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Mariners 2020 Spring Training preview: Infield

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Veteran presences mix with a group of young’uns

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

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 talked about the outfielders; this week, Tim and I talk about the infield group. -NB

Nathaniel Baird: Tim, this is a super fun group because there is an interesting blend of players who have nearly a decade of MLB experience and players who haven’t played above AA all figuring to be fighting for an Opening Day spot. There also appear to be more than a few more-than-competent options for the utility spot, which should be one of the most prominent battles to watch, so this position group figures to have lots to talk about. One of the most interesting storylines that we can begin to get a glimpse of ST is Dee Gordon’s playing time. While Dipoto himself has said that Shed Long will be given most of the reps at second base, it remains unknown where the former Gold Glove winner figures to spend most of his time. What do you think this cluster will look like during the spring?

Tim Cantu: During ST I think we’ll see the usual arrangement with starters getting their time in for an inning or two, then backups, then on down the line. For Dee Gordon, that means he should expect to enter in the third inning of most games, although given that most starters take a day off every few days from game play, he ought to pick up his fair share of starts. In the meantime, one easy thing to keep an eye on is the club’s reported interest in returning him to the outfield at least occasionally. Between games and practices, we should have ample reporting of what he’s up to and how often he’s heading to the outfield and can gauge how serious they really are about that. Overall, though, the club has consistently claimed they see 2B as Shed Long’s job, and I expect to see him treated as an established starter when it comes to playing time decisions.

NB: Yeah, I certainly expect to see him spend time in the outfield, which I personally am unreasonably excited to see again. It’ll also be fun to see him pick up time at short again after not playing there much since he was with the Dodgers. While I certainly hoped that Dee would be traded this off-season, I’m happy that his presence will still be able to be felt across the team in 2020. His locker room presence and mentorship certainly seemed invaluable last season and should help club morale for a team that figures to both be incredibly young and incredibly bad during the upcoming season. Now let’s talk about Dee’s replacement, Shed Long. He showed off an impressive bat during his cup of coffee last season. With that being said, the verdict is still out on Shed’s main knock as a prospect, the fear that he wouldn’t be able to stick long term at any one position. What, to you, would signify a successful spring training from Shed and what would make you not as sure about Shed heading into the regular season?

TC: That’s a great question, and by that I mean I have no idea how to answer it. I’m not much of a believer in spring training stats—I like to see concrete evidence of a difference in process or approach, and even then take it with a grain of salt—so it’s hard for me to say Shed could do much to swing me either way this spring. Shed has had some defensive questions surrounding him, and got just 210 innings at second base last year, so seeing him show some good range at the keystone would be a nice sign. The bigger thing, and this does feel like somewhat of a cop-out, is just to stay healthy. I don’t view him as an injury risk long-term but he seemed to really be disrupted by a couple stints on the Injured List in 2019. A full spring where he can work as much and for as long as he and the club want him to would be a great start to his year and leave me feeling good that we’ll be getting the full Shed Long Jr. experience come Opening Day.

NB: I totally agree, in anything in life, the best ability is availability. I personally have grappled quite a bit with how much weight to put on ST and that was a huge reason that I wanted to do this series. While it’s hard to really gain much insight from batting numbers in ST, defense travels levels quite a bit better. I really hope that in 2020 the Ms will limit Shed’s appearances in left field and allow Perry Hill to work his magic with Shed at second, which of course begins in the spring. Let’s move to one of Hill’s most notable success’ last year: JP Crawford. There was word from Dipoto and JP himself that one of his big goals this off-season was putting on some weight in hopes of adding durability and power. While he obviously won’t turn up to Peoria looking like Nelson Cruz, it will be fun to see if JP is able to add a bit extra pop to his bat. What are you looking to see from JP heading into 2020 and beginning in ST?

TC: I have no idea what to make of JP overall. I’m not sure he has the upside you might expect from someone with his prospect rankings, but the defensive gains he made under Perry Hill mean I think there’s a very high floor there overall, with the potential for more—something of a 3-4 win player and occasional all-star—thanks to the defensive improvements. As John Trupin has ably noted, JP’s errors were always of a relatively fixable sort and he had the athleticism to make it all work. Last year, we saw that come together, which means the bat is basically what determines what he’ll be. Like Shed, being healthy would go a long way—you can’t really overstate what it means to a young guy to have a consistent daily routine so he can focus on the important parts of his game and process without worrying about trying to settle in, get comfortable and so on.

NB: I also have had a hard time figuring out what to expect from JP. I was happy with his improvement defensively last year and am excited to see it continue to be a staple of his game for years to come; however, I was definitely hoping that there would be a couple of more strides made with the bat and while he did get hot at times he was never really able to put it together. Going into ST I am excited to see if he’s put on more weight and if that will allow him to put some more balls away while still maintaining good movement abilities in the infield. Let’s stick with another young guy who also projects to be a plus plus defender, Evan White. Coming out of last season I don’t think many people thought that the starting first base job heading into 2020 would essentially be his to lose. Watching him find his footing with the big league club figures to be one of the most exciting and interesting parts of this year’s Spring Training. What do you think White needs to do to lock the starting role up, and alternatively what do you think other guys like Vogey or Nola could do to make the job theirs heading into 2020?

TC: Is it a hot take to say “have a pulse”? Lip service about a competition aside, I don’t believe the Mariners are interested in bothering to have Evan in what we will generously call the uncertain environment of AAA, juiced ball and all. I expect him to be the Opening Day 1B as long as he is healthy, and if not then, as soon as he recuperates. With White, of course, health is something of a question as he has shown something of a tendency to pick up nagging lower body injuries. As you note, it would have been a surprise to see him here just a year ago, but one $24mm commitment later, it’s time for him to use those dollar bills as a floatation device as the M’s throw him into the deep end of the pool.*

* It’s possible I don’t have a firm grasp on either swimming or analogies.

Vogey and Nola? Well, I guess I just answered that, but given the club’s comments about Nola and some of the scouting reports, I expect to see far more of Nola behind the plate than down the line—they seem to really believe in him as a catcher. Vogey’s bat may also have a service done to it by White’s defense—DH penalty notwithstanding, for a player who all parties acknowledge struggled with getting inside his own head during slumps in 2019 (Note: I relate to this big time, Daniel Taylor Vogelbach), dropping one of his weaker tools entirely may help him unlock some more consistency at the plate.

NB: Yeah, like you said the bar for White to reach is extremely low; however if he really does appear lost out there there is always the chance that a crack at the big leagues now could hurt his ego and even worse, stunt his growth. With this being said, I doubt that this will happen with White Claw and am looking forward to seeing him getting acclimated to the big leagues.

As for Vogey, he figures to be one of the more interesting storylines throughout the 2020 season simply because I don’t know exactly what I can expect from him (bad defense and the occasional dinger aside). If he’s able to put together a first half akin to his start last year he could hopefully net the Mariners something (anything?); however, after spending much of the past two years as a proud resident on Vogey-Island I am certainly starting to lose faith and would not like to see him take any innings away from Evan for sake of both development and my eyes. Before we get into the UTIL debate, are there any other players you are looking forward to seeing roam the infield in Peoria this spring?

TC: With the usual spring training blah blah caveats I am really curious to see Kyle Seager. While he doesn’t exactly align with the team’s window, a year ago he was viewed (mistakenly!) as borderline dead weight, on a precipitous three-year decline at the plate that left him relying on his now-elite glove at third to put up positive WAR totals, bottoming out at a wRC+ of just 83 in 2018. Even with a hand injury in spring training, and a corresponding slow start to his season, he put up his best season on a WAR/600 basis since 2016. In the second half he was even more torrid, posting a 129 wRC+. It hardly needs to be said that Kyle and his contract look like a very different proposition at this point than they did 365 days ago. Rather than a “poison pill”, the option attached to his contract looks like a markedly better deal (and is potentially a reasonably good value for Kyle as well, since he’ll be exercising that option prior to his age 34 season.) I’ll be watching Kyle in Spring Training and in the opening weeks of the season to see if he’s continued to reverse his decline and give the Mariners a potentially valuable deadline trade chip.

NB: While I didn’t ever think it made much sense to trade Seager this off-season, with a good showing in ST and the first month of the season or so, this could be a great opportunity for the Ms to be willing to take on some money to move Seager for a prospect with potential.

We’ll finish this up by having you predict the INF plus UTIL and DH and their fWAR over the course of the season, having you make your guess at each position at Opening Day, All-Star Break, and finally for the final game of the season

TC:

OK fine—

Season WAR

White Claw: 2.9 fWAR

Shed Long: 0.7 fWAR

Kyle Seager: 2.4 fWAR, traded

JP Crawford: 2.2 fWAR

Dan Vogelbach: 1.7 fWAR

Dylan Moore: 0.8 fWAR and one (1) pitching appearance

Dee Gordon: 0.1 fWAR

Tom Murphy: 2.5 fWAR

Opening Day

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Kyle Seager; SS: JP Crawford; C: Tom Murphy; DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Dylan Moore/Dee Gordon

ASB:

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Kyle Seager; SS: JP Crawford; C: Tom Murphy; DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Dylan Moore/Dee Gordon

Final Game:

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Patrick Wisdom [The thing about the M’s infield is there’s just no reason to expect a lot of change. Even if players flop, there isn’t much to suggest they’ll do anything other than let guys play through struggles, because there’s very little infield depth in the organization. So, in lieu of all that, I’m choosing to believe Kyle Seager goes ham and earns a trade to a contender, giving him the playoff baseball he so richly deserves. Farewell, bald prince. We’ll always have your wretchedly ugly Beavis and Butthead hat.]; SS: JP Crawford; C: Tom Murphy; DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Dylan Moore/Tim Lopes [I cannot see a scenario where Dee Gordon ends the year as a Mariner, if nothing else so they can have his 40-man spot.]

NB:

SEASON fWAR

White Claw: 3.1 fWAR ~ I have Evan White having a really good season this year and possibly making a bid for AL rookie of the year. His bat has been downplayed since forever and his numbers last season were definitely suppressed as bit at good ole Dickey-Stephens park. His defense also figures to pull that figure up quite a bit as well.

Shed Long: 2.0 fWAR ~ Shed put up an impressive .7 fWAR in just 42 games last season which would have put him on track to net 2.7 per 162. The steamer projections have him falling well short of that at 1.4 fWAR for 2020, while I don’t think he’ll be able to put together a full season like his 2019 appearances, I have him still putting up a number that would have placed him third on last years Mariner team.

Kyle Seager: 2.2 fWAR

JP Crawford: 2.5 fWAR

Dan Vogelbach: 1.2 fWAR

Dylan Moore: 0.6 fWAR

Dee Gordon: 0.2 fWAR ~ traded, considering that Dee put up .5 fWAR in essentially a full season last season.

Tom Murphy: 2.0 fWAR ~ I have a hard time not seeing him regress a bit after his breakout season last year.

Opening Day

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Kyle Seager; SS: JP Crawford; C: Tom Murphy; DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Patrick Wisdom/Dee Gordon (I still think that they carry Nola primarily at backup catcher leaving them with eight inf types, four outfielders and 13 pitchers leaving them with one open spot on the 26 man roster that I hope they use on a sixth rotation arm)

ASB:

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Kyle Seager; SS: JP Crawford; C: Tom Murphy; DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Patrick Wisdom ~ No Dee Gordon here because I think that they’ll be able to find a team to take him around this time.

Final Game:

1B: White Claw; 2B: Shed Long; 3B: Kyle Seager (While I’d love to see Seager moved, I just don’t there ever being a real market for him considering his poison pill. The only way I could see him being traded would be as a favor to Seagz but I just don’t really see that happening.); SS: JP Crawford; C: Cal Raleigh (I have Cal getting called up for a September cup of coffee with batterymate Logan Gilbert); DH: Vogelbach; UTIL: Patrick Wisdom

Thanks for doing this with me, Tim, it was fun looking at this young group heading into 2020. Like most all position groups on this roster, there is a lot of uncertainty; however the trend of young players finally arriving from afar continues from last week with the OF. Hopefully guys like JP, Shed and Evan White can progress a bit throughout the season and obviously, it all starts in Spring Training.