SEATTLE -- Since he took over as Mariners general manager four years ago, Jack Zduriencik has talked of building the foundation for long-term success. And while his young Major League club has taken a solid step forward this season, the entire organization continues developing from the ground up as the Mariners have five players ranked among the top 100 in the updated MLB.com prospects list released Thursday.
The Mariners rank first among all 30 MLB teams based on point values assigned to each of the top 100 prospects, just ahead of the Pirates, D-backs and Cardinals.
Young pitchers Taijuan Walker (fifth) and Danny Hultzen (ninth) both cracked the top 10 prospects in baseball at the conclusion of the 2012 Minor League season, while shortstop Nick Franklin (31st), catcher Mike Zunino (51st) and pitcher James Paxton (82nd) round out the elite Mariners' list.
"It's a compliment to everybody in the organization in player development and scouting with the talent level they've brought in," Zduriencik said. "Then when you consider how young the big league club is and some of the recent promotions from the Minor Leagues like [relievers] Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor, it's all good stuff."
Seattle also was ranked first as a team in the MLB.com preseason prospect rankings, but has since lost catcher Jesus Montero from that list now that he's played a full season in the Majors. Montero was ranked 12th in the preseason.
But Zunino, the club's first-round Draft pick, jumped immediately into the new Top 100 with his No. 51 ranking and Walker, Hultzen and Franklin all moved up the charts enough to keep the Mariners in the No. 1 overall position.
Walker and Paxton are still pitching in the playoffs for Double-A Jackson, with Zunino catching for that team after making the recent jump from Class-A Everett.
Walker, who just turned 20 last month, is 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA and 118 strikeouts in 126 2/3 innings in his first season at Double-A.
"It's a big jump," Zduriencik said. "Any time you challenge kids like that you want to see how they respond. The fact he's doing what he's doing at such a young age -- he competed very well in the Futures Game, he's still throwing up to 98 mph and he's healthy -- it's all positive."
Hultzen, 22, just finished his first year of pro ball after being selected with the second overall pick in the 2011 Draft out of Virginia. He dominated at Jackson (8-3, 1.19 ERA in 13 starts), then struggled after a midseason promotion to Triple-A Tacoma (1-4, 5.92 ERA in 12 starts).
"You're talking about a kid that really tore up Double-A and then had ups and downs in Triple-A," Zduriencik said. "But he pitched in the Fall League, came to Major League Spring Training and now has pitched all the way through this year.
"We're going to give him some time now to clear his mind, get home and have the offseason to prepare for the next step."
mariners' top prospects
Paxton, 23, missed five weeks in midseason with a knee injury, but has gone 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA in 21 starts and is 6-1 with a 2.40 ERA in eight games since coming off the disabled list. He's scheduled to pitch the opener of the Southern League playoffs Thursday against Chattanooga and is the only one of the Big Three pitching prospects slated to participate in the Arizona Fall League later this year.
"This has been a good learning experience and good growing year for all three of those guys," Zduriencik said. "Now they can step back, take a deep breath and be ready to roll next year."
Franklin is on a similar path after making the jump to Triple-A as the top position prospect in the organization. The 21-year-old hit .322 with four home runs and 26 RBIs in 57 games at Jackson, then .243 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 64 games with Tacoma.
"He's another young kid thrown into the middle of a Triple-A season, but I thought it was a good thing for him and he made great adjustments through the course of the year," said Zduriencik. "They think he's going to be a legit hitter with some power and ability to drive the ball."
Then there's Zunino, the most-recent addition as the third overall Draft pick out of Florida. The 21-year-old overpowered the competition at Short-A Everett (.373, 10 HR, 35 RBI in 29 games), then didn't slow down when making the big leap to Jackson (.333, 3 HR, 8 RBI in 15 games).
"He's a warrior," Zduriencik said. "He's all the things we thought when we drafted him -- a leader, a great teammate, very knowledgeable of the game. He did great things in college, and didn't miss a beat in the Northwest League or Double-A. He'll go through some lumps and bumps at some point, but right now he's done pretty well."
MLB.com also ranks the top 20 prospects in each organization and the Mariners saw some movement there since the preseason rankings. Second baseman Stefen Romero, who wasn't even in Seattle's preseason Top 20, debuts at 10th among Mariners prospects after a strong 2012 showing.
Romero, 23, is a 12th-round pick out of Oregon State in 2010 who hit .357 in Class-A High Desert and then .347 in the second half for Jackson. Romero had an injured wrist at the time of the draft, but Mariners scouting director Tom McNamara had seen him earlier and pushed for his selection.
"That's just a great job by Tom and our scouting staff," Zduriencik said. "He's a hitter. Everybody is excited about what this kid is doing."
In addition to Zunino, three other Draft picks -- Joe DeCarlo (15), Tyler Pike (16) and Timmy Lopes (17) -- cracked Seattle's Top 20, while outfielder Leon Landry, obtained from the Dodgers in the Brandon League trade, comes in at 18.
Zduriencik is bullish on the organization far beyond the big-name prospects. He notes Brandon Mauer (11th in Seattle's list) was just voted Southern League Pitcher of the Year after going 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA for Jackson.
Third baseman Patrick Kivlehan (fourth-round Draft pick out of Rutgers) was Northwest League MVP for Everett after hitting .301 with 12 home runs and 52 RBIs in 71 games. Outfielder Dario Pizzano (15th round out of Columbia) led the Appalachian Rookie League in hitting at .356.
Outfielder Gabriel Guerrero, the 18-year-old nephew of Vladimir Guerrero, hit .349 with 15 home runs and 72 RBIs in 68 games between the Dominican Summer League and Arizona Summer League seasons in Rookie ball.
The Mariners' nine Minor League teams finished the season with a combined 496-406 record, with their .550 winning percentage the highest of any Major League farm system. Six of the nine teams qualified for postseason play.
"It's not the end-all, be-all," Zduriencik said of the Minor League success and high prospect rankings, "but it says something and it speaks to where you're headed."