, that’s not the worst thing.
All hail Ian Miller, who is one of the very few remaining soldiers from the Jack Z era, drafted so long ago he didn’t even make the first day of the drafts in review week. Ian Miller has gritted and ground his way through the system, slogging through three seasons and two different affiliates of Double-A ball, and is now on his third season at Triple-A. He’s posted his highest-ever .ISO and is slashing .300/.350/.480 with double-digit stolen bases and a career-high-tying four home runs already. The Mariners aren’t exactly trying to win games, so maybe they’ll reward Miller with a call-up at some point.
Jack Larsen strikes out too much, but he also walks a lot (leading the Cal League in walks!) and can flash some above-average power. If he can pop a few more dingers or cut down the strikeouts (or ideally, both), there’s a useful profile here.
Overall health of the position:
This position group was the strongest in the system last year, and with the addition of Kelenic, Fraley, and DTW, plus Julio making his stateside debut and Braden Bishop continuing to take a step forward, it’s only gotten better. The Mariners won’t be trading to beef up their big-league club, but there is a possibility some players here could be moved in trades to bolster thinner areas of the system (cough cough pitching). Don’t expect those players to be Kelenic, Rodriguez, or possibly even Fraley, though, all of whom are already being looked to as the standard-bearers for the next great Mariners team.