The Mariners are back and we’re doing our best to help you remember things about the team! It’s been a while! Today we identify two strengths and two weaknesses of this roster, some of which are immensely sad and some of which are things we can hopefully laugh about years from now.
Here’s how the Mariners’ merry band of utility players have lined up during their professional careers, dating back to their days in the minor leagues.
UTIL by Position (Innings)
|Shed Long Jr.||324.0||0||3,513.0||217.0||2.0||224.0||0||0|
With so many games packed into such a tight space, days off will be at a premium for all of 2020. 32-year-old Kyle Seager, for instance, might need a break more often than 24-year-old Shed Long Jr. will. Following seven straight seasons of playing at least 155 games, Seager’s body is starting to age like Trader Joe’s produce. The third baseman hit the IL with a hand injury in 2019 one year after playing on a fractured toe for multiple months. His constant presence at the hot corner for so many years probably stemmed from the fact that the Mariners didn’t really have anyone else to play third. In the past, Seager’s backups have been Andrew Romine, Taylor Motter, Gordon Beckham, Luis Sardiñas, Robert Andino, and Alex Liddi. This year, while none of the fill-in options at third base are going to set the world on fire, we do find a much more capable and versatile collection of players.
Tim Lopes has been an absolute revelation in the limited action he’s seen with the Mariners, seemingly finding a new patch of grass to plant the baseball every time he’s at the plate. Austin Nola and his “Are we sure this is correct?” 114 wRC+ can also plug and play at third base, as can Dylan Moore and his nine home runs in 66 starts. Those three are probably better overall players than any of the ragamuffins from the previous paragraph, and at the very least they are more enjoyable to watch.
The infield is sure to resemble a game of musical chairs at certain points, though the outfield may be a little more stringent. Kicking Kyle Lewis to the DH when Daniel Vogelbach is resting opens a corner spot for Moore and/or Lopes, as well as the emergency outfield gloves hanging in Patrick Wisdom and Sam Haggerty’s lockers. Haggerty actually has the most outfield experience of any of the youngish guys vying for playing time, but seeing him in the starting lineup at all, particularly in the outfield, will probably be a sign that something has gone wrong.
If you’re the type of person who loves to get creative with your defensive alignments in baseball video games, or takes great pleasure in watching teams like the Rays or Dodgers turn over their entire lineup from one day to the next, you will be in for a treat. It is probably easier to name the Mariners who exclusively play one position as it is to name all the ones that can move around. If that means we get some combination of Moore, Lopes, and Nola (originally a shortstop by trade) playing up the middle, then so be it.
The Freeing Nature of Youth
When you’re young and figuring things out on your own for the first time, you have more of an aspirational grasp on success and supposed normalcy than a true understanding of it. Watching, listening, and learning are never great substitutes for doing. A fun by-product of that is a strange, blissful acceptance of a lessened lifestyle. There is a romanticism to being 22 and eating Jack in the Box tacos in your car rather than making an actual meal. The knowledge that age, experience, and expectant success will pull you out of that life – that it won’t be forever – spins the inherent badness into whimsical charm. I imagine the same is true of riding buses in the minor leagues, or, to a muted extent, playing a truncated season in empty stadiums.
For so many of these newly minted Mariners, the first “full” season of their career will always be the COVID one. That is not something they can control, but it is something that will contextualize the rest of their career. Imagine the roar of the Opening Day crowd in 2021 when the Mariners introduce Evan White for the first time in front of the home fans. That rush of dopamine is so enticing because it hasn’t happened yet; it’s still a fantastical thought.
For seasoned veterans who are used to a certain way of life at MLB stadiums, this season will be extremely weird and maybe unfulfilling. But for the six or seven Mariners on the current roster that know they are part of this organization’s future, a year of games in the abyss isn’t much different than what they’re used to. Maybe Dee Gordon wouldn’t want to eat Jack in the Box tacos in a parking lot after tasting caviar for the last nine years. That’s fine, but with so many kids on the team who don’t know anything else, stumbling through a surreal season of limited fanfare is just another one of those things to enjoy while youth’s starry-eyed sunglasses still fit.
Let’s just get it all out there.
Marco Gonzales is unquestionably the Mariners’ best pitcher and the industry consensus on him is a third or even fourth starter on a playoff team. Taijuan Walker is the nominal No. 2 and he’s pitched four times since 2017. Then you have Kendall Graveman, who seems fine, but who also missed all of 2019 with injury. Graveman rehabbed his elbow injury with the Cubs and reportedly did so with an entrepreneurial spirit, which is slang for “Thanks for getting me this job”. At 29 years old pitching for a bad team on a one-year, two-million-dollar deal, Graveman has the luxury of low expectations on his side. Anything above competency is a huge bonus from him, and should he turn it around, he’ll get to either pursue his dreams elsewhere if the team lets him go, or the Mariners can keep him around with a club option for 2021 and add a feather to their pitching development hat.
The back end of the rotation is marked up like a badly written essay: just question marks everywhere. Obviously, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn are oozing with talent, as is Yusei Kikuchi. The problem is we just haven’t seen it in large doses on the big-league level yet. For Sheffield and Dunn, that’s simply because they haven’t had a lot of time here. But for Kikuchi, it’s because he had one of the worst rookie seasons of any Japanese starting pitcher. As these three are meant to be the foundation of future pitching staffs, bolstered by the sturdy walls of Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Emerson Hancock, the first season with all three in the rotation will be an important first step.
For Sheffield, getting ahead in counts and avoiding the walks and long at-bats that troubled him last year should be a major goal. For Dunn, turning his changeup into a bona fide third pitch is what will not only keep him out of the bullpen, but also should dictate his ability to work through American League orders several times over. For Kikuchi, the altered windup and subsequent increase in velocity that we saw in Spring Training point to a determined effort to leave everything from 2019 behind and start fresh as a new pitcher. Last season his slider got pummeled to the deep recesses of outer space, while hitters rarely swung at any of his stuff that’s designed for them to chase. Figuring out a way to get swings and misses on the slider, both in and out of the zone, is germane to his development.
It is my belief that Austin Adams, a man with just 38 big-league innings to his name who is coming off a torn ACL, is the Mariners’ best relief pitcher. His 14.81 K/9 ranked second in Mariners’ history for a single season, trailing only Edwin Díaz. But given his previous usage and modern bullpen strategies, Adams profiles more as a plunger for this clogged-toilet bullpen than a traditional closer, although the wackiness of this season could give us several different deployments. If he fully recovers from the gruesome knee injury that will keep him out for the beginning of the season, Adams will certainly lay claim to the title of best Mariner reliever, regardless of what inning he pitches.
The thing is, I’m not sure if having Austin Adams as your best relief pitcher is necessarily a good thing. Excluding the Kenley Jansens and Andrew Millers of the world, relievers tend to seesaw up and down from year to year, making bullpen projections nearly impossible to rely on. That instability, plus Adams’ MLB inexperience, could be cause for concern, especially when looking at the rest of the M’s bullpen options who will be supplementing him.
Carl Edwards Jr. is certainly an intriguing candidate to catch the seesaw on the way up, though. After showing immense promise during his first three full seasons with the Cubs, 2019 cooked up ineffectiveness, a trade to the Padres, and a strained shoulder. A steady dip in velocity each year since his nascent 2016 season is a large part of the righty’s undoing, so keep an eye on the radar gun when Edwards is on the bump.
We’ve mentioned in previous articles and podcast episodes that the 2020 season will likely include a lot of games where the Mariners take a lead into the sixth inning before losing 8-5. This is also sort of an ideal outcome given the team’s non-existent playoff hopes, desire for a high draft pick, and the lack of any reliever who will be an essential part of the future. If, say, Justin Dunn goes six innings strong while Kyle Lewis and J.P. Crawford both collect multiple hits, that’s still a positive even if the team loses because of Taylor Guilbeau and Yoshihisa Hirano. Those guys aren’t going to be headlining the 2022 roster in the same way that Dunn, Lewis, Crawford, and various minor leaguers will, so the bullpen is really less of a weakness and more of a designed product of the rebuild.