Third base is not where Ryon Healy expected to begin the 2019 season with the Seattle Mariners.
As the team’s regular first baseman a season ago — he appeared in 131 games there — the 27-year-old spent much of spring training battling to again fill that familiar role.
Then third baseman Kyle Seager was injured midway through March after diving for a ground ball and landing awkwardly on his left hand. Seager needed surgery to repair a tendon in his hand on March 12, and is expected to miss at least several weeks.
So Healy wound up as the team’s starter on Opening Day.
“It’s tough to assume things in this game,” Healy said. “I don’t think I was ever formally told anything. It was just like, ‘OK, let’s take some ground balls at third and see what happens.’
“That’s kind of my mentality for this. Nothing is guaranteed, so I plan on earning everything I get.”
Healy is projected to log the majority of his innings at third base while Seager is out. Mariners manager Scott Servais said Monday that Seager is healing from surgery, and has had his cast removed, but has not yet resumed baseball-related activities.
Servais has also said rookie infielder Dylan Moore, who won the utility role this spring, will likely play some third base, but his only major-league experience at the position came in limited innings in the Mariners’ two-game series against the Oakland A’s in Japan.
“We will move some guys around positionally, and in the batting order as we go forward, but Ryon will get a lot of time at third,” Servais said.
Healy played just two games at third base for the Mariners last season but started there for both games in Japan last week, and for four of five spring training games following Seager’s injury, before the club left for Tokyo. Moore started the other.
Healy said the transition back to third base has gone better than he expected at this point in the season.
“Obviously (infielders coach) Perry Hill helps a ton,” Healy said. “I’m putting in a lot of extra work, just trying to get my feet back underneath me over there.
“The fielding part feels good. It’s just getting the throwing part comfortable again. Obviously a lot of differences from first base, but you still have to field the ball and throw the ball.”
Healy’s previous experience at the position and the logjam at first base— Dan Vogelbach, who is out of minor-league options, Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion can all play first —made Healy the logical choice as Seager’s replacement.
After making his major-league debut with the A’s midway through 2016, Healy made all 72 of his appearances that season at third base.
He was projected to be Oakland’s everyday third baseman the following season, but Trevor Plouffe, who the club signed that offseason, was eventually named the starter. Healy played 149 games with the A’s in 2017, split between designated hitter (78 appearances), first base (39) and third (34).
The Mariners acquired him that November in exchange for right-handed pitcher Emilio Pagan and infielder Alexander Campos.
“It’s just been a while,” Healy said. “It’s tough to put a number or figure on my comfort level right now. I feel like it’s proven the more I’m over there.”
Last season, Healy ranked fourth in the American League in putouts (1,007) and third among first basemen, behind only Oakland’s Matt Olson (1,403) and former Mariner Justin Smoak (1,036), who is now with Toronto.
From what he has seen so far, Servais said he thinks Healy has played well at third.
“There’s going to be a hiccup here or there, but I thought he made some plays (in the Japan series),” Servais said. “The diving catch by the dugout the other night was pretty nice to see. It was a big out in the game.
“He’s played a lot of third base, and people don’t give him enough credit for that. It’s not Seager. He’s not as accomplished as Kyle is over there, but he did a nice job.”
Healy said he’s participated in longer workouts to help make the transition smoother, and has tried to get live reads off of fungoes, instead of just regular ground balls, to get his first-step reaction back.
“That’s probably the most challenging thing,” he said. “You get a little more time at first base. You can sit back on more balls, but at third base you have to be the aggressor, get your momentum going forward.”
He said taking the extra repetitions in the controlled environments has helped him feel more prepared for facing live batters.
“The days are longer, but this is my job, and to be honest, this is the part that I love the most,” Healy said. “I love the controllable environments, the things that I can almost be perfect at, because when I get in the game, it’s really out of my control. You have to let muscle memory take over.
“I like to do more controlled environment stuff, because then I feel like I’m in control of what I’m doing, instead of just rolling it out there and seeing what happens.”
Healy said some of his batting preparation has become secondary as he gets in the extra work at third base, but he’s trusting his athleticism to help with any gaps. He hit .235 with 73 RBIs and 24 home runs in 2018.
“Kind of all you have to do is have fun with it,” Healy said of the positional move. “You just have to play and compete as best you can.”