Now that it’s February, Spring Training is just around the corner, with pitchers and catchers reporting this week. People’s opinions of ST vary: what matters and what doesn’t? It can be hard to figure out what to look for when you have players like Mike Trout and players who would usually be in Double-A sharing the same field. Over the weeks leading up to ST, we’ll be hosting some conversations on the site between myself and the other writers to see what we’ll be looking for this spring from each position group. First up, Eric and I will be talking about the outfielders, where there figure to be some battles heading into the 2020 season. -NB
Nathaniel Baird: This group already had the potential to have a lot of players vying for playing time heading into 2020; however after Mitch Haniger’s injury, there are even more players eyeing a shot to get on the field to start the season. With Kyle Lewis (hopefully) entrenched in left field, Braden Bishop and Jake Fraley figure to be fighting for that last outfield role. Do you think there are any other candidates in the M’s organization that could sneak up and break onto the big league roster to start the year in the outfield?
Eric Sanford: First of all, Mitch’s injury is really disappointing given how long we’ve been patiently waiting for him to be back to 100%. Plus, I will speak for everyone, Mitch included, in saying that we are all ready to stop enduring jokes and references to his testicles. Due to his surgery and having to miss all of Spring Training, I am extremely pessimistic about Haniger having any meaningful contribution to the 2020 Mariners. I hope I’m wrong!
Secondly, as much as my heart wants to agree that Kyle Lewis is a lock for left field, my head is scared to do so due to his inexperience. Don’t get me wrong, I am rooting HARD for K-Lew to kick some ass in ST and then crush 25+ homers in his first full MLB season. But, I am quite glad that the Mariners have outfielders aplenty in case anything goes poorly.
So on that note, yes, I think it’s highly likely we’ll have quite a few dudes patrolling the outfield in 2020, for better or worse. As you mentioned, a Fraley/Bishop platoon seems likely on paper right now, but how that actually pans out is anyone’s guess given both players’ lack of playing time at the MLB level. New acquisition José Siri has a decent chance of cracking the roster if he can pick a swing and stick with it, as do Patrick Wisdom and Sam Haggerty.
Mallex Smith figures to hold down center field all season barring any injuries. His pre-ST injury really set him back in 2019 so I am excited to hopefully see a fully healthy Mallex in action from the get-go. If things get REAL weird and wild in 2020, we could see Jarred Kelenic patrolling center field in September. Really not sure how I feel about that, but if he annihilates Double-A and Triple-A ball (unless he skips it?) then sure, release the beast.
And then of course there are the utility guys like Dylan Moore, Tim Lopes, and...I guess Dee Gordon, all of whom could see time in the outfield. Probably not ideal, but rosters rarely are.
NB: I agree with your stance on Mitch; losing those ST reps will be pretty huge. I think he could get back on the wagon for the rest of the season if he’s able to not miss much more time with injury, which seems, um, unlikely. I certainly hope you’re wrong too but the more time goes by the more I wish that Dipoto found a trade partner for him last offseason.
I am really excited for Mallex’s progression this year. Obviously his injury to start the season did him and his rhythm no favors and he looked lost, but OAA really liked him in center after he settled in, and maybe the offense will take a step forward this year.
I guess I am a bit bullish on my guy K-Lew; I feel like it is his job to lose at this point. What do you think he will have to do in ST to show DipotoCo that he’s ready for his first real shot in the bigs? And on that note, what do you think guys like Fraley, Bishop, new acquisition Jose Siri and, just for fun, Jarred Kelenic would have to show in ST to push their way onto the Opening Day roster?
ES: I agree that left field is Lewis’s job to lose at this point. I mean a disastrous ST at the plate would certainly cost him, but that seems unlikely given both the level of ST pitching he’ll be facing and how well he did the last month of the 2019 season. I’m more worried about how he fares the first 2-3 months of the season in the bigs, but that goes for many of the inexperienced players on the roster at the moment. Time to put ‘em to the test!
I think Fraley needs to be solid in ST to secure his spot (better hit tool and slightly more experience) and Bishop needs to over-perform a little bit because Siri, Wisdom, and the rest of the OF pile guys are going to be gunning for that 4th outfielder spot.
For Kelenic to make the team out of camp, I mean….hit .400 and strike out 5 times? Sure, why not? It would have to be just an absurd performance. Dipoto has been cagey in his quotes on the matter, always dropping qualifiers like “well he’s a special player so we’ll see” when asked about Kelenic’s path to the majors. Seems unlikely to me and not to mention a bit foolish. He is still so young and there is positively no reason to rush him into the majors in a non-competitive season. Same goes for the other big names like Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and so on. Let the kids develop (not a very catchy slogan, we’ll workshop that).
NB: Yeah I don’t think anyone beyond Jarred is thinking that he has much of a shot of breaking camp with the big league team. With that being said, I hope he and Julio get plenty of spring reps against MLB-level competition.
This group will be so much fun to watch this spring training for two reasons: first, because of all of the players we could see getting time at the major league level, and second, that in this position group at the minor league level, we will likely be seeing two franchise cornerstones for years to come.
I think, considering what the big league team looks like right now, some of the most interesting parts of ST will be watching Julio and Jarred play. Personally, my hope is that they’re able have good at-bats and not look like they’re playing up two or three levels while in the box or out in the field. What, to you, would signify a successful spring training from our two top prospects?
ES: Oh my goodness, I am SO excited to see Jarred and Julio play with the big league team this spring after they both had just monster years in the minors in 2019. It was super fun to see them in limited action in 2019 Spring Training, but I expect that they will both spend the majority of the Cactus League season getting the big boy reps. I am very fortunate to get to make a trip to Spring Training this year for 4 games and (hopefully) seeing Julio and Jarred play in person is pretty much the thing I am most excited to witness. I also hope the two of them get some starts in the televised ST games so we all can see them play in sweet, sweet high definition after most of us spent 2019 watching them play on mostly low-quality MiLB.tv feeds of varying peculiar angles.
To me, a successful spring for both players will mean lots of patient at-bats, working deep counts, and plenty of strong contact. I would love to see both of them flash some power here and there, but I’m not going to worry if we see mostly singles and ringing doubles. I’d love to see a healthy amount of walks and I’m crossing my fingers that they keep the strike outs reasonable, even though that may be a tall order. To be clear, 2020 Spring Training is not make or break for either of these players, but I know we’ll all feel better if we see signs of continued development at the plate.
After watching Julio and Jarred play outfield quite a bit in the minors last season, I’m not concerned about their fielding. Both are fundamentally sound and both have the ability to make a flashy catch when they have the opportunity. I honestly think Julio is quicker than most scouts give him credit for, so I’m looking forward to seeing him roam those right field corners with the best of them.
NB: You’re right, this is by no means a make or break Spring Training for either of our young sluggers. It certainly makes you excited for what the future of this team could hold, especially considering that one of our two promising outfield prospects could arrive to the bigs later this season.
I’ll stay in the future for my last question: what do you see the outfield (three starters and one bench player) looking like on Opening Day, first game post All-Star Break, and on September 27, our final game?
ES: Oooh, gonna nail me to some predictions, huh? All right, but you have to promise to not #ColdTakesExposed me later (entire internet laughs). Okay, let’s do this.
Opening Day: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, Jake Fraley, and Braden Bishop on the bench. Barring any further injuries, this seems like the most ideal configuration on paper right now.
First game post-All-Star Break: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, José Siri, and Sam Haggerty on the bench. I have my doubts about Bishop and Fraley being able to either stay healthy or hit well enough to stay at the MLB level, therefore I think Siri and Haggerty will find their way onto the roster more out of necessity than anything else.
Final game of 2020: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, Mitch Haniger, and Jarred Kelenic on the bench (plus Fraley, Siri, Bishop, and Haggerty on the bench because of the expanded roster size). As I mentioned, I hope my pessimism about Mitch’s recovery is wrong and he returns to the team much sooner in 2020, but given the nature of his injury, the setbacks, and the recent core surgery, I have strong doubts. And yes, I do feel strongly that the team gives Jarred his MLB debut in September, assuming he has another banner, injury-free season in the minors.
All right, give us your picks, Nathaniel!
NB: Sounds good, I like your picks! I’m not nearly as pessimistic about Mitch’s injury but it certainly is concerning me quite a bit. Anyways, here are my picks:
Opening Day: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop on the bench. Like you said, this appears to be what the team will be going with out of the gates, barring anything crazy happening. With that being said, I could see Bishop falling out of the mix if he struggles and Siri is able to turn in a really nice ST performance; however, in all likelihood I see Siri being left off the opening day roster.
First Game Post All-Star Break: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, Mitch Haniger and Jake Fraley on the bench. I think that both the M’s and Mitch himself will hurry back onto the field while not necessarily being back to 100%. I agree that Jake and Bish will struggle out of the gate but I think that Fraley will ultimately begin to look like a formidable batter plus I think people tend to overlook his defensive abilities a bit. I do agree though that through injuries and cold spells that Haggerty and Siri will get a good amount of playing time as well.
Final Game of 2020: Kyle Lewis, Mallex Smith, Jarred Kelenic and Fraley off the bench (plus Siri, Bishop, and Haggerty on the bench because of the expanded roster size). My hot take of the article is that through rushing himself back too early, Haniger will end the season on the IL to close out the season, and while I don’t see a major injury for this IL time I think the M’s will just want Mitch to take it easy and finally get back to 100%. While I obviously don’t want this to happen, it will allow Kelenic to have a nice path to playing time that essentially ensures he gets called up for possibly a bit more than a cup of coffee. My other hope is that Fraley is going to really out-perform expectations heading into this season and hopefully give Dipoto and Co some hard decisions to make this next off-season with him and the rest of the OF.
While the outlook on some of the Mariners position groups heading into 2020 is bleak, very few are boring, which rings true for the outfield crew. Obviously it all starts in Spring Training, which is quickly approaching; I’m definitely excited to watch a lot of these battles start to play out.