Before the start of the season, we'll highlight a few players in each team's minor-league system to let you know which players you should be paying attention to throughout the year. These aren't meant to be comprehensive top-prospect lists, but should provide a look at some key players within each team's organization.
The Mariners' system received a big boost mid-season after drafting catcher Mike Zunino. Previously, the team had been known for its trio of pitching prospects: Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. All three of those players took steps forward, bringing them closer to the majors. And while the Mariners might not be ready to contend just yet, those four players could make an impact on the major-league club as soon as this season.
2013 Impact Prospect
After being selected with the third overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zunino shot up the Mariners' minor-league system. He hit .373/.474/.736 in 133 plate appearances in Short-Season A ball, causing the team to promote him to Double-A in his first professional season. Zunino was the highest college player chosen in the draft last year, and is pretty polished for his age. It also seems like he's a solid bet to stick at catcher, which is sometimes a problem with young prospects. The team is set to begin the season with Jesus Montero as its full-time catcher, but that's probably not the ideal position for him based on defensive scouting reports. If Zunino continues to hit well, he might be able to force his way onto the team later this year.
LHP James Paxton
Paxton has moved fairly quickly, making 21 starts at Double-A in his second professional season. While his control was a slight issue (he walked 11.9 percent of hitters), he managed to post a solid 3.09 ERA. Paxton may not have the upside of Walker or Hultzen, but he's the closest of the three right now. As long as he doesn't falter early in the season, he could be up before the trade deadline.
RHP Taijuan Walker
At age 20, Walker is already considered one of the best pitching prospects in the minors. The consensus among prospect analysts is that he already has a strong fastball, but needs to work on the consistency with his curve and change-up, both of which have shown flashes of being above-average offerings. Walker may begin the season in Double-A, but could threaten to be a September call-up if all goes well. Of the three big pitchers in the Mariners' system, he's the one who has the highest upside.
LHP Danny Hultzen
Hultzen is known for his strong command, which made him a candidate to move quickly through the Mariners' system after he was drafted. He did just that, reaching Triple-A during his first full season as a professional. Once he got to Triple-A, though, his performance suffered. Hultzen had a 5.92 ERA in 48.2 innings in Triple-A. It's not as if he wasn't ready, as he shut down hitters in Double-A, with a 1.19 ERA in 75.1 innings. His command also deserted him in Triple-A, leading to a 17.9 percent walk rate. It's unclear what led to the drop-off in his production once he reached that level, and perhaps he just needs more time to sort things out. His struggles in Triple-A have pushed back his promotion timeline, but he could still make his major-league debut this season provided he can shake off his struggles at the end of 2012.
Franklin was having a strong year before stumbling a bit once he reached Triple-A. In 296 plate appearances, he hit just .240/.306/.412. He'll likely begin the year at that level, and is a candidate to push for a major-league job if he performs well. There are some questions about whether Franklin can stick at short. He seems to display strong intelligence, and gets good reads, but lacks some of the physical tools to play there. At worst, he becomes an above-average second baseman. With Dustin Ackley in town, Franklin is unlikely to see much time at second in the majors this season. And while Brendan Ryan is an awful hitter, he's a special defender at short. Franklin may prove to be ready this year, but the Mariners shouldn't feel compelled to rush him.
The Mariners could receive significant contributions from both Zunino and Paxton early in the year, and get a taste of the future if Hultzen and Walker make strides in the minors. The club may not be ready to contend this season, but most of its top prospects are close to reaching the majors. The future should look a lot brighter as soon as next year.