The pandemic-impacted season of 2020 created a conundrum for the Mariners’ top Minor Leaguers, and quite possibly stalled Seattle’s rebuild. But if there was a positive, it’s that many of those very green players have received more big league exposure than they would have otherwise so soon after being drafted.
This came after they participated in Summer Camp at T-Mobile Park last year and at the alternate training site in Tacoma, Wash., where they weren’t playing against opposing teams but were immersed with the big league trainers and coaching staff. In a “normal” situation, they would’ve each been progressing through the lower-level Minors.
“It’s almost like your second year of playing almost in a sense, because you don't have to meet so many new people,” Hancock said recently at the Peoria Sports Complex. “You kind of feel familiar with the people that are already here. You don’t have to go through that whole process of meeting folks, and so now it just feels more comfortable.”
Hancock, Kirby and Williamson were unveiled on Friday as the Mariners’ No. 3, No. 5 and No. 10 prospects as part of MLB Pipeline’s rankings for the 2021 season. In part due to their potential, as well as the throng of young talent that is approaching MLB-ready, Seattle’s farm system was ranked No. 3 in all of baseball as well. Outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez are the headliners, but Seattle’s farm system is built far more heavily on pitching.
The three pitchers have since been reassigned to Minor League camp to ramp up for the start of their regular seasons, which won’t begin until at least May 6. So, where does that leave the trio in in their development?
Draft: First round, 2020 (No. 6 overall)
His situation: Hancock hasn’t played in a competitive game since his final start at the University of Georgia last March, and the most game-like work he got in Tacoma was just a few live batting practices. He has thrown a few bullpens in Spring Training, but that’s it. The Mariners are still learning a lot about the 21-year-old.
Hancock opted to go to Georgia instead of going pro out of high school, and the decision paid off massively. His four-pitch mix evolved rapidly, and he became the top pitcher in the SEC by his sophomore year. Georgia got off to a 14-2 start in 2020 before its season was shut down.
His ETA: Possibly late 2022, but most likely ‘23. Aside from the cancellation of the ‘20 Minor League season, Hancock threw only 24 innings at Georgia. At the most, he’ll reach Class A Advanced in ’21. And while his stuff might be among the best in the system, Hancock’s workload is far from Major League ready.
He said it: "It's just cool because everyone's got those different personalities. I mean, I know that every day since I've been here, I’ve gotten to throw with Williamson. Just to see his stuff, see how it plays out. This guy's legit. Same thing with Kirby. You get to see how they work, and most importantly, just get to know each other. It's sweet. It’s awesome.” -- Hancock on working with Kirby and Williamson
Draft: First round, 2019 (No. 20 overall)
His situation: Kirby, 23, is a little older and a little more polished, stuff-wise, than the other two. MLB Pipeline scouting reports said that the Elon University product had the best control of any pitcher in the Minors, and prospects with that type of command typically rise more quickly through the Minors. Kirby didn’t walk a single batter during his 23-inning, nine-outing pro debut in 2019 with Class A Short Season Everett. It wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to see him make a quick ascent to Double-A Arkansas in the early to middle leg of ’21.
His ETA: 2022. Kirby likely would’ve been headed to a Major League debut this year had he accumulated more innings last season, and it’s still possible that circumstances put him in position to reach Seattle -- such as a huge ascent through the Minors and the Mariners’ health this season. But given that Logan Gilbert, the club’s most prepared pitching prospect, won’t be up until later in ’21, Seattle will likely keep Kirby in the Minors.
He said it: “I'm happy I'm able to command my pitches the way I do. I’ve got to keep working on it. I can always get better. So just looking forward to getting back to playing again. It's awesome. Just the ability to put a pitch where you want it, it's fun to be able to do that and mix it up.” -- Kirby on his command
Draft: Second round, 2019 (No. 59 overall)
His situation: The 22-year-old Williamson is another year removed from surgery to repair the labrums in both hips, which were a concern for many teams ahead of the 2019 Draft. He has since given the Mariners the belief that they came away with a steal after he struck out 25 of 61 batters in his pro debut two summers ago.
The 6-foot-6 lefty has four pitches -- a fastball, curveball, changeup and an evolving cutter -- and relies heavily on his extension down the mound to create more deception. If he can continue to harness that diverse mix as he rises through the Minors, there’s a strong chance he remains a starter.
His ETA: 2023. Though Williamson has starter potential, Seattle still wants to see what Williamson will be long term, and that will require extended Minor League development over the next two seasons.
He said it: “I got some great innings up there against guys who were mixing in with the big leagues, up and down, seeing a higher level of competition. I think that definitely helped a lot. In the fall, it was more so getting my body right, not necessarily pitching. It was just getting all the bells and whistles cleaned up. And then, you know, get ready for the spring to do the same thing.” -- Williamson on pitching at the alternate training site