Starting in October and running through the end of the year, MiLB.com's State of the System series will evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each Major League organization, highlights prospects who've made the biggest strides in 2020 and offers a peek at 2021.
After a series of savvy trades and putting together what many would argue was the best Draft of the year in June, the Mariners' rebuild continued on its already promising path. That path became an express lane when the club fielded the Majors' second-youngest roster (only the Tigers were younger) -- featuring many of the prospects acquired by trades and recent draftees such as Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Evan White and Kyle Lewis -- and stayed in the playoff hunt up to the final week of the season.
Seattle had eight players make their debut in The Show, and the organization still boasts formidable reinforcements on the way with six of MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Prospects -- tied for most in the league with the Marlins and Rays -- in No. 9 Jarred Kelenic (No. 9), Julio Rodriguez (No. 15), Emerson Hancock (No. 30), Logan Gilbert (No. 35), Taylor Trammell (No. 51) and George Kirby (No. 95). All of them await their big league debuts.
While the M's boast an abundance of pitching talent, the offense gets a boost sooner rather than later from the emergence of Lewis -- who catapulted himself into the Rookie of the Year conversation -- along with prospective Spring Training invitees Kelenic, Rodriguez and Trammell. Seattle could become an AL West juggernaut for years to come.
"I think we just tried to focus on our process and get better every day," Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said. "There's a lot of talk about a rebuild, but that doesn't mean you're not trying to win every night, especially a season like this one, where you're playing just about every day. So I think we did our best to stick to our process and we weren't really all that surprised with the success. It was great for our young group to play those meaningful games late into the year, and I think the experience will only help as we go forward."
System strengths: The Mariners' biggest flex is on the hill. Not only do they have the aforementioned arms ready to crack the Major League roster, the organization is stacked with pitching from top bottom.
Seattle just drafted Hancock sixth overall, and the right-hander out of the University of Georgia is expected to climb quickly. Fellow righties Gilber and Kirby have not thrown a pitch above Double-A but made big strides at the alternate training site and could get the call in 2021. Gilbert climbed three levels in 2019 and was named an MiLB.com Organization All-Star. At the lower levels, southpaw Brandon Williamson is another Organization All-Star after posting a 0.91 WHIP with 25 strikeouts over 15 1/3 innings in the Class A Short Season Northwest League. Righties Isaiah Campbell, last year’s 76th overall selection, and Connor Phillips, this year’s 64th pick, have yet to throw a pitch in the Minors but already have spots on the M’s top 30 prospect list at Nos. 11 and 13, respectively.
“We are very excited about our pitching and its depth,” McKay said. “It’s at all levels, going from Gilbert to working all the way down. We’ve got a huge potential of players to convert from prospects to stability at the Major League level. Obviously, that’s a huge bridge to cross, not every prospect turns into that, but we’ve got multiple waves of arms through the system and that type of depth is very exciting.”
Areas for growth: While the Mariners saw huge gains from depth in their rotation with the emergence of Sheffield and Dunn, they also had one of the AL's worst bullpens. Seattle relievers ranked 28th in ERA (5.92), 29th in home runs against/9 IP (1.69) and 26th in opponents' batting average (.258).
While starters comprise much of the organization's pitching depth, there's room to dip into that pool to reinforce the bullpen. And there could be exisiting relief options in righties Sam Delaplane (No. 20 prospect), Wyatt Mills (No. 23) and Dayeison Arias. Delaplane compiled seven saves, a 2.23 ERA and 120 strikeouts over 68 2/3 innings between Class A Advanced Modesto and Double-A Arkansas in 2019. Not too shabby for a 23rd-round pick in the 2017 Draft.
“I've been telling everybody all year, go find somebody with better numbers because you can't,” McKay said after that season. “And he's just equally as impressive as a person."
Mills spent the 2019 season in the Texas League and this summer at the alternate site, where McKay said the 25-year-old continued to harness his command and impress with a 55-grade fastball/slider combo. Arias notched a 1.15 ERA while converting 13 of 14 save opportunities in 49 games between Class A West Virginia and Modesto.
What changed in 2020: The graduations of top prospects Sheffield, Dunn, White and Lewis would appear to deplete the system. But a strong Draft helped the M's maintain the status quo.
In addition to Hancock and Phillips, the Mariners took outfielder Zach DeLoach at No. 43 overall, infielders Kaden Polcovich (No. 78) and Tyler Keenan (No. 107) and righty Taylor Dollard (No. 137).
“All those guys are guys we’ve had an eye on and really wanted and couldn’t be happier to have them join our organization,” McKay said. “You never look at it like, what’s lacking? You draft where you draft and take the best player available at that spot and hope it lines up for you. Luckily, it’s lined up pretty well for us lately.”
McKay also praised the bounce-back performance of Sheffield, who had a shot with the big league club in 2019 but returned to Triple-A Tacoma, struggled again and was assigned to the Texas League. The southpaw returned to The Show this year and led the Mariners with six quality starts. In all, he was 4-3 with a 3.58 ERA in 10 starts.
“He really showed the ability to rebound and that was great to see,” McKay said. “He not only put together one of the best starter seasons for us in 2020 but was maybe was one of the top two or three rookie starters in all of the American League.”
Dunn was another anchor on the Mariners staff. The right-hander earned his first big league win on Aug. 10 and finished second on the team with four quality starts. He was 4-1 with a 4.32 ERA and sterling .189 opponents' batting average in 10 starts.
Alternate site standouts: None of the M’s six Top-100 prospects has reached the Majors, but they all made splashes at the alternate site.
To no one’s surprise, Kelenic probably made the most noise as reports surfaced again and again that the 21-year-old was tearing the cover off the ball at Cheney Stadium.
“Jarred has performed at every level he’s been at, wherever that has been,” McKay said, “all the way through three levels with us last year to Double-A, and that just continued this summer at the alternate site. He’s a special player and we’re excited to see what the future holds.”
Trammell came over from the Padres as part of a seven-player blockbuster deal at the Trade Deadline, then made an immediate impact on his new club at the alternate site.
“He came in and didn’t have a lot of time with us, but he went up there and just got rolling,” McKay said. “We really liked what we saw right away, and right now he’s in Peoria with us and getting right into our fall program.”
The Mariners are Trammell’s third club in two years, but that speaks more to being a coveted player than a lack of talent. Between the Southern and Texas leagues in 2019, the Georgia native clubbed 10 homers among 26 extra-base hits, stole 20 bases and scored 61 runs in 126 games.
Impact rookies: There might not be a freshman duo that had a bigger impact on its team than Lewis and White. Lewis had a taste of the big leagues last season but broke out at the plate and defensively this year. Not only was he the Mariners' best player, he was a finalist for AL Rookie of the Year honors.
Lewis started the season on a 10-game hitting streak, during which he batted .425 with three dingers and nine RBIs. He finished with a .262/.364/.437 slash line, 11 homers and 28 RBIs. His defense in center field drew comparisons to Ken Griffey Jr. in center field as it felt like the Mercer product made a spectacular play a night.
While White could not find a groove at the dish, he really showed his value -- and his plus-plus glove -- at first base. The 24-year-old committed one error in 403 total chances for a .998 fielding percentage, an effort that earned him the Rawlings Gold Glove Award in his rookie season. Seattle signed him to a six-year, $24 million contract before he ever played an inning above Double-A.
“Kyle put together a tremendous rookie season for us,” McKay said. “He was a first-round pick of ours and came into the system and just got to work and continued to work the whole time. And what he showed this year was just a product of all of that work … Evan is another former first-rounder who came in and just continued to improve and move through the system. And he got his first chance with the big club this year, and to win a Gold Glove is not just an honor for the player but for the Mariners as well.”
Another rookie of note was righty Ljay Newsome, who made history on Aug. 20 when he became the first 26th-round Draft pick to play for the team.
Next big thing: With Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Trammell grabbing most of the headlines as they reach the brink of The Show, Gilbert remains someone to watch.
The 14th overall pick in the 2018 Draft soared through three levels in his debut season, going 10-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 165 strikeouts against 33 walks over 135 innings.
“He’s really performed and shown that ability to get people out,” McKay said. “At the alternate site this summer he put an emphasis on using all of his stuff and working as efficiently as possible, getting through innings cleanly and by using as few pitches as he possibly can. He’s really been impressive and we’re excited to see where he takes this next season.”
Another name to keep an eye belongs to backstop Cal Raleigh. The 2018 third-rounder played his way to the Texas League last season and, with catching always a need at the big league level, he could get his chance with the Mariners as early as next year. Raleigh was an Organization All-Star for the second straight year after posting a .251/.323/.487 slash line and .985 fielding percentage in 81 games across two levels. He also threw out nearly 30 percent of would-be basestealers (34 of 81) in his first full pro season.
Rob Terranova is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @RobTnova24.