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An early check-in on the Mariners Opening Day position battles

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The team may be stepping back, but some guys are stepping up.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The past three years, Spring Training has been a source of consternation more than excitement. Watching established veterans at nearly every position attempt to avoid injury while getting their reps in is more stressful than stimulating. For all the roster turnover, 2017 and 2018 both centered largely around “Who is playing 1st?” and “What’s in left field?” debates. Plenty of easy choices remain this year, but a bit more is up for debate than the 25th-man spot going to Taylor Motter or Andrew Romine.

Center Field

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

The answer to this, at some point this year, should be Mallex Smith. Smith was acquired to play center, and with four years of team control remaining and two solid seasons in his immediate rear-view, he’s earned it. But he won’t be ready to hit or play the field for Japan, and it might be prudent not to rush him for the Boston series either. We saw the ill-effects of the Mariners inexplicably rushing Ryon Healy back from bone spurs last year, so hopefully they won’t repeat their mistake. The next man up is probably, from his perspective, to Mallex’s left, as Mitch Haniger will probably slide over to center as he did 35 times last year (and 63 times throughout his three years in the bigs. The Mariners have hinted (threatened?) they feel comfortable putting Domingo Santana in center on occasion, but while Santana is a capable athlete, his arm is his carrying defensive tool. They’ll be best-served giving him consistent reps in left field.

The alternatives beyond that are a short list. Ichiro was once able to man Safeco’s cavernous outfield, but even in the Tokyo Dome it’d be a stretch at this point. Braden Bishop is the next man up, and it seems likely he’ll make the Japan roster at this point despite never having taken a single AAA at-bat. His range and speed make him an ideal pinch-runner/defensive replacement for Jay Bruce at minimum. Bish could also start, and the pop he’s shown thus far in Arizona can’t hurt his odds. Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis have looked stellar, but there’s absolutely no rush for either. Arkansas Needs Moms (and also Center Fielders) and they’ll have a great shot to push for September call-ups.

Prediction: Bishop makes the 28-man roster out of camp, we see a Santana/Haniger/Suzuki lineup Opening Day, or Bruce if Servais is feeling like depriving everyone of Ichiro time. Smith makes it back by the second week of April, at which point Ichiro has departed and Bishop returns to Tacoma if injuries haven’t struck elsewhere.

1st Base/DH

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

For all that talk of how this year is a different look, it wouldn’t be a Mariners Spring Training without questions about the cold corner. The returners haven’t changed their circumstances much since 2018 - Ryon Healy is still huge, over-aggressive, and hits too many grounders. Daniel Vogelbach is still strong as an ox, clumsy defensively, and the proud owner of a AAA BB% (20.4%) nearly as high as Healy’s K% (21.6%). No hitter not named Guerrero Jr. has less left to prove in the minors than Vogey, so once again he’ll have to sink or swim in the bigs.

Entering the fray are two new contenders: Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacíon. The two veterans have shown on the opposite ends of the spectrum so far this spring, with Bruce looking fully healthy after a nagging hip injury sapped his athleticism last year. I’ve been mildly encouraged by his play thus far, delivering a steady diet of line drives up the middle. We’ve yet to see the power manifest in dingers, but the longer a player’s MLB track record, the more leeway I’m willing to grant their spring numbers, be they good or bad.

Speaking of bad, Encarnacíon has racked up a dismal array of plate appearances, seeming confused by the concept of pitches on the outer half of the plate. I’m not too concerned, as few players have shown a more consistent bat over the past decade than EE. Still, a 36-year-old who slipped in production last year, and has been suddenly shipped from a competitor he chose to a re-builder he did not is a possible recipe for frustration.

Prediction: Vogelbach, Bruce, and Encarnacíon all make the Opening Day roster, and carry through to Boston. Healy has been talking the talk with regards to working on patience and elevating the ball with new hitting coach Tim Laker, but Healy has minor league options remaining, while Vogelbach doesn’t. Compounding things, Joey Curletta has an oblique injury that has kept him out of camp, and may well linger into the season. There are reps to be had for Healy to continue his adjustments in Tacoma, splitting time with Eric Filia at 1B and DH just down I-5. Once Encarnacíon and/or Bruce are dealt, both big lads can co-exist in the bigs again.

Shortstop

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at San Diego Padres Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

There’s been little debate on whether Tim Beckham or J.P. Crawford would break camp as the team’s opening shortstop, but ostensibly Crawford could’ve made it a competition by tearing the cover off the ball from day one. He has not, and while that’s hardly an indictment of his future potential, he’s given the Mariners more than enough cover to stash him in the minors for a month or two (and earn an extra year of control over his contract by extension).

Prediction: A lot of Kyle Seager ranging to his left to get a ball? Tim Beckham is not great on defense, folks.

Utility

MLB: Spring Training-Seattle Mariners at Oakland Athletics
“Can you talk to Scott for me”
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

This is a position battle for approximately 29-30 teams every year, and the Mariners are no different. Once Dee Gordon was anointed a full-time 2B again, the race seemed to narrow to two names: Kristopher Negrón and Dylan Moore. Negrón has the inside track for Opening Day, as he’s got MLB experience, reportedly a more capable true UTIL in both the IF and OF, and definitely has compromising bank statements of someone in the front office a veteran presence. The 33-year-old will likely force Moore to Tacoma, where he’ll play all over the field for the second straight season. He’s 26 and more reedy than powerful, but with his fourth franchise in five years as a pro Moore should see MLB work if any injuries strike the infield.

Forcing his way into the conversation has been new acquisition Shed Long. Like Braden Bishop, Long has yet to hit above AA, but his bat has long been viewed as an MLB-quality tool. The 23-year-old former catcher is getting the UTIL treatment from the Mariners, working in at his most-recent position of 2B, as well as both corner OF spots and 3B. The 5’8 firecracker generates exceptional bat speed despite his size, so the big development point will be on the defensive end. His arm is strong enough to handle third, if not excel, and his speed is plenty for the outfield, though familiarity will take time. For that reason, though Long might be a superior player already, getting playing time every day in Tacoma will likely be his initial role.

Prediction: Kristopher takes the lead as a UTIL, especially until Mallex Smith returns, but Shed is the first of the position player prospects to be called up (assuming Bishop starts the year on the roster) and it doesn’t take until September.