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20 questions for the 2020 Mariners

What lies ahead, what lies beneath

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The NFL season has concluded, the calendar has flipped to February, and the weather outside is...well, it’s currently snowing, so that’s not Great For the Narrative, but just imagine we’re getting our usual early-spring drizzle laced with the smell of grocery-store hyacinths being enthusiastically installed near front doors. Spring Training kicks off semi-officially in just a matter of days, when pitchers and catchers show up under the bright skies of Peoria. While projection systems have confirmed what Mariners fans have known since last year—this team will not win a lot of games—there are other, unknowable things projection systems can’t catch, but we find ourselves pondering nonetheless. These are questions that mostly won’t have answers until spring has worn into summer, or longer still, which is a reminder that the foremost lesson baseball has to teach us is patience. Still, here are some things we’ll be revisiting over the course of the season. Feel free to drop your own queries below.

When will Mitch Haniger be back, and how long will it take him to bounce back to Mitch-like levels of production...if he can?

Frustratingly, this is a question that will have to be tabled for many months. Haniger just underwent sports hernia surgery, per Jerry Dipoto, and there is no timetable for his return, although it now seems likely he’ll miss not only all of Spring Training, but also a good chunk of April. Haniger hasn’t played in an MLB game since June 6 of 2019, so even if he makes it back by late April or early May, expect a lengthy slate of minor-league rehab appearances and a good deal of rust.

Will Vogelbach pull out of his second-half tailspin?

Scott Servais mentioned in the Media Day presser that he’d spent some time with Vogelbach this off-season, and one thing he had talked about was teaching himself to be in a better headspace when things were going poorly, recognizing that his own attitude had been a factor in his struggles last year. That’s encouraging to hear, but we’ll have to see how it plays out when or if Vogey runs into a similar roadblock this year. For his happy-go-lucky persona, Vogelbach is one of the hardest workers on the team, devoting many hours to film study; hopefully he’s also spent some time on the mental skills aspect the Mariners like to emphasize.

Can Justus Sheffield be a reliable member of the rotation?

Sheff had some rocky moments in his flagon-of-coffee with the Mariners in 2019, but also showed some promising flashes. He’ll need to continue refining his control—which, according to multiple people within the organization, is an outcropping of Sheff getting “too amped” on the mound—and working his changeup in as a credible third pitch. The state of the changeup should hopefully become clearer in Spring Training, but we’ll have to wait until the regular season to see if Sheffield has successfully harnessed his nerves.

Is Justin Dunn a starter?

This is one of the big ones, and one that won’t be answered until Dunn takes the mound and tries to work through an MLB order two or three times. Dunn has plenty of doubters—Keith Law, for one—who see him as a two-pitch reliever. Like potential rotation-mate Justus Sheffield, Dunn has accomplished what he needs to in the minor leagues; he could be sent off for further polishing at Tacoma, but what he really needs to do is test out his stuff against the game’s best and learn on a big-league mound, at which point we’ll have more clarification about what Dunn’s MLB role will be.

Who gets traded?

After Marco Gonzales signed his extension, there was a rash of comments noting how tradeable the contract was. While that’s certainly not out of the question, especially if the rebuild hits a bump in the road tar pit, the Mariners are starting to lock up the pieces of what they view as their core, all of whom are extremely unlikely trade candidates with the exception possibly of Jake Fraley or Kyle Lewis, given the outfield logjam. Anyone else, of course, is fair game. (The Mariners might be trying to move Kyle Seager, but his contract makes that outcome highly unlikely, and additionally, now the 3B market has two unhappy stars on it in Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado.)

What will happen with Shed Long and Dee Gordon re: playing time?

No part of the Mariners roster is stickier than the 2B logjam. Dee hasn’t been playing well enough to get traded, but it’s important to get Shed Long major league reps at second. Maybe while Haniger is out Long sees some time in the outfield, although that isn’t ideal for his development, and by the time Haniger is able to return the problem has sorted itself out somehow. The Mariners aren’t offering a lot of insight on this one, and with plenty of at-bats to go around in spring there likely won’t be a ton more clarity on it until after they break camp. Time to bring back the old player-coach role, in my opinion.

Who gets a barrel sooner: Mallex or Dee?

Both Mallex and Dee rank in the absolute bottom in MLB for barrels—Mallex at under 2%, and Dee at under (way under) 1%. (A barrel, as a refresher, is a hit with a very high percentage of doing damage, exit velocity/launch angle result in a .500+ batting average and a 1.500+ slugging percentage.) If Dee loses playing time to Shed Long, that will put him at a distinct disadvantage in the race not to be last in barrels.

Is Evan White a major leaguer?

Given his defense alone, the answer to this is probably yes, but obviously the Mariners are hoping for more from their first-rounder. Having watched White improve at every step of the minors, and along with the exit velo data that has trickled out over his MiLB career, I feel strongly about betting the over on White, and don’t think it will take him long to show he belongs.

Who wins the battle between Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley?

This is one that should resolve itself sooner rather than later, as both should have ample playing time while Haniger is on the shelf. Once Haniger is ready to return, however, the two prospects will likely tussle over regular left field duties, with the other being sent to Tacoma to get regular looks there.

How far can Yusei Kikuchi bounce back?

It will not be hard for Kikuchi to improve on his mostly-miserable 2019; he will be aided, ideally, with lessened stress, both family-wise and overall adjustment-wise. But it’s important to Kikuchi’s career—and the stated timeline for the rebuild—that he not just eke over the low bar of his 2019, but sail over it with room to spare. If Kikuchi flounders in Spring Training, prepare yourself for the discourse to be Generally Unpleasant.

Who will close games?

Most of the questions on this list cause me some degree of stress. Not this one! The 2020 Mariners won’t find themselves in a plethora of situations requiring a closer, but whoever earns the closer job will immediately become attractive trade bait at the deadline. The Mariners have a pile of relievers, any of whom could break out into a solid back-end option, and very few of whom I’m particularly attached to, making for a perfect low-stress scenario.

Will Tom Murphy regress at the plate?

We’ve pointed to a few potential red flags in Murphy’s offensive profile, namely his extremely high K rate, and the latest is this: according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average tool, no Mariner was a greater beneficiary of opponents’ shoddy infield defensive play than our man Tom, who was gifted five free outs in 2019. (The next closest was J.P. Crawford, with two.) Even if the regression monster is coming for Murphy at the plate, which seems likely, his above-average defense makes him a strong contributor anyway, especially to a team that will run out a swath of new pitching in 2020.

Can J.P. Crawford’s bat catch up with his glove?

After having some shaky defensive moments with the Phillies, it was good to see J.P. settle in at shortstop under the tutelage of Perry Hill, where by the end of the season he had established himself as a consistent defender who could make the occasional splash play. Now Crawford needs to bring a similar consistency with his bat, which was all over the place last year. What really killed J.P. in the second half was groundballs; he pounded the ball into the turf 50% of the time, which resulted in a huge dip in his power numbers and a huge increase in him making outs; when he did put the ball in the air, it wasn’t lovely line drives but easily-caught fly balls (only a 5.3% HR/FB rate). Hopefully with his defensive troubles sorted, J.P. can focus on getting back to his gap-to-gap ways in 2020.

When will we see Jarred Kelenic?

John thinks Kelenic is ticketed for Tacoma, but in my estimation, Kelenic has work to do yet in Double-A. Many of the top-tier pitchers at the level had already been promoted or had their workloads decreased by the time Jarred reached Double-A last year, and several of Kelenic’s home runs came in the friendlier parks to hit in (Amarillo and Springfield). I also think Kelenic would benefit from a good look in Triple-A against some crafty off-speed stuff, as that was something he struggled with when first faced with quality secondary offerings in Modesto. All that being said, if Jarred comes out of the gates quickly in 2020, it’s hard not to see him earning a call-up late in the season, especially as the Mariners are faced with the question...

How will the Mariners get butts in seats?

Canceling FanFest may have been a logistical necessity but didn’t do anything to improve the spirits of a flagging fanbase, and having one of the faces of the franchise out for the foreseeable future is also a blow. The appeal of the team right now is in its youth movement, but aside from a few blog posts, there haven’t been many meaningful opportunities for fans to connect with the future of the team. The team released a limited number of five dollar value game tickets, but a season-long ballpark pass-style ticketing plan has not been released—and maybe, if fan engagement is that low, doesn’t make financial sense for the team anyway. Jarred Kelenic bobblehead night it is, then.

Can Kate count to 20?

This one, at least, can be answered immediately: no.