We’ve hit on catchers and touched on outfielders, so now it’s time to harp on the fellas who work in the dirt. Seattle’s infielders were locked in from day one this year, and looked like what could easily be the strongest position group on the team. Kyle Seager returned to build on his resurgent 2019 season. J.P. Crawford looked to add a bit more bat to his excellent defensive development. Shed Long Jr. hoped to add to his solid start at the big league level. Evan White hoped to make a good impression in his debut following an unprecedented contract extension in leaping straight from AA. Daniel Vogelbach hoped to show more of the first half of 2019 than the second, while Tim Lopes, Dylan Moore, and Dee Gordon rotated for time filling in the holes. Some of those things worked out! But a few rotten seasons spoiled the bunch for the M’s, and inspired some major moves that will impact the club’s long term plans.
2020 Mariners Infielders
|Shed Long Jr.||34||128||50||60||0.533||0.0||-0.2||-0.6|
The good news isn’t hard to find. Kyle Seager played every game of the season, posted the highest walk rate AND the lowest strikeout rate of his career (12.9% and 13.3% respectively), and continued to show his personal reformation physically has paid dividends as he showed undeniably improved foot speed, even swiping five bases in five attempts. Seager played at a four-win pace this year, comfortably in the low-level star strata he’s occupied every year but one since 2012. He’ll be 33 in November, but it’s hard to imagine the M’s have a plan beyond running Kyle out there again in 2021 at minimum. Happily, Seager looks like he’s making that the right call. If the club finds a trade for Seager, they could turn the position over to Ty France, but that seems less likely given Seager’s contract as well as France’s middling defensive reputation.
Seager’s partner on the left side of the infield was J.P. Crawford, who has fulfilled nearly a full season’s worth of games with the Mariners between 2019 and 2020, and looked somewhere between decent and solid. His 145 games and 628 plate appearances have yielded a .237/.322/.359 line for an 89 wRC+ and 2.4 fWAR. Based on the strength of the position league-wide, that makes the 25 year old about on the money for being a league-average shortstop. That leads to two questions: is that good enough, and is that the true talent to expect for the rest of Crawford’s prime? Crawford was brilliant defensively, and Seattle’s got to love what they saw from Crawford in 2020 as he got to work with Evan White at first base. Crawford’s range and length helped him get to many balls, and his arm strength put him in proximity to snag extra outs, but White’s superlative glove turned at least a dozen throws in the area from possible errors into spectacular outs. If the Mariners believe big (but don’t Believe Big) in Crawford, he could be an extension candidate this winter. To get there, they’d no doubt like to see a bit more pop at the plate, as this year’s drop in strikeouts (just 16.8%) paired with a power outage, as he barely outslugged his OBP.
While the left side is settled for 2021 at least, The Keystone is in far more flux. Shed Long Jr. played through a left leg injury all season, which is mildly encouraging in the sense that his struggles may have an explanation, but dispiriting in that he played so poorly the club traded for a possible replacement. Ty France joined the Mariners midseason, and continued his BABIP-fueled brilliance at the dish while splitting time between 2B and 3B. The Mariners seem to see 2B as a position to try and stash an extra impact bat, as both players have hit-first profiles, following the long shadow cast by Robinson Canó at the spot, once upon a time. Casting a far more slender shadow was Dee Strange-Gordon, whose interpersonally-beloved-but-in-game-abhorred Mariners career likely came to an end this September. Gordon by all accounts played an outsized role as a leader in the clubhouse, from sharing his wisdom and expertise on being a Black player in MLB with the Mariners’ swath of young Black rookies and players, to directly helping coach Dylan Moore on improving his contact, which contributed to a breakout season for the young utilityman. Still, his numbers declined once again, making him all but certain to be bought out this winter and put in free agency.
France and Long will likely duke it out for starts at second, but Dylan Moore himself may have played himself into full time reps, with 2B as the clearest opening once Jarred Kelenic debuts, assuming health in the rest of the outfield. For all three players, versatility will likely be an emphasis, but the bat will lead the way thanks to the strength of the defense at the other three positions. That puts Tim Lopes, Sam Haggerty, and Donavan Walton in a tougher spot. Lopes can handle 2B, 3B, and corner outfield, but his softer contact, spray profile needs a lot more balls to land than did this year. Haggerty and Walton can handle shortstop, but with as much competition as there is for reps already, either player could be a candidate for Seattle to try and sneak through waivers as easily as a bench bat next year. If none of the options separate themselves, considering the lack of middle infield depth in Seattle’s system, SS/2B will be a priority in accentuating the club externally down the road, which is a market of multiply shiny opportunities, but heavy competition and expense.
Finally, at first base and DH, things went bad, bad, and worse. Evan White’s debut season might (should) earn him the first of a whole case of Gold Glove Awards. His bat was more copper than bronze, much less Silver, however. White showed clear flashes, with elite exit velocities on his contact, and stretches of shortening up to boost his contact. He drew a respectable number of walks and hit for power to a degree that would be perfectly acceptable in a full season (around a 24-26 HR pace) - IF - he weren’t striking out 41% of the time. Old school or new school, that simply won’t work. I am a hub for Mike Zunino apologia, and a believer that 1B defense is undervalued by most advanced metrics, but in an era of reduced contact rates and increased rates of balls in play being put in the air and not the ground, you need offense from your infielders more than ever. White has the tools to tick in the right direction offensively, and could show marked improvement as soon as next year, but it does have to improve, big time.
If things don’t turn around for White, we could see things spiral like they did for Daniel Vogelbach. The Mariners lone All-Star a year ago, Vogey face-planted hard in 2020, following over half a year of decline. He looked stiff and disjointed, struggling to cover the plate or make decisive swings, and squandering favorable counts despite maintaining his usual high walk rate. Still, it was surprising if not a bit disappointing to see the club cut him loose, particularly as his plate appearances went to similarly ineffectual options that hadn’t shown much reason to expect better. Vogelbach bounced back somewhat with the Brewers after being claimed and cut by the Blue Jays, albeit not enough to balance his ledger fully. His reps were taken, in part, by the slightly more agile José Marmolejos, who might’ve made a decent part of a 2014-2018 M’s 1B platoon in another life. Instead, Marmo showed signs of pop with the bat, but not enough to demand much further inclusion over his minor league resumé. First base is Evan White’s next year, and should be for years to come. He, like the rest of the infield, just need to keep learning on the job.