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Seattle Mariners 2020 Season Preview

By now you’ve probably seen videos going around on Twitter of Jarred Kelenic and Kyle Lewis making baseballs feel very serious pain in Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World) the last couple of weeks. You may see those videos and be thinking, “wow those kids can hit a ton I wonder if they’ll be with the big club this season? Who else do they have? What is a Mariner anyway?” Well I’m here to answer two of those three questions because it’s time to get ready for the Mariners 2020 season with a dive into what the team might look like when they open the season on Friday in Houston.

Before we get to the young kids lets get the veterans out of the way real fast. Don’t worry, there aren’t very many of them it’s only going to take a minute or two.

Kyle Seager still has the hot corner in Seattle. After months of trade rumors resulted in nothing, Kyle still figures to bring his bat to the middle of the lineup. Last season was a major disappointment for Seager, as a broken thumb in Spring Training 2019 resulted in his season not starting until late May, and it meant he didn’t get to showcase his new physique and swing the way he was hoping to. His 2019 Spring had been good, but it took until August for him to actually hit a stride, when he hit .323/.417/.699 with 9 homers and 25 RBIs. Kyle thinks he has the ability to put together an entire season that looks like that, as long as he can stay healthy.

In center field for the Mariners, Mallex Smith! Yea I know, not the best job of burying the lede, but Jerry Dipoto has already done that for me, loudly, publicly, and whenever asked about it. Jarred Kelenic will not see Major League action this season. But Mallex Smith is back, fully healthy, and he reeeeeeally plans to stay that way.

While his bat may have taken time and a visit to Triple-A Tacoma to wake up a bit last season, he still managed to lead the league with 46 stolen bases. Mallex hasn’t gotten much time in Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World), as he was among the last Mariners to clear testing protocols, so he may be a candidate for another slow start in 2020.

On the topic of veteran Mariners outfielders, I should probably talk about Mitch Haniger, because he’s one of the only Mariner names familiar to non-AL West fans. Unfortunately, there isn’t much to talk about. Still recovering from a devastating testicle injury back in June of 2019, as well as two surgeries targeting his core and back to help aid the recovery, Mitch is set to begin the season on the 45 day IL, and may not play at all in 2020.

LIGHTNING ROUND! Marco Gonzales will be the Mariners Opening Day starter for the second year in a row, and will be attempting to out pitch last season’s AL Cy Young Award winner, Justin Verlander. Marco threw 200 innings for the first time in his career in 2019, and a season of ups and downs resulted, but he is still the clear choice for the front of the Mariners rotation. Taijuan Walker is back! Mariners fans clambered for the club to bring back the former prospect, and they delivered, albeit after making us wait longer than many of us were comfortable with. Walker doesn’t throw the same 98+ fastball that he used to as a result of Tommy John surgery, but the stage the 27 year old is at in his career matched perfectly with where the Mariners are in their rebuild. Yusei Kikuchi will begin his second season in the Major Leagues with something to prove. A difficult first season in the U.S. had him dealing with a new baseball, a language barrier, and the death of his father. Now he hopes to bring a clear head to a shortened season, and prove that that curve ball is just as devastating as it looked to Joey Votto in 2019 Spring Training. Kendall Graveman will be pitching Major League innings for the first time since 2018, and since he was sidelined with Tommy John surgery. No one really knew what to expect out of Graveman this season, but in a recent Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World) start, he flashed a 97 MPH fastball, as well as a devestating sinker that froze Jarred Kelenic. If his stuff looks as good through the season as it did on Wednesday, the Mariners will likely look to move him in the offseason for whatever they can get, as a bevy of right-handed talent is already on the 60-man roster. Daniel Vogelbach is bach. I mean back. The namesake of my favorite stadium sandwich was the Mariners lone All-Star representative in 2019, after he hit light tower homerun after light tower homerun in the first half. But the second half wasn’t the same. Vogey went into the second half with an outside chance to be the first Mariner to hit 40 homers in a season since Nelson Cruz, but has since admitted to losing his focus and discipline in the latter half, and only managed to hit 30. Luckily, he will likely not be taking very many innings at first base this season, as future perennial Gold Glove candidate Evan White has arrived to help shift Vogey’s focus to the plate. And if you think Vogelbach is strong then you aren’t ready for Tom Murphy. Last season, Murphy and Omar Narvaez combined to be one of the most effective offensive catching duos in baseball. Now Narvaez is in Milwaukee, and it’s Murphy’s time to shine. He will split his catching time with 2019 surprise contributor Austin Nola, and as of writing this, Murphy’s sore left ankle may prevent him for making Opening Day*, but when healthy, expect his prodigious power to catch your eye. Okay one more. Dee Gordon will likely not play many innings in 2020. The Mariners attempted to move him so he could get the playing time he wants so badly somewhere else, but were unable to make a deal happen, Gordon will likely spend a lot of the season watching Shed Long and Tim Lopes cover second base. Still lightning fast, his role with the team is now severely diminished.
*Note: Tom Murphy has a small piece of broken bone in his ankle and will miss Opening Day. His timetable is unknown at this time.

Now let’s talk the new guys.

If you or a loved one has been led to believe that Evan White doesn’t hit for power, tune into Root Sports NW, or wherever you watch baseball, as you may be entitled to correction.

I have already mentioned Evan’s sterling first base defense. Let’s clear up just how good he is at first. People within baseball have been quoted questioning why he hasn’t been moved to third base, because his defensive value may be being wasted at first. Well I say nuts to that mentality, because Evan wastes very few opportunities. In 206 career minor league games, he only recorded 9 errors, and when a ball found it’s way past his glove in a Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World) game, the surprise was visible on nearly every face in the stadium. Evan is making the jump from Double-A Arkansas straight to Seattle this season, and this was the plan before the word coronavirus was ever a part of the world’s everyday vernacular. Evan and the Mariners agreed on a 6 year, $24 million contract in late November, and that all but solidified what most people already knew, that Evan was ready for the show. His defensive prowess couples with a bat that scalds baseballs when it finds them. In the Future’s Game last season, White failed to record a hit, but his 112 MPH screaming line drive out did raise eyebrows. With defense reminiscent of John Olerud, and an approach at the plate that reminds me of Jay Buhner, White is likely going to be a mainstay in the Mariners lineup for years to come.

Oh you want me to talk about Jarred Kelenic? Ok Kyle Lewis! Kyle Lewis wasted absolutely no time at all making his presence known when he arrived as a September call-up last season. The Cincinnati Reds were the first victims of a historic outpouring of rookie power, which resulted in my favorite tweet of all time.

Kyle Lewis hit a homerun in each of his first two games, on the way to becoming the 4th rookie to hit 6 homeruns in his first 10 games. He broke into Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World) at a similar pace, with 4 homeruns, his second being an impressive display of strength by putting a ball into the opposite field seats despite losing his balance in the process. He’s added another opposite field shot, as well as one to deep left, and one to right center. His power is impressive, and I’m excited to see what he can do even in a shortened season. Expect Lewis to play most of his time in left, but start Opening Day in right.

Up the middle the Mariners will be featuring Shed Long Jr. and J.P. Crawford for the bulk of the season. J.P. is remembered mostly for his incredible diving play, and miraculous off balance throw against the Tigers in July. Shed Long has been putting in significant defensive work this season, at the insistence of infield coach Perry Hill. Shed is mostly known for his offense. In Spring Training this season he hit a couple balls to very deep right field in Peoria, a section that normally only has balls hit there by the bigger guys like Vogelbach. But all of his 5’8″ 184 lb. listing gets involved to give Shed shocking explosive power. If Shed continues to refine his glove this year, he and J.P. could be a very fun defensive duo to watch. There remain plenty of other viable second basemen below Shed; Sam Haggerty, Patrick Wisdom, and Tim Lopes to name a few, while J.P.’s job is a little more secure, with really the only shortstop prospect of note in the system being 18 year old Noelvi Marte, who will be on the taxi squad to get his first taste of professional baseball in the United States this season.

The 5th and 6th men in the Mariners rotation are going to be Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. Both came up late in the 2019 season for the Mariners, and neither had the results they were probably looking for. The focus for both of them, and indeed the entire Mariners pitching staff this season is to ‘Dominate the Zone” the new rallying cry for the team, and an upgrade from last season’s mantra of “Control the Zone”. But Dunn and Sheffield will be expected to improve on their effectiveness this season. In extremely limited sample sizes from last season, Sheffield put up a SO/W ratio of 2.06, while Dunn put up a .56 ratio. Am I cherry-picking stats to show where these two need to improve? Yes I am. Does it ignore the fact that the two combined for only 42 innings last season? Yes it does. Did it help illustrate my point? Yes it did. The two are tasked with finding a way to throw effective innings, but more importantly than that, throw strikes. Both of them have the talent to put it together, but time will tell if that will happen this season for either of them.

LIGHTNING ROUND 2! This time we’re going to take a quick look at some of the more exciting players the Mariners have on the 30-man that will/might play this season, then the ones on the taxi squad that are the talk of prospect blogs.

Austin Nola, as mentioned earlier, will be catching on Tom Murphy’s off days. There may be a few more of those than originally planned coming up, as Tom Murphy’s ankle continues to be unresponsive to treatment. Jerry Dipoto confirmed on the Mariners intrasquad broadcast Wednesday night that Nola will be the Mariners Opening Day catcher. Last season Nola was the utility guy for the Mariners. He played mostly first last season, but he also spent time as a catcher, second baseman, third baseman, left fielder, and right fielder. He made it clear in the off-season that he wants to do more catching, and the Mariners are about to be all to happy to oblige that. They’d love to keep his bat in the lineup. In 2019, Nola hit a very steady, .269/.342/.454 with 10 homers. I suppose I should touch on the Mariners bullpen briefly, because it technically exists soooooooooooo Austin Adams! I spent much of the days leading up to the trade deadline getting ready to see Austin pack his bags for Boston. I thought it was gonna happen. Our Red Sox guy John Principe thought it was gonna happen. I made sure my cat thought it was gonna happen just to check that box. But it never did. Adams tore his ACL before the trade deadline, and had surgery in October to repair it. He came back looking healthy in time for a Summer Camp (sponsored by Camping World) outing, but it may have been too much too soon, and as a result Adams is going to start the season on the IL. When he does come back, send up a quick prayer for whoever he faces first. The man is as intimidating as it gets on the mound, outside of certain unnamed psychopaths like Max Scherzer. Quietly making a case for themselves since Spring Training is Jose Marmolejos. Who is Marmolejos? Is he, by chance a left fielder with surprising opposite field power? No, the Mariners couldn’t possibly have two of those guys, could they? Anyway, Jose Marmolejos is a left fielder with surprising opposite field power. Manager Scott Servais was quoted earlier this week saying that they do intend to play Jose in left when the stadiums left field is a little more condensed (*cough* Houston). So expect to see him in the Opening Day lineup.

Now to the taxi squad guys. 2019 was a season where the majority of attention was shifted to the lower levels. Some of those guys, like White, Lewis, and Sheffield are coming up this year, but there is still a myriad of reasons to look a little deeper when the Mariners are involved. I could go on for pages about Juan Then, Ljay Newsome, Logan Gilbert, Sam Delaplane, Sam Carlson, Cal Raleigh, Noelvi Marte, and Jake Fraley. But instead I’m gonna talk about none of those guys, because that’s just how much talent this team is hoarding right now. Instead, here are the 4 names I’ll be watching the most closely while the taxi squad does it’s work in Tacoma this season; George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Julio Rodriguez, and Jarred Kelenic. Kirby and Hancock are the Mariners 1st round picks in the 2019 and 2020 drafts, respectively. Kirby is a hard throwing right-hander from Elon, a school that, at this point, seems purpose built to farm arms for the Mariners to reap, and Hancock is (checks notes……… yea) a hard throwing right-hander from University of Georgia. Only calling these guys hard throwers isn’t giving them enough credit. Kirby is clinically accurate with his pitches. In 23 innings at Low-A Everett last year, he walked nobody. Not a soul. Struck out 25. Don’t bother trying to calculate that SO/W ratio, because it doesn’t exist. Small sample size again? Yes, but it’s still impressive, just be cool. Then there’s Hancock, who in 192 innings at the collegiate level struck out 206, and walked 55. So there ya go, two guys who throw hard, and accurate. Shouldn’t be hard to get them on board with dominating the zone.

Quick note, follow Mariners Minors. You want to know about what these kids are doing, you’ll find it there.

Now I think I’m in the minority on this, but I actually think I’m just ever so slightly more excited about Julio Rodriguez’ potential than Kelenic’s. That took a little bit of a hit recently when Julio fractured his left wrist and was shelved for 6-8 weeks, but it won’t stop me from looking for his every move on Twitter when he comes back. Despite an injury to his left hand last season (concerning pattern) he still made his way up to Class-A West Virginia at 18 years old, and was visibly the best hitter at that level. Other players, even older players, view him as a leader, and his aggressive approach at the plate make him an incredibly exciting talent, with super star potential. And then there’s the other future super star. Jarred Kelenic. The kid is flat out good. If you haven’t seen the video of his batting practice homer from a couple weeks ago, where have you been? His swing has remained so remarkably consistent through out every level of development that it’s really difficult to imagine a scenario where he fails to be an effective hitter when he finally gets his chance. Both Jarred and Julio have been outspoken about how much they want their shot, and both are being held back. The Mariners have hurt themselves in the past by rushing prospects and are anxious to avoid repeating history. The fact of the matter is Jarred Kelenic is probably good enough to play Major League innings this year, but what’s the point of starting the service time clock on a future super star when he’s only going to get to play 60 games this year? With Evan White it makes sense, you already paid him, but with Kelenic, the knowledge of what he could be paid one day in the future is really daunting when you think about the contract extension Mookie Betts just signed. I’m not trying to compare Kelenic to Betts, but the potential exists. If you asked Jarred he’d probably agree. So for now, the earliest one can expect to Kelenic on a big league roster is 2021. Something to look forward to.

So how is it all going to fit together? Well the Mariners are planning to use a 6-man rotation for the season, with Marco Gonzales, Kendall Graveman, Yusei Kikuchi, Taijuan Walker, Justus Sheffield, and Justin Dunn. Your Opening Day lineup still feels pretty up in the air. If the Mariners like Marmolejos in left in Houston that probably means Kyle Lewis in right field. So the lineup will probably look something like,

Shed Long Jr. 2B
Evan White 1B
Kyle Seager 3B
Kyle Lewis RF
Daniel Vogelbach DH
Jose Marmolejos LF
Austin Nola C
J.P. Crawford SS
Mallex Smith CF

All told, the Mariners are still in their rebuild. Can you expect to see flashes of youth ready to break out and show the baseball world what it can do? Absolutely you can, that’s gonna be awesome. But, a last place finish for this team is all but guaranteed. Texas could regress this season, or they could over-perform, depends on what Joey Gallo thinks of the new bang box they built for him. I’m so glad there will be Mariners baseball on my screen soon, but one eye is still on 2021, and beyond.

Featured Image: Elaine Thompson/AP Photo

Nick Tucker

Lifelong Mariners fan, so sometimes I go on rants, mostly about Shohei Ohtani. Follow me on Twitter @nicktuck3

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