When Dustin Ackley took the Arizona Fall League by storm and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player, the Seattle Mariners had every reason to puff out their chests a bit.
Ackley is the highest-profile prospect in the Mariners’ system, the No. 2 draft pick in the country in 2009, and a candidate to win a job with Seattle next spring.
Ask the men who monitor that system the closest – minor league director Pedro Grifol and his right-hand man, Roger Hansen – and they say Ackley may, indeed, be ready to have an impact in 2011.
But they don’t think he’ll be alone.
“We have kids who are close,” Grifol said. “Some kids may have great springs and not make the team, but they have the potential to impact a major league club – run producers, run scorers, power relievers, durable starters.
“We’re not talking middle relievers, utility infielders. We’re talking about impact-type players. That’s what every organization wants to produce, and we’ve got some.”
Ackley, a 22-year-old second baseman still learning his position, isn’t even the Mariners’ prospect considered closest, Hansen said.
“Michael Pineda is closest – just look at him,” Hansen said. “Big, strong body, big arm. He can be dominant – people expect him to be the next Felix Hernandez. He’s ready to compete for a job, but will he step up and grab it?
“With all young players, it’s a major step to come to camp with a chance. It’s another step entirely to win the job and keep the job.”
“Greg Halman is an outfielder with speed and power who can impact a team,” Hansen said. “Will he emerge or not? If he doesn’t, he goes back to AAA or gets traded, whatever. At that level, you have to step up.”
Position-by-position, which Mariners prospects are closest to making a difference in Seattle?
First, a qualifier. It’s likely every minor league director could produce a similar list – directors who can’t find prospects in their minor league system wouldn’t last long in their jobs.
Grifol, like others, is realistic. The Mariners have talent, but the hard truth in baseball is that most prospects don’t become big-league players, let alone impact players.
These are the players closest to the majors in Seattle’s farm system:
At 26, he had proven himself in Tacoma but saw his 2010 season in Seattle gutted by injuries and inconsistency. In the end, he wound up playing in 60 games, getting just 205 at-bats and hitting .195 – more than one hundred points below his minor league career average of .303.
“Adam has done all he needs to do in the minors, he’s ready,” Hansen said. “He has to step up now. We know he can catch, he can lead a staff, he can hit. Will he? That’s his challenge, and ours.”
Justin Smoak, Mike Carp
Both acquired in Jack Zduriencik trades, the 23-year-old Smoak finished his season in Seattle hitting .340 with three home runs and nine RBI in his final 14 games.
“We got a glimpse of what he could be,” Grifol said. “He’s got power from both sides of the plate, he’s shown us flashes. What he needs now is consistency.”
Carp, 24, was part of the J.J. Putz trade. A gap hitter with a .271 career minor-league average, the rap on Carp last spring was his lack of power. In 403 at-bats in Tacoma, he hit a career-best 29 home runs.
“He’s shown his potential. He’s a left-handed bat with developing power,” Grifol said. “He’s had less than 100 big-league at-bats, and he may be ready to stick.”
“He’s one of those kids who seems to get better each day,” Grifol said. “He’s not a finished product, but he’s come a long way at the plate, on the base paths, at second base. He needs to play and play and play.”
That could mean starting 2011 in Tacoma.
“Would we be stunned if he made the opening-day big-league roster?” Grifol asked. “I know that’s his goal, and he could force the issue with a great spring.”
Alex Liddi, Matt Mangini, Matt Tuiasosopo
“Mangini is a left-handed hitter and he can hit,” Grifol said of the 24-year-old who batted .313 with Tacoma last year. “Defensively, he needs work. And you can’t rule Tuiasosopo out – not the way the ball comes off his bat.”
Tuiasosopo, 24, has split his last three seasons between Tacoma and Seattle, playing in 71 games at the big-league level without ever playing regularly. He has played second base, shortstop, third base and left field.
“What Tuiasosopo needs is the chance to play every day,” Grifol said.
And Liddi? At 24, he was a Southern League All-Star who led the league with 92 RBI, batting 281 with 15 home runs.
“Alex needs some time in Triple-A,” Grifol said.
CARLOS TRIUNFEL, NICK FRANKLIN
“We finally got a healthy season for Carlos last year after he missed all of ’09,” Grifol said. “He needs to get to Tacoma and probably compete there. He needs to extend his at-bats, have better at-bats.”
If Triunfel, 20, is close to big-league ready, so is Franklin, a 19-year-old first-round pick from ’09. Franklin hit .281 with 22 doubles, 7 triples, 23 home runs, 65 RBI and 25 stolen bases in Single-A.
“Franklin just needs professional experience,” Grifol said. “He gave away at-bats and still did what he did last year. He’s coming fast.”
Michael Saunders, Halman, Carlos Peguero, Mike Wilson
“The talent is there to carry a club, help a team – but there comes a point you have to do it,” Grifol said. “Saunders is at that point: He has to perform. That’s why he’s in Venezuela, playing winter ball. Wilson did the same thing, Peguero in the Dominican. They’re doing what they have to do to prepare.
“They can all run, throw, impact the game in a lot of ways, and they’re all still learning. Saunders is closest based on big-league experience. He’s struggled, and now knows what he has to do. We’ll see.”
Pineda, Blake beavan
“I think everyone is looking forward to seeing (Pineda) and where he is. Is he ready? He could be,” Grifol said. “His secondary pitches need seasoning. He’s a strike-thrower, but needs to command the strike zone a little better. In his mind, he’s coming to make the team.
“Beavan is a pretty good looking pitcher, a workhorse who looks like he could give you 200 innings. He needs to fine tune, but not far down the road.”
Josh Lueke, Danny Cortes, César Jiménez
“All three are candidates this spring, and Jiménez out of options,” Grifol said. “I think each has as good a chance as anyone of making the bullpen. I think they’re ready to pitch in the big leagues.”