AquaSox outfielder Julio Rodriguez hits a double during the first inning of a game against the Dust Devils on May 11, 2021, at Funko Field in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

AquaSox outfielder Julio Rodriguez hits a double during the first inning of a game against the Dust Devils on May 11, 2021, at Funko Field in Everett. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Van Til: Eyes of baseball world on talent-laden AquaSox

Local fans will have a rare, and perhaps short, opportunity to view these potential future M’s stars.

EVERETT — Soak it all in, AquaSox fans.

Right now, your team is one of the hottest attractions in all of minor league baseball.

And if you’re a Seattle Mariners fan wanting to get a firsthand glimpse at the promising future of your franchise, Funko Field is currently the place to be.

A potential future superstar outfielder. Two other top-100 overall prospects. And a slew of talented pitchers with big-league potential.

Simply put, the Everett AquaSox are stacked.

To place things in perspective: MiLB.com reporter Sam Dykstra ranked the AquaSox at No. 2 on his list of the “most loaded” rosters in all of minor league baseball, based on the quality and depth of prospects.

Yes. Out of every minor league baseball team — regardless of level — the AquaSox are considered to have the second-best collection of major league prospects.

It’s all a product of two coinciding factors: The AquaSox’s recent move to High-A and the Mariners having Baseball America’s No. 2-ranked farm system.

The first factor is a result of the long and contentious process that saw Major League Baseball seize greater control of its feeder system and slice the number of affiliated minor league teams from 160 to 120. Consequently, some 40 minor league communities across the country were recently dealt the heartbreak of losing their status as an affiliate to a big-league ballclub.

The AquaSox were among the fortunate teams to survive the chopping block.

And on top of that, they actually benefit greatly from the new alignment.

Ever since its inaugural 1984 season, Everett’s minor league franchise had been a Short Season-A team, which meant it was five steps from the major leagues. Now, as a High-A team in the new setup, the AquaSox are just three steps from the bigs. As a result, the Sox will now feature a higher caliber of players, and top prospects will be less likely to bypass Everett on their climb up the minor league ladder.

In years past, elite Mariners prospects such as Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker and Edwin Diaz skipped over the AquaSox on their ascent to the majors. Adam Jones, a five-time MLB All-Star, played a grand total of just three games for Everett during his rise to the big leagues.

Now, those types of prized prospects are far more likely to stop in Everett.

There’s already a prime example in current AquaSox outfielder Julio Rodriguez, one of the most highly regarded prospects in all of baseball. Rodriguez initially bypassed Everett in 2019, back when the Sox were still a Short Season-A club. But thanks in part to Everett’s newly elevated status in the minor league system, one of the game’s brightest and most exciting young talents is currently playing at Funko Field.

Rodriguez also highlights the other part of this — that Everett’s move to High-A couldn’t have come at a better time.

Just three years ago, Baseball America ranked the Mariners’ farm system as the worst out of all 30 MLB franchises. Now, the Mariners’ minor league system is ranked No. 2. It’s all part of a franchise rebuilding process that’s yielded a large crop of promising young talent.

And at the moment, the Sox are the biggest beneficiary of the Mariners’ prospect stockpile.

Everett currently has three of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects, as well as nine of the top 20 prospects in the Mariners’ organization and 13 of the top 30.

The headliner, of course, is Rodriguez. The 20-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic is ranked as the game’s No. 3 overall prospect by Baseball America. Listed at 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds, Rodriguez has superstar potential with exceptional power at the plate and considerable arm strength in right field.

Rodriguez didn’t waste any time showcasing his immense power in the AquaSox’s home opener Tuesday night. On the first pitch of his first at-bat, he smacked a blistering double to the center-field fence. And in his next at-bat, he crushed a two-run homer over the right-field wall.

One MLB analyst and former general manager recently compared Rodriguez to former two-time American League most valuable player Juan Gonzalez.

“He’s emerging as a potential future superstar,” Jim Bowden wrote in The Athletic last month. “… He reminds me of a young 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.”

Rodriguez alone is reason enough for fans to come to Funko Field, which is currently limited to 25% capacity under the state’s health and safety regulations. The chance to witness a potential future star before he’s truly a star is something that should excite any baseball fan.

But it’s far from just the J-Rod Show in Everett.

The AquaSox also have two other MLB.com top-100 prospects in pitchers Emerson Hancock and George Kirby, who are the Mariners’ two most recent first-round draft picks. Hancock is ranked as the No. 26 overall prospect in baseball and Kirby is No. 80. They highlight a deep and talented Everett pitching staff that also includes Juan Then, Brandon Williamson, Isaiah Campbell, Levi Stoudt and others.

In all, six of the Mariners’ top eight pitching prospects are currently on the AquaSox. On virtually any given night at Funko Field, there’s a chance you could be watching a future arm in the Mariners’ rotation.

And yes, here’s a disclaimer: It’s true that baseball prospects are generally less likely to pan out than their basketball or football counterparts. But when a franchise has a collection of prospects this abundant, the hope is at least some of them will develop into key contributors at the big-league level.

And the Mariners — more so now than any time in recent history — are counting on that. Rather than placing their stock in veteran stars like Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, as they did under previous general manager Jack Zduriencik, the Jerry Dipoto-era M’s are banking on their replenished farm system to ultimately pay dividends.

So, too, is the Mariners’ long-suffering fanbase. In the midst of a 20-year postseason drought that’s now the longest of any team in the four major North American sports leagues, M’s fans are itching for their club to finally break through and become a perennial contender. For that to happen, they need at least some of the organization’s top prospects to ultimately produce at the big-league level.

And right now, it’s quite possible that some of those eventual key contributors to the next great Mariners team are in Everett.

At some point, perhaps sooner than later, these prospects will move up to Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma.

But while they’re at Funko Field, soak it all in.

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