Ford leading next wave of Mariners into Emerald City

March 14th, 2023

PEORIA, Ariz. -- If Justin Toole is overwhelmed by the task at hand, it doesn’t show.

That’s not to say he doesn’t appreciate the position he’s in, just hired by the Mariners to be their farm director last December, attending his first Spring Training. The former Cleveland Guardians hitting analyst understands the learning curve and is catching up as quickly as he can. One thing he’s thankful for right out the gate: The Mariners are an organization that has all players with names on the backs of their jerseys.

“I’m definitely grateful for that,” Toole said with a smile.

After spending the offseason looking at numbers and information on paper, he’s thrilled to be in camp seeing the living, breathing versions of the data he pored over to try and prepare, like a college student cramming for a final.

“It definitely takes some time,” Toole said about getting up to speed. “There are a ton of players, a ton of staff, a ton of people, creating new relationships and things like that. Getting to know the players has been great, now being able to put names and faces and performances together has been great.”

While Toole is obviously tasked with knowing the entire system, he does have a hitting background. And as much as the Mariners have gotten in a good groove of developing young pitching talent, there are some very exciting position players at and near the top of their new Top 30 list, with two recent high school draftees leading the way.

First on that list is Harry Ford, the club’s top pick in 2021. He already made a good impression in big league camp, going 2-for-3 before heading to represent Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic. He’s coming off a first full season that saw him turn it on in the second half with the chance for him to really take off in 2023.

“His composure has been great in his first Major League camp,” Toole said. “If he's ever been sped up, you can't really tell, just the way he's been able to handle himself. We are definitely really excited about kind of the second half he had last year. Hopefully, he’ll continue to build on that.”

Cole Young, the Mariners’ No. 3 prospect, was their first-round pick last year. He’s not in big league camp, but he’s been in Arizona for a while getting ready for his first full season.

“He’s excited to be out here,” Toole said. “He’s a guy who loves to play the game, he’s a good defender, has a good swing. We’re really excited about both of those guys. And I think it’s just a matter of getting them reps and kind of letting them go and flourish in that type of environment.”

One thing that makes the environment better from a development standpoint is that the big league roster is pretty set. Not that Ford or Young would enter into the Seattle picture yet anyway, but there’s no reason to have to think about rushing anyone when things appear to be in good shape at the top.

“I think we're in a good spot where our Major League team is stable, we've got a good situation there,” Toole said. “It's definitely exciting anytime that you can get a young talented high school player in and feel like you have time to really sit down and develop them and not feel like you have to rush them.”

Camp standout: Prelander Berroa

With all the talk about young pitching in the big leagues and coming up, most of the prospect talk centers around Top 100 prospect Bryce Miller, Emerson Hancock, maybe even Taylor Dollard -- all in the top 10. But No. 14 prospect Prelander Berroa is making sure he’s included in the conversation as well. The right-hander got dealt to the Mariners from the Giants last year and pitched his way to Double-A. He struck out 13.4 per nine, but also walked 5.6. His stuff all plays, led by a fastball that touches triple digits. In big league camp, Berroa has been lights out, allowing just one hit and two walks over his first four shutout innings with five strikeouts.

“The velo is obviously there,” Toole said. “The command is what separates him. When he's able to command his pitches and throw them where he wants to, he's obviously put himself in a really good spot. So I think the biggest thing is probably getting ahead for him with this command. And he's done that so far in camp and I think that's something that's really jumped out.”

Breakout candidate: Lazaro Montes

Montes was one of the best prospects in the 2022 international signing period and got paid accordingly, receiving a $2.5 million bonus to join the Mariners. He established his power-hitting bona fides right out of the gate. Yes, the Dominican Summer League is hitting-friendly, but hitting 10 homers and slugging .585 in his debut certainly was putting a good first foot forward, even if he needs to cut down on the swing-and-miss rate as he moves forward. Now that the teenager will be stateside, he has the chance to jump onto a lot more prospect radars.

“I think the biggest thing is him to keep tapping into that power,” Toole said. “He's put some good swings on some pitches here, whether it's live BPs or off the machine. Obviously, it’s early, but we're excited about it.

“He's also a kid that's got a great attitude. He's the type of guy that a lot of his teammates gravitate towards, because he's got a big, fun personality.”

Something to prove: Emerson Hancock

In some ways, it feels like Hancock has been in the system for a really long time because things haven’t gone exactly as planned. In truth, it was only 2020 that he was the No. 6 pick in the Draft and he’s still only 23. Injuries have slowed him, with a shoulder issue limiting him to just 44 2/3 innings and a lat injury delaying the start to his 2022 season. He’s not throwing quite as hard as he did early in his Georgia days, but he showed signs last year, and early this spring, that he’s ready to knock on the big league door and prove he was worthy of such an early pick.

“He’s thrown really well and I know the group was excited about that,” Toole said about Hancock tossing 3 2/3 scoreless innings over his two Cactus League outings. “He and guys like Miller, Dollard and Berroa, they're out to prove that they belong in the Major Leagues.”