SEATTLE -- Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Mariners camp in one week, which means the countdown to Spring Training is now officially on. And we're zeroing in with a series of stories previewing just what to expect when the team begins gathering next Friday in Arizona.
Here is Part 3 of our series, a look at the "Prospects to Watch" in Peoria. Though the Mariners have some quality youngsters waiting in the wings, they also figure to have a tough 25-man roster to crack this season with a strong group of returning players and some key veteran additions to a club that expects to contend for an American League playoff berth.
Here are the top prospects to keep an eye on in the coming weeks of camp:
RHP Carson Smith: Though he's ranked 14th on the Mariners' Top 20 Prospect list by MLB.com, the 6-foot-6 right-hander figures as the most-likely of the youngsters to break camp with the big league club. Smith was outstanding as a September callup last season, throwing 8 1/3 scoreless innings while allowing just two hits with three walks and 10 strikeouts in nine appearances. After posting a 2.93 ERA with 10 saves in 39 games for Triple-A Tacoma, the 25-year-old with the tough slider and mid-90s heat appears ready to challenge for a full-time role in Seattle's strong bullpen.
3B-1B D.J. Peterson: Seattle's 2013 first-round Draft choice gets his first shot at big league camp and will get an extensive look at both corner infield spots. While he's played mostly third base, the 23-year-old could have a better shot at advancing at first in the future, given Kyle Seager's presence at the hot corner. Peterson, ranked as Seattle's No. 2 prospect and the No. 50 overall prospect in baseball by MLB.com, earned Mariners co-Minor League Player of the Year honors after hitting .297 with 31 homers and 111 RBIs while splitting last season between Class A Advanced High Desert and Double-A Jackson. He might be destined to start the year in Tacoma, but his promising right-handed bat certainly has him knocking on Seattle's door.
1B-3B-OF Patrick Kivlehan: One of the fastest-rising youngsters in Seattle's system, the former Rutgers defensive back has a chance this spring to see how he fits in at his first Major League camp. The No. 6-ranked Mariners prospect, Kivlehan hit .295 with 20 homers, 103 RBIs and 11 stolen bases at High Desert and Jackson, then followed up with a strong Arizona Fall League campaign. The 25-year-old has played mostly the corner infield spots, but shifted some to the outfield last year and could be destined for more time there with his athletic ability and offensive promise.
SS-2B Ketel Marte: Though there doesn't appear to be any openings in the middle infield, the 21-year-old Dominican will get a good bit of action in camp as the Mariners are eager to see their No. 8-ranked prospect. Marte has moved up quickly and finished last season in Tacoma, hitting .313 with an .817 OPS in 19 games. A good defender with excellent speed, the switch-hitting youngster also batted .302 with 27 doubles, six triples and 23 stolen bases in 109 games at Double-A Jackson and might not be far from competing for a Major League job if he can continue that kind of offensive production.
C John Hicks: The former Virginia standout advanced to Triple-A Tacoma at midseason last year and now will get a chance to battle for a backup job in Seattle this spring. That appears to be a long shot with the more-experienced John Baker and Jesus Sucre fighting for the same spot, but Hicks is at least in the conversation after batting a combined .290 with a .754 OPS at Jackson and Tacoma and performing very well in the Arizona Fall League, a strong improvement from his previous year. Hicks has always been regarded as a solid catcher and good leader and has thrown out 47.6 percent of attempted basestealers in his Minor League career. He's ranked as Seattle's No. 17 prospect by MLB.com.
1B Ji-Man Choi: The 23-year-old Korean had a disappointing 2014, thanks in large part to a 50-game suspension after testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance early in the year. He wound up hitting .283 with five home runs and 30 RBIs in 70 games for Tacoma. But outside of Jesus Montero, the Mariners don't have a lot of backup contenders behind Logan Morrison at first base and Choi will be given a chance to show if he deserves to be in that mix this spring.
OF-1B Jordy Lara: The 23-year-old has been a bit of a late bloomer in the Mariners system, but exploded last year by hitting .337 with 26 homers and 104 RBIs at High Desert and Jackson, earning him co-Minor League Player of the Year honors with Peterson. First base has been his best position, but the 6-foot-3, 180-pounder also played some corner outfield and is an intriguing right-handed bat who'll get his first exposure to upper-level pitching this spring.