With the second pick in this year’s draft, the Mariners had plenty of options in a very deep class. They could have taken one of the best athletes in the draft in Bubba Starling, a five-tool outfielder who starred in three sports in high school, has tons of potential and is often compared to Josh Hamilton at the same stage, but is still raw as a baseball player. They could have taken one of the best bats in the draft in Anthony Rendon, a third baseman out of Rice University with off-the-chart hitting abilities who, as a sophomore, hit 26 home runs while only striking out 22 times, but has had some pretty extensive injuries to his ankle and shoulder over the past year. Then there was UCLA’s Trevor Bauer. The kid put together one of the most dominating seasons by a pitcher in college history going 13-2 with a 1.25 ERA and an NCAA-leading 203 strikeouts over 137 innings, but has an unorthodox delivery that some thought could be too risky to gamble millions of dollars on.
They could have taken any one of those players, and probably had some lengthy talks about all of them. In the end, however, they went with the kid who didn’t have any question marks. A kid who was more major-league ready and polished than any of the three. A left-hander who dominated the ACC for three seasons at Virginia, winning the conference’s Pitcher of the Year award his last two seasons. An All American selection by Baseball America his junior season, going 12-3 with a 1.37 ERA, .184 BAA, 165 K, 23 BB over 118 innings. They took 21-year-old Danny Hultzen and haven’t regretted it one bit.
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After awarding him with a $6.35MM signing bonus and a total contract that could max out at $10.6MM, the fifth-highest in draft history, the Mariners decided to wait until the Arizona Fall League to unleash their phenom with the Peoria Javelinas.
Hitters typically rule the Arizona Fall League. The desert climate makes the ball jump and offensive totals are inflated, often making a hitter look better than he really is. Last year, the average runs per game was 5.77, including 0.77 home runs. The numbers are even higher this year as the runs are up to 5.94, and batters are hitting home runs at a 1.1 per-game clip. Sending young pitchers out there can cause some damage to their confidence.
Hultzen is one of few pitchers who is unfazed by all of it and has been embarrassing the opposition up to this point. In his last start, he went four innings without giving up a run, yielded two hits, struck out five and walked none to pick up his first win. On October 19, he went four innings without giving up a hit. Overall, he is 1-0 with a 1.62 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 12 K and 4 BB over 16.2 innings. He mixes a plus-mid-90s fastball with late sink and a deceptive change-up that sits in the 82-85 mph range to keep hitters off balance. The change-up also rates as plus while his slider is above-average and still developing. He has advanced command off all three pitches, but what sets him apart from the rest is his poise and instincts on the mound. He is ultra-aggressive on the hill, not afraid to go in and out at will, and will throw any pitch in any count.
The Rising Stars game rosters are being announced today, Tuesday November 1. The game features the top 50 players from the league, and Hultzen, no doubt, will be selected. Twenty-four players from last year’s game made it to the majors in 2011, and 28 players from the 2009 games made it to the majors in 2010. Hultzen has three more weeks, plus the Rising Stars game, to leave his mark and add to his track record of success. With a strong finish, and an impressive spring training with the Mariners, he could skip the minor leagues altogether and make his major-league debut next season.
With Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda at the top of the rotation, and super-prospect Taijuan Walker not far away, the Mariners are building one hell of a starting rotation and clearly made the right choice on June 6, 2011.