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40 in 40: Jake Fraley

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After a rough trial run, Fraley looks to bounce back in a big way in 2020

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Texas Rangers
The Loving Lumberjack
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

The second piece of the Mariners’ first big trade last offseason, signaling the firesale that would ensue, Jake Fraley had an up and down 2019 season. While his trade counterpart, Mallex Smith, would slot right into center field for the Mariners, Fraley still needed some seasoning in the minor leagues. Traded for former top pick Mike Zunino and fan favorite Guillermo Heredia, Jerry Dipoto made a strong effort to ensure that Fraley would be a part of the trade.

After being drafted by the Rays 77th overall in 2016, Fraley’s first taste of the minors in short season was a success, as the LSU product skipped rookie ball and headed straight to the New York-Penn League. After a slow start, Fraley caught fire in August, and finished the season with a wRC+ of 115 for the Hudson Valley Renegades. The following season, Fraley again jumped, this time bypassing A-ball and heading straight to High-A Charlotte, but was never able to fully get right after an early-season knee injury.

After an underwhelming 2017 season where he spent much of the season either injured or whiffing, Fraley made a swing change that put an emphasis on putting more loft in his swing and meeting the ball further in front of the plate, helping to unlock some much needed additional power. In his following stints with the ABL (Australian Baseball League) and A+ Florida League, Fraley hit the cover off the ball, hitting .347 with an OPS of .962 stateside, and becoming an ABL legend.

Fraley gives his swing coach, Lorenzo Garmendia, credit for the overhaul in his swing that allowed him to drive the ball better: “why I sucked,” says Fraley, “and what I needed to change.”

This success continued once he was in the Mariners, as he jumped two levels with the M’s while starting the season in AA Modesto. After turning in an excellent 156 wRC+ in AA, Fraley was promoted to AAA Tacoma, where he turned in a serviceable 104 wRC+ in just 38 appearances with the team. Yet even though he earned Texas League All-Star Player of the Month honors, for the most part Fraley wasn’t all too sure as to how he was doing or how his numbers looked. When asked about how he felt he was playing in a June interview, his answer was short and simple:

“I have no idea how I’m doing”.

As numbers and analytics in baseball are becoming, not only commonplace, but huge tools for success, this approach is an unorthodox one. “It allows me to really take a step back and not really press about something as simple as a baseball game,” said Fraley. “Understand that it’s a blessing that I have to go out there and enjoy it but also understanding that in 20 years I’m not going to be able to suit up anymore. So it really allows me to relax a little bit and understand what truly matters.”

This approach to the game began after Fraley missed extended time during his first two seasons with a fluky knee injury and a toe injury the following year. “All of these guys that are making their decision on your career, they’re looking at all these intangibles and things you can’t control,” Fraley said. “So when you start seeing that those things are just as important as those at-bats, then you allow yourself to take a step back and see the bigger picture and realize that all of it matters.” This “every at-bat matters” approach clicked for Fraley as he rode his success all the way to the Majors for a late August call up.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays
Maybe this way one of the 6 of 40 he actually hit....
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Yet here is where the up part of Jake Fraley’s season ended and the down part of it began. Albeit an extremely small sample size of 12 games and 41 plate appearances, Jake Fraley had possibly the worst stretch of any player to suit up for the 2019 M’s. In his stints with Arkansas and Tacoma, Fraley walked at a slightly below average rate of 7.7% and struck out at an average rate of 20.7%. In Fraley’s 12 games and 41 PA’s with the M’s he didn’t walk once and struck out 14 times, or 34.1%. Clearly with these kinds of numbers on the plate you couldn’t expect a positive impact with the bat with Fraley, hitting just .150 while going 6-40 and turning an abysmal -5 wRC+. It’s the tiniest of sample sizes, but unfortunately Fraley never got a chance to establish any rhythm at the big-league level, as his MLB stint was put to an end fifteen games short of the end of the regular season when he sprained his thumb while chasing down a flyout and coming into contact with trade partner Mallex Smith.

Defensively, Jake Fraley projects to be an above average center fielder, as his speed is one of his most impressive traits. However during his cup of coffee in the majors, these skills didn’t seem to translate particularly well, as at times it appeared he would simply get lost in the many different Major League outfields that he was unused to playing in. Fraley showed flashes of his rangy defensive abilities while in the bigs last season but couldn’t always put it together in the few innings he played. He is, of course expected to rise closer to the level of defense that he showcased in the Mariners minor league system, which is a must, even if his bat is able to click right away.

Seattle Mariners v Chicago Cubs
Its unclear as to if Jake ever actually left the ivy during his time in the majors.
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

At times, however, Fraley was able to show off his above-average speed and come up with some impressive catches in the outfield:

His speed came in handy on the basepaths during his time in the minors as he was able to steal 22 bases between Modesto and Tacoma, although he was also caught seven times, a success rate that would need to improve if he’s to be a threat on the bases in MLB.

Looking towards the 2020 season, Fraley figures to have had a full offseason to train and put muscle on as he has been able to get back to 100 percent after his sprained thumb. In Spring Training Fraley must come out hitting at a much higher clip than his cup of coffee in the majors to maintain a name for himself in Seattle’s increasingly crowded outfield. Center and right field are virtually locked down as Mallex Smith and Mitch Haniger figure to occupy those two positions long term for the M’s. Left field is less set in stone and could come down to a Spring Training battle between Fraley and Kyle Lewis, with Braden Bishop in the mix as a fourth outfielder/bench role. Kyle Lewis,So with this being said, it appears that the ideal goal for Fraley entering Spring Training and the 2020 M’s season would be locking down the fourth outfielder spot and continuing to improve offensively and properly acclimate himself defensively. The only real competition that Fraley will likely face for the fourth OF role would be fellow recent prospect graduate, Braden Bishop. Typically, due to his innate defensive capabilities, Bishop would be a more typical fourth OF type. Yet Bishop doesn’t have near the offensive potential that Fraley has who also still possess more than serviceable defensive ability.

MLB: SEP 05 Mariners at Astros
Outside Looking In
Photo by Leslie Plaza Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With prospect wunderkids Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez rocketing through the minors and slated to make their major league debuts by the end of this season or the early part of next, Fraley must figure out his approach quickly; otherwise he will likely be the one of the odd men looking in at Seattle’s looming outfield logjam.