Don’t think they don’t read it.
Baseball America had the Seattle Mariners’ farm system ranked 30th out of the 30 teams in the major leagues in depth and overall talent. ESPN’s Keith Law, a respected prospect guru, also ranked the Mariners with the worst minor league system in baseball.
As Scott Hunter enters his second draft as the Mariners’ director of amateur scouting, he had to hold himself back from spewing a motivational speech when asked about those rankings.
“Oh, it drives me,” Hunter said. “We are blessed in our job to get up and every day it’s a competition. There’s 29 other teams and if our scouts don’t have that drive to compete and beat the other guys in their area then we are going to be at the bottom of the barrel.
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“We know about it. We read the same stuff you do. It’s not something we want to accept or tolerate anymore.”
So what do they do about it?
It starts with the MLB first-year player draft starting at 4 p.m. Monday and running through Wednesday, with the Mariners selecting 14th overall in the first round.
Most mock drafts project the Mariners to select outfielder Trevor Larnach from Oregon State University, four years after they passed on an Oregon State outfielder (Redmond High School graduate Michael Conforto) and instead selected outfielder Alex Jackson with the sixth pick.
Jackson was traded to the Atlanta Braves two years later (He’s in Double-A ball) and Conforto is the New York Mets’ starting center fielder.
Hunter was also asked about another Oregon State player, former Puyallup High School pitcher Luke Heimlich. The ace left-handed pitcher returned to school for his senior season after going undrafted last year following reports surfacing of his guilty plea, as a 15-year-old living in Puyallup at the time, to sexually molesting a then-6-year-old female family member.
Would the Mariners consider drafting the local pitcher, in any round, and overlook his past, or at least give him a second chance after serving a past crime? Heimlich has since denied any wrongdoing, despite his past guilty plea, in interviews with The New York Times and Sports Illustrated.
“We aren’t going to get into any specifics on one player,” Hunter said. “But it’s something that goes into the big picture. On the field and off it we do a lot of research and a lot of vetting in terms of what we’re getting in character both on the field and off the field — it’s huge for the makeup of an organization.”
Heimlich went from a potential first round pick last year to potentially not being drafted again this season.
But the Mariners still see plenty of college talent in the middle rounds of this draft, especially on the second day in rounds 3-10. Hunter said there’s no Manny Machado or Bryce Harper at the top of this year’s class.
And there’s a reason so many project the Mariners to take a college player — they’ve selected a college bat with their top pick each of the past two years since Jerry Dipoto took over as general manager, with outfielder Kyle Lewis in 2016 and first baseman Evan White last year.
Other mock drafts have the Mariners taking a range of players, from college pitchers, other outfielders and even maybe taking a high school prospect with their top pick for the first time since they picked Jackson and for the second time since they picked right-hander Taijuan Walker in 2010. Maybe they would draft Mississippi left-hander Ryan Rolison, as MLB.com's Jim Callis projects, or outfielder Jarred Kelenic out of Waukesha West High School (Wisconsin) as Law thinks.
The Mariners just want an athlete. They want upside, and impact player whoever or wherever they come from.
Hunter said he’s preached to his scouts to seek more athletic, tool-based players and not latching on to a safe college player who might have one good year or two.
“We want to have some projection to our picks and upside,” Hunter said.
Hunter sat in the Mariners’ dugout recently and the first thing he mentioned was the sun. How nice it felt to breathe fresh air.
“We’ve been huddled up in a cave for a couple of weeks now,” Hunter said.
He feels more prepared, he said, this time around than last season. By the end of April it really ramped up, narrowing their big board down to players they felt they had a best chance at.
“The sleepless nights started a little bit earlier,” Hunter said. “For me, going back three or four times on certain layers was fun, but also a little nerve-racking, to be honest.
“I think I’ve seen 100 players and It think 15-20 of them I saw about 3-4 times.”
They say they don’t agree with those prospect rankings. Their rationale is that the players who would be prospects aren’t because of the plague of injuries that his the Mariners’ big-league club last year, turning players who would have qualified as prospects into needed major-league plug ins.
And their young players are with the Mariners. Outfielders Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger were all rookies last season.
Gamel, Heredia, Haniger, Ryon Healy and Edwin Diaz are all under club control until 2023 and James Paxton and Mike Zunino until 2021, according to Cots Contracts.
And their prospects allowed for some of those players to get here. Two weeks ago they traded pitchers Andrew Moore and Tommy Romero to get right-hander Alex Colome, who is under club control until 2022 and led the American League in saves last season, as well as veteran outfielder Denard Span.
Romero was a 15th-round selection last season and Moore a second-round pick in 2015.
From last year’s draft the Mariners have traded their fifth (catcher David Banuelos), 11th (left-hander JP Sears) and 15th round (Romero) picks.
Not easy for Hunter.
“You get sad because you have personal bias and you get attached to the kids,” Hunter said. “I talked to Tommy Romero on the phone after he got traded and I told him it’s because he pitched so good. As a 15th round pick he really got off to a great start. But then you come out of the room and you see Denard Span and Alex Colome helping our big league team get a win. That’s rewarding.
“I would love to see all our players in Seattle Mariners uniforms. But when a player we draft can help our team in a trade it is still rewarding.”
Dipoto explained that philosophy recently.
He was asked on his weekly segment on 710-ESPN radio if he bristles over being ranked last in those prospect rankings.
“Not really,” he said. “Criticism, if nothing else, I’m familiar with. It’s part of the gig. We like our players and we’ve generally been pretty productive.
“I know it’s not always met with understanding but your farm system is there for multiple reasons. It’s there to cultivate future Mariners and cultivate players who allow you to acquire future Mariners. I look at our farm system as having helped us produce Ryon Healy, Jean Segura, Ben Gamel, Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales. We look at it from an aggregate.
“It’s total team value. If you get lost in the weeds on comparing one prospect to another, one draft pick to another or one trade to another and establishing comparative value, you aren’t focused on the 10,000-foot view. We want to stay above the tree line because at the end of the day we aren’t going to win a championship, we aren’t going to sell an extra ticket or generate an extra Mariners fan by winning a trade or by winning a minor league prospect by rankings measure. We’re going to win the fan, win the tickets sold, win the favor of the Mariners by winning and I think as a general rule, since we’ve been here, the one thing we’ve done is, while we’ve not excelled in the prospect rankings, our team at the major league level has gotten better.”
“Generally speaking, the same metric that is measuring the value of prospects are starting to see that maybe our under-30 players are as valuable as most and they’re performing and that’s what matters. Our team performs and that’s what our farm system enables us to do and hopefully over a 3-6 years period we are able to rebuild that farm system into something that appeals more (to prospect rankings) and we win that battle, too. It’s not like we want to ignore that.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677