SEATTLE -- A year ago, the Mariners surprised most Draft analysts by selecting University of Virginia pitcher Danny Hultzen with the second overall selection despite their clear need for offensive help at the Major League level.
Will they do it again?
Seattle selects third in the upcoming 2012 First-Year Player Draft starting Monday, and it seems a perfect fit for Georgia high school outfielder Byron Buxton, widely perceived as the premier position player available. But Buxton may well go to either the Astros or the Twins, who have the first two picks.
That would leave the Mariners in an interesting position, given the other top-regarded position player is University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino. And Seattle traded 2011 rookie All-Star right-hander Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, the top-rated catching prospect in baseball.
Premier catchers are hard to come by, and Montero could conceivably wind up at first base or designated hitter in the long run anyway. But Mariners fans might still be nervous about the thought of picking a catcher in the No. 3 spot, given they opted for Jeff Clement in that exact position in 2005 instead of taking shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, and they have never quite recovered from that decision.
Zunino, the son of Reds scout Greg Zunino, is regarded as a solid defender, as well as a youngster with good power and baseball instincts. But is he a better prospect than several college pitchers ranked high on most boards -- Stanford's Mark Appel, San Francisco's Kyle Zimmer and LSU's Kevin Gausman?
Or might the Mariners surprise again by tabbing talented Puerto Rican shortstop Carlos Correa or Florida high school outfielder Albert Almora?
"I don't want to tip our hand, but the top five guys, we've seen a lot," Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara said. "They're all spread out all over the United States. I think it's a good group of top guys this year. You have some high school athletes, some pitchers, some college guys. It's been fun, and we're looking forward to June 4."
Live coverage of the Draft begins with a one-hour preview show on Monday, at 3 p.m. PT on MLB.com and MLB Network, followed by the first round and supplemental compensation round. MLB.com will provide exclusive coverage of Day 2 and 3, featuring a live pick-by-pick stream, expert commentary and Draft Tracker, a live interactive application that includes a searchable database of Draft-eligible players.
You can also keep up to date at Draft Central and by following@MLBDraft on Twitter. And get into the Draft conversation by tagging your tweets with #mlbdraft.
The Mariners have greatly improved their organizational talent level the past few years with some good Drafts and high picks. This will be their third time selecting in the top three in four years, having chosen Dustin Ackley second in '09 and Hultzen with the No. 2 pick last year.
They also landed highly acclaimed 19-year-old right-hander Taijuan Walker with their top pick (43rd overall) in 2010, the same year they added previous first-round holdout James Paxton with a fourth-round selection.
Hultzen, Walker and Paxton give Seattle some of the highest-regarded pitching prospects in baseball, but McNamara says that doesn't factor into how the Mariners approach Draft Day, a point reinforced by last year's selection of Hultzen.
"I still believe in taking the best guy, whether it's a hitter or a pitcher," said McNamara. "Because the day you draft for need and pass on that guy you really think should be the guy you should take, it'll come back and haunt you.
"That guy will go out and be a Cy Young [Award] winner, and you might have a part-time, extra player in the big leagues. And everyone will ask why you didn't take the other guy. So take the best player."
And if that best player appears to be a high schooler, as was the case with Walker two years ago, McNamara has no issue investing in the longer-term solution. That could well be the case this Draft, which appears thin in the college ranks, particularly among position players.
"There's always college pitching, but there are some good high school position players this year, as well," McNamara said. "You take a high school position player, obviously you've got to wait a little. But when it clicks in, it does something to the whole organization.
"You get a special one, and the fans identify with that a lot and they can grow with that kid. And if he gets to the big leagues and becomes a star, it's a great thing."
It's worth noting that McNamara said similar things last year, but Seattle passed on prep phenom Bubba Starling, an outfielder from Kansas, and took Hultzen instead. In the end, the Mariners will take the guy they think has the best chance to be an impact player, regardless of age or position.
"You need to get that first pick right," McNamara notes.
That's particularly true this year, as Seattle's second pick won't come until 64th overall.
Here's a glance at what the Mariners have in store as the Draft approaches:
In about 50 words
The Mariners have stockpiled impressive top-tier pitching prospects the last few years, but continue to struggle offensively at the Major League level. They surprised Draft watchers by selecting another pitcher last year with Hultzen at No. 2, so it will be even more surprising if they didn't pursue a position player with the No. 3 selection this year.
MLB.com Draft expert Jonathan Mayo projects Seattle to pick Florida catcher Zunino with its No. 3 pick in the first round. Baseball America also had the Mariners tabbing Zunino in its initial Mock Draft. Of course, a year ago most predictions focused on Seattle going with Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon with the No. 2 pick, but the Mariners opted for Hultzen, the lefty out of Virginia, so you never know.
There seems to be a group of five or six players being considered for the top spots. The Mariners could end up with any one of them, given there is no clear consensus for the first two choices belonging to the Astros and Twins. Most experts feel Georgia high school outfielder Buxton is the premier position player, with Zunino the top college position player at catcher.
There is also a trio of college right-handed pitchers -- Appel, Zimmer and Gausman -- at the top of the Draft boards.
mariners' bonus pool
* Rank in terms of total bonus pool $
Under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, each team has an allotted bonus pool equal to the sum of the values of that club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the Draft. The more picks a team has, and the earlier it picks, the larger the pool. The signing bonuses for a team's selections in the first 10 rounds, plus any bonus greater than $100,000 for a player taken after the 10th round, will apply toward the bonus-pool total.
Any team going up to five percent over its allotted pool will be taxed at a 75-percent rate on the overage. A team that overspends by 5-10 percent gets a 75-percent tax plus the loss of a first-round pick. A team that goes 10-15 percent over its pool amount will be hit with a 100-percent penalty on the overage and the loss of a first- and second-round pick. Any overage of 15 percent or more gets a 100-percent tax plus the loss of first-round picks in the next two Drafts.
The Mariners insist they'll pick the best available players, regardless of position, particularly at the top of the Draft. But a year ago, they were shy on catching in the organization and tabbed three catchers in the first five rounds, so they're not immune from filling needs where possible. That said, position players would seem to remain a priority across the board, and a top-flight outfielder like Buxton would seemingly be the best match of need and talent if he's available when Seattle picks.
The Mariners have taken pitchers with their top pick in five of the past six Drafts, the lone exception being Ackley in 2009. But while they again tabbed a top-quality arm with the selection of Hultzen in the first round last year, eight of their 11 picks in the Top 10 rounds were position players and three of their first six selections were catchers.
Recent Draft History Rising fast
While much publicity has gone to the Mariners' Big Three pitching prospects of Hultzen, Walker and Paxton, hard-throwing right-handed reliever Stephen Pryor -- a fifth-round selection in 2010 -- was the first rookie promoted to the big league team this season. After impressive showings as the closer this year for Double-A Jackson and Triple-A Tacoma, Pryor was called up to the Mariners this weekend and made his first two appearances Saturday and Sunday against the White Sox. Pryor's fastball twice hit 100 mph in striking out Paul Konerko as the first batter he faced.
Mariners' recent top picks
Double-A Jackson (Mariners)
Double-A Jackson (Mariners)
Double-A Portland (Red Sox)
Triple-A Lehigh Valley (Phillies)
The Mariners have used a number of high Draft picks on catchers the past two years, but the catcher moving up the quickest so far is Brandon Bantz, a 30th-round pick out of Dallas Baptist University in 2009 (the same year Steven Baron was a first-round sandwich pick out of a Miami high school). Bantz, 25, hit .216 last year in 83 games for Double-A Jackson, but hit .371 in his first 12 games this year for Triple-A Tacoma in a backup role.
Left-handed pitcher Andrew Carraway, a 12th-round pick in '09 out of the University of Virginia, is another surprise. He's done well in a starting role since being promoted to Tacoma after a strong showing at Jackson.
In The Show
Former North Carolina teammates Ackley and Kyle Seager were the most recent Mariners Draft picks to crack the Major League roster until Pryor's promotion over the weekend. Ackley was the No. 2 overall pick in 2009, so his rapid ascent was no surprise. But Seager, the third-round pick the same year, and Pryor are the only other players drafted by Seattle since '08 currently on the Mariners roster.