Mariners Prospects: Baseball America’s Glaser details Seattle’s top arms

Jan 17, 2022, 12:20 PM
Mariners general hat glove...
A glove sits in the Mariners dugout before a game in Anaheim, Calif., in September 2021. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)
(Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

Not only are the Mariners entering the 2022 season coming off their first 90-win campaign in 18 years, but they also have an extremely bright long-term future thanks to one of the league’s top farm systems.

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Since starting a rebuild after the 2018 season, the Mariners’ farm system that had been ranked dead last in baseball has routinely been ranked in the game’s top two or three.

The headliner may be Julio Rodríguez, a very toolsy prospect with outrageous offensive upside who finished 2021 in Double-A and is expected to make his MLB debut in 2022. But there’s a lot more to this system than the talented young outfielder.

Related: Mariners’ Julio Rodríguez can be one of the faces of MLB

Kyle Glaser, a national writer for Baseball America, discussed the Mariners’ farm system with 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake and Stacy last Thursday, and when the topic of Seattle’s biggest prospect strength came up, he actually pointed to the mound.

“With the Mariners’ system, you talk to the evaluators, they say Julio Rodríguez is a future superstar, but the strength of this system positionally is the pitcher,” he said. “There’s just so many really, really good arms that a lot of scouts think very, very highly of, and George Kirby is at the top of this list.”

Kirby was the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2019 out of Elon University. Since joining the organization, Kirby has continued to grow and is now considered to be one of the best prospects in baseball, ending the 2021 season as Baseball America’s 12th-best prospect and the publication’s third-rated pitcher.

A right-hander who is well known for his elite control, Kirby went 5-3 with a 2.53 ERA in 15 starts between High-A and Double-A last year, striking out 80 and walking just 15 in 67 2/3 innings.

“When they drafted him, he was a guy that was sort of an elite control guy whose stuff was just average,” Glaser said. “And the Mariners have helped him get a little bit stronger, progressively add velocity. It’s kind of the same general idea what Cleveland did with Shane Bieber.”

Bieber, a fourth-round pick by Cleveland in 2016, has blossomed into a perennial All-Star and won the American League Cy Young Award in 2020.

“Kirby has just added 5-7 mph of velocity, his breaking stuff has gotten sharper with more movement, and he’s done it all without sacrificing his control,” Glaser said. “A lot of times we see guys add power and sacrifice a little bit of control to do so. All of a sudden we’re looking at a guy (in Kirby) who’s 95-99 (mph) with a really, really good, sharp slider, two other secondary pitches that are pretty good – and oh, by the way, can paint the strike zone wherever he wants. Again, those (kinds of pitchers) are very, very rare.”

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But Kirby isn’t the only young pitcher in the Mariners organization with a lot of promise. While Logan Gilbert is no longer a prospect after pitching 119 1/3 innings as a Mariners rookie in 2021, he is someone who Glaser thinks highly of, as well. Even with as good as Gilbert was last season and his long-term projection, though, Kirby has that much more potential, Glaser said.

“We’ve had Logan Gilbert considered very, very highly for a number of years,” Glaser said. “But if you go back and read the reports, (his projection) was always a really good No. 3 starter, which is a great outcome. Every team needs that. So him being a mid-rotation starter, it would be right on par with expectations from evaluators and professionals who do this.

“George Kirby has a chance to be a No. 1 starter. Now, again, No. 1 starters are very, very rare, and that assumes full health, that assumes continued progression. But even if he’s a No. 2, that’s really, really good. We have him as a No. 2 with Logan Gilbert as No. 3 and the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray in there as well. That could be a really, really good top three and a playoff-caliber top three if everyone stays healthy and reaches their potential.”

A deeper dive into Mariners’ pitching prospect depth

Even with Gilbert already in the major league rotation and Kirby’s high ceiling, they are just two of several promising young arms the Mariners are developing. Three more highly-ranked pitching prospects are knocking on the MLB door: 2020 first-round pick Emerson Hancock, 2019 second-round pick Brandon Williamson, and Matt Brash, who was one of the more surprising prospects in baseball in 2021.

How do those three stack up against one another?

“In terms of Hancock, he’s a bigger name, but the better pitching prospect and someone we have ranked higher at Baseball America is actually Brandon Williamson, who was a second-rounder out of Texas Christian a few years ago,” Glaser said. “He’s a 6-foot-6 lefty who struck out well above 14 per nine (innings) while reaching Double-A last year. He’s actually the guy who’s the better starting pitching prospect right now.”

Hancock, a right-hander, was the No. 6 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft after a standout collegiate career at Georgia. Glaser said he has a “very good pedigree” and is a big name, but injuries to his shoulder in 2021 along with his overall results during his first full professional season have evaluators less optimistic about his future.

“When he was on the mound, evaluators were much more lukewarm about him,” Glaser said. “He used to be kind of a polished delivery guy who had good velocity, but he started just trying to throw really, really hard last year and lost some of that polish in that delivery and that control. Most evaluators actually see him as a future reliever given the health and just kind of the way his delivery works now. So Brandon Williamson is actually the other starter to consider here more than Emerson Hancock.”

Now how about Brash?

“He is the wild card,” Glaser said. “He is ranked higher than both Williamson and Emerson Hancock. This was one of the breakout prospects of the minor leagues last year.”

Brash, a 2019 fourth-round pick who Seattle acquired from the San Diego Padres as a player to be named later in a 2020 deadline deal involving reliever Taylor Williams, shined in his first full season in the Mariners’ system. In 97 1/3 innings between High-A and Double-A, Brash posted a 2.31 ERA, struck out 142 batters and walked 48 in 20 games, 19 of which were starts.

Brash was actually a late September call up to the Mariners and joined the bullpen last season, but he didn’t make his MLB debut before the season ended.

“What was really impressive about him is everything just got better and better as the year went on,” Glaser said. “Earlier in the year up at (Single-A) Everett, you start getting some buzz of hey, it’s a good mid-90s fastball with a plus slider and there’s something here. And then you check in the middle of the year and it’s like he’s more starting to reach the upper-90s and that slider might be a plus-plus pitch, which is the second-highest grade possible. By the end of the year at Double-A Arkansas, his fastball was touching 99 and his slider was getting the highest possible grade on the baseball scouting scale and his control got better, too. So all of a sudden by the end of the year, this is someone people were considering to be an elite pitching prospect in the game.”

Glaser noted that Brash has a history of shoulder issues, his delivery isn’t smooth and his control needs improvement, so it’s unclear if his long-term future is as a starter or reliever.

“But even if he’s a reliever, there’s a sense he could be a dominant, lights-out closer, which again, there’s a tremendous amount of value there. So either way, he’s another great arm in the Mariners system. It’s just a matter of what role will he play in Seattle,” Glaser said.

Listen to Glaser’s full discussion with Jake Heaps and Stacy Rost in the podcast at this link or in the player below.

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Mariners Prospects: Baseball America’s Glaser details Seattle’s top arms