Seattle's vaunted "Big Three" pitching prospects of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker became the "Big Four" -- adding in Brandon Maurer -- during the 2012 season. Those four represented the best the organization had to offer as far as pitching prospects go, and the group spent much of 2012 and 2013 pitching together at the same level. Three of those pitchers ended up making their MLB debuts with the Mariners in 2013, and Walker and Paxton seem to be in line for spots in the 2014 starting rotation. Hultzen had shoulder surgery and will miss the 2014 season while Maurer is still working on refining his approach against left-handed hitters, but he still could find a spot on Seattle's 25-man roster at some point during the upcoming year.
With that group all but graduated from prospect status, the eyes of the prospect world have turned to the lower levels of the Mariners' system in search for the next wave of top pitching prospects in the organization.
17-year-old Luiz Gohara, 18-year-old Victor Sanchez and 19-year-olds Edwin Diaz and Tyler Pike make up the next "Big Four" for Seattle. Two left-handers and two right-handers, all boasting a combination of stuff, polish and poise that really makes them stand out among their peers, even when their peers are almost always years older than the pitchers themselves. These four teenage arms represent the best that the Mariners have to offer in the pitching prospect department, and the group is among the best in all of baseball. They've combined to make 96 starts and sport a collective 2.61 ERA, 1.13 WHIP while allowing fewer than seven hits-per-inning in their 469 innings.
Gohara was the youngest player in affiliated stateside baseball in 2013 by 21 days, having just turned 17 on July 31st. The left-hander signed out of Brazil last August just after his 16th birthday made his highly anticipated, albeit brief, professional pitching debut for the Pulaski Mariners of the Appalachian League. Considering the buzz and the early reports that I had on him, it is really quite impressive that Gohara didn't disappoint. The 6-foot-3, 220 pound southpaw made six starts over a month's time, striking out better than a batter an inning in four of those and allowing more than two earned runs just once. He was shut down with some arm tenderness at the end of July for precautionary reasons, ending his first pro season with one win, a 4.15 ERA, 2.83 FIP, 11.2 SO/9, a 27.6% K%, a 3.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a .642 OPS against. His groundball percentage (63.3%) was the fourth best mark in the league of pitchers with 20 or more innings and he allowed two extra base hits and only one home run to the 98 batters he faced.
I was told that his fastball touched 94 with regularity and showed a lot of life in his six outings and that he flashed a plus curveball and slider at times with feel for a changeup that showed good fade. Despite his size and relative inexperience, Gohara has solid mechanics, utilizing an easy delivery that he repeats well, firing from a three-quarters release. If there is a complaint in his prospect profile at all it starts with his body, but that goes back to the age. He’s already so big, with two different M’s staffers dropping “mini-C.C. Sabathia” lines on me regarding his build over the last year. Projecting what a 17-year-old athlete will look like in four to five years isn’t easy even if they show top notch athleticism and physicality, doing so with one who has a less than ideal body is even harder. But if Gohara can stay healthy and stay fit as he moves up the minor league ladder then he has the potential to be one of the better pitching prospects in the minor leagues in a relatively short time.
Sanchez -- in his second year pitching in Seattle's organization -- was the fourth youngest player in the Midwest League and the eighth youngest player at A or High-A ball in 2013, pitching the entire year at just 18. Improving over what was a very impressive debut with Everett in 2012, Sanchez ranked fourth in the league in WHIP (1.09) and ERA (2.78) and fifth in FIP (2.87) while walking the fourth fewest hitters-per-nine of all pitchers who tallied 100 or more innings on the year. He also allowed just 0.32 HR/9 (4 total HR) and a .238 opponent's average despite not overpowering in the strikeout department (6.27 SO/9). He actually struck out more than five in a game in just three of his 20 starts on the season, but he still turned in quality starts (6+ innings, 3 ER or less) in 17 of those 20 games. His worst statistical start was on July 5th, when he allowed four runs on seven hits with no walks. That marked just the fourth time in 35 career starts that he allowed more than three earned runs in a game. The huge (6-foot, 255 lbs) right-hander has been lauded for his advanced feel for pitching since the day his name first surfaced and that feel was evident all season, but never more so than in his no-hitter on July 17th. He struck out eight and needed just 2 hours and 1 minute and 95 pitches to dispatch of Lansing that night in a game that he was always in complete control of.
"As an observer and just a fan of the game, it is very fun to watch him pitch. He's a really special player," said one AL East scout who I spoke with about Sanchez and other LumberKings during the season shortly after that start. His strikeout numbers aren't eye-popping and his velocity is usually right around 90-92, and when you pair that with his physique and the lack of physical projection left for him, some back off on Sanchez's future. But his four pitch mix features a plus changeup that rarely sees a hitter get good wood on it and Victor's command of all quadrants of the strike zone and his understanding of sequencing and setting hitters up is very unique for a player his age. "He's a very unique talent," that scout told me, "he isn't going to follow that normal path. He gives the organization an opportunity to do something outside the box."
The less-hyped of an ultra-hyped pitching duo (with Gohara) when the season started in Pulaski, Diaz quickly took the headliner's role and showed that he had made huge strides from his bumpy 2012 debut, riding improved fastball command all the way to recognition as the Appalachian League Pitcher of the Year. His very strong August earned him a spot on the SeattleClubhouse M's MiLB Players of the Month list, and while he wasn't our choice for best right-handed starter in the system in 2013, he wasn't far off. The wiry right-hander led the league in ERA (1.43) and strikeouts (79) and was second in WHIP (0.91) while posting the eighth best strikeout-to-walk-ratio (4.39) in the league and authoring a FIP (2.81) that was fifth best in the M's organization among stateside arms. The most obvious statistical improvement for Diaz was the fact that he walked only one more batter (18 to 17) in '13 than he did in '12 despite throwing 50 more innings (69 to 19). He's now allowed only 57 hits in his 88 combined pro innings and the righty hurler has shown that he can hold both left-handed hitters (.165/.274/.313) and right-handed hitters (.197/.294/.314) down at the plate. He had as many or more strikeouts than innings in nine of his 13 starts in 2013 and allowed more than two earned runs (allowing three) in only one of those 13 starts. Diaz and Sanchez actually had identical strikeout-to-walk-ratios and identical strikeout totals, but Edwin did it in 44 1/3 fewer innings, striking out better than four more hitters per nine innings than Victor.
Diaz -- Seattle's 3rd round pick in 2012 -- is still paper thin, but he stayed healthy all year for Pulaski with a heavy starter's workload for the Appy League. Despite his slight stature, Diaz has a big arm, with a fastball that works routinely at 94-96 thanks to some tremendous arm action. He also has a big slider that gets a lot of swings-and-misses, and his changeup improved dramatically between 2012 and 2013. Diaz's cousin, Jose Melendez, pitched in the Major Leagues for the Mariners and two other franchises from 1990 - 1994, logging 220 2/3 innings of pretty strong relief. Diaz, "gets in the zone when he's on the mound," as Everett pitching coach Rich Dorman (who saw him in instructs) told me, and he could have a floor similar to that of his cousin as a reliever if the secondary offerings don't progress much more from here. But right now Diaz is obviously being given every chance to continue to work as a starter as he climbs through Seattle's system.
Pike -- the oldest of this group of teenagers, as he only has a month left before turning 20 -- built on his strong 2012 debut by posting very similar rate numbers in 2013 at a much higher level of competition with double the number of starts. He ranked second in the Midwest League in ERA (2.37) and 10th in WHIP (1.18) while allowing just 6.0 hits-per-nine for the second straight year. He allowed more than three earned runs just twice -- allowing four both times -- and he led his league in batting average allowed, holding opposing hitters to a .189 mark. Pike has allowed zero or one earned run in a remarkable 19 of his 33 professional starts so far. Like the others on this list, the left-hander has an advanced feel for pitching for his age. Even though his walk numbers have been a bit high, Pike has shown an ability to completely command a game, often working hitters in a way that leads to bad swings and over aggressive at bats, letting him get weak contact.
"He has already learned to command on the outside corner very well," said that scout also quoted above. He continued, "Everything away. And when he gets those calls, he'll work it a little bit more away, and a little more, and end up getting guys to chase." That understanding of pitching has let Pike post some incredibly impressive numbers despite not really having an overpowering arsenal at his disposal. He's usually 88-91 with his fastball, but his changeup is his best pitch and he'll throw it in any count to hitters on both sides of the plate. Hitters have to guard against that pitch, and that makes his fastball and breaking ball really play up. The ability to mix his stuff and expand the zone has helped Tyler to keep right-handers at bay, as they've hit just .180/.290/.257 in 476 plate apperances off of Pike to date. As his breaking ball gets more consistent and his fastball adds some velocity, left-handers will likely have an increasingly difficult time against him, too. Pike has very good mechanics that he repeats well, great arm action and a perfect pitcher's frame. As such, it's easy to look at him and dream on the projection of what he can become in the next few years.
Seattle has been turning out a lot of quality pitching prospects over the past several years, and this group of four teenagers figure to be at the forefront of the system's arms in 2014 and beyond as they climb towards the big leagues for the Mariners as the new "Big Four".
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