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Meet the NRIs: Infielders and Outfielders

A top prospect, a former top prospect, and a local guy we’re all pulling for

Minor League Baseball: Arizona Fall League-Fall Stars Game Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Today, as part of our series examining the 2017 Mariners Spring Training Non-Roster Invitees, we take look at a group of guys who have all been on the M’s Top 30 Prospects list at some point this offseason. I went ahead and combined infielders and outfielders into one group, as these three guys make up the entirety of the non-catching, position-playing NRIs to this point.

NOTE: An offensive measure I’m going to refer to several times throughout this piece is wRC+. This is a stat that encompasses all measures of a batter’s offensive game, not including base running, and adjusts for ballpark factors. 100 is considered league average, and each number above our below 100 represents 1% better or worse than league average.

Kyle Waldrop 6’2” 215lb

Kyle Waldrop is the only one of this bunch who was not originally drafted by the Seattle Mariners. After routinely appearing on the Cincinnati Reds’ Top Prospects lists, his ceiling now projects as a backup corner outfielder at the major league level. As a decent sized left-handed hitting corner outfielder who doesn’t really run all that much —he actually sounds a bit like Raul Ibanez in that way— you would hope to hear that Waldrop’s redeeming skill and seemingly best shot at cracking a big league roster would be a proficiency at getting on base via the walk or occasionally driving the ball out of the ballpark. Unfortunately, Waldrop hasn’t really shown a propensity for either of those things, and has largely been held back by inconsistency in his plate approach from one season to the next, even against inferior minor league pitching. Let’s check out some of his rate stats throughout his minor league career:

NOTE: Power hitters tend to have higher strikeout and walk percentages, whereas contact hitters tend to have lower strikeout and walk percentages. The ratings classifications listed below are pulled from FanGraphs.

Year/Level Plate Appearances BB% BB% Rating K% K% Rating wRC+
Year/Level Plate Appearances BB% BB% Rating K% K% Rating wRC+
2011 (R) 293 3.40% Awful 22.20% Below Average 89
2012 (A) 469 8.10% Average 16.40% Above Average 113
2013 (A+) 540 5.90% Poor 22.40% Below Average 96
2014 (AFL) 83 3.60% Awful 16.90% Above Average 113
2014 (A+) 288 7.60% Average 19.40% Average 142
2014 (AA) 252 6.70% Below Average 17.50% Above Average 143
2015 (AA) 2259 4.60% Awful 23.60% Poor 107
2015 (AAA) 213 3.30% Awful 25.40% Poor 19

At 25 years old entering the 2017 season, Waldrop is really going to need to demonstrate a refined approach at the plate if he wants to give himself any chance to be counted on at the big league level. He’ll face an uphill battle with the Mariners, seemingly buried by Guillermo Heredia, Ben Gamel, and utility players Shawn O’Malley and Taylor Motter for a backup outfielder role. One thing he does have going for him is that he’s been below the league average age and every stop of his career to this point, but in a system with a lot of younger, more attractive alternatives, Waldrop is really more of an organizational stash at this point in his career. I would expect to see him return to AAA this season, rounding out the outfield with the loser of the Heredia/Gamel battle and starting in left field opposite the man-child that is Tyler O’Neill.

Tyler Smith 6’0” 195lb

Shortstop Tyler Smith joined the M’s organization after wrapping up a career as a four-year starter at Oregon State University here in the PNW. He’s risen through the organization relatively quickly, aided by his versatility to play both up the middle infield spots, as well as third base. While nothing about his game is particularly flashy, Smith has demonstrated a professional approach at the plate that has aided him in posting an above average wRC+ at every regular season minor league stop to date. That is, until 2016.

Year/Level PA’s BB% BB% Rating K% K% Rating AVG OPS wRC+
Year/Level PA’s BB% BB% Rating K% K% Rating AVG OPS wRC+
2013 (Rookie) 233 7.70% Average 13.70% Great 0.32 0.854 147
2014 (A+) 492 11.60% Great 16.50% Above Average 0.286 0.806 115
2014 (AA) 87 18.40% Excellent 14.90% Above Average 0.271 0.8 135
2015 (AA) 516 11.70% Great 16.30% Above Average 0.271 0.716 109
2016 (AAA) 421 4.80% Poor 16.20% Above Average 0.268 0.666 76

As you can see above, Smith ranged anywhere from “Average” to “Excellent” from his debut 2013 season up until 2016, when his walk rate fell off a cliff, decreasing by almost 60%. This trend actually started during a brief stint in the Arizona Fall League following the 2015 season, when his BB% dropped to 6.9% in 87 at-bats. As a guy who contributes some in all offensive categories, but lacks a standout skill on either side of the ball, seemingly losing the ability to draw walks in the first year of an organization-wide “Control the Zone” philosophy likely doesn’t bode well for his future prospects with the team. However, the fact that he received an invite to big league camp again this season is a good sign.

As far as his role in 2017 goes, Smith’s position with the club is far less clear than the other two guys on this list. With newly acquired Jean Segura firmly locked in as the M’s starter, and the assumption that they’ll opt to go with either Shawn O’Malley or Taylor Motter as the primary backup middle infielder, that would leave Motter (27) OR O’Malley (29), Mike Freeman (29) and Smith (25) fighting it out for the starting roles at third base, shortstop, and second base. I would expect to see the club give Smith the opportunity to stick at shortstop in Triple-A Tacoma, considering his age relative to the others, and that he has more time to develop at the position. It will be interesting to follow along this spring to see who’s manning the six hole if he and Motter/O’Malley end up sharing the field at any point, as that could be an indicator of roles for the upcoming season.

Tyler O’Neill 5’11” 210lb

The Mariners selected Tyler O’Neill in the third round of the 2013 draft as a high schooler from British Columbia, and he has been the best thing our Neighbors From the North have given us since including Jason Bay. O’Neill is something of a rarity for the Mariners, in that he is not only a top prospect for the team, but also a top prospect in all of baseball, checking in at #36 on Top 100 Prospect Rankings. His deep voice, thick neck, and bulging muscles make him look like something plucked out of early 2000’s Major League Baseball, and at the ripe age of just 21 entering the 2017 season, there’s a lot to like here. O’Neill has filled the stat sheet at every level he’s been tested with, but here’s what gets me most excited about his prospects*:

*I’ve omitted 13 PA’s over two levels in 2014

Year/Level Age Years Younger Than League Average Percent Better Than League Average (by wRC+)
Year/Level Age Years Younger Than League Average Percent Better Than League Average (by wRC+)
2013 (Rookie) 18 1.7 43%
2014 (A) 19 2.5 24%
2015 (A+) 20 2.6 28%
2015 (AFL) 20 2.2 89%
2016 (AFL) 21 n/a 43%
2016 (AA) 21 3 52%

A catcher in high school, O’Neill projects as a right fielder at the big league level, and has received mostly positive reviews regarding his defense, lauding his arm as above-average and fielding ability as aggressive, yet average. O’Neill was notably present at last year’s inaugural hitting summit in Peoria—where prospects spent time learning to “Control the Zone”—and year one of the organizational philosophy seems to have taken hold with him. His 2016 walk rate jumped by 66% from his 2015 mark, and he decreased his strikeout rate by about 14% over that same time frame.

With the flurry of moves the M’s made this offseason, I fully expect the outfield combination of Dyson-Martin-Haniger to get a long hard look, before O’Neill gets any type of shot at a role on the 25 man roster. In the event that left fielder Jarrod Dyson struggles to hit left-handed pitching, look for manager Scott Servais to go with more of a straight platoon approach, with either Guillermo Heredia or Ben Gamel spelling Dyson when facing lefties. Alternatively, if projected right-fielder Mitch Haniger ends up having a hard time in his first extended taste of major league ball, O’Neil could definitely by the guy GM Jerry Dipoto turns to for an everyday gig, assuming he’s hitting PCL pitching like he has all the other minor league pitching he has faced. A particularly strong showing at spring training demonstrating maturity both in the clubhouse and in his approach at the plate could leave a strong impact on management, strengthening his case for any type of in-season promotion. Barring an injury to Haniger, look for O’Neill to get the starting job as the right fielder down in Tacoma.