Previewing the '21 Mariners: Outfield/DH
Kyle Lewis rode a stellar first half of 2020 into a Rookie of the Year award
March 14, 2021
The future is bright for Your Seattle Mariners when it comes to outfielders. The present is a little dimmer, but any youth movement has growing pains; 2021 may see a fair number of those as the building of the New Mariner Dynasty™ continues. Top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez will start the season in the minor leagues (as they should) and the guys on the big club have some developing left to do.
It's been a while since the Mariners developed a Rookie of the Year winner. Center fielder Kyle Lewis took those honors for 2020, and weird and asterisk-laden as that season will forever be known as, it still remains that Lewis was recognized as the best first-year player in the American League for that campaign. Lewis came out of preseason training camp blazing hot, starting the season with a ten-game hitting streak; at the halfway mark of the short 60-game schedule he was still batting a remarkable .368/.456/.585. After that he started to fade—Lewis' second half was abysmal, and had the season continued one has to wonder if he'd have been able to rebound to win the rookie award. From game 31 onward, the 25-year-old Georgian batted .150/.265/.280 with 43 strikeouts over 117 trips to the plate. It seems safe to assume the league figured him out. Will he adjust this year? Well, he's a pro, and like so many other Mariners, he never saw a pitch at the Triple-A level, jumping straight from Double-A Arkansas to the big leagues. That's a tough ask—there are no Zach Greinkes or Clayton Kershaws in the Texas League, after all. Now that the scouting reports have made the rounds, Lewis will have to get better at recognizing pitches, working counts, and minimizing the holes in his big swing. Defensively, Lewis provided league-average glovework in center and will likely find himself shifted to a corner as his career progresses, but for now he seems to be the guy in CF.
In right, Mariner fans can welcome back 2018 All-Star Mitch Haniger, who missed the last year and a half with a string of injuries. It's anyone's guess whether Haniger can rebound to his 2017-18 self; preseason projections from various sites have him batting only about .250, but the potential is there for the now-30-year-old to put up another .280/.350/.500-type year, assuming his health remains steady. Haniger may be the Mariners' leadoff batter much of the time this season; his on-base history works in his favor for that role, though he isn't a prototypical top of the order hitter. Said manager Scott Servais, "[Mitch] can really hit anywhere from one to five in your lineup. You know you're going to get a good at-bat from him." The club has been rather protective of Haniger in spring training, keeping him out of the lineup when field conditions are less than optimal and giving him some time as a DH. Haniger is a fine defensive outfielder and can play any of the three positions capably. Getting him back could make a huge difference to the Seattle lineup this season.
Left field is, once again, a bit of a question mark. Jake Fraley was supposed to have gotten the chance to be the everyday guy there last season, but Servais and GM Jerry Dipoto went back on their word and kept him off the active roster for most of the truncated campaign in favor of waiver pickups (Philip Ervin, now with Atlanta) or defensive liabilities (José Marmolejos), so he basically got no chance to continue his growth as a hitter. In 2019, Fraley tore up the Texas League (.313/.386/.539), got promoted to Triple-A Tacoma and held his own (.276/.333/.553), earned a trip to Seattle and promptly got hurt. The Louisiana State product only has 19 games of Major League experience under his belt, not nearly enough of a sample size to evaluate, but certainly seemed like a favorite to be the everyday choice going into spring training. His spring performance started slow, though, and he's being challenged by prospect Taylor Trammell. Trammell, part of the bounty received in the Austin Nola deal with San Diego, has had a good spring thus far, hitting the ball with some authority, but the 23-year-old has yet to play above Double-A and only hit .234 there (2019). Trammell is highly esteemed, has good tools, and will no doubt be a solid Major Leaguer at some point, but is that point here yet? We'll see, but the evidence just among this crop of Mariners, let alone league-wide, suggests skipping the Triple-A level entirely is often a mistake. We'll see how it goes, whether Fraley or Trammell (both left-handed batters) or both make the squad for Opening Day and if either can produce enough to stay in Seattle rather than spend the summer down I-5 in Tacoma.
Unlike last season, when the designated hitter spot at least initially belonged solely to Daniel Vogelbach, the M's will likely rotate players through as the DH this year with Ty France getting most of the at-bats in the not-really-a-position. Another player obtained in the big San Diego trade, France is a capable corner infielder that is the likely heir apparent to Kyle Seager at third base, but this year figures to spell Seager and Evan White at third and first occasionally, perhaps get a few starts at second base, and otherwise settle for just hitting. France was the Pacific Coast League MVP in 2019, batting an amazing .399/.477/.770 as the regular third baseman for El Paso and earning a promotion to San Diego; last year between the Padres and the Mariners he continued to whale on the ball, batting .305/.368/.468 in 43 games. He's having a tremendous spring training as well. Just how good will he be for the M's this year? It'll be fun finding out.
Filling out the 26-man team will be a mere three-player bench complement, a dangerous choice that the M's have made for a few years running now (last season's COVID-altered roster size excepted). One of those three will be whichever catcher isn't playing, Tom Murphy or Luis Torrens; one will likely be Sam Haggerty or Dylan Moore, whichever isn't at second base; and the third could be any one of several players vying for the spot in spring camp. Could be Trammell or Fraley; it could be José Marmolejos, who saw some action with the M's last season; Shed Long probably won't be ready for Opening Day, but after rehabbing from injury and getting work at extended spring training, he could come up; or maybe ex-Husky Braden Bishop will get the nod, though his spring hasn't done much to make that likely. With such a thin bench, versatility will help a lot. Haggerty and Moore can each play six positions (Haggerty: 2B, SS, 3B, LF, CF, RF; Moore: 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, LF, RF), while Marmolejos can handle three, though two of them only poorly (1B, LF, RF). Long also has experience at three spots (2B, 3B, LF), while Trammell, Fraley, and Bishop are strictly outfielders, though they can play any of the three spots there. The smart money's on Marmolejos given the strength of his spring numbers.
All told, this is a very talented Mariner squad with a lot of potential. Getting everyone, or enough of the group, to fire on all cylinders in 2021 will be a challenge, and that bullpen could once more be an Achilles' heel that does the team in. But there's a lot to like, and maybe, just maybe, this is the year things finally start to go the Seattle baseball fans' way and we see meaningful games all the way through the end of September.
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