Maybe, just maybe, this team can hit?
Spring has sprung, the cherry blossom trees are blooming in full force, and if you can believe it, we are just a week and a day away from Opening Day. Has spring training felt longer this year than normal? I feel like it has. Anyway, Scott Servais hinted on Sunday that the Mariners would finalize their 26-man roster sometime over the weekend, likely during the weird, well-earned (seriously, they’re playing twenty-seven straight games without a break) off-day the club has on Sunday. Several spots were locked up before pitchers and catchers reported, but a few battles for second base, left field, and that sixth rotation spot raged on. As we near the end of the Cactus League, things appear to be pretty well shaken out, and it may just be the inherent optimist in me, but it’s pretty easy to squint and see an intriguing team that could surprise some folks through the summer. Today we’ll be taking a look at the dozen position players that are most likely to break camp and head north, and maybe this is a group of guys that can hit? You be the judge.
Tom Murphy, Luis Torrens
This was a given even back in November, and hasn’t changed despite Cal Raleigh’s solid showing in spring. The only question here is how the playing time will be divvied up; Torrens is only entering his age-25 season, and showed enough promise in 2020 that he shouldn’t be relegated to a traditional backup role. After missing all of last year, Murphy may need to be eased in a little more, though he’s looked plenty healthy this spring. I have little doubt that it’ll be the Murph behind the dish to catch Marco on Opening Day, but I’d bet that Servais intends on something closer to a 55/45 job share out of the gates.
Murphy brings big power to go with a healthy dose of swing-and-miss, but managed to bump up his walk rate into double digits in September 2019, his last stretch of playing in big league games. Maybe he’s figured something out there? It’s so hard with the missing year to project him. Torrens, on the other hand, has run solid plate discipline numbers all through the minors, though his game power has just started to arrive. He put up promising Statcast numbers upon arriving in the Austin Nola blockbuster, and I was personally very impressed by his approach at the plate and his bat speed. Both are capable defenders, and there’s a decent chance that the catcher spot is once again a positive offensive contributor for the Mariners. Raleigh could also arrive in Seattle at some point midseason for an extra boost.
Evan White, 1B
There has been much hand-wringing, cursing, and tweeting about Evan White’s offensive struggles last year, and they haven’t seemed to gone away much this spring – Dan Szymborski over at FanGraphs ranked the Mariners 29th in his first base power rankings. It’s understandable: despite a dazzling defensive campaign that resulted in the first rookie to win a Gold Glove at first base, White was one of just two qualifying hitters (Miguel Sanó was the other) to run a strikeout rate of over 40% last year, and a 66 wRC+ from a first baseman isn’t gonna cut it over a full season.
Encouragingly, he’s cut down on the Ks in Cactus League play, and the power we saw several flashes of in 2020 hasn’t gone anywhere. Should he struggle in April and beyond, however, it wouldn’t be out of the question to see him spend some time in Tacoma, where he could work on the holes in his game in a more competitive environment than last year’s Alternate Training Site (man, I am still not over how dystopian that sounds).
Dylan Moore, 2B
There was no doubt that our slender-hipped, Hank Hill booty-sporting king would find plenty of playing time this year after a breakout 2020; the only question was where. Left field, second base, and super-utility were all bandied about, but with Shed Long, Jr. probably not making it into a Cactus League game and an easy candidate to open the year on the injured list, second base looks like Dylan’s to lose. After an up-and-down 2019, Moore posted a 138 wRC+ in 2020 with an ISO approaching .250, and cut his strikeout rate down by six points from the year before. He also swiped a dozen bases in the shortened season, and should his power stroke stay throughout the year, he’s a strong candidate for a 20 home run/20 steal year, a plateau a Mariners hitter hasn’t reached since Mike Cameron hit 25 dingers and stole 31 bags in 2002 (Michael Saunders missed it by a single homer in 2012. Miss you, Condor!). Hopefully baseballs stay away from his head (looking at you, Brandon Bielak) and he proves that his 2020 was just the beginning of something special.
J.P. Crawford, SS
The second of a trio of Gold Glove infielders that the Mariners boast, the major question for Crawford will once again be his bat. Since arriving in Seattle in the Jean Segura trade, he’s shown an elite batting eye, and Ryan Blake took a deep dive into how selective he is at the plate a few weeks ago that is well worth your time to read. While walks are always great, especially at the leadoff role, J.P. was pretty darn streaky last year, and at one point went nearly a month without recording a single extra base hit. That’s not fun for anyone.
There’s some sneaky pop in his swing – he walloped a 420-foot home run to dead center in Petco Park last August – but if he can’t find a way to regularly convert that to even doubles game power, his offensive ceiling is going to be pretty limited. With a healthy Mitch Haniger looking to be the club’s main leadoff man, I’d be surprised to see Crawford hitting any higher than seventh in the lineup. Thankfully, with plus defense at a premium position, he still projects to be worth a couple wins in 2021 even if he tops out at the ~90 wRC+ he’s posted in both 2019 and 2020. With further improvement to his bat, though, he could find himself in the conversation as one of the better shortstops in the American League. Let’s hope he can do it!
Kyle Seager, 3B
Would you believe that come July, it will be a full decade since the first time Kyle Seager put on a Mariners uniform? For reference, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim – an iconic video game of the 2010s – was still four months away from being released when he made his major league debut. There is nothing I can write in this blurb that can fully capture how impactful Seager’s steady production at third base has been for a team that has spent the last few years in a ton of flux, marred only by a 2018 where he played through a broken toe. After missing the first couple months of 2019 with a hand injury, he enjoyed a fine bounceback year, and kept it up in 2020, running by far career-best marks in strikeout and walk rates and hitting his 200th career home run – and was 5-for-5 in base stealing. To my eyes, he looked looser and like he was having more fun than he had in years, and has embraced his veteran status on a young team.
It’s likely that this year will be Seager’s last as a Mariner, which is heartbreaking to think about, but if he keeps those plate discipline gains to go with this solid power and defense (pffft like that’s ever going away), it should figure to be a banger. Overpaid, my ass.
Ty France, DH
There’s a solid argument to make that Ty France is the best pure hitter on the roster. After coming over from San Diego along with Torrens and Taylor Trammell, he continued his hot hitting that he had started with the Padres, putting up a 129 wRC+ and a batting average (yeah yeah i know) north of .300 in Seattle. He’s had an absolutely torrid March, as well, bashing a quintet of homers and hitting for extra bases more often than singling. He almost certainly won’t put up a 1.400 OPS for any longer than a two-week stretch in the regular season, but he figures to be one of the better hitters in the M’s lineup, and Servais has mentioned that the club has him penciled in for 600 at-bats barring injury. He’ll see most of his time at DH, but should fill in at third, second, and first on occasion, especially against a tough lefty; Moore could handle shortstop in J.P.’s stead while France steps in at second, for example. His defensive reputation isn’t the greatest, but he’s seemed like he’s made a couple strides there in Cactus League action, and with the magic of Perry Hill, could turn himself into a decent infielder.
Taylor Trammell, LF
I’m gonna be honest here: I really don’t know who is going to fill this spot come April 1st. Despite quickly coming back from a knee injury and socking a dinger the other day, Jarred Kelenic feels unlikely to crack the bigs on Opening Day. Is it service time manipulation? An org being cautious with their top-ten prospect coming back from an adductor strain? Both? I think we can say it’s both, with a 75/25 slant towards the former. A week or so ago, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that Taylor Trammell and his newfound pop would make the club over a floundering Jake Fraley, but he’s shown some swing-and-miss issues against more advanced pitching as spring has worn on, and Fraley has heated up at the plate after a brutal start. Ryan Divish has also hinted that the Mariners may be scouring the waiver wire in the next few days for a stopgap, targeting outfielders who are unlikely to break camp with their respective teams (phillip ervin,,, hello). In any case, my heart wants Trammell and his infectious personality in Seattle on Opening Day, but my brain tells me there’s a decent chance that doesn’t happen, and instead we see Fraley or a waiver claim in left field for a few weeks before Kelenic’s arrival. Fingers crossed that road isn’t taken, though!
Kyle Lewis, CF
After a scintillating 2020 in which he took home unanimous AL Rookie of the Year honors, Kyle Lewis will once again man center field. He’s been fully recovered from that brutal ACL tear he suffered in Everett way back in 2016, and he was surprisingly solid covering that much ground. Of course, he also gave us arguably the most iconic moment of the Mariners’ season.
— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) September 15, 2020
While his final numbers on the year were solid, it was really a tale of two months for K-Lew. Through August 31st, he had run a 165 wRC+ with a .300/.400/.500 slash line, but that took a sharp decline when the calendar flipped to September; the power dried up a bit, his BABIP took several big steps back, and across the last month of the year his wRC+ fell all the way to 59. There were still some encouraging signs, though; after a 2019 cup of coffee where Lewis showed big power but questionable on-base skills, he ran a walk rate around 14% all season, even when he slumped. While projection systems remain pretty low on him, I think Lewis will put up another solid year, and three wins from him doesn’t feel out of the question, especially if his power comes back combined with his all-fields approach.
Mitch Haniger, RF
After almost twenty-two months without a big league appearance, Mitchell Evan Haniger will be back in right field come Opening Day, and that is a sight for sore eyes – there was a decent chance the Mariners could have snuck into the expanded playoffs last year with his production instead of the flotsam and jetsam they often rolled with in the outfield corners and DH. I was pretty bearish on what his production would look like back in December given the extended layoff and some concerning trends in his strikeouts and batted balls in 2019, but it’s looking more and more like I’ll be eating a heaping plate of crow in a couple of months. He appears fully recovered from the myriad of injuries he’s suffered the past couple of years, and should bring a much-needed boost to the lineup. I wouldn’t be surprised if the club is a little careful with him in the field, though, and we could see him in the DH spot a game or two a week to keep him fresh and rotate in playing time for the bench, especially early on. He figures to be Seattle’s regular leadoff hitter, and his combination of power, sneaky speed, and solid plate discipline makes him an ideal candidate to both score and drive in plenty of runs across 2021. Now everyone, knock on all the wood you can find for his health!
Sam Haggerty, UTIL
As well as being the only switch-hitter on the Mariners’ roster, there seems to be little doubt that Sam Haggerty is the best base stealer on the team. Currently leading the Cactus League with a perfect six steals in six attempts, Haggerty burst onto the scene in mid-August last year, and brought a big spark and a boost of energy to a moribund Seattle squad. He reached base at least once in all thirteen games he played, handled himself just fine in left field, and found a way to contribute pretty much every day. A forearm injury in early September unfortunately ended his season, but the Swaggy Ham should see a fair amount of plate appearances all over the diamond in 2021, and he put up some strong exit velocities in a small sample. He’ll probably never hit a lot of homers, but I could see him racking up doubles and triples with his excellent speed.
José Marmolejos, 1B/“OF”
I hate to give Marmo – who seems like a very kind individual and I’ve noticed has volunteered for a lot of extracurricular activities despite his precarious spot on the roster – the “OF” treatment, but let’s be real: several things have gone wrong if we see him in left field more than two or three times this year. A Quad-A hitter if there ever was one, he had some big moments last year, none brighter than when he hit a home run in each game of a doubleheader against the Padres on August 27th upon coming back from the Alternate Site, which kicked off a two-week stretch in which he slugged .740 and ran a wRC+ over 200.
Marmolejos’s power is legit – just on Monday, he hit a ball from Trevor Bauer entirely out of Peoria. He was also one of three Mariners in 2020 to post an ISO over .200, but he ambushed fastballs while floundering against breaking and offspeed pitches, and was ice cold to start and finish the year. I’m pretty sure pitchers have a good idea of how to attack him at this point. At 28, out of options, and offering limited positional flexibility, I’m frankly surprised he’s lasted this long, let alone been on an inside track to make the Opening Day roster for the second straight year. Barring injuries, it’s unlikely he’ll see much playing time – maybe he’ll spell Evan White against a tough righty or pinch hit. He could unfortunately find himself DFA’d come Jackie Robinson Day, but for now, he’s here to enjoy the journey and contribute where he can.