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Predicting the Mariners’ Opening Day Lineup

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boy, there sure are nine guys here

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

The 2020 Seattle Mariners will begin the season without eight of the nine players who made up their Opening Day lineup in 2019. Seven of those players have either retired, moved on to other teams via free agency, or got traded, while one – Mitch Haniger – will miss the beginning of this stunted season due to a back injury. With a wide-ranging yet inexperienced pool to choose from, the Mariners have the luxury of trying on several different outfits before figuring out which one looks the best.

The only certainties for Opening Day, barring any unforeseen circumstances, are Kyle Seager at third base and Tom Murphy behind the plate. Seager, despite a noticeable decline, has earned that spot as one of the best players to ever wear a Seattle uniform. The 29-year-old Murphy has less than 500 big league plate appearances to his name but proved last season, the first in which he got even semi-regular playing time, that he was more than worthy of a starting spot. With Omar Narváez now honing his craft in Milwaukee, the Mariners’ backstop belongs to this deeply unsettling creature.

Everything else is mostly up for grabs! Seattle’s combination of youth and positional versatility, on top of a power hour season, likely means that guys will be moving around the diamond until they make a forceful claim on any particular position. The same will probably be true of the batting order. Considering last season’s lineup construction, Haniger’s injury, and the team’s desire to see what they’ve got with these first and second-year players, the starting nine will probably shake out something like this:

2B Shed Long Jr.

SS J.P. Crawford

3B Kyle Seager

C Tom Murphy

LF Kyle Lewis

DH Daniel Vogelbach

1B Evan White

CF Mallex Smith

RF Jake Fraley

Hopefully, the smart guy aura the Mariners desperately try to exude will be practiced by not batting Mallex Smith first. Logical baseball thinking has progressed far beyond “fast guy hit first”, and that idea should be followed on an even stricter basis unless Smith finds his swing again. Long was the leadoff hitter for each of the Mariners’ final 17 games last season, with Crawford right behind him for 13 of them. In that pint-sized sample, Long hit .296 with a 129 wRC+, logging nine extra base hits while adding some pizzazz to the top of Seattle’s lineup down the stretch.

Crawford found much less success as the two-hitter. Occupying that vital spot for 331 plate appearances, he hit just .210 with a .302 on-base percentage that should be legally mandated to stay away from the two-hole. Those numbers certainly don’t warrant an automatic spot at the top of the order, but at the same time, why not keep trying? Kyle Lewis is another reasonable candidate for the #2 post, and swapping him and Crawford at the second and fifth spot would also break up the trio of lefties at the top of the order, which becomes five straight lefties if Smith and Jake Fraley round out the bottom. But if the Mariners do indeed want Crawford to become the foundational shortstop they’re envisioning him to be, they have to prove that they actually think he can become that. The vote of confidence that comes with hitting second (plus the sheer amount of plate appearances he would accumulate), is a nice place to start for a guy with the keys to unlock much of Seattle’s potential in the coming years.

I imagine Seager will receive the legacy treatment and get mindlessly penciled in third on most nights. Tom Murphy: Cleanup Hitter is too wondrous an idea to not come to fruition. Lewis profiles as a classic five-hitter type, even if his scorching takeover of the league in September 2019 suggests he should hit in all nine places. Vogelbach is a bit of a different story. Given his prodigious power and keen eye at the plate, the elephantine slugger could, in theory, demand a spot in the 2-5 range. However, a slump as long as the one he endured last season is hard to ignore. Couple that with extremely unusual Spring Training circumstances and you have a man who may need some time to find himself again.

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

Vogey was the Mariners’ primary cleanup man in 2019, drawing the fourth spot 57 times over the course of a full season. From June 9 to July 13, he hit there every single day, locking down the all-important role once Edwin Encarnación was traded to New York. But toward the end of the season he was relegated to fifth, mostly sixth, sometimes seventh, and occasionally the bench. Old head, Tim McCarver-types will remind you that sixth is still the heart of the order, but it certainly doesn’t carry the cachet of the fourth spot. Batting sixth feels like a fair compromise between Vogelbach and the team, as he no longer swings the most feared bat on the team. Murphy is, miraculously, the team’s best returning hitter and Seager is the established veteran. This ironclad baseball thinking will force Vogey to earn his way back to the hallowed ground he once occupied.

The final three spots in the order could go about eight million different directions. It seems almost guaranteed that Evan White will start at first base on Opening Day, but his place in the lineup remains a mystery. With a somewhat subdued power tool but overall advanced hitting skills, White could eventually make sense for the two-hole. Throwing him up there from the jump might be a bit unfair, though. White will already have the strangest rookie season imaginable, and the pressures of a premium lineup spot would frankly be an unnecessary burden to give him right away. Should he flash the hitting abilities that got him a $24 million contract while still in the minors, though, White undoubtedly will move up.

Haniger’s injury means one of Jake Fraley or Braden Bishop will be getting a lot of playing time. Bishop’s speed and defense, which outweigh his raw hitting tools, paint him as a prototypical fourth outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement. A right-left platoon is always in play, too, though Bishop would essentially have to learn on the fly how to hit MLB lefties.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Mallex Smith was one of six players last season to make at least 19 starts in both the leadoff spot and the ninth spot. If he finds the same potion he was drinking in 2018, Smith will surely climb back to the #1 point, but that is an enormous ask for a guy who was sent down to Tacoma last summer. Dee Gordon is the one man who can complicate this the most. If he holds down second base, Lewis could move to right and Shed Long Jr. could be pushed to left field, where he lived 14 times in his first go-round with the team. Gordon would almost surely slide into the eight or nine spot, which could give pitchers fits if he and Smith can get on base at the same time.

Almost no matter what, this will be a lefty-heavy lineup. Potential caveats to that include Daniel Vogelbach literally and figuratively falling off a cliff, opening a spot for Austin Nola, or, say it with me, Julio Rodriguez wrestling right field away from his teammates. With so many kiddies in the pool and no minor league season to get them reps, we could see Scott Servais cycling players Rodriguez, and Jarred Kelenic through the outfield and DH positions. The aforementioned Nola is a great supersub candidate on any given day as well. He could quite possibly bat third and play first base one day, move down to fifth or sixth as the DH the next day, then put on the catcher’s gear and hit seventh or eighth on the third day. It’ll all be a delightful pursuit.

Utility mavens Tim Lopes and Dylan Moore are the only other players not mentioned yet who stand to get some regular cracks in the starting lineup, and both could be fill-ins at second or short depending on the day, as well as corner outfield spots, although I don’t love the idea of Tim Lopes taking playing time from Rodriguez or Kelenic in games that probably won’t matter in the standings anyway.

If the Mariners do in fact find themselves out of a 60-game season on the 30th day, they must find a way to get some of the youngsters in the lineup. This will at least create some Lloyd McClendon darts-at-the-wall lineups (Julio leadoff, Cal Raleigh ninth, Noelvi Marte hitting second, who cares?!) to make us forget that we ever worried about what order the 2020 Mariners would hit in the first place.