When Donnie Walton stood at second base in Seattle for one inning on September 10th, he made history. Becoming the record 65th different player in one season to put on a Mariners uniform isn’t exactly the most prestigious honor, but for Walton, it represented a culmination of a big year, with more hopefully to come.
Walton was plucked out of Oklahoma State after his senior year in the fifth round of the 2016 draft, and is just the second position player drafted under Jerry Dipoto to reach the bigs so far. He’s followed a pretty standard route through the minors, breaking in with a nice showing at Everett in 2016 before skipping Clinton for Modesto the following season. After an injury-shortened campaign ended with just a 99 wRC+, Walton repeated there to open 2018. He lit up the Cal League in his second tour of duty, and earned a promotion to Double-A midway through the year. While Walton’s 83 wRC+ and .236/.325/.327 slash in his first 62 games at Arkansas wasn’t eye-popping, he continued to show solid plate discipline and a strong glove at second base.
In 2019, the departure of Yonathan Mendoza left a hole at shortstop for Arkansas, which Walton filled and proceeded to break out by nearly every measure. Entrenched at leadoff for much of the year, his slash line of .300/.390/.427 was good for a strong 134 wRC+, and he didn’t fall victim to the cavernous Dickey-Stephens Park nearly as often as some of his teammates. His power arrived in a big way, bashing eleven homers - more than double his previous career high - with nearly equal distribution at home and on the road, and he also ripped 22 doubles, including this one on a 99 MPH heater:
We should probably be talking about Donnie Walton more as a prospect, and by we I mean everyone. Here he is turning around 99 mph for a two-run double deep in the gap. pic.twitter.com/WXS5JyZi5d— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) September 1, 2019
The 12.9% strikeout rate was the lowest he put up since his stint in short-season ball, and his walk rate at 11.3% is just a hair under his career high of 11.7% during his second go-around in Modesto. Combine that with plus defense at a premium position...
Donnie Walton has been watching that J.P. Crawford play, it seems, as he makes this excellent play that both ends second inning and bails out Justin Dunn from having a run score after a runner reached second on a two-base error: pic.twitter.com/gxgMSZ5rfH— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) July 31, 2019
...and Walton delivered 6.6 WARP - good for tops in Double-A and seventh in all of affiliated baseball relative to their level.
Yeah, being right between Mookie Betts and Christian Yelich will work.
He rightfully earned a September call-up, but unfortunately played sparingly, getting into just seven games (five starts) and collecting nineteen plate appearances despite a slumping J.P. Crawford and a superfluous Dee Gordon getting the lion’s share of middle infield time. While his slash line of .188/.316/.188 in that sample doesn’t jump off any pages, Walton was able to show a solid eye, working a trio of walks to five strikeouts, and notched his first two big league RBIs. Not bad for sitting on the bench most of the month! His glove was as advertised, too, and he won the Minor League Gold Glove at short:
With a crowded utility battle including Gordon, Dylan Moore, Tim Lopes, Sam Haggerty, and Patrick Wisdom brewing in Mariners camp, Walton’s path to the big league roster in 2020 looks a little murky. As a left-handed hitter, he wouldn’t be able to platoon with J.P. Crawford should the latter’s struggles against lefties continue, and he doesn’t have the power potential of Moore or Wisdom, nor Haggerty’s blazing speed. Still, though, there’s a strong case that Walton is the best defender out of that group, and should anything befall Crawford he’s likely to be among the first choices up from Tacoma.