M’s pleased with progress of minor league prospects

PEORIA, Ariz. — The Seattle Mariners know what the experts say about their minor league system, that they rank middle of the pack, at best, among major league organizations.

Considering that, the Mariners go into the 2010 season pleased at how 2009 finished for their minor league clubs, especially after trades in previous seasons gutted them of many top prospects.

The Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers, Class A High Desert Mavericks and rookie-level Peoria Mariners won division championships, and Peoria went on to capture the Arizona League title. A dozen players made postseason All-Star teams and two managers, Andy Bottin at Peoria and Jim Horner at High Desert, were named managers of the year in their leagues.

The Mariners also are proud that six players on the major league roster last Aug. 1 spent most, if not all, of the previous year in their minor league system.

“In a minor league system, when you develop one or two players to help a major league club in a year, you’ve had a good year,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league director.

But, as they say in this game, that was last year.

This could be the year that offers a better measure of the Mariners’ minor league strength. The quest begins Saturday when the first full-squad workouts begin in their minor league spring training camp at the Peoria Sports Complex.

“We’ve known that we’ve had good talent in the lower levels for a long time,” Grifol said. “But there comes a point in time in the kids’ careers when you ask, ‘OK, what kind of prospect are you really?’”

Many of the players from the California League South Division championship team in High Desert move up to Class AA West Tennessee. The pitching will be tougher at that level, which will either reveal the monster numbers many of them produced at High Desert as typical of the California League or something the Mariners can be enthused about for the future.

Third baseman Alex Liddi won the California League most valuable player award and his .345 average tied him for the batting title. Infielder Carlos Peguero led all Mariners minor leaguers with 31 home runs, outfielder Joe Dunigan hit 30 homers and drove in 104 runs, and left-hander Donnie Hume’s 17 victories led the minor leagues. Hard-throwing right-hander Michael Pineda had a 2.84 ERA in 10 games, left-hander Mauricio Robles a 2.78 ERA in eight games after arriving in a trade from the Tigers, and right-hander Steven Hensley went 9-3, 4.21 in 20 games after being called up from Class A Clinton..

They’ll all be tested this year with West Tennessee.

“They’re extremely talented kids who had career years last year,” said Grifol, who admits that the Cal League’s reputation as a hitter’s haven was somewhat responsible for the impressive offensive performances.

“But I’m not on board with all that hoopla that these kids performed because it was High Desert,” Grifol said. “I think they performed because of their ability, their makeup, the staff we had there. This is the year for them to go to Double-A and prove to everybody in baseball that, ‘This is who I am and here’s what I’ve got.’”

When the Mariners’ minor leaguers gather Saturday morning as an entire group, Grifol will deliver two basic messages: He wants them to carry themselves with character and integrity, and he’ll make it clear that roster spots are precious, especially at the lower levels of the system.

“I don’t know if they think of it this way, but when you put it all together, our Clinton club had a 25-man roster and probably 10 will come back this year,” Grifol said. “That means there will be 15 spots (available). You have 90 players from short-season clubs last year trying to fill those 15 spots.

“I’ll give them the numbers and tell them that one of the hardest parts of our job is evaluations, not only evaluating them but evaluating them compared to other players. You want to make our jobs easy? Lack professionalism, lack integrity, lack character and somebody else will take your job. You want to make our jobs hard? Do all of the above and let us evaluate. That will be my message.”

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog.

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