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2019 Mariners Exit Interview: Justin Dunn

seattle’s highly-touted pitching prospect is hoping for a full taste of the big leagues in 2020

Seattle Mariners v Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

After a year in the Mariners’ organization, it can be easy to forget just how Justin Dunn ended up here. As the less-heralded player in the Kelenic for Canó and Díaz trade, Dunn had the luxury of relative anonymity. Because of this, many fans overlooked, forgot, or plain didn’t know that Dunn was the Mets’ fourth-ranked prospect—one spot behind Kelenic—at the time of the deal. In addition to naming him New York’s fourth-best youngster, also had Dunn as the 89th best prospect in the sport. Today, that same website has the Boston College alum as the M’s fifth-best and 70th overall.

Much like his dance partner Kyle Lewis, Dunn’s 2019 MLB service time was abbreviated. We saw Dunn pitch just four times in a Mariner uniform, totaling 6.2 innings as an opener. While his debut outing was a bit bone chilling (five walks and two earned runs against the Reds while getting just two outs), his final two performances were a nice blanket to hopefully sustain him through the winter. Facing two playoff teams in the Astros and Athletics, the rookie brought the energy of a post-show theater kid at the local diner, combining for four strikeouts, one hit, one walk, and no runs across the four innings of work.

Of course, the bulk of his 2019 efforts came in Double-A, which provides a much larger sample to examine. The walks that plagued Dunn in his big-league starts can likely be chalked up to beginner’s nerves, as the righty had actually posted the lowest walk rate of his career with the 2019 Travelers. After walking 3.71 hitters per nine innings with the Mets’ Double-A affiliate a year before, Dunn lowered that number to 2.67 in Arkansas. Pitching in his age-23 season, Dunn also set a career high for innings pitched, completing 131.2 innings with a 3.55 ERA, 3.43 FIP, and a league-leading 28.6% strikeout rate.

In striking out Texas League opponents at such a swift clip, Dunn fully demonstrated that he was not only one of the best pitchers at that level, but also capable of making the leap. By showing those capabilities, and occasional spells of voodoo on the mound, it becomes even more baffling that the Mets were comfortable getting rid of a talent like Justin Dunn.

Moving into 2020, there are two big questions surrounding Dunn: where will he start the season, and is his MLB future stationed in the bullpen or the starting rotation? The Mariners have deployed him exclusively as a starter in his time with the organization, but a track record as a reliever in college and the low-minors is there. On paper, Dunn profiles as a three-pitch pitcher, but his changeup will need increased usage and effectiveness to play across multiple innings. Should that pitch hit a snag in development, or if Dunn and the Mariners simply decide to scrap it, there’s an intriguing profile as a fastball-slider bullpen specialist in his arm.

Obviously becoming a rotation stalwart would be the ideal path for Dunn, but an envious ability to get extremely hyped extremely quickly could also lend itself well to a late-inning role.

The thing about next year is, it’s still kind of a test run. Once again, player development will hold a greater grand importance than wins or losses. The Astros are still a pack of 600 MPH hyenas and the A’s will probably have some unpaid intern hit .279/.384/.521. As daunting as the division looks today, it’s fun to imagine the Mariners’ prospect wave cresting as the other AL West teams’ hit a trough.

Photo courtesy of Justin Dunn (@dunn_deal19)/Instagram

I suspect the Mariners will use Spring Training as Dunn’s true placement test. If he shows a consistent nastiness, hopefully by way of a legitimate third pitch, then I bet he’s a back end rotation piece. If he struggles, well guess what? The minor leagues aren’t the end of the world for someone who just turned 24. There’s also the possibility of teaming him up with another pitcher every fifth day to create a quasi-starter, or plugging Dunn in as a fireman that the Mariners have lacked for centuries. It’s okay to get creative in rehearsals before the actual show starts. All that matters is that Justin Dunn is ready to wiggle his way into the big league roster when the Mariners are finally ready to deaden their long-standing national reputation.