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Mariners' arms race to prominence
Pitching a definite strength; Zunino, Romero bring solid bats
12/10/2012 11:00 AM ET
James Paxton was 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA after the All-Star break.
James Paxton was 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA after the All-Star break. (Roger Peterson/MiLB.com)
This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organizations. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.

With a 75-87 record and their fourth last-place AL West finish in the last five seasons, the Mariners didn't exactly enjoy a banner year this season. But there was plenty of success in the Minor Leagues. In fact, Seattle enjoyed arguably the most successful 2012 campaign on an organizational level.

Mariners affiliates compiled a 496-406 record (.550 winning percentage), tops among all organizations. The Rockies ranked second with a .545 winning percentage (428-357).

Leading the way was Double-A Jackson, which boasted one of the Minors' most talented pitching staffs and advanced to the Southern League Finals. Class A Advanced High Desert, Class A Clinton and short-season Everett all reached their respective semifinals.

"You just want to start off by getting everybody their innings, their at-bats and then try to win the games from there," said Chris Gwynn, who's wrapping up his first year as the Mariners' director of Minor League operations."The kids like winning, the coaches like winning. It just started rolling along, and once that happened, all the kids started buying in. I was just sitting back and thinking, 'Wow, this is great.'"

Mariners Organization All-Stars

Catcher -- Mike Zunino, Everett (29 games), Jackson (15 games): The 2012 Golden Spikes Award winner out of the University of Florida was selected third overall in the 2012 Draft and didn't suit up for the AquaSox until July 14. But what he did after making his professional debut was pretty impressive.

The 21-year-old batted .373 with 10 homers and 35 RBIs in only 29 Northwest League games. Skipping two levels, he moved up to Jackson in mid-August and put together a .333/.386/.588 line in a 15-game stint.

Along with his rapid climb of the Minor League ladder, he vaulted up the prospect ranks to No. 4 in the Mariners' system and No. 44 overall, according to MLB.com.

"Oh, my goodness, what a great kid," Gwynn said."He can really hit. Not only that, all the pitchers like him. All the coaches like him. The scouts did a great job of getting a good read on him and helping us make a great pick. All I could do was the read the [pre-Draft] reports, but when you see him play, you can tell he just oozes of talent and potential."



First base -- Daniel Paolini, Clinton (111 games): In his full-season debut, Paolini was one of the better bats in the Midwest League. He ranked among the circuit's top five in average (.299, fifth), home runs (18, fourth), slugging (.493, fifth) and OPS (.869, fourth). He was particularly strong in August, batting .361 with 11 homers and 37 RBIs in 29 games. The 23-year-old also exhibited some versatility, getting starts at first base for the first time in his career as well as second base, the position he played at Siena College.

Second base -- Stefen Romero, High Desert (60 games), Jackson (56 games): The Mariners' No. 10 prospect kicks off a pair of Organization All-Stars who thrived in both the California and Southern leagues. What's so remarkable about Romero is how consistent he was between the two levels, even after moving away from the hitter's haven that is High Desert's Mavericks Stadium.

Consider the unusually even numbers. In 60 Cal League games, the Oregon State product hit .357/.391/.581 with 11 homers and 51 RBIs. In 56 games with Jackson, he batted .347/.392/.620 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs. All the while, he was adjusting to a new position after spending most of his career at the hot corner.

"He's a guy with a very good demeanor," Gwynn said."He came into Spring Training really focused. I had never seen him before, but everyone else was saying he dropped about 20 pounds. Regardless of that, he looked ready to play from day one. Ever since, he got the best out of his ability, and you saw it. He actually did better once he got to Jackson."

Shortstop -- Brad Miller, High Desert (97 games), Jackson (40 games): The 2011 second-round pick out of Clemson followed a similar path as the man to his left in the infield. His .339 average in 97 games ranked second in the Cal League, while his .412 OBP was third and his .936 OPS fifth. For that, he was named a midseason All-Star.

After joining the Generals on July 24, the numbers slipped only slightly, to the tune of .320, .406 and .882 over 40 contests. Playing a position that many thought would be dominated by M's No. 2 prospect Nick Franklin, Miller showed he's not easily dismissed.

"He's very good at pretty much everything he does," Gwynn said."He makes all the plays at shortstop. I think he was a little spooked earlier because the infield at High Desert can be pretty rough. But he got used to it and played 137 games between there and Jackson. That's just a lot of games for one guy.

"It's just one of those things where we feel comfortable putting him out there much. He's a strong kid who needs to get even a little stronger. ... I'm anxious to see him in Spring Training. It'll all sort itself out, but he's done very well so far."

Third base -- Steven Proscia, High Desert (106 games), Jackson (21 games): Unlike Romero and Miller, Proscia had a rough go of it with the Generals. But his numbers with the Mavericks were too good to ignore. He ranked third in the Cal League with a .567 slugging percentage over 106 games to go with a .333 average, 24 homers and 94 RBIs. Proscia earned a spot a postseason All-Star team.

He was called up to Jackson for a 21-game stint in May and early June, during which he struggled with a .211/.259/.395 line after replacing the injured Rich Poythress at first base. Although he wasn't able to stick at the higher level, Gwynn provided a simple explanation for the 22-year-old's struggles.

"He went up as a replacement earlier than maybe he should have," Gwynn said."So it wasn't the same scenario as maybe some other guys who get called up. He had some early success, but the Southern League adjusted to him. A lot of it was not really his fault. He's a hard-nosed kid, though, who is serious about making that next step."

Outfielders

Joseph Dunigan, Jackson (115 games): After two injury-riddled seasons in which he played fewer than 100 games, Dunigan returned to the triple-digit mark for the first time since 2009 and did so in style. He ranked second in the organization and in the Southern League with 25 homers, trailing only Huntsville's Hunter Morris (28). The 26-year-old also ranked fourth in the circuit with a .502 slugging percentage. He was named a midseason All-Star, then won the circuit's Home Run Derby.

Carlos Peguero, Tacoma (76 games), Seattle (17 games): The 25-year-old split time between Triple-A and the Majors for the second year in a row, thanks to another strong showing in Tacoma. He put together a career-best .929 OPS, narrowly beating out his .923 mark from a year ago, and slugged 21 homers in 76 games. All of that came after missing four weeks in April and May with a torn meniscus in his left knee. He joined the Mariners in early July but didn't see the same results (.146/.167/.293) and returned to the Rainiers a month later before rejoining the big club as a September callup.

Dario Pizzano , Pulaski (53 games), Everett (six games): Pizzano is in the mold of Zunino, albeit with a much lower profile. The 2012 15th-round pick out of Columbia University took the Appalachian League by storm, leading the Rookie-level circuit with a .356 average, .442 OBP and .953 OPS. The 21-year-old went 7-for-21 with three doubles and four walks in seven games following a late-season promotion to Everett.

Utility/DH -- Luis Jimenez, Tacoma (125 games), Seattle (seven games): It's been a long, winding road for the 30-year-old slugger, who concluded his 13th season in professional baseball -- 11 in the Minors, one in Japan and one in Venezuela. Seeing time as both a designated hitter and first baseman, he owned a .310/.394/.514 line with 20 homers, 81 RBIs and 32 doubles in 125 games with the Rainiers. That hard work earned him recognition as a Pacific Coast League midseason All-Star and his first Major League experience.

Right-handed pitcher -- Brandon Maurer, Jackson (24 games): Starting out the year behind top prospects Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton (see below) in the Generals' rotation, Maurer -- who posted a 4.99 ERA across two levels in 2011 -- was expected to be a complementary piece to one of the Minors' best pitching staffs. The Mariners' No. 11 prospect began the season that way, logging a 4.38 ERA and .315 opponents' batting average through May.

But he hit his stride as the year progressed, finishing 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA before an innings limit cut short his season in the middle of August. The 6-foot-5 hurler was named the Southern League's best right-handed starter at the end of the year.

"He started out really as our fourth or fifth starter down there," Gwynn said."He started out OK, I think the league was hitting about .300 against him. But around May 15, something just clicked and he really turned it on. He did a better job of throwing to both sides of the plate and trusting his stuff. He's got four pitches he can throw for strikes. He's really grown from the beginning of the year. It's one of the best transformations as far as a guy growing that I've ever seen."

Left-handed pitcher -- James Paxton, Jackson (21 games): Paxton seemed to match the lofty expectations that accompanied his second professional season. The 24-year-old went 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA and 110 strikeouts over 106 1/3 innings. A knee injury sidelined him for the entire month of June, but he was 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA in July and August. That ability to bounce back easily caught the organization's eye.

"He has a really big curveball and can hit 95-96 [mph] on the gun with his fastball," Gwynn said."He's got great movement on those pitches. He missed a few starts but never missed a beat. It was pretty outstanding."

Relievers

Carter Capps, Jackson (38 games), Tacoma (one game), Seattle (18 games)

Stephen Pryor, High Desert (2 games), Jackson (11 games), Tacoma (16 games), Seattle (26 games)

Consider this a copout, if you will, but both Capps and Stephen Pryor below deserve more than a passing mention for the work they did out of the bullpen in 2012.

Capps, a 2011 third-round pick out of Mount Olive College, was nothing short of dominant in his first full season as a professional reliever. The 6-foot-5 right-hander notched 19 saves to go with a 1.26 ERA in 38 appearances at Jackson. He also struck out 72 batters over 50 innings while holding foes to a .212 average. The 22-year-old made one appearance for Tacoma, where he struck out three of the four batters he faced, before making his Major League debut on Aug. 3. He finished with a 3.96 ERA in 18 games for the Mariners.

"He was a catcher in college, I believe, but he's been great since making the full-time move," Gwynn said."He has an incredible fastball that has incredible life on it and has worked a lot with his breaking ball as well. When Pryor left, he became the closer in Jackson and did a great job of really going after batters."

Pryor did plenty of bouncing around the system but dominated nearly everywhere he went. An outstanding first month in Jackson (1.13 ERA, seven saves, 24 strikeouts, 16 innings) allowed him to jump to Triple-A for the first time. One month and 12 scoreless innings later, he made his big league debut on June 2. A groin injury cut short that opportunity, but he returned for good in August after a rehab stint with High Desert and seven more shutout frames for the Rainiers.

All told, the 2010 first-rounder out of Tennessee Tech compiled a 0.93 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 38 2/3 Minor League innings. His ERA was 3.91 with 27 punchouts in 23 frames for the big club.

"He was so good in Double-A," said Gwynn."He can throw 96, 97 with consistency and hit triple digits when he wants to. Plus, he's got a solid cutter, slider and changeup mix. He's one of those relievers who is just unafraid to face anyone. He's a real bulldog. Together with Capps, they make a great pair, and we're very excited to have two relievers who can contribute at the Major League level right now."

Sam Dykstra is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.
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