Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais spoke eagerly this spring about the organization’s next wave of prospects.
“There’s a long list of guys that have really shown well,” Servais said. “They’re very close to being ready to contribute at (the major-league) level.”
Justus Sheffield is at the top of that list.
Considered the organization’s top prospect since coming over in the James Paxton deal in November, the 22-year-old left-hander, who has opened the season with Triple-A Tacoma, is one of several young players who could appear in Seattle sooner rather than later.
“The future looks very bright around here,” Servais said.
Sheffield has been one of the more intriguing prospects around baseball since he was drafted in the first round by Cleveland in 2014.
He pitched as high as advanced Class A with the Indians, before being dealt to the New York Yankees along with three other minor-leaguers in 2016 for veteran reliever Andrew Miller.
With the Yankees, Sheffield said it was when he was promoted to Double-A Trenton that he started to solidify a pitching routine that could one day make him a consistent contributor for the Mariners.
“I’ve had a pretty set routine,” Sheffield said at Cheney Stadium last week. The Rainiers play their home opener Tuesday as part of a seven-game homestand. If the club keeps the same starting rotation order it had in Sacramento, Sheffield will be slated to start Friday against Albuquerque.
“Once I got to Double-A, I kind of learned what works for me. There’s some new things that I’ve picked up on, and have had to adjust to with different teams. … But, it’s been an easy adjustment, and good so far.”
In five minor-league seasons with the Indians and Yankees, Sheffield compiled a 36-24 record in 103 games, including 94 starts, and a career 3.08 ERA.
And, further demonstrating his exciting power, Sheffield struck out 507 batters in 487 2/3 innings. Nearly half of those strikeouts have come since his initial promotion to Trenton in 2016.
“I feel like Double-A was kind of when pro ball really started,” Sheffield said. “Hitters are starting to get a plan. Pitchers are starting to scout the other teams and lineups.
“I feel like there’s a lot more that goes into it than just going out there and playing. I feel like that level is when you’re officially in pro ball, and have to start learning more about the game.”
He’s translated what he’s learned into production at each level he’s reached. Sheffield posted a 2.56 ERA in 20 games (15 starts) with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre last season, and pitched in the All-Star Futures Game in July.
He made his major-league debut with New York in late September, and appeared in three games as a reliever there before he was traded to Seattle in the offseason.
Sheffield was the biggest name in the exchange that sent former Mariners starter Paxton (11-6, 3.76 ERA in 2018) to the Yankees. Seattle acquired two more prospects — right-hander Erik Swanson (with Tacoma) and outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams (with Double-A Arkansas) — in the deal.
“It’s cool, just knowing that a team wants me,” Sheffield said. “Any time that I can go out there and perform and put a uniform on, it’s a good day.”
Sheffield said he’s most excited to be a part of this Mariners rebuild — though the big-league club is surprisingly off to the best start in franchise history — that involves developing many of the organization’s touted young prospects over the next few seasons.
“There’s a great group of people over here,” Sheffield said. “We’re young, hungry and we’ve got good, talented players, so looking forward to getting going this year.”
Sheffield appeared twice for the Mariners in Cactus League play this spring, including making one start, and tossed four scoreless innings, allowing just one hit while striking out six.
“He’s really athletic out there,” Servais said. “I think that’s the thing you see.”
Sheffield is known for his fastball, which reaches 97 mph, and his slider, but has been working on developing his change-up as a third consistent pitch to add to his arsenal.
“This spring training I went out and worked on my change-up a lot, and was seeing some good feedback from that, and good results,” he said.
“So, just continuing to throw that, and trust my stuff, and going out there and attacking guys. That’s pretty much been the motto since spring training — just trying to go after guys and put them away quick.”
Sheffield was optioned to Tacoma on March 11, and made his first start Sunday, allowing four earned runs on three hits, while walking five and striking out one in 4 2/3.
He said he will treat his stint in Tacoma — however long it may be — with the same energy he would have if he were pitching in Seattle.
“I’m a big team player,” Sheffield said. “I know a lot of these guys from the work group in spring training, so just getting comfortable and having fun, that’s the main thing.”
Whenever a call-up does come, Sheffield will be ready, but said right now he’s focused on pitching deep into games for the Rainiers, getting outs and helping the club win.
“I’ll be excited whenever that day comes,” Sheffield said. “It will come, but as for now, I’ll stick it out here in Tacoma with my guys, and we’ll do this thing.”