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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

May 1, 2012 at 9:55 AM

Jackson ballclub is much more than the “Big Three” (with photo essay)

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(Here is today’s Mariner minor-league report, and yesterday’s. I’m trying to post them every day, but it’s tough on some days when I’m traveling, and also on weekends when I’m either off or there may not be someone in the office to format them).

I thoroughly enjoyed my three days at Pringles Park in Jackson, Tenn. (where there is a Proctor and Gamble plant that produces Pringles Potato Chips). I was treated great by team officials, with lots of cooperation from the players and coaching staff. A special shout out to Dave Thomas of the Jackson Sun and Generals broadcaster/P.R. man Chris Harris for their help and guidance.

Obviously, it was the growing hype surrounding the Big Three of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton that lured me to Jackson to watch the Jackson Generals, and I was fortunate to get to see Hultzen and Walker pitch. Brandon Maurer pitched the middle game. One thing I discovered quickly — and will cover in the story for the paper I’m writing — is that they are rapidly trying to distance themselves from the whole “Big Three” business. I can fully understand — they are all pretty down-to-earth guys and are beginning to feel uncomfortable with being singled out, particularly on a team that’s just loaded with prospects. The Generals — rated by Baseball America as the most talented team in the minor leagues — are 17-8 and rolling through the Southern League. They won two out of three against the Tennessee Smokies (a Cubs affiliate) while I was there, losing the finale in 10 innings.

Manager Jim Pankovits, who has spent 18 years in player development, including 13 years managing, said this: “This is the most talented team I’ve ever managed, at any level. I’ve managed every level, from rookie ball to double A. I’ve never managed at Triple-A. This is a special team. There’s a lot of big league prospects on it, more than most. It’s going to be exciting to see how they progress.”

Here’s what Hultzen said about being uncomfortable with the Big Three label: “I think we all are. It’s something we don’t buy into at all. It’s great to be around those guys, but we pitch for the team. We don’t pitch for ourselves, we don’t pitch for our hype, or anything like that. It was cool to be associated like that and get that kind of attention sometimes, but I think naturally all of us are the kind of guys that shy away from that kind of attention, and we want to stay and do our own thing.”

Wouldn’t you know it, I looked down from the press box after Sunday’s game and noticed Hultzen, Walker and Paxton gathered in left field, posing for a photo. I snapped this shot of the scene from the press box:

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Two pitchers that immediately caught my eye were short relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, both of whom throw in the upper 90s. Pryor is doing most of the closing and is 6-for-6 in saves with a 1.35 ERA, while Capps has two saves. He lost Sunday’s game, giving up a two-run homer in the 10th on a hanging slider (right after throwing a 97 mph fastball), but I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see these guys in the Mariners bullpen in the not-too-distant future. Pryor has 17 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings, Capps 18 in 12 2/3 innings.

Here’s what pitching coach Lance Painter said about Pryor: “He’s intense, he wants to throw every day. He came up with a cutter last year that, to me, took him from being a middle reliever to a closer. He’s always trying to get better. Sometimes, you have to tell him to step back a little bit. If he could throw seven days in a week, he would. It’s a great mentality: I’m going to beat you no matter what I got tonight.”

With Capps, he said, “It’s just developing his off-speed pitches.”

Manager Jim Pankovits added, “They both have outstanding arms. It just appears they want the ball, too. They’re not afraid to be in that situation. It remains to be seen as they move up the ladder how they’ll adjust to two and three tier ballparks with 20, 30, 50,000 in the stands. You never know how anyone will react to it, but those guys certainly have the ability.”

Another guy catching everyone’s eye — including a scout I talked to who sees him as a back end of the rotation guy in the major leagues — is Andrew Carraway, who is 3-0 with a 2.63 ERA.

Here’s Painter on Carraway: “Carraway is a kid you have to watch to really respect. He’s not going to wow with you with stuff, but he can pitch. He does a very good job of it. He commands the fastball well. He has a plus changeup. He just goes out and does the job. He’s another guy you really pay attention to and see what you’ve got.”

Felix Hernandez’s older brother, Moises, has revived his career as a reliever. I saw him pitch and immediately noticed he was going from a three-quarters arm slot. Painter says that’s made a huge difference. In nine innings over six appearances, he’s not given up a run, allowing seven hits and two walks while striking out seven. Moises, 28, missed two full seasons with shoulder injuries (he had surgery in 2008) and wasn’t very good last year with Jackson, putting up a 6.25 ERA in 40 games. But he may have found the secret.

“From over the top last year, he didn’t have much life on his fastball,”; Painter said. “Now that he’s dropped to a little lower slot, he’s got more movement on his fastball, his slider’s more sweeping this year. He’s done a great job for us.”

Other pitchers who are doing well are lefty Bobby LaFromboise (1.29 ERA in 14 innings over eight appearances), Brian Moran (0.00 ERA in nine appearances), and Steven Hensley (2.63 ERA in eight games). I heard good things about Maurer, too.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the offensive players. In the meantime, here are some photos from Jackson. I have what I think is pretty good video of several players in action, as well as a ballpark tour, but I need a little guidance on how to post them, so it might have to wait until I return to Seattle.

Here’s the hole in the outside fence that reveals some debris in the outfield that players seem to aim for during batting practice. That’s Interstate 40 beyond left field. Don’t worry — they put the panel back when the game starts:

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A grand total of 851 fans came out to see Hultzen pitch on Sunday. The day before, with a Star Wars promotion, more than 4,000 attended. But Taijuan Walker told me the best day to pitch is on Dollar Thursday, when they pack ’em in.

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Here’s a board featuring the top prospects that’s on the wall near one of the concession stands:

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A view of a statue commemorating fallen soldiers that stands at the entrance to the ballpark. A famous Civil War battle took place in Jackson: (To clarify: The statue is for the Children of Tennessee’s fallen soldiers, not related to Civil War).

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One of the team mascots in view as Johermyn Chavez bats:

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The view from outside the stadium:

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The Tennessee Smokies warm up in right field:

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