Previewing the '21 Mariners: Catcher/Infield
Kyle Seager is likely playing his last season with the Mariners
March 13, 2021
The catcher position hasn't historically been a strength for the Mariners. When the franchise's best players to man the position include a hitter who only got on base at a .309 clip (Dan Wilson), a one-year-and-done solid hitter that was considered a defensive liability (Omar Narváez), and a guy who saw local taverns use his batting average to determine the price of a pint of beer (Dave Valle), the bar for success is pretty low. The club is cautiously optimistic now, though, with a catching tandem for 2021 that should hold its own.
Having traded Austin Nola to San Diego last summer, the Mariners are glad to have Tom Murphy back behind the plate. Murph missed the 2020 campaign with a broken foot suffered shortly before the truncated season began, but is healed and ready to go this year. Manager Scott Servais has said Murphy will start roughly three out of every five games, which is sensible; 2019 was the first year Murphy played as many as 70 big-league games, and some of those were as the DH. It was an impressive season for him, though—.273/.324/.535 with 18 homers over 281 plate appearances—and it still remains to be seen if it was a fluke or a true representation of his ability. Defensively, he's solid, and the pitchers like throwing to him. Sadly, "pitch-framing" is a relevant skill for modern catchers (at least until we have robot umpiring) as home-plate umps rely too much on catchers' movements to call balls and strikes these days, but Murphy ranks highly on those metrics, so, yay Murph.
The rest of the time, Luis Torrens will handle the catching duties. Part of the haul Seattle got while looting the Padres in August, the 24-year-old Torrens put up a modest .257/.325/.371 batting line last year between San Diego and Seattle in limited action (just 78 PAs). As a minor-leaguer, one of Torrens' strengths was drawing a walk—in 2019 he posted a .373 on-base percentage at Double-A Amarillo—but that hasn't yet translated to the big leagues. That's not surprising, though, as Torrens is yet another Mariner that bypassed Triple-A on his way to the Majors, though in his case it was in the Padres' organization. San Diego acquired him as a Rule 5 draft selection prior to 2017 and had to keep him in the big leagues or lose him back to the Yankees even though he'd never played above Class-A; it went about as one might expect (.163/.243/.203 in 56 games) and he went back to A-ball the next year, Double-A in ’19, and then back to the Padres without setting foot in Triple-A. Had there been minor leagues in play last year, he probably would have had a year at that level, but the pandemic had other ideas. If Torrens can maintain the sort of production he put up last year he should be fine, otherwise he may find himself on the Tacoma shuttle.
Over at first base, Evan White won his first (presumably of many) Gold Glove award in 2020 for defensive excellence; he's truly without peer at the position, and comparisons to 1B greats like Keith Hernandez and Todd Helton are, if anything, underselling White's ability. Offensively, however, last year was a struggle for him. Like Torrens, White skipped Triple-A, and the adjustment to Major League pitching when you're used to seeing the talent in Double-A can be a challenge, to put it mildly. He only batted .176 and struck out at a Zunino-like 42% clip, a far cry from his minor-league numbers (.293/.350/.488 at Arkansas in 2019). The one area where he hit well last season was an important one—with runners in scoring position, White batted .310/.362/.667 (47 PAs). He clearly has the ability, and for brief stretches last year he looked like he was poised to turn a corner, but the successful transition from AA to MLB might take a while yet for the young Ohioan.
Shortstop JP Crawford also won a Gold Glove last season, giving the M's three infielders who've been recognized with the award (Kyle Seager won it at third base in 2014). He gives a lot of credit for that to infield coach Perry Hill, declaring that Hill "saved my career," and has a lot more confidence in his ability to range far for ground balls and make tough throws to first (having White as the first baseman doesn't hurt, either). The 26-year-old also took a step forward with the bat in 2020, batting a career-high .255 and showing big gains in batting against southpaws (.242/.338/.323 vs. LHPs in ’20, .160/.268/.179 vs. LHPs in ’19). One split that doesn't bode too well is home and road—over his young career, Crawford hasn't done well at T-Mobile Park (.200/.276/.302 career, .188/.258/.222 last season). It's dangerous to put too much stock in anything that happened last year, weird as it was, but that is something to keep an eye on. Crawford has made an adjustment to his swing to shorten it up, hoping to get better bat speed and make more solid contact. He's also been lifting weights in an attempt to add muscle, which is all fine and dandy but it would be a mistake for him to try to turn himself into a power hitter; home runs are nice, but swinging for the fences all the time would hurt his ability to reach base often, a more valuable asset in a top-of-the-order batter. Hopefully, we'll see these tweaks result in more line drives and base hits.
Third baseman Kyle Seager will likely be playing elsewhere in 2022. Now 33, Seager will have 10-and-5 rights shortly after the season opens, but his contract runs out this year and though the M's have an option for ’22, it's highly unlikely they'll exercise it. By most metrics—pro sports metrics, that is, in the real world the kind of money we're talking is mind-boggling—he is not "overpaid" as former Mariner president Kevin Mather said while melting down and losing his job, but when your career line is .256/.326/.443, you aren't exactly indispensable. Kyle remains an elite-level defender and had a good mini-season with the bat last year, starting off hot before fading down the stretch, but that was just 60 games and some regression is expected. On the other hand, Seager knows he's most likely headed into free agency, and that's a pretty strong motivator.
Then there's second base. Last season, rookie Shed Long was anointed as the starting second baseman, a decision made over the objections of, well, some of us, but it didn't pan out. Long clearly wasn't up to being an everyday player and struggled to stay over the Mendoza line (he finished with a batting average of .171). He was playing hurt and was shut down for a while with a stress fracture in his shin, but when he returned he was shifted into a utility role and is no longer considered a candidate for 2B on the regular. So now the job would appear to be in the hands of either Dylan Moore, who played exceptionally well in 2020 as a utility player, or Sam Haggerty, who also impressed in limited action last year. Moore came out of nowhere to bat .255/.358/.496—and was well over .270 most of the brief season—and stole 12 bases to boot before having his season ended by a pair of fastballs to the head. (After the second one, on September 21st, he was placed on the injured list for the remainder of the campaign with a concussion.) Haggerty didn't get nearly as much playing time, but hit .260 in 13 games played bouncing around the diamond. Both players have a history of solid on-base ability in the minor leagues; the right-hand-batting Moore has better extra-base power and the switch-hitting Haggerty better speed. One solution might be to use both in an unconventional platoon; Haggerty walloped left-handers (.333/.400/.611) while Moore did better versus righties (.267/.389/.511) in ’20.
Up next: Outfield, DH, and bench.