It’s time to hand out awards to the best players in the M’s farm system.
It’s been an outstanding year for the Mariners’ minor-league system. Of their seven affiliates, stretching from the Class AAA Tacoma Rainiers down to the rookie Arizona League Mariners, all earned spots to play in the postseason. It’s a significant accomplishment.
General manager Jerry Dipoto and new director of player development Andy McKay placed an emphasis on winning games as part of the development.
“Learning how to win a baseball game is a skill, just like learning how to bunt is a skill,” McKay said. “Learning how to play the game in a way that gives you a better chance of winning it is important. To me it’s the No. 1 skill you have to learn because it’s the only thing that matters at (MLB level).”
Of course, team success doesn’t necessarily translate into a high ranking of an organization’s farm system. Those are measured by the number of top prospects and depth within the organization. In that way, the Mariners are still lacking but improving.
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With the regular season over, it’s time to hand out awards to the prospects who had the best seasons for Seattle’s farm system.
Player of the year
Tyler O’Neill, outfield, Class AA Jackson
An easy selection for the second straight year, O’Neill was simply the Mariners’ best position player in the system all season. A 5-foot-10, 225-pound package of muscle, intensity and power, he dominated the Class AA Southern League in his first season at age 21.
How good was O’Neill this year? He was named the league’s most valuable player and has been in the race to win the league’s triple crown. He is fifth in batting average (.293), second in home runs (24) and first in RBI (102). No Mariners farmhand drove in 100 runs last season. It’s also a franchise record for Jackson.
Besides those basic numbers, O’Neill reached base in 112 of his 129 games played and had a .373 on-base percentage, which is fourth in the league. He scored 67 runs, hit 26 doubles and four triples and stole 12 bases. He also leads the league in slugging percentage (.509), extra-base hits (54) and total bases (250).
“O’Neill has been killing it since spring training,” Dipoto said. “Tyler is one of the youngest players in the Southern League. For Tyler to go to the Southern League and do what he’s doing is rare at his age.”
What’s next for O’Neill?
He’ll finish out the season with Jackson and prepare for a second stint in the Arizona Fall League. A spot on the 40-man roster and an invitation to major-league spring training are likely. O’Neill will also be a candidate for the Canadian team in the World Baseball Classic.
Runner up: Stefen Romero, outfield, Class AAA Tacoma.
Starting pitcher of the year
Ryan Yarbrough, left-hander, Class AA Jackson
Yarbrough was the best pitcher on a team that is 29 games over .500. The 25-year-old left-hander was named the Southern League pitcher of the year after a brilliant season where he posted a 12-3 record with a 2.92 ERA in 24 starts. In 1261/3 innings, he struck out 98 batters and walked 31. Opponents were hitting just .229 against him. Left-handers hit just .186.
From April 30 to May 29, he won six straight starts with a 1.46 ERA. In 802/3 innings, he’s struck out 65 batters and walked 23.
Yarbrough was never considered a top prospect. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2014 draft out of Old Dominion as a senior. He received a $40,000 signing bonus, well below slot value of the pick. It was a move to help control slot money for the draft pool, but he’s exceeded expectations.
At 6-5, 210 pounds, he has a fastball that sits in the low 90s with legitimate off-speed pitches — a curveball and changeup.
Runner ups: Zack Littell, right-handed pitcher, Class A Bakersfield/Clinton; Andrew Moore, right-handed pitcher, Class AA Jackson, Class A Bakersfield
Relief pitcher of the year
Dan Altavilla, right-hander, Class AA Jackson/Seattle
Edwin Diaz didn’t pitch long enough in the minor leagues to win this honor, but Altavilla, his Generals’ teammate, did plenty to grab the honor and more importantly earn a spot on the big-league roster with a call-up last week. Like Diaz, Altavilla was converted to a relief role this spring after working as a starter last season. It’s a role that he flourished in. In 43 appearances with Jackson, Altavilla posted a 7-3 record with a 1.91 ERA and 16 saves in 20 save opportunities. In 562/3 innings pitched, Altavilla struck out 65 batters and walked 22.
Because of the change in his role, his fastball that would sit at 92-93 mph and might top out at 95 mph, began to sit at 95-96 mph and could touch 99 mph. Command of his slider will be vital in the big leagues.
At 5-11 with an extremely muscular, 200-plus-pound frame, Altavilla looks less like a typical pitcher and more like a linebacker. He was a fifth-round pick in the 2014 draft out of Mercyhurst College in Pennsylvania.
Runner up: Emilio Pagan, right-handed pitcher, Class AA Jackson/Class AAA Tacoma