Seattle Mariners Top Prospects Grow Together In Minors

Seattle Mariners fans have waited patiently for a specific crop of young, talented prospects to make it to the big leagues. It’s been a long process, and one that’s weighed on the players as well.

Seattle Mariners Top Prospects

Seattle Mariners top prospects in Tacoma

“We’re doing our best,” Mariners pitching prospect Danny Hultzen told me. “Hopefully, that call will come at some point. Obviously, it’s our goal to get there as soon as possible.”

Now, many of the top prospects M’s fans have been itching for are just one step away for the major leagues. They’re all currently playing for the AAA Tacoma Rainiers.

“You have that extra motivation knowing that you’re close” said catching prospect Mike Zunino. “You have to go out and handle your business day in and day out, and hopefully it’s sooner rather than later that you can make that jump and help the ball club up there win.”

I’m sure you know their names by now, but I’ll remind you anyway. There’s shortstop/second baseman Nick Franklin, starting pitcher James Paxton and the aforementioned Mike Zunino and Danny Hultzen.

“I love our team,” Franklin told me. “We bond well and we have great chemistry. We’ve played with each other coming up through the minor leagues. We’ve had a few additions, but we’ve been nothing but great. I enjoy it.”

Baseball America ranks the star-studded posse as four of the M’s top five prospects. Zunino is ranked No.1, followed by Hultzen (No. 3), Paxton (No. 4) and Franklin (No. 5). You’d think there might be big egos, but there’s not.

Seattle Mariners Top Prospects

Seattle Mariners top prospect Mike Zunino

“The best part of it to me is that everybody works together,” said Hultzen. “Nobody is trying to be too flashy. No one plays for themselves, which is always a good thing.”

Thanks to that teamwork, the long wait for reinforcements in Seattle is almost over. It’s not just exciting for the fans, it’s thrilling for the prospects as well.

“It’s really exciting to think we’re this close,” Paxton said to me. “It’s just one phone call and a short drive away and we’re there. So, we’re all getting ready and we’re real excited to help [the Mariners] at some point.”

For these four players it’s not a matter of “if” — it’s a matter of “when” they get called up to the big leagues. Until then, they’re honing their skills together in the minor leagues. We probably won’t be able to say that for long though. These prospects should all debut at Safeco Field sometime this season.

This is the story I put together for my television station on the Seattle Mariners top prospects. Click below to watch Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen in action.

What do you think of the Seattle Mariners top prospects? Are they the answer at the big league level? I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Don’t forget to read more about the Mariners right now on All Around Tim!

Danny Hultzen | Mariners Prospect One Step Away

Seattle Mariners fans have heard the name Danny Hultzen for years, but they’ve never seen him in the big leagues. It’s all been hearsay and hype up to this point. That could all change soon for one of the organization’s top pitching prospects.

Danny Hultzen | Seattle Mariners

Danny Hultzen

Hultzen is among a talented crew playing for the AAA Tacoma Rainiers this season. He’s on the roster with catcher Mike Zunino, second baseman Nick Franklin and starting pitcher James Paxton. They’re ranked as four of the Mariners top five prospects by Baseball America.

“There’s a ton of talented guys, but the best part is that everybody works together,” Hultzen told me. “No one is trying to be flashy. No one plays for themselves, which is always a good thing.”

Not only is Hultzen a prized Mariners prospect (currently ranked No. 3 in the organization behind Zunino and pitcher Taijuan Walker), he’s also considered one of the top prospects in all of the minor leagues. Baseball America‘s Jim Callis ranked Hultzen as the No. 22 best prospect to start the 2013 season.

Hultzen is a former first round draft pick out of the University of Virginia. He was nabbed by the Seattle Mariners with the No. 2 overall selection in 2011. He skyrocketed through the system after signing an $8.5 million big league contract, which included a club-record $6.35 million bonus.

Hultzen started his professional career in the 2011 Arizona Fall League, and then pitched his first minor league game for AA Jackson last season. After recording eight wins and a 1.19 ERA in 13 starts for the Generals, Hultzen was promoted to AAA Tacoma — just one step away from the big leagues.

Danny Hultzen

Danny Hultzen pitching for the Tacoma Rainiers

“You can’t get ahead of yourself,” Hultzen said. “There were times I did that a little bit last year and it didn’t work well for me.”

Hultzen’s numbers spiraled out of control once he was promoted to AAA last June. He won only one game over his next 12 starts, and his ERA shot through the roof to 5.92. That was simply a result of allowing too many baserunners. Hultzen walked 43 batters (compared to 57 strike outs) over 48.2 innings with the Rainiers.

“You don’t make it to the big leagues by thinking about it,” said Hultzen. “You do it by taking care of business, and going out there and playing hard. That’s how I look at it now. I’m just trying to keep a level head and put [the Major Leagues] way back in my mind”

That appears to be working for Hultzen. The 23-year-old is on a roll to start the 2013 season. He’s 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA, and most importantly he’s regained his control. Hultzen has only walked six while striking out 25 in his first 22.2 innings with Tacoma this year.

Danny Hultzen

Danny Hultzen

“Everyone’s goal is to obviously make it to the Major Leagues,” Hultzen said to me. ”But, I’m a firm believer that if you’re helping the team win, then you’re personally going to perform the best you can. I think that’s the mentality we all have. We help the team win, and in doing so we can all hopefully move up.”

Hultzen has a deceptive delivery and the Mariners rave about his maturity (he was extremely polite to me — almost hinging on a little shy). Baseball America projects him as a No. 2 starter in the big leagues thanks to his 90-92 mph fastball (which touches 95 mph), “above-average” change-up and 80-84 mph slider.

The long wait to hear Danny Hultzen’s name announced at Safeco Field is almost over. If he can stay healthy (which has never been an issue with him), his Major League debut should happen at some point in 2013. I’m sure M’s fans are hoping it happens sooner rather than later.

Have you ever watched Danny Hultzen pitch? What do you think of the Seattle Mariners prospect? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Don’t forget to also check out http://allaroundtim.com for all the latest in the world of sports, food and music!

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Brandon Maurer | The Mariners Surprise Starter

Seattle Mariners fans are waiting patiently for the arrival of several hyped pitching prospects. They’ve been itching to see Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen in Seattle for years. Well, one of the M’s young guns is finally ready for his big league debut, but it’s not one of the ‘Big Three’. Instead, it’s starting pitcher Brandon Maurer.

Brandon Maurer Seattle Mariners

Brandon Maurer

Maurer is in the Mariners’ rotation after a stellar spring (beating out Erasmo Ramirez and Jeremy Bonderman for the roster spot). The 22-year-old (that’s right…he’s only 22) finished 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA in Cactus League play. He only allowed 23 hits and seven walks in 24 innings, while also striking out 25. His most impressive performance was happened on March 25th against the Reds. Maurer struck out seven batters over seven shutout innings.

Brandon Maurer is originally from Newport Beach, California. He was selected by Seattle in the 23rd round of the 2008 MLB Draft. Here’s the crazy thing — he’s never pitched above AA. Maurer spent the entire 2012 season with the Jackson Generals (the Mariners AA affiliate). Maurer, who is listed as 6’5″ and 215 pounds, went 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA last year. That was enough for him to be tabbed as the M’s sixth best prospect by Baseball America over the offseason.

I hate the throw up a red flag, but Brandon Maurer has battled injuries his entire career. He fought through elbow woes in 2010 and shoulder issues in 2011, but he’s avoided surgery the entire time. Maurer was finally healthy during the 2012 season, but he still only pitched 137.2 innings. That’s easily a career high for him, because Maurer has averaged just 64 innings over his first five professional seasons.

Brandon Maurer Mariners

Brandon Maurer

If Maurer stays healthy, Baseball America says he’s capable of throwing four solid pitches. He’s best known for his 93-95 mph fastball (which tops out at 97 mph) and his “swing-and-miss” slider. His curveball and change-up are apparently a work in progress, but they obviously worked well for him this spring. At the same time, it shows that Maurer is still a work in progress and there’s bound to be some growing pains this season.

I know people don’t put a lot of stock in spring training stats, but Brandon Maurer proved he’s ready for the bigs. He didn’t just face no-name minor leaguers; he went up against big league batters (especially later in the spring). There’s plenty of reason to be excited about this kid. He’s young, but he’s talented. Maurer is the first of what’s going to be a solid wave of pitching prospects heading to Safeco Field in the near future.

What do you think of Brandon Maurer? Do you think he’s ready for the big leagues? I would love to hear what you think! Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and . Don’t forget to also check out http://allaroundtim.com for the latest on the world of sports, music and travel!

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Behind The Scenes | Felix Hernandez’ New Contract

Felix Hernandez walked in Safeco Field on Wednesday knowing that he was about to become the highest paid pitcher in the history of baseball. That’s because the day before, Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners officially agreed on a new seven-year, $175 million contract. What Felix Hernandez didn’t know is that he was about to be greeted by the Mariners front office staff dressed like the ‘King’s Court’ (Hernandez’ rowdy fan section at Safeco Field). They were all decked out in yellow, waving huge cutouts of Felix’s head, and ready to celebrate the arrival of their superstar.

Felix Hernandez Surprised By Mariners Staff

Felix Hernandez after he was surprised by the Mariners staff

When the elevator doors opened, the staff erupted. The cheers were nothing new to Felix Hernandez, but his reaction was. Hernandez walked into the crowd and immediately broke into tears. The audience started chanting “Felix! Felix!” and that only pushed the Mariners pitcher into more emotion. I think the Mariners staff hoped for good reaction from Felix, but they didn’t expect tears. When I asked someone if they thought Felix would cry, they smiled and told me no. All they wanted was Felix to feel welcome and there’d no doubt they accomplished that.

Hernandez’ emotions didn’t stop in the hallway. He couldn’t even make it through his opening statements on the podium without tearing up. He took a deep breath to gather himself and then thanked his agent, his family, the Seattle Mariners, M’s fans, and then he thanked everyone again and again. I’m pretty sure Hernandez said thank you 100 times yesterday. Right before he signed his record-setting contract, Felix even pointed out how much his hands were shaking. It was crazy. The guy who typically isn’t flustered by anything on the mound was having a tough time simply writing his name. That shows just how much Hernandez was captured by the moment.

If you weren’t there for the press conference, it would be easy to ask if Felix’s emotions were real. I’m here to tell you that they were. If they weren’t, Hernandez should be up for an Academy Award. Felix is usually fairly quiet and he mumbles through most of his postgame interviews. I remember even having a hard time picking out a good soundbite after Hernandez tossed the first perfect game in M’s history last year. He shared plenty of excitement after that game, but his answers were very quick and not good for television. Yesterday was different, because Felix’s voice boomed (I honestly think it was an adrenaline rush). You didn’t even need a microphone to hear him. He spoke clearly and straight from the heart.

Felix Hernandez 175 Million Dollar Contract

Felix Hernandez at the press conference for his new contract

A lot of athletes would be arrogant after becoming one of the highest paid players in their profession (*cough* Alex Rodriguez *cough*), but Hernandez was extremely humble. He promised the fans of Seattle that he would never change. He told them that he’ll be the same person walking into the ballpark every single day. Before he got too far, Felix realized that wasn’t totally true, so he corrected himself. Hernandez now guaranteed M’s fans that they’d see a difference, vouching to become a better pitcher every year.

That was relief to some fans’ ears, because there’s always the possibility of a let down after a player gets a massive contract. The player gets their millions and then they get complacent. San Francisco Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum is a prime example. He signed his two-year, $40.5 million dollar contract with the Giants last year and his numbers dipped dramatically on the field. Lincecum went from 13 wins and a 2.74 earned run average in 2011 to 10 wins and a 5.18 ERA in 2012. He wasn’t even in San Francisco’s rotation in the postseason, instead he came out of the bullpen in five of his six outings. Felix Hernandez says that’s not going to happen to him, instead it’s going to be the opposite. Hernandez says he’s going to work harder than ever before and promised to “not disappoint anybody.”

The Mariners have seen a lot of star players leave over the years. Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson all made a name for themselves in Seattle and then bounced. They either wanted to go where they could win or where they could get more money, endorsements and fame (*cough* Alex Rodriguez *cough*). Felix Hernandez isn’t one of those guys. He actually wants to be in Seattle. He’s said that over and over for years, but I think it was hard for everyone to trust him. You can stop questioning him now. Felix is locked up in Seattle through the 2019 season, and he even joked that he’d like to talk about a contract extension after this year. In response, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said, “If you win the Cy Young, we can talk about anything you want.”

Felix Hernandez | Seattle Mariners

Felix Hernandez after he signed his $175 million contract

As a sportscaster, I long for the day athletes stop using the same old clichés. I want them to give real answers or just simply be themselves. What we saw on Wednesday was the real Felix Hernandez. He was quick to cry, provided plenty of laughs and told us exactly what he was thinking. The best part of the press conference happened before anyone asked him a question. Felix just started talking and talking. The words came out of his mouth as they came to his head. It was scattered. It was real. It was awesome.

Did you watch or listen to any of Felix Hernandez’ press conference (here’s a chunk of it if you haven’t)? What did you think? What do you think of his $175 million contract? I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment below or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Don’t forget to also check out the latest from the world of sports right now on http://allaroundtim.com.

Seattle Mariners Prospect Mike Zunino On Fast Track

This year is off to a much calmer start for Seattle Mariners prospect Mike Zunino. Then again, 2013 is just beginning and it probably won’t stay calm for long, especially if Zunino keeps taking big steps in his development. It’s not much of a stretch to think Zunino drops the prospect tag and simply becomes an everyday player for the Mariners this season.

Mike Zunino | Mariners Prospect

Mike Zunino at Single-A Everett in 2012

2012 was a whirlwind for Mike Zunino. He started the year at the University of Florida where he hit .371 with 19 home runs and 69 runs batted in. Those numbers were good enough to earn Zunino the Golden Spikes Award as the best college player in the country, and his sensational season led to him being selected by the Seattle Mariners third overall in the draft. Zunino was then shipped to the Single-A Everett AquaSox (that’s when I first met him) where he hit .373 with 10 home runs in just 29 games before a promotion to Double-A Jacksonville. Zunino continued to rake for the Suns, hitting .333 with 3 home runs before the season came to an end 15 games later.

“2012 was pretty crazy,” Zunino told us at Mariners FanFest last weekend. “It was nice to take a deep breath and relax once the year ended, but it was a fun year and a good experience.”

The year was clearly big for Mike Zunino on the field, but it was also a huge summer for him off the diamond. Zunino married his high school sweetheart Alyssa Barry in October. The wedding happened in Florida, but the honeymoon was cut short thanks to — you guessed it – baseball. Mike and Alyssa had one night to celebrate at a hotel on the beach, and then packed up their stuff and left for the Arizona Fall League the next day.

“I told her that I’ll take her on an extended [honeymoon] after this season,” Zunino said. “She deserves it for putting up with everything that’s going on.”

Mike Zunino continued to shine in the Arizona Fall League. In 19 games with the Peoria Javelinas, he hit .288 with 2 home runs and 15 runs batted in. His overall 2012 performance was more than enough for the Mariners to invite him to big league Spring Training this season. He reports to camp in Arizona with pitchers and catchers on February 12th.

“I’m obviously going out there to compete at the best of my ability,” said Zunino. “I’m just looking forward to meeting all the guys, getting to know the pitching staff and just learning the ropes.”

Mike Zunino | Seattle Mariners Prospect

Mike Zunino taking batting practice at Everett in 2012

Mike Zunino is clearly on the fast track to the Major Leagues. He was pegged as the Mariners top prospect by Baseball America in the offseason. The magazine compared Zunino to former Boston Red Sox star (and M’s first round draft pick) Jason Varitek, saying Zunino has “All-Star potential as a middle-of-the-order hitter.” Most analysts expect to see Zunino in the big leagues at some point in 2013. As for Zunino, he would rather not think about it:

“I don’t have a say in the end,” he said. “It’s nice because I can just continue to work hard and when they think I’m ready, that’s when the jump will be made. I’m just going out there and playing to the best of my abilities everyday.”

It takes a unique player to go from the college ranks to the big leagues in less than a year, but Mike Zunino has the skill and approach to make it happen. If a promotion to the majors doesn’t happen in 2013 (which would be a huge surprise to me), his Major League Debut is bound to come in 2014. At this rate, Zunino isn’t giving the Mariners much of an option. If he stays healthy, they’ll have to call him up sooner or later, because there’s no stopping a train going full speed down the tracks.

Have you ever seen Seattle Mariners prospect Mike Zunino in action? What do you think of him? I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below or connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Don’t forget to also check out http://allaroundtim.com for more on the world of sports, music and food!

Every Baseball Game Has Its Own Soundtrack

I love that every baseball game has its own soundtrack. Have you noticed that before? In a typical game there’s ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, ‘God Bless America’, ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’, an at-bat song for every hitter and an entrance song for every closer (the list goes on and on — visits to the mound often produce the Jeopardy theme song, etc.). I honestly feel like music is as much a part of baseball as stats are (and there are stats for EVERYTHING in baseball).

It’s always fun to see what song batters choose to come to the plate to. Since I grew up in Seattle, Ken Griffey, Jr. always had one of the best at-bat songs with Naughty by Nature’s ‘Hip Hop Hooray‘. The crowd would sway their arms in the air to the music every time Griffey came to the dish. I was a kid, so I always thought that was awesome. On the other hand, some at-bat songs never made much sense to me. Former Mariners catcher Joe Oliver came to the plate to the Baha Men’s ’Who Let The Dogs Out‘, while Dan Wilson strolled up to Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Whatta Man‘.

I’m also a huge fan of a closer’s entrance music. I was fortunate enough to see Mariano Rivera (the all-time saves leader) come into the game at old Yankee Stadium to Metallica’s ‘Enter Sandman‘. It was the one game I ever went to in the Bronx, and the crowd erupted the second the song came on. I honestly got chills — just like I’m sure the opposing batters did. I also got to see Jonathan Papelbon enter Fenway Park to ‘I’m Shipping Up to Boston‘ by the Dropkick Murphy’s. That was awesome, because all the Red Sox fans started singing along (much like they do with ‘Sweet Caroline‘ in the eighth inning). You also have to love Rick Vaughn entering to ‘Wild Thing‘ in the movie Major League. It’s classic!

I’ve often wondered what I would choose as my entrance song if I was a big league closer. I tend to lean on ’Back in Black’ by AC/DC. It’s pretty clichéd, but there’s a reason behind it. When I was a junior in college I took an online survey that revealed your theme song. I answered the 20 or so questions, and the answer popped up – ’Back in Black’. I’m sure that same result came up for thousands of people who took the same survey, but I’ve always stuck with that as my jam. I think you can hear why it would be a good entrance song:

If I had to choose a current day song to enter a game to, I would go with ‘Icky Thump‘ by the White Stripes. I’ve only heard it on the radio a couple of times, but both times I thought it would be a bad ass entrance song (yes, that’s how my brain actually works). If it can get me amped up in my car as I drive to work, it could easily get me revved up to close down a Major League Baseball game:

Who’s doesn’t want to strike some dudes after listening to that?!

At-bat songs and closer entrance music give us an inside look at the players we watch on the diamond. For example, Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak comes to the plate to country music — not stereotyping — but that’s very fitting for a guy from South Carolina. If you’ve met Smoak; you know that’s perfect for him. The music they choose is often very personal to them, and it can stick with them for a long time. Dan Wilson hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2005, but guess what they played when he walked onto the field for his induction into the Seattle Mariners Hall of Fame this year? You guessed it — ‘Whatta Man’.

I would love to know what song you would choose for your at-bat song/closer entrance music! You can share in the comment section below or you can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook and/or Google+. Don’t forget to also check out more of my take on sports and music right now on http://allaroundtim.com!

Carter Capps | Ready For His Major League Debut

Every little boy wants to be a professional athlete. I know I dreamed for hours upon hours of playing Major League Baseball. There was nothing more I wanted in life. Unfortunately, my dream never came true (I had to settle for the next best thing — being a sportscaster instead), but I’m fortunate enough to be around others — like Carter Capps – who are reaching their childhood goals.

Carter Capps Seattle Mariners Baseball

Me interviewing Carter Capps after he was called up
Courtesy: Geoff Baker

Capps is living a dream right now. The 21-year-old was just called up to the big leagues for the first time. Instead of being one of hundreds of minor leaguers in the Seattle Mariners system, the relief pitcher is now one of 25 players on the M’s big league roster — ready to make his Major League debut.

I was there when Capps stepped foot on Safeco Field for the first time.

“It’s a lot taller than I thought it was,” Capps told me as he looked around the ballpark with wide eyes. “There are a lot of seats. You don’t really appreciate that when you see it on TV, but it’s different when you’re here. It’s nice.”

It didn’t take Capps long to make it to Seattle. He was a third round draft pick last year out of Mount Olive College (a DII school) in North Carolina. He struggled with his control in four minor league outings last season, but quickly took off this year. Capps registered 19 saves and a 1.26 ERA in 38 games with the AA Jackson Generals before pitching one game (he struck out three of the four batters he faced) with AAA Tacoma. He’s now in the bigs – making him only the second player from the 2011 draft to earn a call to the majors (Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Trevor Bauer was the first).

“I thought someone was messing with me, but luckily they weren’t,” Capps said about his promotion to Seattle. “It’s definitely a blessing. I’m really happy about it.”

Capps is a boy among men. He honestly looks like he’s 12-years-old. That’s either a sign of my age own age (31) or it shows just how quickly the kid jolted through the system. No matter what he looks like, Capps is a hot commodity because he can fire a fastball 100 mph with some command. The only advice he’s received so far from his new teammates: “Pound the zone and don’t treat [the Major Leagues] different than any other level.”

“This is what you play for ever since you’re a little kid,” Capps told me. “It’s definitely a dream come true.”

The best part is — we get to be there every step of the way. Carter Capps’ Major League career is wide open. He could become the next Mariano Rivera, or he might be the next Bobby Ayala (Mariners fans understand the reference). I hope I look back on this post 25 years from now and Capps will be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame (nothing like throwing some pressure on the kid, right?), but only time will tell…

Until then, let’s just enjoy the ride with him.

UPDATE: Carter Capps made his Major League debut on August 3, 2012. He pitched against the New York Yankees — in Yankee Stadium (not the easiest of places to debut). Capps allowed two runs (both were scored after he was relieved by Oliver Perez) on one hit over one-third of an inning of work. He also recorded one walk and no strikeouts, but hit the 100 mph mark several times, including his very first pitch in the big leagues. Click here for video of Capps debut.

I would love to hear from you about everything baseball. You can leave a comment right here or connect with me on Twitter or Facebook. Your questions and comments are always welcome. Don’t forget to also check out more great sports coverage right now on http://allaroundtim.com!