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Sunday, April 2, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Growing up on the farm

Seattle Times staff

PEORIA, Ariz. — It is a fine balance a major-league team tries to achieve when it comes to managing its farm system.

The ultimate objective will always be player development. The trick is doing that while at the same time keeping the affiliates competitive — not only to keep the fan bases happy but also for the players' mind-set.

"Development is first and winning is second," said Greg Hunter, the Mariners' director of minor-league operations. "But a big part of development is winning. You've got to have a winning attitude. But we're not going to jeopardize a kid's career to help an affiliate win. And all of our affiliates' owners know that."

The numbers illustrate how important the farm system is to the Mariners. Twenty-five players on the Mariners' 40-man roster are products of their farm system. It's a system that has improved over the past couple of years, according to Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi, who joined the Mariners in November 2003.

"We have upgraded how we evaluate and how we develop prospects," Bavasi said. "We are getting more and longer looks at players deeper in the draft, and we are pushing and challenging our [minor-league] players more, rather than just going from step to step."

Hunter said his job as minor-league director involves "everything from moving players to helping set up the rosters, to making sure we have equipment and meeting with the media. I enjoy watching players develop and the more I get to do that, the more I enjoy it."

M's farm system


Tacoma Rainiers

Level of play: Class AAA

First game: April 6 at home vs. Colorado Springs Sky Sox

San Antonio (Texas)

Missions

Level of play: Class AA

First game: April 6 at Corpus Christi

Inland Empire 66ers

(San Bernardino, Calif.)

Level of play: Class A

First game: April 6 at High Desert

Wisconsin (Appleton)

Timber Rattlers

Level of play: Class A

First game: April 6 at home vs. Peoria (Ill.) Chiefs

Everett AquaSox

Level of play: Short-season Class A

First game: June 19 at home vs. Tri-City Dust Devils

Peoria (Ariz.) Mariners

Level of play: Rookie League

First game: TBA

Hunter is a Kirkland native who played baseball for four years at Washington State. He played in the minor leagues from 1990-93, including time in the Mariners' farm system.

One of the things that makes Hunter's job easier is the stability of the Mariners' minor-league teams. While it is not uncommon for minor-league teams to switch parent clubs, all of the Mariners' affiliates have been with the team for at least five years.

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers (Class A) and Peoria Mariners (Rookie League) are starting their 14th year with the team. Everett (short-season A) is in its 12th year with the Mariners, Tacoma (AAA) in its 11th and San Antonio (AA) and Inland Empire (A) are in their sixth year.

"The continuity, I think, is great," Hunter said. "We've had ownership changes with some of the teams, but they've been seamless. We know all the front offices well. They know what to expect, we know what to expect, and it takes some communication between the two of us.

"I feel like we have the best affiliates possible. They are in good communities who support the team, and they have nice, fair fields."

While winning isn't the top priority, the Mariners' farm-league teams have been successful. Three of Seattle's top four teams made the playoffs last year, and four of the Mariners' six farm teams finished in the top three of their leagues in 2004.

"Most of the [affiliates], as long as you're competitive, it's not going to affect their attendance," Hunter said. "They like to win and be part of a winner, but they are most concerned with how many people they have coming in and out of the gates because they're not paying the salaries."

Hunter said being competitive also helps the prospects.

"You can lose sight of things when you are in the basement and your team is totally out of it," Hunter said. "As long as you're around .500, that competitiveness stays there and that's a big part of development."

Among the Mariners' top prospects, according to Hunter, are the team's top draft picks over the past three years.

Adam Jones, drafted in the first round in 2003, has moved from shortstop to the outfield, and split last season between Class A Inland Empire and Class AA San Antonio. Woodinville's Matt Tuiasosopo was drafted in the third round in 2004 and played shortstop last season at Class A Wisconsin. Hunter said he is likely to play with one of the Class A teams. Catcher Jeff Clement, the No. 3 overall pick last June, played with Class A Everett and Wisconsin last year.

The Mariners have drafted position players with their top picks the past five years.

"We had been drafting pitchers [with the team's top pick] for a number of years," Hunter said. "We had a shortage of position-player prospects so we did emphasize that area."

Other prospects Hunter mentioned were left-handed pitcher Steve Kahn, the team's fifth-round draft pick who is likely to be in Class A ball; left-handed pitcher Eric O'Flaherty, who was at Wisconsin last year; and infielder Mike Saunders, who was at Everett last season.

For his part, Hunter is always looking for ways to improve.

"I don't want to be content, so I will always want to be better," Hunter said. "I think we've done a good job and accomplished a lot. Our scouts have done a good job signing players, and I think we've done a good job developing players who we're seeing in the big leagues. So, I think we're doing a good job, but can we be better? Yes, we can be better."

Scott Hanson: 206-464-2943 or shanson@seattletimes.com

M's top prospects
The Mariners' top 10 prospects, according to Baseball America:
Name Pos Age Last team
Jeff Clement C 22 Wisconsin
Adam Jones OF 20 San Antonio
Kenji Johjima* C 29 Fukuoka
Chris Snelling OF 24 Seattle
Matt Tuiasosopo SS 19 Wisconsin
Asdrubal Cabrera 2B-SS 20 Tacoma
Shin-Soo Choo OF 23 Seattle
Emiliano Fruto RHP 21 Tacoma
Clint Nageotte RHP 25 Tacoma
Rob Johnson C 22 Inland Empire
* — Will be starter with major-league club

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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