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Originally published Saturday, September 8, 2012 at 5:51 PM

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Taking stock of the Mariners' farm system

Seattle is counting on several touted prospects to carry the club into the next phase of its rebuilding process.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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The Mariners are a team that has staked its future on the farm — developing productive players in the minor-league system to get them out of the nearly decadelong rut of mostly dreary seasons.

That doesn't mean that their homegrown talent can't be augmented with outside acquisitions. Indeed, I think it's incumbent upon them this winter to go out and get at least one established bat, if not two, to hasten the rebuilding process.

But the Mariners will live and die with their prospects, which means that promise and potential at some point soon must be turned into major-league performance. Baseball America rankings can only take you so far.

Ask the Kansas City Royals, who have dominated the prospects lists in recent years, but still find themselves flailing in the AL Central standings. The Mariners are themselves a case study, with Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero demonstrating that the step from being the analysts' darling to being a productive major-league player is an extremely difficult one.

The Mariners continue to fare well in prospect rankings, which isn't a bad thing. In's Top 100 prospects list released this week, Seattle had two in the top 10 (right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker at 5, left-hander Danny Hultzen at 9), five in the top 100 (infielder Nick Franklin at 31, catcher Mike Zunino at 51 and left-hander James Paxton at 82), and ranked first among all 30 teams in points (100 points given to the top prospect, 99 to No. 2, and so on).

At some point soon — likely next season — all of those players will break into the majors. Their progress will go a long way toward determining if the Mariners take the next step from this year's promising second half.

Much of the Mariners' minor-league hoopla has revolved around their "Big Three" of Walker, Hultzen and Paxton. But general manager Jack Zduriencik is excited about many others in the system, including two who broke into the majors this season: relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps.

And with all the focus in Jackson, Tenn., on the Big Three, the Southern League pitcher of the year turned out to be 22-year-old right-hander Brandon Maurer, who went 9-2 with a 3.20 earned-run average in 24 starts.

"I've said all along, if anyone was listening, that there's other talented arms on that team," Zduriencik said. "Maurer committed himself to physical fitness and did a terrific job getting his body ready for the season. He went in as the unsung hero with the Big Three and emerged. You see 6-foot-6, throwing 96, four pitches, and say, 'Hey, this guy is pretty good, too.' "

Zunino has dominated professional baseball since the Mariners made him the No. 3 overall pick in June. He has hit a combined .360 in 44 games between Everett and Jackson, with 13 homers and 43 RBI.

"You look at this guy hit, but it's those other intangibles — leadership, makeup, determination," Zduriencik said. "Anyone who had him this summer raved about him. This guy really has that other stuff, the 'it' factor."

No doubt Zunino will be on an accelerated path to the majors, and some believe he has a chance to make the team out of spring training.

"I think that would be a huge challenge," Zduriencik said. "I don't want to be unrealistic. But I would never say never to anyone."

One player who has jumped out this year is 6-foot-3, 225-pound Stefen Romero, who has hit a combined .352 with 23 homers and 101 RBI between Class A High Desert and AA Jackson. Zduriencik credits scouting director Tom McNamara for identifying Romero.

"Mac really liked him, and took him (in the 12th round in 2010)," Zduriencik said. "Everyone thinks this guy is a legitimate, legitimate hitter."

The question regarding Romero is where he'll play. He's been worked at third base, second base and the outfield. But if he keeps putting up a 1.012 OPS, as he did in 56 games at Class AA, they'll find a place for him.

"He's a good-sized kid, a really good makeup kid. We like him, and he just continues to improve," Zduriencik said.

Shortstop Brad Miller, a second-round pick in 2011, has been another breakout player, hitting .334 with 15 homers and 68 RBI between High Desert and Jackson.

As for the Big Three, they've each had their ups and downs, but the excitement about their potential hasn't dimmed. As Jim Callis of Baseball America said, "I don't think they've dominated as much as we thought they might. But I still think when you look at the total package, their stuff and what they've accomplished and the circumstances, they're still the best trio of pitching prospects in the upper minors."

After early-season dominance, each has faced some adversity this season. Hultzen, after owning the Southern League (8-3, 1.19 ERA in 13 starts for Jackson), hit rough times after being called up to AAA. In 12 starts for Tacoma, he was 1-4 with a 5.92 ERA. He did strike out 57 in 48-2/3 innings, but walked an alarming 43.

"That did surprise us, because he's been a great command guy," Zduriencik said. "But if you take a step back, Danny at this time last year had not played a game in professional ball. He had just signed his contract and was waiting for instructional league and the Arizona Fall League to start.

"Everyone's still excited about him. He's still hitting 96 (mph). It's a process. No matter who you are, you're going to stub your toe, and you have to step back and figure out how to gather yourself. We're happy he made it through the season healthy. No one has any major concerns. He's a talented kid, and he had a very successful first year. Now he'll go home, clear his head, and get himself prepared for spring training."

Walker, who turned 20 in August, seemed to hit a wall after pitching brilliantly in the first half. Over his last five regular-season starts, he had a 6.91 ERA. Overall, Walker was 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA in 25 regular-season starts, striking out 118 in 126-2/3 innings (Saturday, he allowed one run over 7-1/3 innings in 1-0 loss at Chattanooga in the Southern League playoffs).

"A lot of people would like for it to happen yesterday," Zduriencik said. "I don't care how you shake it — to be in Double-A at 19 is pretty remarkable. It's not a bad thing at all when guys go through struggles. At the end of the year, Walker was touching 98 and showing a good breaking ball. It's all there, the physical talent. Now it's a matter of figuring out the other things it takes to be a major-league player."

Slowed midseason by tendinitis in his knee, Paxton is finishing the strongest of the three and will pitch in the Arizona Fall League to make up for lost time. He finished the regular season at 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA in 21 starts and 110 strikeouts in 106-1/3 innings. Paxton pitched six shutout innings to win his first playoff start.

Callis predicted that all three will make it to the majors next year, but none out of camp. Zduriencik is noncommital, but he's not one to slam doors for the Big Three or anyone else.

"I have my own realistic views on certain players," he said. "I'd love for any of these players to change my mind."

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