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Meet the NRIs: Position Players

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Prospects, old friends, a franchise icon, and more

MLB: Seattle Mariners-Photo Day Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

After a look through the dozen non-roster pitchers in Mariners camp, today we shift focus to the fifteen position players outside of the 40-man roster that received an invite. This group should be much more familiar, featuring several names that came over via trade this offseason, recent draftees, and of course Ichiro!. While it’s unlikely that any of these guys not named Ichiro will make the big club out of spring training, there’s plenty here to keep an eye on, and it should be a fun first look into the future.

Catchers:

Joe DeCarlo

The catcher of the interim, Joey Deeks has scarcely garnered significant acclaim, and yet at every level has provided an able bat and increasingly passable defense. The 25-year-old remains a neophyte behind the dish compared to every other backstop in camp, but at this point DeCarlo has made himself a pathway to MLB play. The Mariners have spoken about giving the former SS/3B some reps at third, likely seeking to cultivate positional flexibility similar to what Chris Herrmann offered last year. If his bat continues to hang, a solid backup role that lengthens the bench could be in JDC’s future. We’ll get to see plenty of the Mariners 2012 2nd-round pick this Spring. -JT

José Lobatón

Feels like it was just yesterday that Lobatón was the sneaky pied piper of pitch framing; the early bird advantage-taker of the new market inefficiency. Well, now every team knows about pitch framing (except the White Sox) and Lobatón is an old man by catcher standards (34), although not quite to the Henry Blanco/Chooch age bracket. Never known for his bat, Lobatón was given a potential job with the Mariners for pure injury insurance reasons, but barring multiple disasters, it seems unlikely that the OG pitch framing guru will see the major league roster. Still, it seems very beneficial to have him somewhere in the system as a reliable and highly skilled backstop to help developing pitchers gain confidence. -ES

Dean Nevarez

Nevarez, a 2018 draftee, earned an invite to Spring Training by dint of winning the PTPA (Productive Team Plate Appearances) competition in the minors this year. In 156 PAs in rookie ball, Nevarez posted an okay 21.4 K% against an excellent 12.6 BB%. The Mariners plucked the backstop out of San Diego State, where Nevarez posted slash lines tantalizingly close to .300/.400/.500 over his last two seasons as an Aztec. Even more impressively, Nevarez posted his 2018 line of .294/.378/.468 after spending much of fall practice tending to his father, severely wounded in a shooting in Tijuana. Nevarez is bilingual, has forearms roughly the size of tree trunks, and is worth keeping an eye on in camp. -KP

Austin Nola

The older brother of Phillies ace Aaron, Austin spent his whole pro career in the Marlins org prior to signing with Seattle, working to a 103 wRC+ over 69 games in Triple-A last season. Nola’s swing is pretty punchless with a career ISO of just .079, but has shown solid plate discipline throughout his career with a double-digit walk rate and a strikeout rate well south of 20%. Like DeCarlo, he converted to catcher during the 2017 season, and shows a good arm, gunning down 37% of would-be base stealers in 2018. Nola has spent at least part of the last four years with the New Orleans Baby Cakes, proving to be a true PCL veteran, and it’s very possible he’ll stick around in Tacoma after spring training comes to a close. -CD

Cal Raleigh

Calboy has just 167 professional plate appearances thanks to starting pro ball about a month later than his fellow 2018 draftees, but he made his brief time with A- Everett count, posting a wRC+ of 149 with 8 HRs and a strong K-BB ratio. Raleigh started pro ball late because it took time for the third-rounder to agree to a signing bonus with the Mariners, eventually signing for about 200k overslot. In two of his three years at FSU, Raleigh posted slash lines around .300/.400/.500, similar to the numbers posted by second overall pick and fellow catcher Joey Bart. However, Raleigh registered a dismal sophomore season, losing almost one hundred points off every part of his slash line. It later came out that Raleigh spent the entire season fighting through a hand injury so severe that it impacted his ability to even hold a bat, which accounts for the downturn in his numbers. Raleigh will get a nice long look in this year’s spring training, both because of the Japan series and the dearth of options at catcher. He’s definitely someone I’ll have my eye on. -KP

Infielders:

Dustin Ackley

Dustin Ackley is the old co-worker from an old job and time in your life you’ve been trying hard to forget. He was an all right guy, but you avoid contact with him nonetheless. He’s an unwelcome reminder of the bad old days, as opposed to the current bad days. He’s a silent film star trying to make a comeback in the world of talkies. He’s a Zune in the world of iPhones. Incompatible. Incongruous. Still dead-eyed as all fuck. But, he’s also a warm body and Tacoma needs AAAA players in the outfield and maybe at second base occasionally. So, it’s fine. If all goes accordingly to plan, then this is probably one of the last times Ackley gets written about here until a blurb on his DFA or trade to the Pirates or Orioles or something. If things go wrong and Ackley spends any significant time on the big league roster, then no one is happy with anything that’s going on with the team. Except for maybe Dustin Ackley, but we’d never know it. -ES

Orlando Calixte

Orlando Calixte probably won’t make the Mariners roster this year. If he’s willing to take a role in AAA-Tacoma he’ll have a good shot, as he can capably play every infield and outfield position, and has great baserunning ability. The problem is his bat has not materialized. Freshly 27-years-old, Calixte has played parts of two MLB seasons, earning a World Series ring with the Royals in 2015 and moonlighting for the Giants in 2017.

But there was a time once when Calixte was regarded with great anticipation. In 2008, the Red Sox were prepared to offer the 16-year-old shortstop between $2-3 million to sign. The only issue? He’d submitted his name as Wilson Calixte. When the Red Sox discovered the ruse his offer was rescinded. “Orlando Calixte,” they discovered, “was already nearly 20-years-old.” What the Red Sox didn’t know, or didn’t take the time to uncover, was the 20-year-old Calixte was actually Orlando’s older brother, who had adopted his younger brother’s nickname in an attempt to earn scouting acclaim. As a Haitian family who had immigrated to the Dominican Republic, the Calixtes were denied access to their birth certificates by the Dominican government, and so the true Orlando was left in limbo. Eventually, Calixte signed with the Royals for a diminished sum, ground his way to the majors, and now is fighting for his professional life. His struggles at the plate may keep him from superseding Dylan Moore, Kristopher Negrón, and the rest of the utility competition he faces, but he is here, and that’s quite something. -JT

Tim Lopes

Lopes actually spent the first few years of his pro career with the Mariners after being drafted in the sixth round in 2012, reaching Double-A before being shipped to Toronto for the amphibious Pat Venditte in August 2016. He repeated Double-A in his first year with the Jays before getting his first look at Triple-A last year, working to a 94 wRC+ in just under 400 turns at bat before opting to test free agency. Primarily a second baseman, Lopes is a capable defender and runs well, but a lack of power and a merely average walk rate have kept him from taking a big step forward. He figures to man the keystone with the Rainiers this year, with Dustin Ackley spotting him and the possibility of a call-up should multiple injuries befall the M’s. -CD

Evan White

The Kacey Musgraves song “Slow Burn” is a blissed-out country-psychedelic song that makes me think of two things: spinning in circles in a wheat field under a bright yellow sun, and 2017 first-round draft pick Evan White. I wasn’t in love with the White pick at first; in a draft full of twinkling superstars like Royce Lewis, Hunter Greene, and Jo Adell, taking a college first baseman whose calling card was...excellent defense? felt deflating. Post-draft, White missed a significant chunk of time with a hamstring issue, and then he was slowed again with injury at the start of the 2018 season. Great, I thought, a first baseman with no power who can’t stay on the field. But over the course of his tenure in Modesto, White showed that he was all right with a slow burn, taking his time, letting the world turn. His numbers improved month-by-month until he finished August with an incredible .363/.454/.703 slash line. Watching the Arizona Fall League, I thought White consistently stood out as one of the best players on the field. And he’s so goshdarn nice. He’s just an old soul, waiting his turn. I love him? -KP

Outfielders:

Eric Filia

In many respects, it’s incredible that Filia is still in the organization at all after his suspension, getting traded to the Red Sox as the PTBNL in exchange for Roenis Elías, and then getting returned to the Mariners like a busted bottle of shampoo that you ship back to Amazon. But hey, here he is with the potential to spend all season mashing in AAA. I believe in Filia’s hit tool and realistically he’s probably not too far down on the OF depth chart among the more finished minor leaguers, so in case of massive OFer injuries, break glass for the Filia shimmy, I guess? I’m into it. At minimum, he’ll mix into Tacoma in the OF and at 1B. -ES

Jake Fraley

Coming to Seattle along with Mallex Smith in the first major trade of the offseason, Fraley tore High-A to shreds in 2018, posting a 172 wRC+, .200 ISO, and a walk rate of exactly ten percent. He also spent the 2017-18 offseason in the Australian Baseball League, and led the ABL in stolen bases with 39, nearly four times as many as the next-highest total. As another recent swing changer, Fraley is all but guaranteed to slot into Arkansas’ starting outfield along with Kyle Lewis and Dom Thompson-Williams, and is a competent center fielder that should be fun to follow this year. -CD

Kyle Lewis

KLew has finally made it healthily to big-league camp. His hot second half following a scuffling start in High-A Modesto and AA-Arkansas gave a tease of enthusiasm, though the worries about his knee health will likely only dissipate after another year or two of health and production. The be-goggled OF will mix in for the M’s in both CF and the corners this spring, particularly with Mallex Smith limited early. Spring Training is not necessarily a time for lasting impressions based on results, but few players could more rapidly impact opinions of their future than a hot-hitting (or re-injured) Lewis. A few scouts mentioned his timing looked off after roughly a year-and-a-half away from consistent play, but a fully healthy offseason hopefully has him back in stride. He’ll likely begin his season in AA regardless of his performance, and be part of a rotation through the outfield with a pair of fleet-footed CFs in Jake Fraley and Dom Thompson-Williams. -JT

EDIT: oh no

Tentatively, Lewis might be okay, but we won’t have an inkling until X-rays are done. A dislocated finger can take four-to-six weeks to heal, which would wipe out most if not all of KLew’s spring training. Let’s hope the baseball gods are merciful.

Tito Polo

Once a touted international signee with the Pirates back in 2012, Polo has been traded twice in his career as part of a package for a big league name: once in late 2016 along with someone named Stephen Tarpley to the Yankees for Iván Nova, and again just eleven months later to the White Sox as a piece of the David Robertson blockbuster. He was also the starting center fielder for Colombia in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, putting up solid on-base marks in the tournament. Injuries have taken their toll on Polo over the past couple seasons - he was limited to just 181 plate appearances in Double-A last year - but the 24-year-old offers plus defense and speed when healthy. With a crowded Arkansas outfield, though, he may have to put up a fight for any significant playing time. -CD

Dom Thompson-Williams

Dominique Thompson-Williams is 23 and hasn’t played above A+ yet, as the Yankees opted to bury the South Carolina prospect in A-ball in both 2017 and 2018 after drafting him in the fifth round in 2016. DTW projects to go to Arkansas this year and get his first taste of higher-level competition, although he’ll get plenty of bites at the apple this spring. Watch for him both at the plate and in the outfield, where his plus speed can create highlight-reel catches. -KP

Ichiro!

I’m not sure I enjoy watching any player hit more than Ichiro. In his prime, it was a delight, because the avenues for success were endless. A high chopper, a dying quail blooper, a laced line drive, a simple grounder literally anywhere - all of these were reasonable pathways to hits. That Ichiro has faded; in truth, it was fading over eight years ago, when the 2011 campaign saw a 37-year-old scuffle to an empty .272 batting average and a mere 79 wRC+. Yet Ichiro rebounded, then reinvented himself, became a pinch-hitting maestro, and refused to decline fully until 2018. He failed to record a single XBH, struck out more often than any year but 2017, and recorded neither a stolen base nor a homer in the first time in his career.

And yet, he returns once more, somewhere between inspiring and foolhardy, determined to play until he’s 50 and suddenly just The Rest of Robinson Canó’s Contract away from doing it. The 45-year-old will be on the expanded 28-man roster when Seattle reaches Japan, but after those two games it’s hard to know. Mallex Smith’s injury opens a Ben Gamel’s Oblique-like window for an outfielder, but Suzuki neither has the skill nor stamina remaining, seemingly, for full-time CF duties. After all of it, I will nonetheless cherish every at-bat Suzuki has, and with the opportunity to fully participate in Spring Training perhaps his typically hot April start can kick in. The Wizard is wizened, but perhaps he has just enough for one last spellbinding show. -JT