Modesto, California —— Credit where credit is due: Chris Mariscal is better than I thought he’d be.
If you’ve been following along with Baseball Census‘ coverage of the Seattle Mariners early this year, you’ve read stories about Braden Bishop (here and here), Joe DeCarlo (here), Art Warren (here and here), Nick Neidert (here), Eric Filia (here) Gianfranco Wawoe (here and here), the entire Modesto Nuts bullpen (here), Reggie McClain (here), and probably a few more that I’m forgetting. But if you look at the Nuts’ imposing lineup, there’s one guy producing more than even Filia or Bishop: utility infielder Chris Mariscal.
A 24-year-old the Mariners plucked in the 14th round out of Fresno State back in 2014, Mariscal is perhaps easy to forget because he’s not an everyday ballplayer at a premium position. He’s moved between second, short, and third this season and across his career, forever without one home spot upon which to plant. He struggled at the plate for a while when his pro career began, too, hitting a meager .236/.316/.301/.617 in 2015 in his first taste of full-season ball at Low-A Clinton. The Seattle Mariners sent Mariscal back to Clinton last summer, where he fared considerably better (.301/.372/.408/.779 in 97 games), and now here he is in the California League putting up legitimate MVP-quality numbers for the circuit’s best ball club—again, all without a permanent home in the infield.
To that end, then, you have to wonder: is Chris Mariscal a prospect, or just a 24-year-old college guy hitting every mistake pitch thrown his way in the best High-A hitter’s league in pro ball? Player evaluation is ultimately subjective, and a case can be made either in Mariscal’s favor or against, but my stance after watching him a handful of times: I think he’s a phenomenal example of the Seattle Mariners’ development strategy, and he could become a significant under-the-radar big league contributor as a utility infielder by 2019. His pitch recognition is extremely good, his strike zone awareness better, and his balance and coverage of the plate is the sort of stuff he needs to do if he wants to eventually slot in as a bench role contributor on a 25-man roster. In other words, he’s already showing some of the habits that make a good role player on a big league roster, even playing nearly every day in High-A (albeit in a few different spots).
Here’s a good look at Chris Mariscal hitting the ball for the Modesto Nuts earlier this year:
And because one is never enough, here’s a second long look at the Seattle Mariners infield prospect playing this summer in Modesto:
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Every so often, I’ll evaluate a player I’m not wild about and hedge my bets when it comes time to take a stance: well, maybe he could still become a utility infielder one day. It’s an easy cop out (did he get a cup of coffee in The Show? Boom! Utility guy!), but it ultimately devalues the actual utility value in a player like Mariscal, who I think is perfectly positioned in both experience and raw talent to be a super sub across the infield with the Seattle Mariners. He does all the little things well and can move positions with ease game to game depending on his role that day. He plays with a slow heartbeat, and shows poise even through adversity. His baseball IQ and maturity in the game are above-average for this level, and whenever the Double-A call comes, I think he’s uniquely positioned to take advantage of it without putting too much more pressure on himself.
He shows a mature, discerning approach at the plate and he tracks pitches well. To that end, he knows the strike zone well, too, and he’s content to wait for what he can drive until he gets down a few strikes and has to adjust. He stays through the ball very well when pitched on the outer half, but his bat speed is good enough to turn on inside pitches from above-average velocity, too. Not flashy at the plate or in the field, he’s just exceptionally consistent at both and seems to be a very good competitor on a team of guys who generally play pretty damn hard.
Mariscal reminds me quite a bit of Colorado Rockies utility infield prospect Garrett Hampson, albeit with slightly less defensive range; I think both are right now flashing a foundation that could turn into a pair of decade-long big league careers coming off the bench and playing across the infield as super subs. There’s immense value in finding, cultivating, and effectively using guys like that, and the Seattle Mariners have themselves one here in Chris Mariscal.
He’s not going to magically become an everyday shortstop, or a power hitter, or a perennial All-Star in the big leagues, but if the Seattle Mariners develop him well, Chris Mariscal is exactly the type of underrated infield grinder critical to a winning 25-man roster. That he’s putting up Cal League MVP-worthy numbers right now is merely a nice byproduct of good long-term development that appears to be quickly taking hold.