Like spring training itself, the end of spring training is meaningless, but it is indisputable that some players capped off stronger campaigns than others. Based solely on having watched/listened to every spring training game and recapped the vast majority of them, and with some input from the staff (which I then willfully, gleefully even, disregarded), here’s where I see things:
Stock trending up:
Visa issues held Big Maple to just 8.1 innings this spring and the Mariners were cautious in increasing his workload after a long layoff, but Paxton looked like one of the best pitchers in the Cactus League if not in all of MLB during those innings. He struck out 17 batters, just two fewer than he did in twice as many spring innings last season, and yielded just one run on four hits. Paxton is known for building up his spring velocity slowly but by the time he appeared on the scene his fastball was already humming along at a steady 94-95. Against the Giants he featured heavier use of his swing-and-miss changeup, a tool in his arsenal he began incorporating more during his time with the Yankees.
Dipoto said on the final spring training pregame show that a healthy Mitch Haniger is the most well-rounded player the Mariners have, and he’s not wrong. Haniger did strike out a lot during his spring campaign (28%), but considering how long it had been since he’d faced pitching in a competitive environment, he earns the benefit of the doubt more than most. He also showed that the power hasn’t gone anywhere, slugging over .500 for the spring while displaying the same advanced plate approach that made him an All-Star. The team penciled him in at the top of the lineup more and more often as spring wound on, making him a sneaky-good fantasy baseball pickup this year.
When the opposing broadcast groans when a particular player comes up, that’s always a good sign. France is probably the toughest out in the Mariners lineup thanks to a combination of a very disciplined eye and an ability to make contact all over the zone, fouling off pitch after pitch until he gets one he can damage, as evidenced by his .714 slugging percentage this spring. Most enticingly, he did all that big bopping with a minuscule 14% strikeout rate. If you liked Seth Smith as a Mariner but wished for more power (but no more defense), pre-order your France jersey now.
France might have been the Mariners’ Cactus League MVP, but no player electrified more than TrammELL, who always seemed to be doing something good for the ballclub either in the field or the batters’ box. Him playing his way onto the Opening Day roster after being traded twice and searching for his home in baseball is the feel-good story of the spring for Mariners fans, who deserve a feel-good story more than most.
White cut his 2020 strikeout rate in half during the spring; even when he wasn’t able to get a ball to fall, he was still making hard contact, as evidenced by his team-leading 16 RBI out of the fifth/sixth spot. His approach at the plate looked much more comfortable than those struggle-icious August 2020 at-bats, as well, as he pushed counts full without the hapless chasing that marked so many of his three-and-outs last season. White says he put in a significant amount of time this off-season working on the mental side of his game and so far, it seems to be paying dividends.
It might have just been trying to get the young catcher more familiar with his pitching staff, but it seemed like Torrens gobbled up the majority of starts at the catching position as the spring wore on. While team officials heap praise upon Tom Murphy as a person, they praise Torrens for his skillset both behind the plate and in the box.
After a start to his spring so cold it single-handedly repaired the ice caps, Fraley heated up like a frozen pizza down the stretch, stinging the ball all over the field (if not over the fence). His strikeout rate for the spring is still gnarly thanks to the slow start, and he got edged out by the dynamic Trammell for the left fielder spot, but his strong finish and the potential looming injury for Kyle Lewis could give Fraley another avenue to Opening Day in Seattle.
It was looking pretty dicey for Vest there after a couple of rough early spring outings, to the point where I wondered if the Mariners might offer to return him to the Tigers, but that’s why they call it Spring Training and not Spring Already-Gooding. Vest got progressively better with each of his outings, sharpening up his control over that Vulcan changeup while riding an easy 95 on his fastball. Rule 5 picks are always a pig in a poke but if Vest is the guy who mowed down batters over his last two spring appearances, he’s a legitimate late-innings option in Seattle this year.
Is there anything to make of the fact that once Keynan Middleton fully shed his Angels red dreads and swapped them in for some true-to-the-blue Northwest Green he had his best outing as a Mariner yet? No? Probably not, but Middleton showed a flash of why he terrified me out of the Angels bullpen in 2017-18 in his final, dominating spring appearance against the Giants. Middleton pitches with emotion and swagger, and when he’s also got his stuff working for him, he looks like one of the best relievers in the league, which is how he capped off a spring that was more up-and-down, especially in HR allowed. I’m choosing to believe in the Up, and the power of Northwest Green.
The Mariners voiced a strong vote of confidence in Dunn by naming him the sixth starter, and improved velocity and mechanics will hopefully bear out in the regular season results. I’ve been around long enough to know that when the team is excited about a particular player and talking him up to the media, the smart money is on trusting that, because the Mariners typically have the analytics to back up what they’re saying. I’d feel stronger about placing Dunn here if he’d been better this spring about not allowing so many walks, which is still troubling, but 15 Ks in 11 innings is hard not to get excited about, especially given what we know about the consistency of strikeout data even in environments like spring training.
I debated putting Sheff into the “trending up” category but honestly, the bigger compliment to him is to place him here, with the steady-eddies of pitchers much his senior. Sheffield had one bad spring training outing and promptly bounced back with his best performance of the spring, when he struck out five against the Dodgers in 4.2 innings. If you want to buy into that outing as more indicative of the pitcher he’ll be this year, I won’t stop you, but I think it’s more likely Sheffield settles into being the version of himself he was last year: soft contact and moderate strikeout totals.
Death, taxes, Kyle Seager hitting .300 in the spring.
It seems weird to put a new arrival to the team—who played overseas last year, even—into the “holding steady” category, but Flexen was as advertised this spring: not overwhelming stuff but an ability to get outs (and hey, 17Ks in 16 IP isn’t too shabby), and a righty arm to break up Seattle’s parade of lefties. When one of the selling points of a pitcher is his handedness, that kind of tells you all you need to know. Flexen is the pitcher equivalent of a Toyota Corolla: not flashy, moderately priced, dependable, and will likely run forever long after you wish you had an excuse to replace it.
Building on a solid 2020, “Tony Sandwiches” continues to be the Mariners’ most consistent bullpen option, which means it’s time for Servais to overuse him and break his spirit. Somewhere from within the depths of a beard that now fully encircles his head, Nick Vincent says hello. Hopefully the mercurial Mariners bullpen is a thing of the past and Tony Sandwiches will be summoned an appropriate number of times, giving the 26-year-old with just a pandemic-shortened season of experience an opportunity to take in his big-league surroundings. But then again, maybe the secret to his success is being kept busy enough that he never has a chance to look down at how high an 18th-rounder has climbed.
Death, taxes, Marco Gonzales having a spring ERA over six. Those not blessed with the big velocity and loud stuff must find other ways to lure in their prey, and for Marco, it’s playing dead during Spring Training and making fantasy owners panic-skip over him in favor of like Brett Anderson or something, then rewarding those who stuck with him over the course of the season. Sneaky Marcos.
This one is a little more of a bummer of a holding steady because I had hoped JPC would show up with the bat a little more during ST but instead, he had not one extra-base hit all spring. Premium defense at a premium position combined with an ability to take walks (leading all of spring training in that category!) and hit singles is still a very good player! But it’s hard seeing JPC fall all the way down to the nine-hole after perching atop Seattle’s lineup for a while, even though it does wrap the lineup around nicely with some speed in front of Haniger.
Stock trending down:
As noted above, comments from team officials (Servais, Dipoto, Hollander) have focused on praising Tom Murphy the person while praising Luis Torrens’s skillset more. I’m surprised Mariners Secretary of Education Andy McKay hasn’t spoken to them about the dangers of person-centered praise (always task-centered, please!), but less surprised that after missing all of 2020, Murphy struggled to get his timing back this spring. He’s always been a high-strikeout high-power player, but 17 Ks in 42 ABs is not a workable number and will need to improve quickly once the regular season starts.
Another possible victim of an injury-shortened 2020 leading to timing issues in spring, DMo struck out a little more on pace with his career numbers, which are still higher than you’d like. More troubling was his steady drop down the lineup, ending with him falling all the way down to the seven-hole after hanging out in the two-spot earlier in the spring. Maybe that was a ploy to get new acquisition Trammell or newly healthy Haniger more looks at the top of the lineup, but several times this spring Moore looked like he was still finding his footing after missing time off and on in 2020. Also, the next pitcher to hit Dylan Moore above the chest with a baseball is getting a beatdown from me, delivered from a rona-safe six-foot distance, of course.
Poor old Nicky Marge should probably be in the “holding steady” section, since he was exactly the pitcher he’s always been this spring, but he got beaten out for the final rotation spot by a trimmed-down Justin Dunn throwing mid-90s, so he winds up here. I still hold out hope MoreCabbages can find a little extra something that ticks his stuff from serviceable to special, because he’s pretty much built to factory specs for an ideal pitcher’s body and seems on-board with the team’s pitching philosophy.
I could be talked out of putting Graveman here because the stuff looked good, if hittable, and spring training reliever numbers are the noisiest of noises, but Graveman just looked a little less crisp to me than when he first came out of the ‘pen with his hair on fire. Opposing batters certainly thought so, racking up a .316 average when facing Graveman this spring.
The problem with having 2018 Edwin Díaz as your closer is it warps your understanding of what a closer should look like. It’s like having your first lemon come from a small orchard on the isle of Capri tended by a grandfatherly man the local children believe is Santa Claus. Sure, California lemons are good, but do they taste of sunshine and magic? Montero is fine, probably, but the control was wild at times and the stuff, hittable. Montero only pitched seven and two-thirds innings this spring, so all caveats apply,
Marmo found himself relegated to working with the second line offense for most of spring training, and having an actual outfielder in Trammell make the team decreases his opportunities. To his credit, Marmo had a fine spring, walking as often as he struck out (6 in 40 ABs) and hitting for some power and average. Also, he seems like such a kind dude and good teammate, and remember he was the only one at the virtual FanFest thingy to show up IN UNIFORM, earning him our undying loyalty.
The ???? Bracket
John argues for Kikuchi to go in the “hold steady” bracket, which I could see, but Kikuchi—whether for the same visa issues as Paxton or not—also only pitched eight innings this spring, albeit with much less dramatic results. He had nine strikeouts, which is good! and four walks, which is less good. The Mariners have always kept Kikuchi’s spring innings down, working him out on the backfields, which unfortunately this year means there was a lot of him we just didn’t see, hence the ???.
The only question here is Lewis’s health, because otherwise he’d be solidly trending up after a hot start to his spring. But because this injury is on the same knee as Lewis’s surgically repaired one, it’s extra-worrisome, as is the normally measured Scott Servais’s comments about it, calling it “concerning.” And now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to conduct some healing rituals involving my Kyle Lewis rookie card and some moonwater and crystals.