SEATTLE -- The obvious choice -- and most likely route -- for the Mariners' first-round pick in Wednesday's Draft would be to select a college pitcher like Georgia standout Emerson Hancock and add to their growing collection of prospect arms.
You can never get enough pitching, as Mariners scouting director Scott Hunter readily acknowledges, and this year’s Draft features an abundance of top-level hurlers. With the sixth overall pick, Seattle will clearly have a shot at an elite college arm like Hancock or fellow right-hander Max Meyer out of Minnesota, as well as Louisville’s Reid Detmers should they prefer a lefty.
And, yet, don’t be surprised if the Mariners take a different path should the cards -- or Draft picks -- play out in the right way above them, meaning New Mexico State second baseman Nick Gonzales is still available.
As stocked as they are in young outfield and pitching prospects, the Mariners remain thin as far as middle infield help in the pipeline. Shed Long Jr. stands as the second baseman in waiting, destined to get the full-time shot there. At 24, he could be a long-time fixture at second.
But Long has just 42 games and 152 at-bats in the Majors -- 22 more at-bats than the cutoff for rookie status -- and with Dee Gordon’s contract running out at the end of the year (with a team option for 2021), there’s precious little depth at second base.
But other than No. 24-ranked prospect Donovan Walton -- a 26-year-old who projects more as a utility-type infielder -- Marte is the only middle infielder in the Mariners’ Top 30 Prospects list, and there’s some thought he could eventually grow into a third baseman as he matures.
So if a middle infielder projects as the top available talent when the Mariners make their first pick, it certainly would make sense for Seattle to go that route. And Gonzales -- by all accounts -- is one of the best hitters in the Draft, with outstanding bat control and surprising power for a 5-foot-10, 190-pounder.
While some questioned Gonzales’ eye-popping numbers at New Mexico State -- which plays at high altitude and isn’t in a big-time conference -- he answered those by winning MVP honors in the summer Cape Cod Baseball League playing against elite college pitching.
This all becomes moot if someone above the Mariners nabs Gonzales and, indeed, the Royals are believed to be intrigued with the No. 4 pick. But Kansas City selected two middle infielders with its top two picks last year, and it’s reasonable to wonder if the Royals will look elsewhere this time around.
If they do, Seattle suddenly has an interesting choice. And the strength of this year’s college class could actually sway the Mariners to pass on pitching at first since they could still land a premium arm with their second-round selection (No. 43 overall) as well as later shots with the Nos. 64 and 78 picks.
“It’s one of the best college pitching years that I've been involved with, and I've talked to some veteran guys that say it's probably the deepest they've seen in a long time,” Hunter, the club's scouting director, said. “Picking so high, we've narrowed it down to a select group of arms that we feel fit that area of the Draft, but it wouldn't shock me if with our second or third pick we’re staring at a really good college arm that we thought could have gone a lot higher.”
It’s worth noting that last year the Mariners snagged college pitchers with each of their top five picks. Two of those -- lefty Brandon Williamson and righty Isaiah Campbell -- went in that second-round range. Williamson was the 59th overall pick out of Texas Christian and Campbell was a Comp B selection (76th overall) out of Arkansas.
Though they haven’t gotten the publicity of first-rounders Gilbert and Kirby, both those 22-year-olds are regarded among Seattle’s rising prospects, Williamson at No. 11 and Campbell at No. 12, which is just ahead of Sheffield at No. 13.
Given the uncertain nature of prospect development, adding to that crop of top candidates remains essential. The Mariners need to hit big on several of their elite pitching prospects -- and the more candidates, the better their odds.
So keep an eye on Wednesday’s first round. And if things fall right, just maybe the Mariners come away with an intriguing bat to balance their recent run of arms.