Seattle Mariners

Mariners infield is all about the bounce back as Seager, Gordon look to better days in 2019

Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Seager reacts between pitches during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, in Seattle. The Mariners won 5-4 in 10 innings. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Seattle Mariners’ Kyle Seager reacts between pitches during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Saturday, Aug. 18, 2018, in Seattle. The Mariners won 5-4 in 10 innings. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) AP

The Seattle Mariners spent much of their offseason offloading veteran players for younger ones, and publicly proclaiming that they’re unlikely to be a winning team for at least a season.

Question is – what is a step-back season supposed to mean for the Mariners’ few players still around who don’t qualify as young prospects?

Kyle Seager is now 31 years old. In April, Dee Gordon will turn 31 and Felix Hernandez will be 33. Jay Bruce is 31 and Edwin Encarnacion is 36.

Those players have 15 All-Star appearances between them, but each are coming off varying degrees of regression. The Mariners have made it no secret that they’ll continue to look at trading one or all of them whenever the opportunity is right.

Imagine those conversations.

“The conversations have not been difficult,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “You just be honest. This is where we’re at. This is where we’re headed. We need you on board. There’s no reason for them not to be on board because they want to produce.”

There’s so far been no sign that hasn’t happened.

Gordon immediately reached out to just about every one of the Seattle Mariners’ crop of young players. Mallex Smith, J.P. Crawford and Justus Sheffield each said they got a call from him within a day of learning they had been traded to Seattle.

General manager Jerry Dipoto said of Bruce, a three-time All-Star, that playing time will likely come as a fourth outfielder and splitting time at first base and designated hitter.

“This guy has leadership qualities,” Dipoto said. “The day we acquired Jay he was very excited for it. Could not wait to get to Seattle to find a house.

“He’s been on really good teams, he’s been a really good player in the league and we feel like he stands as someone who can teach a young group around him. I believe he’s embracing it.”

As for Seager, he was rumored in trade conversations this offseason, but Dipoto told MLB Network in December that selling Seager now would be to selling low.

Seager struggled in 2018 with career-low offensive production almost across the board. He batted .221/.273/.400 with 22 home runs. Except he did have the second-highest defensive WAR, according to Fangraphs, among third basemen in MLB just behind Oakland’s defensive ace, Matt Chapman.

He also played most of the season with a fractured toe suffered in a June game against the Orioles. Seager said it left him compensating by trying to draw power from his upper body, and that affected getting the ball on the barrel. His barrel percentage, which is how often players are tracked getting the barrel of their bat on the ball, was the lowest of his career.

Seager is owed $57.5 million through 2021 with a club option for 2022. So he can still easily be part of the Mariners’ rebuild as a veteran presence.

And any trade is additionally hampered because his club option becomes a player option if he’s traded – meaning a team that acquires Seager would essentially owe him $72.5 million through 2022.

“There’s a lot of good things to what he does,” Dipoto said in December. “We’re going to see where that takes us. We are not going to sell Kyle at the bottom of his market.

“We’d rather see where he takes this rebound and hopefully he can be a stabilizer for us as we go forward. He’s still 31 years old and he can be part of that group in 2020 and 2021.”

So look across the Mariners’ projected 2019 infield and it’s their oldest position group on the roster, especially if you include Bruce’s potential to play first base. It’s also the position group that’s least endearing to the Mariners’ control-the-zone preaching.

The Mariners have three returning starters in their lineup who had an on-base percentage below .300 last season. All are in their infield – Gordon (.288), Seager (.273) and first baseman Ryon Healy (.277).

Bruce batted a career-low .223 with the Mets in 2018, but he still had a .310 OBP. Encarnacion had a .336 OBP with 32 home runs and 107 RBI.

And 24-year-old shortstop J.P. Crawford has batted just .214 over 72 big-league games with the Phillies, but he still has a .333 OBP.

So you can see the theme of the Mariners’ acquisitions this offseason.

“That wasn’t by accident,” Dipoto said. “We do want to control the strike zone. We do want to get on base. It’s always been our theme. In years past, specifically 2018, we didn’t do it well. It wasn’t because we didn’t intend to do it well, it’s because we couldn’t access players who naturally had that skill. This year it’s a little more built out in that regard.”

He also said they’ve specifically spoken and worked with Gordon this offseason about getting on base more often.

“Dee doesn’t walk,” Servais said. “But it was a record low last year. It’s something we’ve talked about and he’s aware of it. You will see him take some more pitches, and he’s got to get on base. You can’t use that speed if you’re not on base.”

The other question is how the Mariners split playing time at first base and designated hitter, especially between Encarnacion, Bruce, Healy and Daniel Vogelbach, who is out of minor league options.

If the Mariners are able to find the right suitor for Encarnacion, who is owed $21.7 million in the final year of his contract, that frees up the logjam. But they said in their rationale for not bringing Nelson Cruz back that they would prefer using their DH as more of a flexible position, and Vogelbach is limited to either DH or first base. Healy can play first or third, while Bruce has primarily been an outfielder.

And many of the signs have pointed to Evan White, their first-round pick in 2017 out of Kentucky, as their first baseman of the future, though he’s not likely in the big leagues until 2020.

“First base and designated hitter for us is a combination effort,” Dipoto said. “Jay Bruce will play some left field, he will play some first base, he will get some reps at DH. We intend to have his bat in the lineup frequently. Edwin Encarnacion is proven productivity. He’s going play on a regular basis and hopefully be a staple in that lineup that we can grow around.

“And with Vogy and Healy, both of them are still young players with a chance to grow and move forward. It will be a challenge to see how we can balance the bats, but there will be a rotation that we use. As we get into the season we’ll figure out what that is. … The thing I know is that that group has youth and veteran experience and some productivity.”

WHO’S IN CAMP? (11 on 40-man roster)

Kyle Seager

Bats left, throws right, 6-foot, 210 pounds. Age 31

2018 was his most frustrating season yet, batting .221/.273/.400 with 22 HRs and 78 RBI, though he did have the second-highest defensive WAR (8.8, Fangraphs) among MLB third baseman behind Matt Chapman. But how much did fractured toe bother him?

Tim Beckham

R-R, 6-1, 210. Age 29

Former No. 1 overall pick went on a tear when Rays traded him to Baltimore midway through 2017. But injuries and a position shift to third to accommodate Manny Machado’s requests to play shortstop saw Beckham significantly regress offensively.

J.P. Crawford

L-R, 6-2, 180. Age 24

He’s batted .214 in his 72 big-league games, but he has got on base at a .333 clip, which the Mariners thought was promising. The 24-year-old has been ranked as a top-20 prospect by Baseball America every year since 2015.

Joey Curletta

R-R, 6-4, 225. Age 24

The Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. minor league hitter of the year? That was Curletta this past year. This is Curletta’s third club after he was a sixth-round pick in 2012, but he broke out in 2018 and slashed .282/.383/.482 with 23 HRs and 93 RBI with Double-A Arkansas.

Edwin Encarnacion

R-R, 6-1, 230. Age 36

No player has hit more home runs since 2012 than Encarnacion (263). That’s just more than Nelson Cruz (254) and Giancarlo Stanton (249). But question is how long the 36-year-old DH is a Mariner before they find a suitor willing to take his contract?

Dee Gordon

L-R, 5-11, 168. Age 30

Last year was preparing for first experience playing CF. Now he’s solidly back at his Gold Glove position at second base. He spent offseason recovering from a fractured toe, which was a big reason why the speedster and former NL batting champ hit .268 his first year in Seattle.

Ryon Healy

R-R, 6-4, 232. Age 27

When he was rolling, Healy rolled. But too many cold streaks in between. Hit 24 HRs with 73 RBI in his first season in Seattle, but batted .235/.277/.412 and his OPS has regressed with each big-league season.

Shed Long

L-R, 5-8, 184. Age 23

Remember former 18-year big leaguer Tony Phillips? Or maybe former Mariner Mark McLemore? Those are the two players the Mariners envision Long being similar to, being able to shift between the middle infield and outfield. Was Reds’ No. 8 prospect.

Dylan Moore

R-R, 6-0, 200. Age 26

Mariners offered Moore a major-league contract in November because of his super-utility status. Can play anywhere in the infield or outfield and offers some spring competition for Kristopher Negron with Andrew Romine becoming a free agent.

Kristopher Negron

R-R, 6-0, 190. Age 26

A late, innocuous acquisition from the Diamondbacks, but he turned some heads with some athletic defensive plays, whether in the infield or outfield. Could be Mariners’ replacement for Andrew Romine. Went 6-for-29 (.207) in 18 games.

Daniel Vogelbach

L-R, 6-0, 250. Age 26

Has a .907 OPS over 342 games with Triple-A games. His OPS is .616 in 61 big-league games, though he had some of the most memorable HRs of the Mariners’ season, including a pinch-hit go-ahead grand slam. Either this is the year he sticks in the big leagues or doesn’t because he’s out of options.

NONROSTER INVITES

Dustin Ackley (L-R, 6-1, 190) – Yes, that Dustin Ackley. Mariners’ former No. 2 overall pick hasn’t appeared in the big leagues since 2016 with the Yankees, but spent last two years in Angels’ system.

Orlando Calixte (R-R, 6-0, 185) – 27-year-old has two prior big-league stints, but spent last year with Triple-A Sacramento, hitting .270/.323/.405.

Tim Lopes (R-R, 5-11, 195) – Back in the Mariners’ system after they drafted him in the sixth round in 2012. 24-year-old reached Triple-A in the Blue Jays’ organization last season.

Evan White (R-L, 6-3, 180) – Quickly surging up MLB prospect rankings thanks to a swing change that helped him get the ball in the air more often. Defense at first base has never been a question.

TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.

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