Mariners' pipeline brimming with budding bats

May 10th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer’s Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

SEATTLE -- Nearly all of the chatter surrounding the Mariners’ farm system in Spring Training centered around a talented and touted group of hitters that could come to define the next position-player nucleus in Seattle. Yet their most prominent bats were coming off a year spent in the low Minor Leagues.

That’s what could make 2024 such a pivotal year in the Mariners' player development, particularly if a few players can make a big leap.

After nearly a month of game action, Mariners Minor League hitting coordinator CJ Gillman discussed the latest about the group he oversees. Here are highlights of one hitter at each of Seattle’s Minor League affiliates:

At Single-A Modesto, Caleb Cali was the Mariners' Minor League hitter of the Month and the California League Player of the Month for April after leading the league in batting average (.404) and slugging percentage (.649), ranking second in OPS (1.156) and third in on-base percentage (.507). The 2023 16th-round Draft pick out of the University of Arkansas is not ranked among the team’s Top 30 prospects by MLB Pipeline. What’s his makeup like?

Gillman: “Exactly what you would want as a hitter, just very calm. He works his [butt] off, but just takes things as they come. I was down [in Modesto] two weeks ago, and it was three or four balls that were crushed that outfielders caught. And he came into the dugout and was like, 'Yeah, you've got to pay your taxes.' And I'm like, 'That's pretty mature for a kid in Low-A baseball.' ... He's older [age 23], but it's an obvious level of maturity.”

At High-A Everett, third baseman (Mariners' No. 15 prospect) leads the Northwest League in hits (35) and RBIs (21) and ranks third in slugging percentage (.459). What are you most excited about with his potential?

Gillman: “When you hear about guys getting to the big leagues that really have this combination of intelligence and self improvement, the [Mitch] Haniger types where all you hear about is how he preps, and all you hear about is how it's playing out on the field over their career type of thing. I'm not comparing him as a player [to Haniger], their game or anything like that, but just the makeup and sort of the awareness of what is important and what isn't, and then focusing on that and being diligent enough to actually go out there and do it 150 days in a row. That's who this guy is, and then when you pair a good swing and physical strength with that, you get what we're seeing.”

At Double-A Arkansas, corner infielder (No. 8 prospect) has seemingly adjusted to pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stephens Park. He has a .510 slugging percentage in 14 home games. How important is the no-fear approach in a venue like that, especially given how much T-Mobile Park can suppress offense once players get to the Majors? Also, how’s his defensive progression?

Gillman: “That's exactly it. Our players are aware of that. We try to not make it hyper-awareness because it just doesn't do anybody any good. But basically just helping them to understand, 'Hey, we're all playing the same game here.’ ... That, to me, is one of those superpowers that people just don't really talk about. ... He had a lot more room to improve defensively than he did offensively. But he stacks a good brick every day offensively and he stacks a good brick every day defensively. He really gets that he's playing the long game here.”

At Triple-A Tacoma, catcher (No. 23 prospect) doesn’t have the clearest path to the Majors, given that Cal Raleigh has been a stalwart and Seby Zavala is out of Minor League options. But is he continuing to tap into the power he showed before a January trade with the Rays and the plus glove he’s been touted with?

Gillman: “The biggest thing for a guy like that is you make your money defensively. You're a catcher, and it doesn't mean the offense doesn't matter. But it does mean that it has to be a certain level of dependability. You just can never be a zero and can't be an auto-out. And I think for him, finding that sort of balance. ... He's doing it without giving away at-bats, which for me is the most important piece -- just seeing the whole player, the whole picture. I've been really happy with Blake.”