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40 in 40: Kyle Seager

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The Secret Life of the North Carolina Major League Veteran

Seattle Mariners Photo Day Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

Assuming he isn’t traded before March 26th, Kyle Seager is about to begin his 10th season with the Seattle Mariners. We’ve spent years examining the tragedy of Felix Hernandez, the Mariners’ homegrown player who chose to stay with the team year after year. The player who never got to the postseason. The one we dreamed of watching clinch a World Series title.

Kyle Seager finds himself in the same position. He is the second-best homegrown Mariner in the past two decades. Like Félix, he stayed with us. And now he finds himself stuck in Seattle, waiting out a rebuild that won’t include him at the end, with a “poison pill” (a clause in his contract that turns a club option into a player option if he is traded worth between $15-20 million) that was supposed to give him more control over where he played.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners
2011 Kyle Seager gazes innocently out at the future.
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

In his pictures this spring you still see the eager-eyed, round-faced Kyle who made his major league debut in 2011, looking as though he could slot into a local little league lineup just as well. You also see that same face has matured and been etched with 9 years of major league seasons. It’s the same face that swore at Jered Weaver, in perhaps Seager’s most memorable Mariners moment. It’s a face that wonders why he’s still on a team that clearly doesn’t need him.

Follow me to the beginning for a moment. Seager was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2009 June draft. Two of his teammates at the University of North Carolina were also drafted by the Mariners, Dustin Ackley in the 1st round (2nd overall, don’t forget) and Brian Moran in the 7th round. Moran made his major league debut last season for the Miami Marlins (and struck out his brother, Colin Moran of the Pittsburgh Pirates), leaving Ackley as the sole member of the UNC trio to be out of baseball 11 years later.

Ackley was the one who was supposed to do big things. He was named Baseball America’s #1 Mariners prospect after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. He made his major league debut in June of 2011, ready to set the Mariners on the path to contention. Seager lagged behind his college teammate, ranked by Baseball America as the Mariners’ #30 prospect after 2009. He did jump up to the ranks to #9 after the 2010, which earned the note from Baseball America that “Seager profiles best as a utility player.”

Seager grew up playing shortstop. As a Yankees fan (he had family from New York, so he went against the local grain of Braves fandom), he idolized Derek Jeter. Seager played a few games at second and short in the minor leagues, but like Jeter he lacked the range for the middle infield. Seager found his home at third. His major league debut quietly followed Ackley’s a few weeks later.

There was Dustin Ackley, the Mariners’ savior. Smooth, quiet, gazing out from expressive eyes (I distinctly remember a friend of mine commenting many times that Ackey’s eyes penetrated his soul). Then came Seager, Ackley’s youthful, gawky, “aw shucks, just happy to be here” teammate.

But Ackley’s career path took him from savior to the symbol of a franchise that couldn’t develop players. He is the player frequently referenced when fans say they just can’t let themselves get excited about the current crop of Mariners prospects. In contrast, Kyle Seager initially felt like an afterthought, the Robin to Ackley’s Batman. But Seager continued to grow as a baseball player. As Ackley faded, Seager bloomed.

There’s so much more to Seager’s origin story than simply shucking off Ackley’s shadow. His Southern sensibilities belie a fierceness that has lurked beneath his good manners and positive outlook. I’m generally loath to stereotype, but my grandmother was from the South and she had a way of completely and utterly dunking on someone with words that outwardly sounded so nice. It’s a skill I’ve seen in many Southerners and I find myself searching Seager’s quotes for what he’s really saying.

Of course Seager has never really been the focus of the fans and the media. There was always Félix Hernandez to play the role of the Ancient Mariner. There were stars that came in and out-shone his, the Cruzes and Canós, and in the wider baseball world, his brother Corey. There was Mike Zunino, who fans rooted to overcome his rough major league start and become the homegrown star we wanted him to be. Through managerial changes and re-imaginings and 5-year plans, Seager has been a constant. He has been through the ringer of Mariners baseball and it’s why he can say with resignation that he understands baseball is a business. Now the spotlight is on him, not because he’s going to save the Mariners, but because everyone is wondering when he’s going to leave.

After all those figurative winters in Seattle, this year was his first literal winter here. He moved his family’s home base from North Carolina to Issaquah so that he could be with his family during the season when his son started kindergarten last fall. Yet, there were rumors that he was willing to restructure his contract and get rid of the poison pill in order to make himself into a more appealing trade piece. It’s hard to imagine that he really wants to stay here and help with the rebuild. It’s like when the company you work for decides to restructure and eliminate your position, but they want you to stay on for a bit so the people taking over your responsibilities can learn what you do. You stay on because you need to find another job and you don’t want to acquire the reputation of being a difficult employee, but you secretly want to channel Seager’s outburst toward Weaver:

He puts such a positive spin on the way he speaks to the media, and he doesn’t take to social media accounts to share his views with the world. They’re tightly tucked beneath his Kyle Seager-ness. As we saw with the at bat against Weaver in 2015, there’s some real cantankerousness lurking underneath, the thoughts and opinions you know he’s keeping out of view. As much as I try to read between the lines of what he says, it isn’t fair to interpret for someone else what you think they’re really trying to say.

When you look at his face, there is certainly still the 2011 Kyle Seager there. You also see a face that will one day sit in a rocking chair on a porch in North Carolina, cranky and lined with perspective, ready to share the dark secrets about his former life as a major league baseball player.

Seattle Mariners v Baltimore Orioles
2019 Kyle Seager. He’s seen some things. He’ll be excited to share them someday.
Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

For now, he tells the media, “If something’s not working, you have to make changes and do what’s best for the Mariners.” For now, we wait to learn when he will leave.

For now, he is our Ancient Mariner, and one day, he will have an epic story to tell.