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Revisiting 20 questions for the 2020 Mariners at the halfway mark

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Halfway through the 2020 season, are the Mariners meeting the goals we laid out way back this spring?

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

February 4, 2020, an article published on Lookout Landing. The title and premise was simple: 20 questions for the 2020 Mariners. An outline of goals, uncertainties, and concerns to frame the upcoming 162 games of rebuild central. By this time, we were supposed to be seeing Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert get their flurry of firsts, seconds, and 34ths. Instead, a stunted, quarantined season unlike anything MLB has put together in the modern era.

For fun and frame of reference, I decided to go through the 20 questions Kate posed this spring and address them now, with the Mariners through 30 games of the 60-game sprint.

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?

Hopefully 2021, and... who knows? We’ve gotten little more light on the subject beyond that Haniger has not only missed a good chunk of April, he’s doubtful to appear in 2020. Rust and physical decline are huge risks for guys with as much time off as Haniger has had, but between OF and DH there should be PAs for Mitch if he can make it onto the field.

Will Vogelbach pull out of his second-half tailspin?

No.

Can Justus Sheffield be a reliable member of the rotation?

Maybe! Sheffield has been the best rookie pitcher in baseball by fWAR, showing improved command of his new sinker, the same career-shaping slider, and a very reasonable changeup. Most importantly, Sheffield has upped his efficiency in a way that’s alleviating the Nate Karns concerns and offering a twinge of young Patrick Corbin instead. Three straight 6+ inning outings is a trend that he’ll need to keep up, but his three competitive pitches can keep him in the rotation long term. Risks still loom, however, as his margin for error isn’t great with a mess of hard contact he’s managed to mitigate by dodging barrels and getting grounders, but some metrics say he’s a bit of an imposter (3.51 ERA/2.42 FIP/5.02 DRA). If Sheff can prove that a skill and not mere happenstance, he’ll finish 2020 as a clear bright spot.

Is Justin Dunn a starter?

Maybe... but I fear doubtful. Dunn should and will continue starting in 2020, and perhaps into 2021. More outings like last night’s more competent affair would do some good. But the combo for Dunn of command that flickers in and out like a dying lightbulb and velocity that continues to sit a tick or two below what he’s shown at his best is a hard case to beat. Dunn’s long been seen by some scouts and evaluator as a reliever, and in a normal season he’d have a chance to keep refining his arsenal in AAA. Instead, it’s the bigs or a bunch of overmatched youngsters at the alternate site, so the bigs are gonna keep challenging him. I expect Dunn to get a look in the bullpen in the next year, particularly if he doesn’t show consistent success in the second half. If he can reach back for mid-90s heat again, he’ll have a role to excel alongside his still-solid breaking ball.

Who gets traded?

We’ve got one name checked off the list in Vogey, but not much has changed here save for a clear drop in likelihood of Kyle Lewis being part of any trade offer by the M’s. Taijuan Walker is still likely to move, as may Matt Magill and a couple bullpen options. Kyle Seager has looked revitalized, prompting a bit more intrigue around him, as a few contenders eye their 3B spot with dejection (Atlanta, Toronto, come on down). Likelier, though, pitchers take front stage in the next week before the August 31 deadline.

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

It’s Shed’s spot to lose, though unfortunately he’s doing his darndest to lose it. Long Jr. has good speed to go with a track record of hitting, but he’s jackhammered the ball into the ground for a month, undercutting his preternatural pop. UTILs aren’t in short supply in Seattle, and Shed’s gotta make his move or hop off the pot, so to speak. Dee, well, he’s well rested.

Who gets a barrel sooner: Mallex or Dee?

I didn’t have to look this up to deliver the answer but for my analytical integrity I checked anyways. 0.0% to 0.0%. Mallex wins the hand with high card of a 10 of clubs or something, because he had six “Hard Hit” balls at least before his demotion. Dee has none.

Is Evan White a major leaguer?

Definitionally, yes. Deservedly, after copping out a bit on Sheffield and Dunn, I’ll say a narrow yes. Kate was trepidatious prior to the season, noting that of course the glove would shine, but it might take some time for White’s bat to deliver at a MLB level. That’s certainly borne out, as White holds a 52 wRC+ in his first 100 PAs and a grisly 43% strikeout rate. You don’t tend to run a .182 BABIP when you’re in the 98th percentile in baseball in hard hit rate and 89th percentile for Barrel rate, but you do have to make contact often enough for that to matter. I expect incremental improvement from White, but it’s hard to envision he digs himself fully out of the crater he created crashing to earth in his first couple weeks. Kate and Joe looked at White’s struggles recently, and what was amiss in his brutal outset in particular.

Who wins the battle between Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley?

How far can Yusei Kikuchi bounce back?

Far enough to look much more like the guy Seattle hoped they were signing a winter ago. Kikuchi’s adjusted cutter is dynamic as Mikey Ajeto wrote a couple weeks ago, and his fastball is up over two mph from 2019. He’s had poor cluster luck in his first four outings and some neck tightness scuttled what would’ve been a marvelous matchup against the Dodgers, but if he can take his turn this week he’ll have a chance to add on a supremely promising first few outings.

Who will close games?

Without Austin Adams yet healthy, the answer has mostly been Taylor Williams, who joined the M’s organization via waiver claim almost three weeks after the first 20 questions article published. Not typically a recipe for success! Seattle’s been fortunate with Williams, however, who seems to be thriving with his gyro spin slider. Let’s not mistake Williams’ sharpness for stability, of course. The Mariners bullpen has been a travesty on the whole. Injuries and ineffectiveness have reduced the pen to a hodgepodge of rookies and inconsistent performers.

Will Tom Murphy regress at the plate?

Hard to know, as he may miss the whole season with a broken foot. In his stead, we’ve seen Austin Nola emerge as a remarkably steady backstop, as well as the lack of organizational depth behind him in the Joes Hudson and Odom who have struggled on both sides of the ball.

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

This is one of the biggest questions lingering into the second half. Crawford started brilliantly, but his inability to put a charge into the ball has undercut his singles and walks approach. He can’t abandon what’s working or risk heading to a free-swinging style that likely will sink him further. But Crawdaddy needs more snap to make his claim on shortstop long term. His wRC+ has slipped to 71, with a .231/.325/.279 line that looks mighty similar to last year. His defense remains excellent, and Evan White has been a boon to Crawford even further, but the 25 year old need to adjust to the league’s adjustment, as it were, and quickly.

When will we see Jarred Kelenic?

In February, the debate was if Kelenic would break camp in Arkansas or Tacoma. I’m pleased to say my prediction came true, albeit on a technicality. It’d be shocking to see Kelenic in 2020, unfortunately, as the financial rewards for gaming Kelenic’s service time are just too great. Kelenic arguably represents the opposite side of the coin from Evan White, as a prospect clearly too talented for the opposition available at the alternative site, but held down by the economic and logistical incentives the sport’s rules create. Opening Day 2021 feels within reach, but sooner would surprise.

How will the Mariners get butts in seats?

WHOOPS.

Can Kate count to 20?

Still no, but I’ve made no effort to correct her, so who am I to judge?