AquaSox pitcher Emerson Hancock, the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s MLB draft, warms up during Saturday afternoon’s practice at Funko Field in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

AquaSox pitcher Emerson Hancock, the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s MLB draft, warms up during Saturday afternoon’s practice at Funko Field in Everett. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

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AquaSox preview: It’s prospects galore as Sox begin a new era

The AquaSox are loaded with talent as they enter their 1st season at the minor leagues’ High-A level.

It’s a brand-new era for the Everett AquaSox.

For the first time in their franchise’s 37-year history, the Sox will take the field as a High-A ballclub.

And with an influx of highly regarded prospects on their opening day roster, there’s likely more buzz and excitement around this year’s AquaSox team than any other in recent memory.

Everett opens the season with three MLB.com top-100 overall prospects on its roster, as well as nine of the top 20 prospects in the Seattle Mariners’ farm system and 13 of the top 30. The headliner is prized 20-year-old outfielder Julio Rodriguez, who is considered a top-five overall prospect by both Baseball America and MLB.com.

Simply put, the Sox are stacked with talent.

And just how stacked?

MiLB.com reporter Sam Dykstra ranked the AquaSox No. 2 on his list of the “most loaded” rosters in all of minor league baseball, based on prospect talent and depth.

The slew of talent on Everett’s roster is a product of the AquaSox’s move to High-A coinciding with the Mariners having Baseball America’s No. 2-ranked farm system.

By moving up to the High-A level in Major League Baseball’s recently consolidated minor league alignment, Everett is now two steps closer to the big leagues. That means the AquaSox will feature a higher caliber of players, and top prospects will be less likely to bypass Everett on their climb up the minor league ladder.

And thanks to a franchise rebuilding process, the Mariners’ farm system has undergone a massive transformation. After being ranked dead-last just three years ago, they now have one of the best minor league systems in baseball. As a result, there’s currently a large crop of promising young talent on the AquaSox and the Mariners’ other minor league teams.

The Sox are set to make their long-awaited return to action Tuesday night, when they open a six-game road series against the Hillsboro Hops. It will be Everett’s first game since Sept. 2, 2019, due to the 2020 minor league season being canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s a 2021 season preview for the AquaSox — including a primer on the move to High-A and a look at the club’s bevy of top players:

THE JUMP TO HIGH-A

The minor leagues recently underwent a massive overhaul. As part of a long and contentious process, MLB took greater control of its feeder system and cut the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120. MLB cited better working conditions, higher facility standards and reduced travel as some of the leading reasons for the new setup.

Ever since its inception in 1984, Everett’s minor league franchise had been a Short Season-A team. That meant the team was five steps from the majors on the minor league ladder. As a full-season High-A team in the new format, the AquaSox are now just three steps from the big leagues.

Under the new system, each major league franchise has four full-season farm teams. The Mariners’ affiliates are the Tacoma Rainiers (Triple-A), Arkansas Travelers (Double-A), AquaSox (High-A) and Modesto Nuts (Low-A).

Under the previous alignment in 2019, the Mariners’ top five affiliates were Tacoma (Triple-A), Arkansas (Double-A), Modesto (Advanced-A), the West Virginia Power (Single-A) and Everett (Short Season-A).

Prized outfielder Julio Rodriguez, one of the top prospects in baseball, runs the bases during Saturday afternoon’s practice. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Prized outfielder Julio Rodriguez, one of the top prospects in baseball, runs the bases during Saturday afternoon’s practice. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

THE SCHEDULE

The AquaSox’s move from a Short Season-A team to a full-season High-A team means they will play significantly more games.

Previously, the AquaSox played a 76-game regular-season schedule that began in mid-June. Now, in normal years, Everett will play a 132-game slate that starts in April.

Due to this season being delayed because of the pandemic, the AquaSox will play a 120-game schedule.

Under the new minor league setup, Everett is part of the six-team High-A West league. The High-A West includes six of the eight teams from the previous Northwest League — the Short Season-A league that Everett had been part of since its inaugural 1984 season.

The other five teams in the High-A West are the Eugene Emeralds (San Francisco Giants), Hillsboro Hops (Arizona Diamondbacks), Spokane Indians (Colorado Rockies), Tri-City Dust Devils (Los Angeles Angels) and Vancouver Canadians (Toronto Blue Jays).

Everett, Hillsboro and Vancouver each kept their previous MLB affiliates, while the other three High-A West teams changed affiliates as part of the restructured alignment.

Two familiar opponents from the AquaSox’s Northwest League days — the Boise Hawks and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes — are no longer on their schedule under the new setup. Boise and Salem-Keizer were among the minor league franchises that lost their MLB affiliations as part of the contraction.

The AquaSox and the rest of the High-A West are slated to play six-game series this season that run each Tuesday through Sunday. Monday is a scheduled off day for all six teams.

After their season-opening series in Hillsboro this week, the AquaSox return to Everett for a six-game homestand against Tri-City on May 11-16 at Funko Field. The AquaSox then hit the road again for a 12-game road trip against Spokane and Vancouver. The series against Vancouver will be held in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Everett’s regular season is slated to run through Sept. 19.

TOP PLAYERS TO WATCH

According to MLB.com, nine of the top 20 prospects in the Mariners’ organization — including three of baseball’s top 100 overall prospects — are slated to begin the season with the AquaSox. Here’s a look at those nine players:

Julio Rodriguez (OF)

One analyst recently described 20-year-old phenom outfielder Julio Rodriguez as a “potential future superstar.” (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

One analyst recently described 20-year-old phenom outfielder Julio Rodriguez as a “potential future superstar.” (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

The 20-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic is one of the most talented and exciting prospects in the game.

Rodriguez is ranked as the No. 3 overall prospect by Baseball America and the No. 5 overall prospect by MLB.com. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, the prized outfielder has exceptional power at the plate and considerable arm strength in the outfield.

Rodriguez was signed by the Mariners as an international free agent in 2017. During the most recent minor league season in 2019, he played 67 games with Single-A West Virginia before closing the season with 17 games at Advanced-A Modesto. He batted a combined .326 that season with 12 home runs, four triples and 26 doubles, while posting a .390 on-base percentage and a .540 slugging percentage.

Rodriguez is coming off an impressive spring training with the Mariners, having posted a .313 batting average, .421 on-base percentage and .563 slugging percentage in 38 plate appearances. He hit two doubles and two home runs, including a massive 437-foot opposite-field blast to right-center field that rocketed off his bat with an exit velocity of 115 mph.

“He’s emerging as a potential future superstar,” former MLB general manager and current analyst Jim Bowden wrote in The Athletic last week. “He has a loud bat with incredible raw power, but he’s also a hitter who uses the entire field, from foul pole to foul pole. He is an advanced hitter for his frame, age and size. He has plus-plus arm strength and is developing into an above-average defender in the outfield. Rodriguez has a high baseball IQ, which shows up in the batter’s box and on the base paths.

“He made significant strides in spring training, and certainly streamlined his timeline to the big leagues with an impressive showing. He reminds me of a young (two-time American League most valuable player) Juan Gonzalez, and I project he’ll hit 40 home runs annually with several Silver Slugger awards and MVP honors in the future. His ceiling is unlimited, and so is his talent. He will give you goosebumps when he steps to the plate or makes a throw from right field.”

Emerson Hancock is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Emerson Hancock is one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Emerson Hancock (RHP)

Hancock was the No. 6 overall pick in last year’s MLB draft out of the University of Georgia. The 21-year-old is ranked by MLB.com as the No. 6 right-handed pitching prospect in baseball and the No. 26 overall prospect.

In his last full season at Georgia in 2019, Hancock posted a 1.99 earned-run average in 90 1/3 innings pitched. The 6-foot-4 Georgia native totaled 97 strikeouts and 18 walks that season, while averaging 0.841 walks plus hits per innings pitched (WHIP).

According to Jason Churchill of ProspectInsider.com, Hancock has a fastball that’s comfortably within 93-95 mph and can reach 99 mph.

“Hancock profiles as a very good No. 3 (starting pitcher in the majors),” Churchill wrote in February, “but there’s a relatively strong chance he ends up a No. 2 with some dominant traits, including two out pitches and a fastball capable of generating ground balls as well as swings and misses when he attacks at or above the hands.”

George Kirby (RHP)

George Kirby is one of three top-100 prospects on the AquaSox roster. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

George Kirby is one of three top-100 prospects on the AquaSox roster. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Kirby was the No. 20 overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft out of Elon University in North Carolina. The 6-foot-4 right-hander and 23-year-old New York native is ranked by MLB.com as the No. 81 overall prospect in baseball.

Kirby began his minor league career with the AquaSox in 2019 and started eight games for Everett, posting a 2.35 ERA in 23 innings pitched. He showcased excellent command, recording 25 strikeouts and no walks.

“Kirby projects as a No. 3 starter (in the majors) for me, and the floor isn’t much of a drop,” Churchill wrote in February. “I think there’s a decent chance he’s better than (Tacoma Rainiers pitcher) Logan Gilbert or Emerson Hancock, perhaps thrusting Kirby into No. 2 status.”

Juan Then (RHP)

Juan Then, pictured here in 2019, is a hard-throwing pitcher whose fastball reportedly reached 100 mph last fall. (Katie Webber / The Herald)

Juan Then, pictured here in 2019, is a hard-throwing pitcher whose fastball reportedly reached 100 mph last fall. (Katie Webber / The Herald)

The 21-year-old right-hander from the Dominican Republic is the No. 9 prospect in the Mariners’ farm system, according to MLB.com. Then spent most of the 2019 season with the AquaSox before moving up to Single-A West Virginia to finish the year. He posted a combined 2.98 ERA and 0.952 WHIP in 48 1/3 innings pitched, with 48 strikeouts and 13 walks. Last fall, Then’s fastball was reportedly touching 100 mph in the Arizona Instructional League.

Brandon Williamson (LHP)

Brandon Williamson, pictured here in 2019, is another highly regarded pitching prospect on the AquaSox roster. Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Brandon Williamson, pictured here in 2019, is another highly regarded pitching prospect on the AquaSox roster. Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Williamson was a 2019 second-round draft pick out of Texas Christian University. The 6-foot-6 left-hander and 23-year-old Minnesota native is ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ No. 10 prospect. Williamson began his minor league career with the AquaSox in 2019, posting a 2.35 ERA in 15 1/3 innings pitched. He recorded 25 strikeouts and five walks, with a 0.913 WHIP.

Isaiah Campbell (RHP)

Campbell, a 23-year-old who was born in Portugal and spent most of his adolescence in Kansas, was a 2019 second-round draft pick out of the University of Arkansas. The 6-foot-4 right-hander is ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ No. 12 prospect. Campbell helped Arkansas to back-to-back College World Series appearances in 2018 and 2019. During his final college season in 2019, he posted a 2.13 ERA in 118 1/3 innings pitched. He recorded 125 strikeouts and 22 walks that season, along with a 0.921 WHIP.

Zach DeLoach (OF)

DeLoach, a 22-year-old left-handed hitter, was a second-round draft pick last year out of Texas A&M. The Texas native is the Mariners’ No. 13 prospect, according to MLB.com. After batting just .239 over his first two seasons with the Aggies, DeLoach began catching scouts’ attention when he won the 2019 Cape Cod Baseball League batting title with a .353 batting average in one of the nation’s premier college summer leagues. He carried that success into the start of his 2020 season at Texas A&M, batting .421 with six home runs and three doubles in 18 games before the season was canceled because of the pandemic.

Levi Stoudt (RHP)

Stoudt, a 23-year-old Pennsylvania native, was a 2019 third-round pick out of Lehigh University. The right-hander is ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ No. 14 prospect. Stoudt posted a 2.97 ERA in 190 2/3 innings pitched over his three seasons at Lehigh, with 181 strikeouts and 65 walks. He underwent Tommy John elbow surgery after being drafted in 2019, but recovered to pitch last fall in the Arizona Instructional League, where his fastball reached 97 mph.

Austin Shenton (3B)

Bellingham native Austin Shenton, pictured here in 2019, is one of the Mariners’ top infield prospects. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Bellingham native Austin Shenton, pictured here in 2019, is one of the Mariners’ top infield prospects. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Shenton, a Bellingham High School alum, was a 2019 fifth-round draft pick out of Florida International University. The 23-year-old left-handed hitter is ranked by MLB.com as the Mariners’ No. 19 prospect. He split the 2019 season between the AquaSox and Single-A West Virginia, batting a combined .298 with seven home runs, two triples and 17 doubles in 53 games. He posted a .376 on-base percentage and .510 slugging percentage.

RULE CHANGE EXPERIMENTATION

This season, each level of the minor leagues will serve as a testing ground for a potential MLB rule change. For the High-A leagues, the change being tested is a requirement that pitchers must step off the rubber to attempt a pickoff. This most notably affects left-handed pitchers, who will no longer be able to attempt pickoff moves to first base by simply raising their right leg and throwing to the bag. According to MLB.com, the change is aimed at increasing stolen-base attempts and stolen-base success rate.

FAN ATTENDANCE

Attendance for AquaSox games at Funko Field is currently limited to 25% capacity, per state health and safety regulations. Fans are required to wear masks and will be separated into socially distanced pods of up to six people. Due to the limited capacity, fans are encouraged to purchase tickets online at AquaSox.com instead of at the ballpark.

On Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee approved an update for spectator events that allows outdoor facilities to increase capacity by adding sections for vaccinated attendees. AquaSox general manager Danny Tetzlaff said Monday that his organization is evaluating whether it can meet the state’s requirements to do so at Funko Field.

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