Viva La Vidro Presents: Baseball’s Breakout Stars of 2011.

Jhoulys Chacin (SP-Colorado Rockies): Although many observers consider Ubaldo Jimenez the “crown jewel” of the Colorado Rockies pitching staff another gem is emerging in the Mile High City who may shine even brighter than his All-Star teammate…that man is Jhouyls “of the Nile” Chacin. Lost in the midst of Jimenez’s stellar season and Charlie Sheen’s 47 84 109th trip to rehab, Chacin put together a solid 2010 campaign, posting a 9-11 record with a 3.28 ERA and 138 K’s in 137 innings (a strikeout rate higher than that of Jimenez). Still just 23, the native of Venezuela has plenty of room for growth and could see his ERA dip below three with improved control and some help from his defense. If Chacin gets better run support in 2011, he’s got a legitimate shot at a top five Cy Young finish…and that’s not just whistling Dixie.

Reid Brignac (SS-Tampa Bay Rays): Buried beneath a glut of middle infield talent in Tampa (Ben Zobrist, Jason Bartlett, Sean Rodriguez) former second round pick Reid Brignac hasn’t had the chance to flash his all-star level talent yet, but with Bartlett now in San Diego and Zobrist shifted to the outfield, 2011 will be the year that the Bayou Bomber finally takes center stage. Brignac managed to get 300+ plate appearances in a utility role last season, and while his plate discipline leaves something to be desired (77 K’s/20 BB’s), he showcased the power (8 HR’s, 13 2B’s, 45 RBI’s) that had the Rays thinking future star when they drafted him out of high school. With a retooled lineup (so long Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Matt Garza; hello Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon) hoping to stay afloat in the always competitive AL East, Tampa Bay will be counting on Brignac to produce big in 2011; the Cajun Crusher will prove that he is more than up to the challenge.

Jordan Zimmerman (SP-Washington Nationals): With Stephen Strasburg on the mend (which we all hope goes better than Barbaro’s “recovery”) the coveted title of Washington Nationals’ staff ace will be passed to Jordan Zimmerman for 2011 (unless John Lannan’s horse tranquilizers finally kick in). Zimmerman returned from Tommy John surgery in 2010 and while the results weren’t great (1-2, 4.94 ERA, 27 K’s in 31 innings) the fact that he showed no ill effects from the operation bodes well for his prospects in the coming year. The hard throwing right-hander breezed through the minor leagues (16-7, 2.60 ERA, 1.08 WHIP) and has the raw stuff (that phrase out of context would sound awful) to contend for a Cy Young award one day. Throw in the fact that a comparable pitcher returned from T.J. surgery and dominated the NL in his second year back (Josh Johnson) and the stars are aligned for Jordan Zimmerman to have a breakout year in 2011. You heard it here second.

Jay Bruce (OF-Cincinnati Reds): Joltin’ Jay Bruce ended 2010 with a bang, sending Cincinnati to the playoffs with a walk-off home run in the season’s waning weeks. The home run was a fitting finish to a superb second half for Bruce (.306-15 HR-34 RBI’s-.951 OPS) who appears ready to team up with Joey Votto to form a dynamic 1-2 punch in the middle of the Reds’ order. Bruce has some troubling home/road splits (19 HR’s at home vs. 6 on the road) but as long as he continues to play half his games at the Great American Ballpark (which is just a little hitter friendly) that should prove to be a moot point. The powerful left-hander is also a stellar fielder (he ranked fifth in the NL with a 1.6 defensive WAR) and if he plays as well in all of 2011 as he did in the second half of 2010, the Cincinnati Reds might just have back-to-back MVPs.

Michael Saunders (OF-Seattle Mariners): I can’t get away without plugging a hometown kid can I? Well, even if I could, I wouldn’t (the fact that I have a giant stash of his cards does not influence my decision whatsoever) because Michael “The Condor” Saunders is finally going to live up to his enormous potential in 2011. The young lefty got a chance to play everyday in 2010 and made dramatic improvements at the plate (most notably drawing more walks and hitting for more power) after struggling mightily in his brief call-up to Seattle in 2009. Saunders possesses all the physical tools to be an above-average fielder and hitter, and with the Mariners expecting him to produce this year, the Condor will deliver like Newman…large and in charge.

Stay tuned for a Seattle Mariners season preview coming soon!

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The Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear SPF 15: A Largely Uneducated Look at the Seattle Mariners’ Top Ten Prospects (Part II).

The cupboards aren’t bare but there isn’t much to look at. Here are the Mariners’ top five prospects according to Baseball America:

5. Guillermo Pimentel–OF–(.250-6 HR’s-31 RBI’s-5 SB’s-.276 OBP-.727 OPS): Guillermo Pimentel was signed out of the Dominican Republic in 2009 at the tender age of 16 for $2 million dollars (I made $7.56/hour at age 16 so I can certainly relate) and was considered by many scouts to be one of the best international bats available at the time. Pimentel has an advanced approach at the plate for a teenager and his compact swing and power potential gives him one of the highest ceilings of any Mariners’ prospect. Though he struggled in his first season of pro ball (58 K’s/5 walks) Pimentel just turned 18 and has plenty of time to develop into a top-tier hitter for the Mariners. He doesn’t project to be any better than average defensively, but if his bat is as good as advertised, Pimentel could become the middle of the order threat that has long been absent from Seattle.  

4. Taijuan Walker–SP–(1 win-1.29 ERA-9 K’s/3 BB’s-0.74 WHIP): The Mariners’ lone first round pick in 2010 (43rd overall), Taijuan Walker is a live-armed 6’5″ pitcher out of Yucaipa High School in California. Walker pitched sparingly until his senior year of high school (where he was also a star in basketball, averaging 21 points and 15 rebounds per game) but his plus fastball and developing curveball could one day vault him to the front of Seattle’s rotation. The tall right-hander has a smooth delivery and the potential to add more velocity as he fills out his frame. Walker is still quite a few years away from the majors, but in the mean time, he gives the Mariners a sizable advantage in pickup basketball games. Finally, something they can win…

3. Nick Franklin–SS–(.283-23 HR’s-65 RBI’s-25 SB’s-.354 OBP-.841 OPS): A first round pick out of high school in 2009, Nick Franklin burst onto the scene last year with a 20 HR/20 SB season in the pitcher friendly Midwest League (it was the third most HR’s ever by a teenager in the MWL). Franklin is a well-balanced player with above-average skills across the board who could continue to develop more power at the plate as he fills out his lean 6’1″ frame. The confident almost cocky Franklin is a natural leader with a high baseball I.Q. and intangibles reminiscent of Derek Jeter. If Franklin can stick at shortstop he could be in Seattle as soon as 2012,= with an outside shot at a September call-up this season. The Mariners left many baseball experts scratching their heads when they selected Franklin in the first round back in 2009; now the same experts are wondering how so many other teams missed the boat on a future all-star.

2. Michael Pineda–SP–(11 wins-3.36 ERA-154 K’s/34 BB’s-1.11 WHIP): Largely unheralded coming into the 2010 season Michael Pineda ended the year as one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball. Signed out of the Dominican Republic at age 17, Pineda has progressed steadily through the Mariners’ system, posting high strikeout totals while maintaining a low walk rate. The tall, slender righty has an advanced repertoire consisting of a mid-to-high 90’s fastball, slider, cutter and changeup. There are some concerns about the health of Pineda’s elbow (he was limited to just 47 innings in 2009) which leads some scouts to believe that his future may be as a closer, although the Mariners intend to keep him as a starter for as long as possible. Pineda could likely do with some more seasoning in Triple-A, but unless you know something I don’t about Jamey Wright, he’ll likely start the year as Seattle’s fifth starter. There will be some ups and downs for Pineda in 2011, but the kid has got some serious talent, and will be a star by the time I learn how to properly use commas.

1. Dustin Ackley–2B–(.267-7 HR’s-51 RBI’s-10 SB’s-.368 OBP-.775 OPS): Owner of the sweetest swing in minor league baseball Dustin Ackley looks poised to step out of Stephen Strasburg’s shadow (though not a night goes by where I don’t dream of a King Felix/Strasburg starting rotation) and into MLB’s spotlight in 2011. Though his first year in the minors proved to be a bit rocky, Ackley showed marked improvement throughout the season, capped off by an amazing performance in the Arizona Fall League (.424-4 HR’s-19 RBI’s-5 SB’s-1.338 OPS in 66 at-bats for the Peoria Javelinas). Ackley was rated by B.A. as having the best speed and contact skills in the M’s organization and if his doubles continue to turn into home runs he has the all tools to become a perennial 20-20 player for the Mariners (see Chase Utley Lite–all the great flavor, none of the guilt). The Mariners’ second baseman of the future likely won’t start the year in Seattle in order to delay his service clock (giving the M’s an extra year of team control) but Ackley should be in the Emerald City by the end of May or beginning of June…just in time for the team to be eliminated from the playoffs.

So there’s that…

The Future’s So Bright I’ve Got to Wear SPF 15: A Largely Uneducated Look at the Seattle Mariners’ Top Ten Prospects (Part 1).

Dan Cortes knows karate, Latin and how to throw gas.

When Bill Bavasi left Seattle the Mariners’ farm system was thinner than the spread at Oliver Twist’s orphanage. After years of bad drafting (Jeff Clement over Ryan Braun and Troy Tulowitzki) and even worse trades (that whole Erik Bedard thing) the Mariners were devoid of talent at both the major and minor league levels. With the arrival of Jack Zduriencik as general manager the organization has worked tirelessly to restock their farm system, and though there is still quite a bit of catching up to do, the Mariners finally have some players capable of making a positive impact at the major league level. Without further ado, here’s a look at Seattle’s top 10 prospects for 2011:

10. Dan Cortes–RP–(9 wins-5.23 ERA-98 K’s/57 BB’s-1.53 WHIP): Dan Cortes was traded to Seattle from Kansas City for Yuniesky Betancourt in one of the best deals of the Zduriencik tenure, and since the organization moved him from starter to reliever, Cortes has been on the fast track to the bigs. Cortes got a cup of coffee (cream, no sugar) with Seattle in 2010 and though he continues to struggle with command his triple digit fastball has many penciling in Cortes as the Mariners’ closer of the future. He’ll likely start the year pitching in the 7th and 8th innings but with David Aardsma on his way out it won’t be long before Cortes will be closing out wins for the M’s…even if that’s only once a week or so.

9. Kyle Seager–2B/3B–(.345-14 HR’s-74 RBI’s-13 SB’s-.419 OBP-.921 OPS): A teammate of fellow Top 10 prospect Dustin Ackley at North Carolina, Kyle “The Silver Bullet” Seager enjoyed a breakout season in 2010, posting a stellar .921 OPS in 557 AB’s at Single-A High Desert (the whole league is a hitter’s haven, so take his numbers with a grain of salt). Seager is an extremely patient hitter (a trait long absent from the Mariners’ lineup) but he’s blocked in the organization at second base by Ackley and his lack of power doesn’t play well at third base. He’s an intriguing prospect for a talent starved organization, but unless his slugging improves or he shifts to shortstop, Seager is likely headed for a role as a utility man with a solid left-handed bat off the bench.

8. Marcus Littlewood–SS–(N/A): Despite the difficulty of growing up with a last name tailor-made for teasing (one can imagine it didn’t make things easy with the ladies either) Marcus Littlewood proved worthy of the challenge, playing for Team USA in high school before being drafted by the Mariners in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. The switch-hitting shortstop out of Florida was rated as one of the best defensive players in the draft but there are concerns that his lack of foot speed will eventually move Littlewood to the hot corner. At the plate he flashes good bat speed but limited pop, although some scouts feel that Littlewood will add power as he continues to grow. Littlewood is talented enough defensively that he’ll eventually be a utility man in the Majors but the development of his bat will determine whether or not he becomes a full-time player.

7. Johermyn Chavez–OF–(.315-32 HR’s-96 RBI’s-.387 OBP-.964 OPS): The lesser known piece of the Brandon Morrow for Brandon League swap (slaps forehead) Chavez is now the only hope of the Mariners have of avoiding another embarrassing and lopsided trade that drives them deeper into the AL West cellar (there’s a strong chance they’ll finish 5th in a four team division next season). Tabbed by B.A. as having the best power and best outfield arm in the system, Chavez had a monster season at the plate in 2010, slugging 32 longballs and chipping in 96 RBI’s. However, Chavez did play at one of the most hitter-friendly parks in all of minor league baseball and his 52/131 walk-to-strikeout ratio raises some red flags about his ability to adjust to off-speed pitching. At this point, Chavez looks like the rich man’s version of Greg Halman, and he’ll have to continue to develop his strike zone discipline if he wants to be a major part of the Mariners’ plans moving forward.

6. Mauricio Robles–SP–(9 wins-3.99 ERA-154 K’s/71 BB’s-1.35 WHIP): Mauricio Robles came to Seattle via the Jarrod Washburn trade and has quickly developed into the team’s top left-handed pitching prospect (he’s got a framed certificate in his den to prove it). Though Robles is listed at just 5’9″ he’s one of the hardest throwing pitchers in the organization with a fastball topping out in the mid-to-high 90’s and an emerging changeup and curveball. Robles clearly has the stuff to get hitters out (9.8 K’s/9 innings in 2010) but his lack of control (4.5 walks/9 innings) may eventually force a shift to the bullpen. Regardless of where the organization feels Robles fits best, the young fireballer has a shot to join the big league club in 2011, and could become the shutdown lefty that the Mariners have been without since Arthur Rhodes and his bling left town.

Stay tuned for the Mariners’ Top 5 prospects coming soon!