Player development isn’t linear. Some guys prove to be world-beaters at the age of 20 whilst others start to figure it out closer to 30. On one end of the spectrum, you have phenoms like Félix Hernández who just get it and dominate the sport as teenagers. But more commonly we find teams relying on late bloomers like Chris Flexen to help bolster the 26-man roster later in their careers.
Just look at how the Mariners got their wins in 2021. Ty France burst onto the scene cementing himself as one of the more reliable hitters in the American League. It was his first full season at the big-league level. He turned 27 in July. Mitch Haniger didn’t see his first full season until 2018 with the Mariners. He was 26 that year and quickly turned himself into an all-star caliber talent. Two years ago I wrote a story about how J.P. Crawford was on the precipice of a breakout. We saw glimpses of it in 2020, but he evolved into a 3-win player last season, again, at the age of 26. Guys like Flexen, Tyler Anderson, Paul Sewald, Drew Steckenrider and Casey Sadler. They all figured something out last year having the best seasons of their careers, taking their production to new heights.
The key to identifying who’s on the verge of a breakout often rests in the numbers, trends and through past precedence. The 2022 Seattle Mariners figure to be very young once again, likely relying on more young players to take sizable steps forward in development.
The plain sailing that is prophesying a monster year from a former top prospect does feel a bit disingenuous, but it’s certainly not beneath me. Gilbert was everything the Dipoto/McKay Era™ leans on and more. The consummate professional, he battled and gritted his way through close to 120 innings despite having just one pitch in his arsenal during half of those outings. Gilbert fought the opposition by pounding the strike zone, leveraging the defense behind him to get outs. But Gilbert is better than that. Much better than that, in fact.
Gilbert threw his fastball 61.5 percent of the time in 2021, more than any other starter with at least 70 innings in baseball. But he had to. Gilbert’s secondaries were as reliable as a McDonald’s ice cream machine last season. The slider would come and go. The changeup was less-helpful than this cycle lane. Don’t get me started on the curveball.
He essentially gutted his way through a rookie campaign pumping heat. And it worked.
There’s so much to like here. Gilbert featured one of the top 15 strikeout-to-walk ratios in baseball. He touched 98.6, averaging close to 96 mph with a fastball that, at times, sat north of 22 inches of induced vertical break. And we all know about his marvelous extension. Gilbert’s fastball, at its best, can be among the best in baseball. Imagine having a reliable slider and just an average changeup to go along with it on a nightly basis. That’s squarely within reach. I’ve trudged through enough grainy minor league Gilbert film to know the type of pitcher he should be and has been. It’s coming. Most age-development curve models agree the jump from age 24 to 25 can be a mammoth leap. I’d be surprised if we’re not talking about Stetson’s Best™ as a top-of-the-rotation staple by the end of next summer.
In time, the savage bull doth bear the yoke. Don Pedro gets it. For starters, if you haven’t read it already, you need to check out Michael Ajeto’s piece on Toro’s presumptive step forward in 2022. It’s really good and echoes some of my sentiments.
The vast majority of Toro’s batted-ball and rate stats last season point toward a much more accomplished hitter than what took shape. He cemented the narrative of a guy with a sublime approach at the plate and fantastic bat-to-ball skills. Toro ranked inside the top 30 for strikeout rate (14.4 percent), sandwiched between the likes of Juan Soto, Whit Merrifield and Nolan Arenado. This isn’t to say he’s in that bucket of player, but it does help paint a picture of just how significant his pure hit tool could be. He also ranked inside the Top 50 for in-zone contact percentage (Z-Contact%), as well as swinging-strike rate, whiffing through just 7.5 percent of the total pitches he saw in 2021. We’re talking about a guy in the vicinity of top-of-the-scale contact skills.
These results should surprise no one. Toro was a monster in his brief stint in Triple-A (120 plate appearances), slashing .392/.497/.600 with a minuscule 10.8 percent strikeout rate, walking 17.5 percent of his plate appearances. Toro was driving the ball with more authority at Sugar Land, posting a 26.7 percent line drive rate, pulling the ball with authority. His average exit velocity at Triple-A exceeded 89 mph. That fell to 87.5 in Seattle. Toro’s line drives sunk to 14.8 percent and his fly ball rate ballooned to 43.5 percent after sitting closer to 29 percent at Triple-A. Those fly balls were lollipops too, weak rainbows the second baseman and right fielder got to fight over.
For Toro, it’s pretty simple. From this chair, he’s a very slight tweak away from hammering baseballs again. As rudimentary as it sounds, he was adjusting to big league stuff on the fly. He probably wasn’t acclimated to just how good big-league pitching is. If you believe in the approach the player showed at Triple-A, you should probably believe in what’s to come for Toro, because it could be very good. France saw a similar assimilation in 2020 before taking off last season. Don’t be surprised if Toro follows suit.
Much like February 2020, I still believe there’s more in the tank here, and I don’t think it’s particularly hard to unlock. Crawford will turn 27 this season, so it’s probably fair to suggest what he produces this season will be indicative of his peak. Chet Gutwein over at FanGraphs did a fantastic job charting the aging curve of big leaguers and found most see their development stall and begin to decline at age 28. While players as a whole get marginally better until their age-30 season, the glut of their positive gains are realized two years prior.
Crawford fits this narrative. He’s shown tangible progress every single year since 2018, culminating in a 3.1 fWAR season in 2021. His batting average has come up every year, his strikeout rate has come down every year, and his wRC+ seems to be climbing too. But in terms of offensive impact, Crawford is still just squarely an average contributor. He hasn’t yet shown a propensity to steal bases, and he certainly isn’t a threat to hit the ball over the fence with any regularity. In that respect, Crawford is at a bit of a crossroads. He builds his value through a fantastic approach at the plate and stalwart defense. But that’s a profile built on a razors edge and can be underwhelming to a team looking to compete for championships. Crawford needs to add an element to his game or risks being phased out if the hit tool or glove waver.
The low-hanging fruit here is to add thump and I truly think ten pounds could do wonders. 2021 was the first year Crawford admitted to taking the gym more seriously. If he can turn himself into a guy who’s capable of hitting 15 homers and stealing 10 bags, you’re suddenly talking about a 4-win shortstop with more longevity. Seattle has a ton of cash to play with and it would behoove Crawford to pocket some of it in the form of an extension. A better year eclipsing 110 wRC+ would sell me on the idea. I’m inclined to believe he’s trending in that direction.
More of this.
Okay, okay so this is cheating a bit, I know. But Stoudt is more overshadowed in this organization than BJ Novak was in Inglorious Bastards and I will not stand for it. I understand when an organization drafts Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Christoph Waltz in the first round (Gilbert, Kirby and Hancock… a loose analogy) that the secondary characters are doomed into comparative obscurity, but the point must be made.
2021 was Stoudt’s first season in affiliated ball after being selected in the third round in 2019. All he did was pitch his way up to Double-A Arkansas, touching 98.9 mph with a high-spin riding heater, mixing in three legitimate big league offerings. The slider produces 14 inches of sweep, the curveball has depth, spin and he throws it firm. Rounding it all off is a changeup deployed against left-handed hitters that showcases strong separation characteristics and above average tumble. Stoudt may not have a plus pitch, but I am confident saying he’s got at least an above average fastball with three solid average secondaries in the holster.
Mariners RHP prospect Levi Stoudt (no. 12 on my ranks) has been a popular name thrown around this offseason for a number of reasons. Here's a pretty good look at his arsenal. Just about everything flashes plus at one time or another. Don't sleep on this arm. pic.twitter.com/1QTkkIHftO— Joe Doyle (@JoeDoyleMiLB) December 12, 2021
He’ll be 24 years old for the 2022 campaign and figures to be challenged with another Double-A assignment and an eventual trip to Tacoma. The command must improve should he hope to stick in a rotation long-term, but don’t be surprised if this kid comes out of the gates hot and gets his Seattle cup of coffee before the likes of Kirby or Hancock. He’s good.
Dunn is a bit of an enigma to most evaluators. They’re not entirely comfortable projecting out what he’ll be moving forward for several reasons. Those that are comfortable labeling the 26-year-old are generally dismissive of his future impact. I don’t fall into that bucket. Not yet at least.
There are some things to like and build upon here. Dunn’s strikeout and walk rates have steadily improved every year he’s been in the league, albeit both still in unflattering territory. His xFIP also continues to trend in the right direction, though 5.61 won’t exactly win you any awards. We are, however, talking about a guy whose body and conditioning turned a corner in 2021, spiking his fastball velocity and seeing his breaking ball spin rates soar to unprecedented levels. The result was a starter with an above average fastball flashing a plus breaking ball. That can play! But two weeks before MLB’s crackdown on foreign substances, Dunn’s breaking ball was averaging 150 fewer RPMs than it was in April and May, and he was beginning to look like the Dunn of old. He’d eventually be shelved for the season in mid-June with shoulder woes.
Dunn did turn a corner physically in 2021. The body was more athletic, the operation was more fluid, and he certainly had some of his arm speed back. That stuff cannot be aided by foreign substances. Dunn will not only need to stay healthy in 2022, but he’ll also need an olive branch. There are squarely five guys ahead of him heading into spring training, with another name or two likely joining the fray via offseason acquisition. I do still believe the ability is there, but Dunn is running out of time. He needs to throw strikes this season and prove he can be reliable over long innings. He’s almost certainly a two-pitch guy moving forward (I tend to think the slider and curveball melt together), but if both of those pitches grade out above average and he can command his stuff, Dunn could prove a valuable back-of-the-rotation poor man’s Dinelson Lamet. While a “breakout” might not be a fair expectation, a marginal step toward rotation-legitimacy or dynamic bullpen arm with definitive big-league value could be in the cards.