Your 2014 UW Huskies Defensive Preview

Defense wins championships, I’ve heard. I’m not sure that’s always true, but should the Huskies win a championship, the defense will likely be the main reason why. This is the most loaded UW has been on this side of the ball in a long time. It does have some issues on the back end I’ll discuss below, but if they can sort those out, points could be few for UW opponents. Offense was covered here, if you missed it.

Defensive Line

With the coaching change, it’s hard to be sure what the defensive alignment is going to look like. Players and positions are being moved around a bit, but it’s unclear how that will actually look onfield. For my purposes, I’m considering players where they played last year. For example, and as a good place to start, Hauoli Kikaha was a defensive end last year, but they’re listing him at linebacker now. I imagine his new role will be similar to Wilcox’s Rush End, where he can be moved around some and plays in space and coverage a bit more. Whatever the specifics, Kikaha will be rushing the passer, and if last year was a starting point and not a peak, he will cause massive amounts of havoc. Kikaha overcame knee issues and lots of time off to turn in one of the better pass rushing seasons in UW history. He had the most sacks of any returning player in the nation, and if he builds on 2013 at all, he could be an All-American and 1st round pick.

While Kikaha gets more credit, big Danny Shelton is the true key to the defense. The massive tackle blossomed last year, eating up blockers for other guys to get into the backfield. At his best, Shelton occupies two or three blockers, clogging the inside of the line and preventing running plays from going whichever direction was planned. Shelton was extremely effective last year, but if he can find a bit more burst and get into the backfield with regularity, he’ll be in the discussion for the best D tackles in college football. It’ll be important to keep Shelton on the field, because the depth behind him is quite young. RS frosh Elijah Qualls has loads of potential, so it was surprising to see less heralded true freshman Greg Gaines listed above him on this week’s depth chart. That may be as much about Gaines having a bigger body as anything to do with their performance. Both have good to great potential, but there will be a noticeable drop-off when Shelton leaves the field.

Completing the line are the Hudson brothers (not really brothers) Evan and Andrew. Both are cool stories. Evan was a walk-on from Bothell who started out at TE. Last year they moved him to the line, and he started most of the year as a big end/smallish tackle. I kind of think of him as playing a similar role to what Red Bryant did for the Seahawks, where he did more to hold the edge or occupy guys than make plays in the backfield. That said, I have no idea what his role will be this year, or what kind of upside he still has in him. He could become a star or lose his job to a younger guy and I wouldn’t be surprised. Andrew Hudson was a starter early in his career before rarely seeing the field last year, leading the old staff to decide it was time for him to move on. Peterson had other thoughts and invited him back, and now he’s slated to start. He never showed a huge amount of explosiveness, but he used to be a serviceable starter. No idea what he’ll do this year. LIke at tackle, the depth here is talented but young. I’d feel better about guys like Jojo Mathis, Jarrett Finau and Psalm Wooching seeing the field, though. They’ve at least gotten their feet wet, and there are some interesting skills there.

Linebacker

This could be as good as any backer group in the conference. John Timu is finally a senior and has developed into a dependable leader in the middle. He’s not an elite athlete, but he makes up for it with great instincts and a nose for the ball. Shaq Thompson has not quite delivered on his talent and athleticism, which isn’t to say he hasn’t been excellent. He has. He just has so much potential, that anything short of a dominant year would be a bit of a disappointment. Maybe that’s not fair, but he’s capable. The third spot is a bit undecided, but it’s not for a lack of good options. At times, Travis Feeney has looked like the best backer on the roster. He’s listed as a co-starter with RS freshman Keishawn Bierria. Both are lighter guys who can cover ground and be effective in pass protection. Bierria’s fellow RS freshmen Azeem Victor and Sean Constantine are in the depth and should see time. Victor in particular is developing a rep as a big hitter and could become a fan favorite before long. Scott Lawyer is the long experienced reserve besides Cory Littleton, who’s become a bit of a forgotten man with some minor injuries in camp. I don’t know if he’ll serve as more a linebacker or a rusher, but he should make his presence felt at some point.

Secondary

If there’s one area that could hold the team back (other than QB), it could be the secondary. UW is replacing 3 of 4 starters along with some key reserves, and all of the contenders for those spots are young. Luckily, the one returning starter is CB Marcus Peters, and he’s one of the best in the country. Peters is the latest and maybe the best in the Dawgs’ recent run of excellent corners. If he has the season everyone expects, he’ll likely go pro and be picked in the top round or two. Opposite him, RSFr. Jermaine Kelly looks to be the guy. He’s a tremendous athlete who’s received nothing but raves since he showed up on the recruiting radar. He’ll likely have some growing pains at times, but I expect him to look like the Huskies’ next star corner by the end of the year. Depth will come from senior Travell Dixon, who seems to have responded well to the coaching change, and some true freshman. Naijiel Hale and Sidney Jones are first up, and both have the talent to excel. Whether they can do so this year is the question.

Safety is replacing both spots, but it has a bit more returning talent. Of course, the guy turning heads is true freshman Budda Baker from Bellevue. He brings a small body but elite speed and football instincts. He’s slated to start opening night, and he should be the most exciting Husky freshman since Shaq. Opposite him at strong safety is Brandon Beaver. He was a touted recruit who didn’t play much last season, but he’s still only a sophomore. Behind him are two sophomores who saw lots of time as true freshman last year, Kevin King and Trevor Walker. Both played well at time last year. Expect to see all four of these guys on the field in different coverages and as the coaches try to find the right combinations.

Special Teams

UW lost do-everything kicker Travis Coons, so these spots are a little unsettled. Cameron Van Winkle has recovered from back issues to take the lead for field goal duty, and he and Tristan Vizcaino will handle kick-offs. Kory Durkee gets first crack at punter. He has a huge leg but has struggled previously with consistency and getting his kicks off.

John Ross returns as the kick returner, where he’s a threat to break one every time. Budda backs him up and has similar potential. Jaydon Mickens gets the call to return punts. UW hasn’t received much production there, but Mickens and others have the skills to be effective.

Go Dawgs!

-Matthew

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Your 2014 UW Husky Offensive Preview

Hey readers, long time no write! New content here has been next to non-existent for a while, but college football season always inspires The Good Guys. I can’t promise the inspiration will last, but we’ll at least get the season started right.

With Seahawk fever now a permanent Seattle epidemic, the Huskies aren’t getting a lot of attention yet.  I don’t know whether that will change at all, but they deserve some buzz. This team has the potential to be the best Husky squad since the Tui-led Rose Bowl team. That’s not saying a ton, and this team has questions, but there’s the chance of something special on Montlake.

I debated what type of preview to write, but I think I’m going with a good old position-by-position write-up. While a lot of these players have been around, some of the focus is shifting from the departed offensive stars to lesser-known guys. I’ll start with the offense tonight. Here we go!

Quarterback

Most fans would say this position is the key to the Huskies season, and it’s hard to disagree. I don’t know that the Dawgs need elite QB play this year, but they need an unproved guy to be dependable and reasonably mistake-free. Who the QB will be is still somewhat in doubt. Jeff Lindquist gets the opening start in Hawaii. He’s big and athletic with a good arm but next to no experience. There’s no reason he can’t be effective, but game action is the only true determiner. Lindquist narrowly beat out freshman Troy Williams, who has maybe the biggest arm and most potential of the group, but the least experience. Should Lindquist struggle, Williams could see some time. Hopefully more likely, he’ll see mop-up duty in Hawaii.

Lurking behind these two is Cyler Miles, suspended for the opener for his off-season shenanigans. The common assumption is Miles will take over week two, but I don’t consider that a fait accompli. Miles brings a bit more experience and excellent running ability, but he’s generally considered to have the weakest arm on the roster and missed all of spring practice. Should Lindquist impress at Hawaii, it’s no given he’ll lose the spot just because Miles is available.

Running Back

Replacing Bishop Sankey is impossible, but the Dawgs have the talent to maintain an elite running game. Dwayne Washington will get the first carries. He’s taller for a back and fast, but runs with a good amount of power and violence. Fumbling issues held him down early last year, but he recovered to log the most yards of any back besides Sankey. His time as a receiver should theoretically be of benefit in the passing game. RS freshman Lavon Coleman has garnered raves since arriving in Seattle. He’s a big back with star potential.

Deontae Cooper and Jesse Callier are still around and should see plenty of carries. I’ve never been a huge Callier fan, but he’s a dependable change of pace from the bigger Washington and Coleman. It’s hard not to continue to hope for Cooper to regain everything he was rumored to have before his injuries. If he were to do so, he could easily take over the starting job and be one of the best in the conference. More likely, he’ll get a decent share of carries but not quite have the burst to be a star. No matter what, he’s one of the great stories of perseverance the Huskies will ever have.

Shaq Thompson looms in the shadows, awaiting the day the Dawgsignal summons him to the offensive backfield to deliver justice and retribution to Ducks and Bruins alike. 

Receivers

This is a talented and fairly deep group, but how dominant they are could depend on how effectively Kasen Williams returns from last year’s injury. He’s not yet at full strength, but he’s close enough to play this week. Kasen’s size and experience is needed as a counterpoint to the speed of Jaydon Mickens, John Ross and friends.  Mickens matured into a go-to receiver last year, and he could be a monster in 2014 if he can diversify his game a bit. Ross is the most electric player on the roster and could make a huge jump himself. There are capable bodies behind the three, but a breakout or two would be welcome.

Tight end is a little hard to figure, due to Austin Seferian-Jenkins departure and questions as to how a new staff will use the position. Josh Perkins showed himself capable of making big catches a year ago. Michael Hartvigson has never had the impact many expected, but he’s valuable as a blocker and might catch a few more passes this year. Darrell Daniels is easily the most talented guy here and one of the better athletes on the team. Hopefully he can translate all that into football skills. If he can catch the ball, he could be huge as a bigger threat to complement Kasen. 

Offensive Line

For the first time in a long time, UW is deep, talented and experienced on the O Line. Six guys have extensive starting experience, and there’s some young talent behind them. Tackles Micah Hatchie and Ben Riva are dependable if unspectacular. LG Dexter Charles, the lone junior starter, has been considered an awards candidate in waiting since his freshman year. Colin Tanigawa supplanted Mike Criste at C this fall, potentially a good sign since Criste was a solid starter all of last year. That move could be largely about getting mammoth James Atoe into the line-up at RG. This line might not be as dominant as some of the great lines of Husky days past, but they should be better than anything the Dawgs have had lately. Count me as one who believes the coaching change could have a huge effect here too, both in performance and recruiting. Dan Cozetto’s lines never seemed to reach their expected level, and new guy Chris Strausser is renowned as a teacher.

That’s enough for tonight. Defense is next in a day or two. Go Dawgs!

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Mariners Draft Outfielder Alex Jackson

Three years ago, the Mariners held the second overall pick in a draft considered to be loaded with talent. There were quite a few players on the radar, from pitchers like Dylan Bundy and Gerrit Cole to high school outfielder Bubba Starling. I wanted college third baseman Anthony Rendon, the presumed top pick until some injuries slowed him. It looked like the M’s would luck into an impact bat.

Cole went first, and while Rendon wasn’t a lock, all of the options were attractive. And then the Mariners went slightly off the board and picked Danny Hultzen, the last of the realistic options I expected. Hultzen wasn’t a bad pick, he just lacked a bit of the upside of the other names. Perhaps unfairly, he was seen as the safe pick, which is fine until the safe pick blows out his shoulder two years later and is still rehabbing now with no guarantee to ever be an impact pitcher again. Meanwhile, Rendon is having a solid season in his first full year in the majors, and looks to be a solid starter and maybe much more in the future.

I tell this story because today’s MLB draft was setting up for another let down. The Mariners picked sixth in a draft commonly thought to have four or five players true impact players at the top. Personally, I loved lefties Brady Aiken and Carlos Rodon, but both seemed sure to go before they reached the Mariners. My top choice among the possibly realistic options was high school C/OF Alex Jackson from San Diego, considered the top hitting prospect in the draft.

For a few weeks, most thought Jackson would go second to the Marlins, but that started to change in the last week. People started saying if Jackson wasn’t picked in the top two, he could fall to the Mariners. Mock drafts and rumors are never right so I was trying to keep my hopes from getting up (also important because I have never watched Jackson and it’s possible he never even makes it to Seattle, but that’s beside the point).

Amazingly, the experts were right. Aiken went number one, fellow prep pitcher Tyler Kolek went two, Rodon three. No one knew what the Cubs would do, but they surprised a bit and took Indiana catcher/OF Kyle Schwarber. The Twins took prep shortstop Nick Gordon, and suddenly the Mariners had a chance to make me happy, which they don’t do that often. More importantly (maybe), they had a chance to get a potential hitting star, which they’ve needed for literally more than a decade.

At this point, I still assumed they would pick someone else, a la Hultzen over Rendon. It would be just like the Mariners to get our hopes up and then do something totally unexpected to ruin them. But in a move I’m taking to be a sign of their changing ways, the M’s made Jackson the pick. The tide is turning, Seattle. Five game winning streaks and big time hitting prospects. This is the stuff of which good baseball teams are made.

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There are lots of better places to read scouting reports of draftees, so I’ll keep mine to a minimum. Jackson is 6’2″ 210 lbs and hits and throws right handed. He plays catcher in high school but he was announced as an outfielder and Jack Zduriencik said afterward they’ll put him in an outfield corner in an effort to let him move up the ranks as quickly as his bat will carry him. With Zunino being the man, there’s really no reason to waste time on developing Jackson as a catcher, even though most think he could be at least passable there.  He boasts a rifle arm and enough athleticism to be an average or better right fielder.

The bat is what is really special. He’s above-average with both the hit and power tools, and I’ve seen a line of .285/.350/.500 with 25-30 homers as completely realistic, and he could do a lot more than that. Strike zone judgement is always the concern for prep hitters, and it’s hard to know how they’ll react in the pros, but he’s given no reason to worry yet. It’s just an area where we have to wait and see. Zduriencik compared the pick to drafting Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in Milwaukie, so that’s encouraging. The MLB draft is always risky, especially when drafting high schoolers, but Jackson is the cream of this year’s crop.

Jackson immediately becomes the M’s first or second best prospect (not counting Taijuan Walker), depending on how one feels about DJ Peterson. They have similar bats, with Jackson having more home run power and a higher upside, but Peterson being a lot closer to the majors. If Jackson becomes a reliable outfielder, he’ll likely have more positional value as well, since Peterson will probably play first base in Seattle. However you look at them, they’re a good duo, and with the way some guys like Austin Wilson and Gabriel Guerrero and Jabari Blash are hitting, they might have some company soon.We probably won’t see Jackson in Seattle before 2017 at the earliest, but it’s hard to say for sure.

While I’ve been writing this, the M’s selected another righty power-hitting outfielder in the extra little round after the second. This one is Gareth Morgan, a big boy from Canada. I haven’t had time to read much on him yet, but he evidently has monstrous power but some work to do overall as a hitter. Canadian hitters tend to be pretty raw due to the lack of year-round ball there. Think Michael Saunders and his long, winding path to consistent production. That means they can really blossom with more and better coaching, and they sometimes slide in the draft because they’re not seen by scouts to the same degree as players in warm weather areas. It can also mean they’re just not good enough for the majors and never will be. Only time will tell. Without knowing really anything, it seems like a good pick. The Mariners need outfielders, and they picked up two with a lot of promise today.

Tomorrow and Saturday bring the rest of the draft, with rounds 3-10 tomorrow and 11-40 Saturday. I will not know any of the players anyone picks, but it’s fun to learn about them and hear all of their different stories. I might check in with an update on Sunday, but check Baseball America or your usual Mariner sources for more (and probably better) info. Go Mariners!

-Matthew

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Why Are The Pitchers Always Better – Part 1 (Are we just making this up?)

A few days ago, our friend and Good Guys supporter, Chris, posed a question on Twitter.

‏@judojudd
Can someone explain to me why our farm system can churn out quality pitchers year after year but our hitting prospects come up and suck?

Chris is a knowledgable sports fan and this question seems to be common one among Mariners fans.  I saw the question, one we’ve all pondered, and decided it was time to address it.  I’m going to try to find an answer and I’m going to do it in a series.  This is the first post in that series.

Before we dive into possible answers, we have to figure out if the question is right in its assumption.  All Mariners fans have had this sentiment but maybe it’s unjustified and all of this is normal?  That’s what we have to figure out before the answers come.  First, I’ll see the amount of successful pitchers the Mariners have had that have come from their farm system and compare that against the hitters.  In the next post, I’ll compare those numbers to other teams around the league.

We’ll use a sample size of the last 10 years and my sampling of a player being successful is going to be a little bit subjective.  I’m not looking for guys who were good for a season and then dropped off but rather guys who have prolonged success over at least 3 seasons.  I will make exceptions to that for recent guys (Hello, Roenis Elias).  I also will factor in players who were traded once they graduated from the Mariners farm system (I’m looking at you Adam Jones).  I won’t count a player more than once.  With all of those caveats out-of-the-way, let’s get into the data.

2004 Seattle Mariners
Successful Pitchers (home-grown):
Joel Pineiro, Freddy Garcia, J.J. Putz, Rafael Soriano, Matt Thornton.
Gil Meche is right on the cusp here too, so include him if you’d like to.  Freddy Garcia wasn’t technically home-grown but he hadn’t pitched in the major leagues until he was with Seattle.  There’s a lot of talent here and all of these guys were 27 or under at this point.
Successful Hitters (home-grown):
Edgar Martinez, Bret Boone, Raul Ibanez, Jose Lopez
This is right at the end of the Mariners run with some great players.  This was Boone’s second stint with the Mariners.  It’s hard to qualify Lopez as a success at times but he did have a pretty solid 5 years stretch.  Willie Bloomquist and Miguel Olivo are right on the cusp but I mean, come on.

2005
Successful Pitchers:
King Felix, George Sherrill
Most of the guys from the year before were still around and not many graduated from the minors.  Obviously, Felix should be viewed as more important than George Sherrill (who later was traded to Baltimore) but for now they’re both just viewed as 1 point each towards the pitchers.
Successful Hitters:
Mike Morse, Shin-Soo Choo
Both hitters who went on to succeed with other teams.  Choo has been a very consistent borderline all-star.  Morse struggled here and there but overall has had a pretty solid career.  Yuniesky Betancourt would have fallen under this year but… Who am I kidding, no one likes that guy.

2006
Successful Pitchers:
Eric O’Flaherety
Mark Lowe was good for a while, and he would be considered here, but I wouldn’t term him as a success.
Successful Hitters:
Adam Jones, Asdrubal Cabrera
Moment of silence.

2007
Successful Pitchers:
Brandon Morrow?
He’s had a really interesting career but, all in all, I guess it was successful.  I guess?  The other two who could possibly qualify are Sean Green and Sean White.
Successful Hitters:
Crickets.  The closest we come is Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien, and Rob Johnson.  I’ll wait for you to stop laughing.  Okay, let’s move on.

2008
Successful Pitchers:
Nope.  Roy Corcoran anyone?
Successful Hitters:
We’ve definitely entered the ‘You suck, Bavasi!’ zone.

2009
Successful Pitchers:
Shawn Kelley
He was fine but this might be a stretch.
Successful Hitters:
There is nothing available to stretch here.

2010
Successful Pitchers:
Doug Fister
He wasn’t successful right away but then he really was.
Successful Hitters:
Michael Saunders has been the toughest consideration so far.  I’m not going to consider him a success yet but he is right on the cusp.  By the time I’m done with this series, I may change my mind.  Aside from Saunders, there were barely any home-grown hitters on this team.

2011
Successful Pitchers:
Charlie Furbush, Tom Wilhelmsen, Michael Pineda
All three of these are a little bit questionable.  Pineda due to health and the others due to consistency issues.  For a while though each of these guys were completely dominant.
Successful Hitters:
Kyle Seager
Seager is clearly the crown jewel of the recent position player farm system graduates.  Here’s where we start to see a bunch of hitters who haven’t had consistent success in the majors, most notably Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley.

2012
Successful Pitchers:
A pretty down year all the way around.  Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, and Blake Beavan all could be considered but aren’t there yet, if they ever will be.
Successful Hitters:
The only one I considered has been a colossal failure so far in Jesus Montero.

2013
Successful Pitchers:
Danny Farquhar
He’s not actually home-grown but he came out of nowhere after spending time with the Rainiers.
Successful Hitters:
Mike Zunino
If I’m going to consider Roenis Elias a success than Zunino definitely needs to be treated as such.  He’s got a lot of room to improve but he’s still one of the best catchers in baseball already.  There was also Brad Miller and Nick Franklin from this year but neither can be viewed as successful yet.

2014
Successful Pitchers:
Roenis Elias
Yoervis Medina is right on the cusp but really annoying to watch pitch so I’m not going to count him.  Elias is a sensation and incredible so far.
Successful Hitters:
James Jones could get there but is not quite to the sample size I’d like yet.  Stefen Romero and Abe Almonte were the only other options and were not options.

Looking to the future:

A lot of this sentiment that we’re investigating comes from the pitchers that are waiting in the wings in the minors.  We’ve seen glimpses of how good Paxton and Walker can be.  Danny Hultzen was moving quickly through the minors before his injury.  On the hitting side, there isn’t much to be excited by.  I like the Ji-Man Choi a lot.  Jabari Blash is exciting.  D.J. Peterson is by far the Mariners best hitting prospect but hasn’t played above A ball.  With three great pitching prospects waiting to get healthy, the pitching in the minors appears to be well ahead of the hitting and that is only magnified after you watch Nick Franklin, Justin Smoak and others strike out constantly while Roenis shuts out the Tigers.

Final numbers over the last 10 years:
Successful Pitchers: 16 
(not including Gil Meche who should probably be included over Shawn Kelley)
Successful Hitters:  10

The hitters include Edgar Martinez (who’s biggest contribution was in the 90’s),  Bret Boone (who was amazing in 2001, over 13 years ago), Raul Ibanez (who spent half the time with another team), Jose Lopez (who flamed out at an incredible rate), Morse, Choo, Jones, Cabrera (who all succeeded with teams other than the Mariners).  In other words, the Mariners have had 3 successful position players that were home-grown in the last decade and 2 in the last 5 years.

When you break it down like that for the pitchers there are about 8 who are left.

To conclude, this isn’t just in our heads.  Putting out 3 successful position players in the last decade that had a long stint with your team is a real problem.  If anything, this shows us that the pitchers aren’t quite as successful as it may seem but the organization has been better at finding talent to fill holes.

My next step is comparing this to other teams and I’ll put that out in the next few days.

Thanks for reading!

- Andrew

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The Mariners are (Maybe) Not Bad

Riding a surprising three game winning streak, the Mariners are back over .500 at 29-28.  It seems like they’ve hovered within a game or two of .500 for most of the season, so it seems pretty fair to consider them an extremely average team right now. Luckily for them, most of the league is in the same boat. Before today’s win, they were only a game and a half out of a wild card. Unfortunately, that only puts them tied for 5th in the wild card standings. Still, the potential for playoff baseball is there should the M’s improve over the summer.

It’s hard to get a handle on this team. The rotation has sustained a ridiculous amount of injuries, but it’s performed surprisingly well, at least outside of the Brandon Maurer/Erasmo Ramirez slot. The bullpen was shaky early before turning into a pretty solid unit. The defense is better than last year, especially in the outfield, although it suffers from lapses occasionally.

As usual, it’s the offense that most often holds the team back. There always seem to be at least three regulars slumping badly, while it’s rare for the team to have more than one guy on a hot streak at a time. The right-handed hitting outfielders have mostly failed miserably. Corey Hart never got going and then got injured. Robinson Cano is on base all the time, but he has yet to bring his usual burst of doubles and homers. In short, the offense is too inconsistent. It will bust out with ten runs, like in New York today, and then struggle to get ten more total in the next two series.

I honestly have no clue how the season will go from here. Typically, it gets easier to hit in Seattle as the weather gets warmer, but who knows. If Taijuan Walker and/or James Paxton can return, it could be a huge boost. But of course, they might also have no real impact this year. This season has a wide range of possible outcomes, and each of them seem as likely as the next. A few more thoughts on the season  and what’s to come after the jump.

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The Mariners Will Draft Someone Soon

I keep intending to write about the Mariners, who are having what could be called their best season in five years. This season could also be called incredibly frustrating and disappointing, so I guess perspective matters. Anyway, every time I think about writing about the M’s, they’re in the middle of a game or coming off a few losses or whatever, and I just don’t feel like doing it. I still don’t feel like doing it, so I’m going to write something tangentially related to the Mariners and hopefully get a real M’s post out in the very near future.

Anyone remember a few weeks ago when the NFL teams drafted a whole bunch of players? That was called the NFL draft. Major league baseball will do the same thing in a week and a half (June 6th), with even more players involved but a whole lot less fanfare. Baseball has taken steps in the last few years to increase the draft’s popularity, putting some of it on TV and cranking up the coverage on MLB.com, but it’s just never going to happen. Unless one is really into college baseball, most of these guys will be unidentifiable, especially past the first round. I’ve been reading draft coverage for month and I still couldn’t name more than 20 guys or so.

Still, for whatever reason, I love the MLB draft. The sheer length of it (40 rounds) leads to more stories to discover, and the obscurity of the players takes away most opportunity to judge the selections immediately. Fans are forced to just sit, learn about the players, and trust (or not) that their team made a good decision. The results won’t show up for 2-7 years, which is weird but not terrible.

Luckily, drafting is one of the areas where the Mariners are good. The major league production by some of their prospects casts doubts on how good the drafting has been, but they’ve also turned out a ton of talent. Guys like Seager, Paxton and Taijaun Walker were excellent picks in the second to fourth rounds, and they’ve added quality depth and arms lower than that. They’re not the best drafting team in baseball, but they’re comfortably in the top half or better.

This year they pick sixth overall. The draft has a weird salary set-up that sometimes makes picks even more unpredictable than usual. Basically, each pick gives the team a pre-determined amount of money they’re allowed to spend, but that total goes into a pool that can be distributed in whatever amounts to all the team’s draftees. Exceed the total pool amount, and there are fines and potentially the loss of future draft picks. This sometimes leads teams to draft players who want less money so they can sign more expensive guys later, but I don’t get the impression this strategy will come into play too much for the M’s first pick.

Generally the very top of the draft is pretty well decided by now, but this year no one seems sure who will go first, let alone top five. I have no idea whom the Mariners will select, both because of the uncertainty and because they rarely let information leak. The good news is this is seen as a fairly deep and talented draft. The bad news is there isn’t likely to be a power-hitting outfielder worthy of the sixth pick, and a couple of the better college pitchers were injured this season. I’ll divide some potential picks into categories below, but be aware the M’s could pick someone totally different, and that wouldn’t make it a bad pick. As always, I’m no scout. I just read a lot.

Tough to pass up if they fall

With top college arm Jeff Hoffman recently needing Tommy John surgery, a top four seems to be emerging: college LHP Carlos Rodon, HS C/OF Alex Jackson, and HS LHP Brady Aiken and RHP Tyler Kolek. I would think the Mariners would love for any of them to drop. Jackson is the clear best bat at this point. He’s been catching in high school but might move to outfield. Without ever seeing him, that’s a move I’d make immediately. From all reports, he has the bat to make an impact regardless of the position and the athleticism to be at least decent in the outfield.

Aiken is drawing comparisons to Clayton Kershaw, with perhaps more polish. Prep pitchers are always risky, but he sounds like the complete package. Kolek is a fireballer, regularly hitting 100 mph with good secondary stuff. Rodon entered the year as the presumed top pick, but a lackluster season has taken some of the shine away. He’s still the odds-on favorite to go #1 to the Astros, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him fall a bit too. If he somehow made it to the Mariners, he’d be a no-brainer.

College bats

Jackson has the best chance to be a middle of the order guy, but there are a couple of college outfielders who could be good but not elite bats. Semi-local guy Michael Conforto from Oregon State is the name that gets mentioned, but most people I read think the M’s will have better options available. He’s the best bat on the nation’s best team, but he isn’t good defensively (to the point of maybe being a first baseman eventually) and his bat isn’t likely to be top of the line, just above average. San Francisco’s Bradley Zimmer is getting the press of late. He’s much better defensively, although probably not good enough to play center regularly. He sounds a little like Michael Saunders as a tall, long guy who doesn’t consistently have the power one might expect. He could move somewhat quickly and be an above-average starting outfielder, but again, he’s not likely to be a standout with the bat. The other college bat getting talk this high is Casey Gillaspie, but he’s a first baseman, not an outfielder. I guess I should also mention college SS Trea Turner, since he could easily be the pick. He’s lightning fast, a good defender, but the bat leaves something to be desired this high in the draft. I hope they don’t pick him, but he’s interesting, especially if someone can fix his swing a bit.

College pitchers

The recent buzz has the M’s going shortstop or pitcher. I don’t really trust the buzz, but college pitcher seems logical. RHP Aaron Nola, from LSU,  is the darling of this area in the draft. His stuff and size are not top-of-the-line, but he knows how to pitch and gets tremendous results. He might not be a future ace, but he could be an above-average starter who reaches the majors quickly, barring injury. Leftie Kyle Freeland is a recent riser, with good velocity and command and solid secondary stuff. The aforementioned rightie Hoffman could still be in play despite the surgery. He likely would have gone before the Mariners’ pick without the surgery, and with the high rates of TJ success, it wouldn’t be a crazy pick. I don’t expect it, but it could happen, and might save the M’s some money for later picks. There are quite a few other names that could fit in this group, so don’t be surprised by any college pitcher picked.

High school upside guys

High schoolers often have more potential, but they also take longer and are more likely to fail. SS Nick Gordon, brother of Dee and son of Tom, is the current hot name. He should be a good shortstop and could develop into a solid or better bat, in the Derek Jeter mold (but nowhere near that good). There are a few other bats, like SS/3B Jacob Gatewood or M’s blogosphere favorite CF Michael Gettys, who aren’t expected to go this high but could be plays for big offensive upside. On the pitching side, rightie Touki Toussaint has some of the best stuff in the draft, to go with a great name and backstory. He also needs a lot of work and is the type of pick who routinely fails.

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So that’s a lot of names, and there are quite a few others who could be the pick. My preference probably goes Jackson, Aiken, Rodon, Kolek, with Nola and Freeland as maybe my top picks of the guys likely to be available. Gordon seems like he could be the guy though, and while I don’t like it especially, I wouldn’t be surprised if he turns out pretty well.  We’ll know soon enough who the pick is, but because it’s baseball, we won’t know if it’s a good pick for a very long time.

-Matthew

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The Sad, Strange Case of Ji-Man Choi

Baseball’s a funny game. You can love your team. Then, if you love them enough, you’ll love their top prospects. If you love the top prospects enough, you’ll start to learn about the top performers on each farm team. It goes on and on until you start reciting the Clinton Lumberkings lineup numbers to your friends at a dinner party. Some people say it’s a waste of time and that’s fine.

In 2009, the Mariners sent some scouts to South Korea to take a look at a group of pitchers, namely Seon Gi Kim.  The Mariners ended up signing that pitcher and brought him stateside.  Catching Kim that day was a converted third basemen who not many knew about.  The Mariners liked what they saw in the short tryout and decided to sign him, as well.  This happens fairly often.  Teams take flyers on guys and this third basemen-turned-catcher happened to be one.

Once stateside in 2010, these 2 players joined the Arizona rookie league.  Kim had good stuff but sported a ballooned ERA.  The other South Korean didn’t have any trouble though.  He hit .360 with a .440 OBP and .517 slugging percentage.  He was eventually promoted to the high-A team, High Desert, and posted an .822 OPS all as a 19-year-old.  Mariners prospect nerds became enticed with this player who was unknown a year before.  The legend of Ji-Man Choi was born.

While Choi was hitting everything in sight, the Mariners were slowly breaking him into the catcher position.  He played most of his time and first base and DH but every third or fourth day he’d be behind the plate.  Needless to say, a left-handed hitting catcher who drew a ton of walks was pretty exciting.

2011’s spring training rolled around and there was Choi, working out with the catchers.  Then, all of a sudden, he was just gone.  Following minor-league baseball is hard to do in this day and age because we, as fans, are so used to getting all the information we want right away.  When a low-minors baseball player disappears from box scores there’s only so much a common fan can try to figure out.  This was the case with Choi.  Eventually it came out that Ji-Man had back pain.  The pain was so extensive that he didn’t play a game in 2011.  They eventually found a broken bone and then inserted a rod and two screws into Choi’s back.

The first few months of 2012 came and went and there was no sign of him in the box scores.  He had the rod and screws removed and later showed up in Clinton in late May.

Missing your 20 year-old season as a baseball player is a big deal.  That’s one of the formative years for prospects.  Choi hadn’t played in a baseball game in almost a year and a half.  He was inserted into the Clinton lineup and on his first day back he went 2-4 with a double.

Ji-Man looked as if he hadn’t missed any time at all.  He split that time in 2012 rotating between first base and DH and ended.  He wasn’t great but he was good and, as a 20 year-old, he put up an .895 OPS.

As prospect lists became to come out over that off-season, Choi was left off.  There were two reasons for this:  One, he had just been injured for a year and a half.  Two, he didn’t have enough power to be a major league first baseman. Ji_Man_Choi_1280_kju6a1er_qc4gs806

2013 came and Ji-Man started the year at High Desert.  A hitters paradise.  In his 48 games there Choi posted a .337/.427/.619 slash line.  He had more extra base hits than singles and walked 27 times while only striking out 33 times.  Naturally, he was promoted to Jackson, the Mariners AA team.  The average dropped off some there but not much else did.  He sported .862 OPS in his stop in Jackson, a much tougher league to hit in, at the ripe age of 22.  My favorite stat from there?  His 32 walks and 28 strikeouts.  At the end of his great season, he got the call up to Tacoma for a handful of games.  It was the cherry on top of a great season.

Choi started appearing on more prospect lists over this off-season.  One complaint remained.  Yep, you guessed it.  He can’t hit for enough power.  Still, the Ji-Man train trudged on.

He started 2014 in Tacoma.  Guess what he did there?  Hit.  He hit a lot.  In 10 games he posted a .395/.500/.545.  Granted, it was 10 games but anyone who had followed his career wasn’t surprised.  The guy had already overcome so much, being only 22, that it wasn’t a surprise that he was, well, a surprise.

Maybe the Mariners finally had a guy to push Justin Smoak.  A guy who maybe didn’t have the power potential but actually had some consistency.  A guy who could possibly do what John Olerud did on the last successful Mariners team, get on base, hit doubles and play great defense.

Word broke this afternoon that Ji-Man Choi had been suspended 50 games for the use of a performance enhancing drug.  The drug was methandienone, a type of anabolic steroid.

It just made so much sense.  A guy who was constantly knocked for his lack of home run power at a power position was taking an illegal substance to make him stronger.  He’s only like 195 pounds, for crying out loud.  Then, this came out, via Choi:

“A banned substance was detected in my urine sample,” Choi said. “I do not know what I could have taken that caused me to test positive. I have not and never would knowingly use anything illegal to enhance my performance. However, I also understand that without an explanation I must serve a suspension and I accept that. I look forward to putting this behind me and to returning to help the Mariners ballclub once my suspension has ended.”

Maybe it didn’t make sense at all?  Why would a guy who has never been the ‘star prospect’ but overcome that with pure skill and a disciplined approach break from that?  Choi is a smart baseball who makes up for his lack of home runs by taking his walks and hitting the ball into the gap.  Why would a smart guy do this when he was so close?

The only person who knows if Choi took this steroid is Choi himself.  He said he didn’t and many people probably don’t believe him.  He’s probably used to people doubting him anyway.  Hopefully, he doesn’t care.

Baseball’s interesting.  You know 25 guys and then you read about the next 25 guys people think you might see in a few years.  It goes on and on until someone tells you to shut up at a dinner party.  For some reason, I love Ji-Man Choi’s story and today it took another turn.  My favorite prospect, a guy I’ve never seen play a game, is out for a while because he possibly did something bad and I’m upset.  I’ll look forward to early June when Choi will show back up in the Tacoma box scores and Mike Curto will send out tweets about his 2-4 nights, with a double and a walk.  In the mean time I’ll just keep envisioning Choi as the next John Olerud.  That’s ending of his story that I like the best.

I wonder how Jabari Blash is doing.

- Andrew

 

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