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Farmhands of Note (2014 Midseason Report, Part 1)

 Chris Taylor (photo credit: gty.im/480700409 by Mike McGinnis)
The Mariners play their 81st game tonight, exactly halfway through the schedule. That makes this time of year a nice one for reviewing the season so far, especially given that the trade deadline looms.

Minor league seasons aren't quite as a long as Major League ones, so they are passed halfway points or just starting seasons in the case of all the half-season affiliates. Regardless, it's time to check in on the farm.

This is a season of transition in the M's farm system because so many of the bigger names have graduated to the MLB roster over the past year and a half. Still, there are talents worth getting to know, some of which are posted here:

Tacoma Rainiers (AAA)
  • 1B Ji-Man Choi - Choi lost most of the first half to a 50-game suspension. However, his limited AAA at-bats show more of what he's flashed throughout his minor league ascent: patience with a little bit of  power. Choi recently started a game in the outfield too; I'm curious to see if that was just to get him on the field with Justin Smoak rehabbing, or something more to add some versatility. Choi is a guy to watch closely over the next month. I'll go out on a limb and say that, with a good July, Choi is in the majors by August - either with the Mariners, or with a team he's dealt to in a deadline trade for a bat.
  • INF Nick Franklin - I won't spend too much time on Franklin because he's a fairly well-covered player now. Franklin hits in AAA and is yet to produce similar results in the majors. Robinson Cano has displaced him. If I was Jack Zduriencik, this is the player I would center any trade around to acquire a bat.
  • RHP Stephen Kohlscheen - A former 45th round draft pick (!), Kohlscheen has quietly and methodically risen through the minor leagues. He just got to Tacoma a few weeks ago, but he was fantastic in AA. Given the struggles of Logan Bawcom and Carson Smith in Tacoma this year, there might be a larger opening for Kohlscheen than most realize. He's not a big-time prospect but it isn't hard to see him quietly eating up some middle innings in a bullpen in the near future. He's my early favorite to be a dark horse candidate for the M's opening day 2015 roster.
  • RHP Brandon Maurer - Technically, Maurer is a Mariner right now, but his ticket back to Tacoma will be punched any day now. He has flamed out as a starter the past year and a half, but reports are that his fastball reaches 98mph out of the bullpen. I am intrigued to see how he fares in a regular bullpen role, and given the aforementioned struggles of Bawcom and Smith, there are some bullpen innings to grab in Tacoma.
  • RHP Jordan Pries - For now, the Mariners rotation is fine, though history suggests it's only a matter of time before Chris Young breaks down. Pries is easily Tacoma's most productive starter and might be next in line for a rotation spot at this point (assuming Taijuan Walker gets called up for Monday's start). I've seen a few Pries starts in Tacoma. He's all about "pitch ability" and command, though not quite smoke and mirrors. He's basically another Blake Beavan at best. That might not sound exciting, but don't forget that Pries didn't cost Cliff Lee to acquire (the Mariners selected Pries in the 30th round in 2011).
  • SS Chris Taylor - Truth be told, the reason Nick Franklin is my top trade trip is because of Chris Taylor. I love Taylor. I don't think he's a star, but he's a darn good middle infielder and would have no problem stepping into a backup role on the Mariners right now. Taylor is a solid defender that has (and will) stick at shortstop, though he has also played some second base this year. He doesn't have the power that Franklin has, but consistently drives the ball in the gaps and has good speed that generates a few triples where others have doubles. I'll be surprised if both Taylor and Franklin are still in the Mariners system come August 1.
Jackson Generals (AA)
  • 3B Patrick Kivlehan - The former Rutgers football player continues to hit, even as he transitions out of High Desert's friendly confines and into a more pitcher-friendly Southern League. His defense is still an issue, and it's bad enough that he probably moves off of third base in the near future. At least I would move him off of third base at this point, and a corner outfield spot would make a ton of sense.
  • RHP Stephen Landazuri - Landazuri is a bit like Brandon Maurer in that he's a prep arm the Mariners signed rather late in the draft (22nd round in 2010) and have slowly developed. The fruits of their labor look like they are about to pay off again as Landazuri continues to post better and better numbers each year even as he faces more advanced competition. An injury sidelined him for about a month and a half, but he's back now, and should be watched closely in the second half.
  • 3B D.J. Peterson - The M's first round pick last year just got promoted to AA in the past week. It's amazing to me that he continues to play as much third base as he has. If he has a future in Seattle, it's clearly at first base. I would start grooming him at first base now with an eye towards making sure he's ready to take over at some point in 2015, perhaps as early as opening day.
  • SS Ketel Marte - The Mariners were very aggressive with Marte when they placed him AA this year. He's very young for AA (just 20 years old) and essentially skipped High Desert. However, Marte has made the Mariners look smart. While his hitting isn't amazing - he's a slap hitter with speed - it's as good as it was in Clinton. He's handled the jump just fine. Don't let the 23 errors fool you; Marte's calling card will be his defense as he matures. He profiles as an above-average defender at shortstop. It doesn't take much hitting for a slick fielding shortstop, particularly one with Marte's speed, to be an MLB-caliber player. Marte will never be a top prospect, but he's another reason that Nick Franklin should be expendable at the trade deadline.
  • LHP Tyler Olson - Olson got promoted to Jackson when Landazuri got hurt earlier this season, but wasn't sent back down once Landazuri was healthy. Olson, a southpaw from last year's draft, is already 24 years old and needed to move quickly through the minors to become an interesting prospect. He has, and so far has struck out more batters than I expected out of him. He's a fringe starting prospect at this point, and could provide depth as a sixth or seventh starter as early as next season.
High Desert Mavericks (A+)
  • OF Jabari Henry - Henry's path in the minors, at least at this early juncture, looks a bit like Stefen Romero's. Henry, like Romero, was a college bat that posted a deceptively good year in Clinton his first full season as a pro. This year Henry has erupted at High Desert's launching pad. If he continues to hit when he gets a promotion to Jackson, either at some point this summer or at the start of next year, he will generate buzz. For now the jury is still out.
  • RF Gabby Guerrero - Gabby started to flash his power potential at the tail end of last year in Clinton and has continued to build on that success. His game remains raw across the board, but the tools are there and the production is starting to show up.
  • C Tyler Marlette - The Mariners don't look like they'll need a catching prospect for a little while with Mike Zunino already producing in the majors, which makes Marlette a quiet trade chip for the upcoming trade deadline. Marlette can hit and his receiving skills continue to develop.
  • RHP Dylan Unsworth - Unsworth's season stats are pretty bad, but those need to be taken with a few grains of salt in High Desert. He's been doomed by unsustainable hits allowed and home run rates, which are partly products of High Desert's extreme hitting environment. Unsworth has flashed potential from time to time, most notably with a 12-strikeout performance on June 20. He's also from South Africa, if you are the type of fan who likes to root for international prospects from unexpected baseball locales.
Clinton LumberKings (A)
  • RHP Edwin Diaz - Diaz dominated in Pulaski last season and has followed up with a solid debut in full-season ball for the first time. I'm interested to see if the Mariners place him in High Desert next year or push him to Jackson. He's quite young at only 20 years old.
  • C Marcus Littlewood - Littlewood might be in the process of re-emerging as a prospect after an arduous transition to catcher. He projected to have a decent bat when he was drafted, but that disappeared until this season. Perhaps the high learning curve behind the plate was too much until this season. Littlewood will stay under the radar for the rest of this season, but next could (and needs) to be a big one for him if he's going to be a legitimate prospect. His production this year opens up the possibility that he could emerge.
  • OF Tyler O'Neill - O'Neill's season came to a screeching halt when he punched his hand into a concrete wall after a strikeout. Walls are still undefeated. However, pre-temper tantrum, O'Neill had 6 home runs in only 119 at-bats as one of the youngest batters in the Midwest League. It's historically a league that dampens power production, and 6 home runs over a full season for O'Neill could have been a success. He will hopefully be back on the field soon, and a strong finish to 2014 will put him in prime position to be a breakout prospect next year.
  • OF Austin Wilson - Wilson is a bit old for the Midwest League, and given his strong production, I'm a little surprised that he's still in Clinton. The power Wilson flashed in batting practice but not so often in Pac-12 games last year has been apparent in Clinton, which bodes well for his future. He still strikes out a fair amount though, which isn't an issue in low A, but should eventually be an issue.
The overarching message should be that the Mariners farm system is not bereft of talent. Jack Zduriencik has developed a pipeline. It's particularly telling that a handful of later draft picks are developing - that's a sign that the Mariners are honestly developing talent, not just lucking into finished products.  The Mariners have a deep enough system to pursue some sort of bat at the trading deadline without mortgaging their entire future.