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02/11/12 11:00 AM EST

Mariners org. preview, Top 20 Prospects

Montero, pitchers highlight club's promising future

The future success of every Major League team lies largely in its Minor League pipeline. With that in mind, MLB.com is looking at each team's farm system, from the Top 20 Prospects to those who are under the radar.

Chris Gwynn is the Mariners' new farm director, and while he hasn't had the chance to personally observe every one of the many talented players in the organization's Minor League system, he knows a few basic facts.

The first is that Jesus Montero, MLB.com's No. 1 Mariners prospect heading into 2012, can hit. There seems to be little doubt about that among astute baseball people, which is why the Mariners, seeing a lack of offensive depth in the organizational ranks, traded last year's No. 1 prospect, starter Michael Pineda, to the Yankees for him.

Montero, a catcher and designated hitter, is expected to be in the Opening Day lineup at the big league level, most likely at DH for most games and behind the plate in a backup role, which means he might not be a prospect for much longer. After Montero, it's mostly about arms at the top of the list, and Gwynn doesn't se anything wrong with that.

MLB.com's No. 2, No. 3 and No. 5 prospects for the Mariners heading into 2012 -- starters Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, respectively -- all hit the high 90s on the radar gun and helped give the Mariners more prospects on MLB.com's Top 100 list than any other team.

Top 100 Prospects
West Central East
West Central East

Gwynn said the excitement is palpable for his first Spring Training in Peoria, Ariz.

"The whole thing in the organization is we're young and we're trying to get the kids as much experience as they can get, and it's my job to make sure these guys are ready when they're called upon to contribute, and not just be happy to be there," Gwynn said. "It's about building depth and making sure the guys understand what's expected of them."

And, to no one's surprise, a lot is expected of Hultzen, Walker and Paxton.

Hultzen, a hard-throwing left-hander out of the University of Virginia, was the team's top Draft pick (second overall) in 2011 and looked polished in the Arizona Fall League. Walker, 19, put up a 2.89 ERA and struck out 113 batters in 96 2/3 innings at Class A Clinton last year. Paxton, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound lefty, struck out 80 batters in 56 innings at Clinton before being promoted to Double-A Jackson, where he struck out 51 in 39 innings and put up a 1.85 ERA.

"Even with the greatest tools, there's still a learning curve," Gwynn said. "You have to make sure they understand that. I'm excited for all of them. I want to see them all realize their potential. And it all starts with fundamentals -- make sure we're prepared, understand the game plan. That means things like pitching to contact, being efficient. All these things mean a lot. They're all correlated into their growth and development. And until we get to that point, they'll probably get tired of hearing it."

Top 20 Prospects

Aside from the high-end pitchers at the top of the list, the club still has a lot of faith in the upside of shortstop Nick Franklin, particularly after Franklin's 2011 season was marred by a few freakish occurrences. First was the June concussion when he was hit in the face by the backswing of a teammate. Then there was a taxing bout with food poisoning while recovering from the concussion. He still made it to Double-A by the end of the year and looked healthy again, batting .325 in 83 at-bats. The Mariners will hope for more advancement in 2012 for a player still expected to come quickly.

Francisco Martinez could end up being the real jewel of the Doug Fister-to-Detroit trade that also netted the Mariners outfielder Casper Wells and lefty Charlie Furbush. Third base is still a land of opportunity in Seattle, Martinez's skill set -- hard contact, developing power, plus baserunning and a good arm -- could get him to Triple-A Tacoma quickly this year.

Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez was promoted two levels to Double-A last year because of his polish. It was a rude awakening, but the club still loves his three-pitch repertoire and command. He had a 1.9 walks-per-nine-innings ratio in 2011.

mariners' top prospects
No. Prospect Pos. ETA
1 Jesus Montero C 2012
2 Danny Hultzen LHP 2013
3 Taijuan Walker RHP 2014
4 Nick Franklin SS 2013
5 James Paxton LHP 2012
Click here for the complete Top 20 list on Prospect Watch.

Under the radar

Gabriel Noriega hasn't done much with the bat so far, but he has wowed the Mariners with his slick fielding and could project as a utility player in the Majors because of a glove that could play at shortstop or second base.

Carson Smith, Seattle's eighth-round Draft pick in 2011, is a right-handed reliever whose fastball has been clocked at up to 97 mph. Don't count him out from getting a long look this spring.


Hitter of the Year
Vinnie Catricala had a monstrous 2011 season at the plate, hitting 25 homers, driving in 106 runs and putting up a slash line of .349/.421/.601 split between Class A High Desert and Double-A Jackson. He has never hit below .300 in the Minors and should continue to put up numbers in Jackson or Tacoma.

Pitcher of the Year
Walker is only 19 years old, so it's unlikely that he'll make the big league roster right away, which seems like possibilities for Hultzen and/or Paxton. That puts the hard-throwing right-hander in the mix for another year of progression.

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMillerMLB and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.