This offseason, MiLB.com will be honoring the players -- regardless of age or prospect status -- who had the best seasons in their organization. We're taking a look at each team to determine the outstanding seasons in Minor League baseball. Select a team from the dropdown below.
The Mariners remain in a rebuilding era, fighting it out in the American League West and have garnered some decent Draft positions to work with in recent seasons. Since 2008, Seattle has selected Josh Fields, Nick Franklin, Dustin Ackley, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen with their No. 1 picks. Fields was traded to Boston with Erik Bedard in a deal that brought speedy outfield prospect Trayvon Robinson the Emerald City this past summer, and the rest of those names are all showing promise.
One name garnering most of the buzz lately was not a first-rounder -- third baseman Vinny Catricala opened eyes this season and earned the Mariners' nod as the organization's Minor League Player of the Year. The Hawaiian infielder not only led the Seattle system with 106 RBIs, but he added 48 doubles and 17 stolen bases.
On the team level, Seattle's clubs didn't take home any prizes. From dead last in the Midwest League in the first half to celebrating the West Division's top playoff berth in the second half, the Class A Clinton LumberKings had a memorable year while Triple-Tacoma, Double-A Jackson and Class A Advanced High Desert all missed the postseason.
Ackley reached the Majors this past summer and Hultzen looks like the real deal from his time in the Arizona Fall League. Here's a rundown of others who made noise in 2011:
Mariners' Organization All-Stars
Catcher -- Trevor Coleman, High Desert (93 games), Tacoma (three games): Coleman, a ninth-rounder from 2009, led all Mariners backstops with 50 RBIs. He hit just .265 with six homers but had a solid .378 on-base percentage in 312 at-bats.
First base -- Dennis Raben, High Desert (76 games): Seattle's second-round pick from 2008 had a solid year in the California League, batting .330 with 18 homers and 76 RBIs in his fourth season with the organization. He cut down on his strikeouts, had more hits and raised his average about 40 points in six fewer games as compared to 2010, when he hit 20 homers at two levels. Expect Raben to see time at Jackson this spring.
"Offensive player, [he] had a very good year," said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners' new manager at Class A Advanced High Desert who spent the past season as the organization's player development director. "[He has a] chance to become a run producer."
Second base -- Stefan Romero, Clinton (116 games): Romero, who also spent some time in the outfield, was selected by Seattle as its Class A Player of the Year with the LumberKings after he hit .280 with 16 homers, 65 RBIs and 16 steals. His 120 hits were the most among M's second basemen.
"Steady bat, he came on as the year went on," said Grifol.
Of course, Dustin Ackley is worth mentioning after he hit .303 with 35 RBIs in 66 games at Tacoma before going to Safeco and getting the chunk of his at-bats in the No. 3 hole. The No. 2 pick in the 2010 Draft finished sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting.
"For a young hitter, he's really good at getting the barrel of the bat and squaring up the baseball," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said in September. "He has good plate coverage, he has an idea up there. He's still learning and he's still fighting to make the adjustments to the league, but he's hanging in there."
Third base -- Vinnie Catricala, Jackson (62 games), High Desert (71 games): Among full season Minor Leaguers, the 2009 10th-rounder ranked second in extra-base hits (77), third in hits (182), tied for third in doubles (48), tied for fourth in batting average (.349) and ninth in RBIs (106). He had 59 multi-hit games, including 12 three-hit games and three four-hit efforts.
"Vinnie had an outstanding offensive season," Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "He not only led the organization in many offensive categories but was one of the top players in all of the Minor Leagues."
Catricala will likely see time at third and first in 2012 at Jackson and Tacoma as the team evaluates his defense and power.
"He solidified himself as one of the top position player prospects in the organization," said Grifol.
Shortstop -- Nick Franklin, High Desert (64 games), Jackson (21 games), Arizona League Mariners (three games): Franklin, 20, missed a lot of time in 2011 with mononucleosis, although when he was healthy at Double-A, he posted nice numbers, hitting .327 with 27 hits and 13 runs in 21 games.
"Rare middle infielder with a defense-power combo," Grifol said. "Gamer."
Overall, he appeared in 88 games and didn't exactly rake at High Desert, but he enters 2012 as one of the organization's top prospects. And outside Franklin, the M's are rather thin at this position.
Denny Almonte, High Desert (128 games): The Mariners' second-round pick in 2007, Almonte was a machine in the Cal League, hitting .268 with 24 homers, 97 RBIs and 135 hits in 128 games. Grifol called him a "potential five-tool player" after he added 18 stolen bases. Almonte will need to draw a few more walks in 2012 to really elevate his game and OBP.
Daniel Carroll, High Desert (131 games): Carroll teamed with Almonte and led all Mariners outfielders with 144 hits. The M's 2007 third-round pick batted .299 with 18 homers, 57 RBIs and a dazzling 62 stolen bases in 131 games.
"He's got three Major League tools right now," Grifol said. "His bat is coming along nicely."
Mike Carp, Tacoma (66 games), Seattle (79 games): Like Catricala, Carp wasn't really on the radar entering 2011, but after raising his average nearly 100 points at Triple-A, he suddenly became an everyday Major Leaguer. The former Mets farmhand, who had 29 homers in 2010, hit .343 with 21 longballs and 64 RBIs in just 66 PCL games before the Mariners called him up. He continued to show his power in the Majors, earning AL Rookie of the Month honors for August.
"He's got power with hitting ability," said Grifol. "He has a chance to hit in middle of the order and become a run producer."
Designated hitter -- Alex Liddi, Tacoma (138 games), Seattle (15 games): Liddi, a third baseman, punished the ball at Triple-A, hitting .259 with a organization-best 30 homers and 104 RBIs, forcing his way to Seattle, where he became the first player born and raised in Italy to reach the Majors. He led the Mariners' farm system with 145 hits and added 32 doubles at Triple-A before contributing to the M's in September. He's playing winter ball and will aim to make the big club out of Spring Training.
Right-hander starter -- Taijuan Walker, Clinton (18 games): Walker began the season ranked as the No. 2 righty in the system behind Michael Pineda, and by November, the organization had anointed him its Minor League Pitcher of the Year. Walker went 6-5 with a 2.89 ERA and 113 strikeouts in 96 2/3 innings at Class A, holding batters to a .202 average.
"He's a potential No. 1," said Grifol. "A great athlete with lots of aptitude."
"Taijuan had a great year in Clinton," Zduriencik said. "He had great command of the ball and was one of the most dominating pitchers in the Midwest League."
Left-handed starter -- James Paxton, Jackson (seven games), Clinton (10 games): Paxton earned a trip to the Futures Game in his first season after the Mariners selected him in the fourth round last year. The 23-year-old began the year in the Midwest League but reached Double-A by July, finishing 6-3 with a 2.37 ERA and 131 strikeouts in 95 frames.
"Power stuff and chance to become top-of-rotation guy," said Grifol.
He ranked second in the system in strikeouts and would have led the M's in ERA had he qualified with enough innings.
Seattle has a few nice starters in the Minors, including Anthony Fernandez, who went 8-5 with a 3.64 ERA and led the M's system with 133 strikeouts in 153 1/3 innings for Clinton. "He's a strike-throwing lefty that knows how to pitch," Grifol said. Jose Campos, who won a MiLBY for best single-game performance when he retired the first 17 batters in a start, went 5-5 with a 2.32 ERA at Class A Short-Season Everett. Danny Hultzen debuted in Arizona, where he struck out 18 batters in 19 1/3 innings with a 1.40 ERA.
Reliever -- Steve Delabar, High Desert (seven games), Jackson (23 games), Tacoma (10 games), Seattle (six games): Delabar is like the real-life (but probably better-mannered) Kenny Powers. After being cut by the Padres and blowing out his arm with independent teams, the right-hander gave up baseball and was a substitute teacher in suburban Kentucky in 2010, a script right out of HBO's raunchy Eastbound and Down series. He got a chance with Seattle and worked his way up from Class A Advanced High Desert, eventually reaching the Majors and earning a win over the Yankees on Sept. 15. In the Minors, he went 3-5 with a 2.25 ERA, 15 saves and 68 strikeout in 56 innings.
"Great arm, great story," Grifol said. "He has above-average stuff with potential to become a solid bullpen piece."