As a minor leaguer, Kyle Seager never cracked a top 100 prospect list. Before his rookie season, Baseball Prospectus listed him as the Mariners eighth best farmhand, right behind Dan Cortes and Mauricio Robles. When the Mariners announced that he would attend Fanfest in 2011, Jeff Sullivan wrote "I expect that the Kyle Seager autograph line will be short." Plugged in fans knew of Seager, but few were excited to see him play. The interest in his debut paled in comparison to Dustin Ackley's, and I probably wasn't the only one more jazzed to see Trayvon Robinson, too.
In five short years, Seager has blossomed. He's swatted 94 home runs, won a gold glove, and accrued nearly 18 wins above replacement. He played in the all star game and put pen to paper on a $100 million contract. But Seager isn't just a star: he's developed into Seattle's star, a player that Mariners fans can enjoy all to themselves. While Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Felix Hernandez boast established national profiles, Seager's is considerably quieter. It's hard to fly under the radar with his pedigree, but as a no frills personality playing baseball's deepest position, Seager has managed the impossible: he's become a silent star in an era with non-stop media coverage.
While nobody predicted that Seager would develop into a franchise cornerstone, the Mariners front office always rated him higher than outsiders. Seattle's scouting director, Tom McNamara, was on to Seager from the moment he joined Jack Zduriencik's staff in 2008. "Seager appeared to be in Ackley's shadow at UNC, but we did not see it that way," he says. With Ackley, Seager, first round pick Alex White, and a number of other prospects on North Carolina's roster, McNamara and his staff got to watch Seager often: "He delivered every time I saw him. I remember all of us saying, 'hey Seager's pretty good, let's not lose him in the shuffle.'"
In college, Seager was much smaller and hadn't developed the plus power he has now. He never hit double digit home runs at North Carolina (comparatively, Ackley popped 22 as a junior) and only homered once in the Cape Cod League after his sophomore season. It would have been easy to look at Seager and see a player with some defensive versatility, a good arm, and a decent feel for contact. That's not nothing, but without a carrying tool, it's a light profile.
The Mariners saw more. "The thing about Kyle that jumped out to us was his short to the ball stroke," McNamara says. Noting that power is often the last skill hitters develop, he credited Seager for his solid foundation at the plate: "On the cape he squared balls up on a consistent basis, with a wood bat. We saw enough of Seager in the summer of 2008 to make him a top follow for the upcoming scouting year."
Beyond his physical abilities, Seager impressed the Mariners with his makeup. He played for highly respected coaches at UNC and with Chatham on the cape, and both staffs identified Seager as a hard worker who got the most of his tools. He also drew praise for his confident and collected attitude. Talking with some of the Mariners brass in the weeks leading up to the draft, one of the executives remarked that Seager got two or three hits every time he saw him: "Keep coming," Seager replied.
Prospects with less physical talent than Seager regularly fail to reach their ceiling, either through lack of effort or by putting in the wrong kind of work. That was never an issue for Seager. "After every year in the minors he came back in better shape the following spring," McNamara says. "You did not have to ask whether he got after it in the off-season. He got stronger in his hands, forearms, wrists, trunk and legs. He spent a lot of time working hard at his craft." The work didn't stop when he got to the majors either: he regularly shows up to the park early and has consistently earned praise for his dedication and preparation.
While the Mariners believed in Seager, even his biggest supporters admit that he has surpassed their most optimistic expectations. "He reminded me of Bill Mueller," McNamara says. "We projected him to hit 12-15 home runs at the major league level. We saw him as more a #2 hitter and we liked him more as a second basemen on the defensive side." Again, Seager's drive directly contributed to his success at the major league level. Playing short and second frequently as an amateur, he didn't become a full time third basemen until he reached the majors. In a relatively short time, he mastered the position, and he's widely considered one of the top defensive third basemen in baseball.
To truly appreciate how unusual Seager's career path is, it helps to look at where he came from. Below is a table of the best players taken in the third round over the past fifteen years, as measured by bWAR:
|Career bWAR to date
Another way to say this is that, of the hundreds of guys picked in the third round since 2001, Seager has accrued the third most value out of everybody. That's impressive, especially considering that he was seen as a high-floor, low-ceiling type, and that most of the players on the table above were playing in the major leagues before he took a professional at-bat.
The Mariners have enjoyed every bit of Seager's career, and it all came down to a draft day hunch from McNamara: "Heading into the 3rd round, I remember seeing Seager on the board but he was behind a significant number of players. We spend a lot of time trying to get our draft board right and we rarely ever went against the board," he says. The draft board is a yearlong project meticulously constructed by the scouting department, and going against the grain is risky. But for McNamara, the Mariners couldn't afford to pass on Seager: "He was our 'gut guy' that year. I remember looking over at Tony Blengino and saying, 'let's take Seager.' No explanation, it just felt right."
Mariners fans will remain grateful for McNamara's hunch for as long as Seager dons the blue and teal. His production helps offset a number of developmental disappointments, and his daily presence in the lineup will bolster the Mariners attack for years to come.
Today on Lookout Landing, we toast our third basemen: to Kyle, the hardworking overachiever who just felt right.