Ackley heads list of prospects to watch as 2011 minor league season gets under way

In 2010 the Seattle Mariners saw seven of their nine affiliates reach the playoffs. Three of the teams won championships including the Tacoma Rainiers (AAA) of the Pacific Coast League and the Everett AquaSox of the Northwest League.

In short it was winning baseball where many bright, young prospects shined. Now, as 2011 opens today for the top four minor league affiliates across the country, many of those young players will have the spotlight shone on them, none moreso than 2B Dustin Ackley.

Ackley, the No. 1 prospect in the Mariners organization according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, finished 2010 in Tacoma where he played in 52 games and batted .274 with a .776 OPS. However, the No. 2 overall pick from 2009 went on to play in the Arizona Fall League after helping the Rainiers win the PCL title just three weeks later and earned MVP honors for his dominant play down in the desert.

How long he stays in Tacoma remains to be seen as the Mariners appear to have their top prospect on the fast track (his play has warranted it) in this rebuilding season in Seattle. As long as Ackley spends 20 days down on the farm before he debuts at The Show this season, his service clock will be delayed one season and the Mariners will be able to get essentially seven years of service out of Ackley before he becomes eligible for free agency rather than six.*

Ackley, of course though, won’t be the only player that the Mariners player development team will have their eyes on. So here’s a list to help you fans track some of the potential Seattle Mariners as the club enters a bright future.

Tacoma Rainiers (AAA)

Other than Ackley, players opening on the Rainiers roster that should be tracked are: OF Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero, RHP Blake Beavan, LHP Mauricio Robles, 3B Alex Liddi and Matt Mangini and relief pitcher Dan Cortes.

spotlight: CF Greg Halman, 23, had his cup of coffee with the Mariners last season in late September after he hit .243 with 33 homers and 80 RBI and an OPS of .854 in 112 games with Tacoma. His 33 homers was the most among all Mariners minor leaguers last season. If Halman can continue his improvement in his swing — hit the offspeed pitches more consistently thereby cutting down on his strikeouts and raising his average — as well as take more walks, he has a chance of regaining his elite prospect status and breaking through with the big league club.

Jackson Generals (AA, Southern League)

The club with the new name (previously West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx) returns another dynamic offense with some real promising young pitchers as well. Offensively the names to watch are: 1B Rich Poythress, 2B Kyle Seager, SS Carlos Truinfel and OF Johermyn Chavez and Nate Tenbrink. And pitchers: Steven Hensley, Erasmo Ramirez, Anthony Vazquez, Josh Fields and Brian Moran.

spotlight: SS Carlos Truinfel, 21, enters what could be a make or break season. After signing with the club as a 16 yr old out of the Dominican Republic with high expectations, Truinfel has yet to reach them. He’s now a year removed from a leg injury that cost him virtually the entire 2009 season and the club will hope for better numbers than the .257/.289/.336 line he posted last season. Defensively, he remains a work in progress at short with many scouts projecting an eventual move to second or third if he is to make the majors.

High Desert Mavericks (High A, California League)

Whenever you look at the stats of a player on the Mavericks roster, make sure you have the salt shaker nearby because there may not be a team in all of the minors that plays in a more offensively tailored ballpark. Situated in Adelanto, CA at around 5,000 feet in elevation, the ballpark is a virtual luanch pad. Last year players like Poythress and Chavez (now in AA) combined for 63 homers and nearly 250 RBI.

This year should be more of the same with another group of talented young hitters making their way to the desert. They include: OF James Jones, SS Nick Franklin, OF Dennis Raben and OF Denny Almonte. The pitching will be led by: LHP James Gillheeney and RHP Yoervis Medina and Nathan Reed.

spotlight: SS Nick Franklin, 20, made a big name for himself with his first pro season last year in Clinton. Where to begin with the numbers? Franklin’s 23 homers set a new franchise record for Clinton. He was also the first player at any level, including the majors to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases. With that season, Franklin ascended the prospect lists to No. 3 in the M’s system and No. 36 according to MLB.com in their list of top 50. Now he comes to Adelanto looking to pick up right where he left off in 2010 and continue his quick ascension through the M’s system.

Clinton Lumberkings (Mid-A, Midwest League)

The Clinton Lumberkings were another of the Mariners minor league affiliations that reached the playoffs last season. A number of players including Franklin and Jones have graduated but once again, Clinton’s roster is stocked with talented young players led by: 3B Ramon Morla, OF Julio Morban, RHP Forrest Snow, 2B Marcus Littlewood, C Steven Baron, LHP Edlando Seco and RHP Brandon Maurer.

spotlight: C Steven Baron, 20, is starting out in Clinton (mid-A) and is certainly a player to keep an eye on. He came out of HS two summers ago with a swing that needed to be completely rebuilt for the pros. It looks like it has been and he’s now very comfortable with it after his spring in which he hit .500 with the Mariners.

The kid (and trust me, if you get a look at him you will think he’s just a kid) could move very quickly this year. Given his spring, you might see him finish the year all the way up at AA and depending on how things go in the offseason (fall league and spring training and the like) he could make the jump all the way to the show come next April. But, with Olivo locked down for another yr, it’s more likely that Baron — if he continues his hot play over the next 12 months — will get the Ackley treatment and spend a month or two in Tacoma next spring and then hit the show round June when Olivo is struggling (only a matter of time for that).

*Super two — dealing with arbitration — is an entirely different concern that would require about two months of time in the minors.

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