Seattle Mariners director of player development Andy McKay says there’s a reason why J.P. Crawford was a first-round MLB Draft pick.
There’s a reason Crawford quickly climbed through the minor leagues as a teenager, after completing a record-breaking career at his Southern California high school.
And there’s a reason he made his major-league debut with the Philadelphia Phillies two years ago as a 22-year-old.
“You’re talking about an athlete who can really defend in the middle of the diamond, and give you productive at-bats — and those guys are hard to find,” McKay said.
So, when the Mariners saw an opportunity to make the rising young shortstop a key piece of their rebuild, they jumped on it.
“It was a pretty easy target for us to zero in on,” McKay said.
Crawford, now 24, joined Seattle’s organization in December as part of the trade that sent Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to Philadelphia. Mariners shortstop Tim Beckham, on a one-year contract, beat Crawford out for the big-league job this spring.
But, during his first month with Triple-A Tacoma, Crawford has shown early consistency at the plate, and flashed the defensive ability he sees as his biggest strength.
“I think he’s in a good spot,” Rainiers manager Darren Brown said. “He’s confident right now.”
“I think everyone enjoys early success,” Crawford said. “It definitely lets you calm down and breathe a little bit.”
Crawford was drafted 16th overall in 2013 by the Phillies, and was considered a top-three prospect by Baseball America each year in that organization.
He made 21 major league starts with Philadelphia in 2017, playing third, shortstop and second base, and posted a .214 batting average.
In 2018, he made the Phillies’ Opening Day roster as the starting shortstop, but was limited throughout the season by two stints on the 10-day injured list — he strained his right elbow in late April, then fractured his left hand in June.
He appeared in just 49 games with the Phillies, and finished with the same .214 batting average he had a year earlier.
Crawford said it’s been good to “just kind of start over” since being traded to Seattle’s system.
“I think the confidence is there, but the main thing is I’m healthy,” Crawford said. “I definitely feel stronger, and my body feels a lot better than in years past. I’m taking care of my body this year. Last year was definitely a wake-up call for me. I’m doing a lot of things differently.”
Crawford said he’s getting in the weight room, stretching more, and making a concerted effort to prevent more injuries.
His approach seems to be working. Crawford has reached base safely in all 23 games he had appeared in for the Rainiers — including at least one hit in 19 of those games — and is batting .289/.379/.411.
“He’s using the whole field,” Brown said. “I do think he’s getting good pitches to hit and not missing them. … It hasn’t been soft. He’s squared up a lot of balls with hard contact.”
Crawford said the 15-game hitting streak he had between April 5-21 was the longest he could remember in his career. Brown said the Mariners made some adjustments with Crawford’s swing during spring training, and he’s carried those over well.
“Anytime you adjust somebody’s swing, you’re either trying to improve swing decisions or you’re trying to improve the quality of contact,” McKay said.
For Crawford, both of those tweaks were emphasized. He hit well last September in his final call-up with the Phillies, producing a .292 average in 15 games, and the Mariners have built on that.
Though Crawford’s says his glove has always been the biggest part of his game, the Mariners see just as much upside to his offensive output.
“We don’t view him as (only) a defensive shortstop,” McKay said. “We view him as a guy who can really play the game on both sides of the ball.”
McKay said he would be surprised if Crawford doesn’t see the big leagues at some point in 2019. He said the Mariners acquired Crawford because they knew they would be able to give him opportunities to excel in the majors.
Beckham is Seattle’s everyday shortstop right now. He was named the American League player of the week to open the season, has a .286 batting average, and is among the top 20 AL leaders in hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs and runs scored. He has also committed an MLB-leading 11 errors.
But, Crawford has often been referred to as the Mariners’ shortstop of the future, and the long-term plan with him hasn’t changed.
“J.P. is a big piece of what we’re trying to create,” McKay said.
For that reason, the Mariners don’t want to rush Crawford. McKay said they’re taking a similar approach with him that they did with starting pitcher James Paxton and catcher Mike Zunino in past seasons.
“We sent them to Triple-A for an extended period to let them completely regroup and reset their careers with the goal being — when we bring him up to the big leagues, he’s here to stay,” McKay said.
After beginning the 2016 season in Triple-A and spending significant time there, Zunino hit a career-high .251 in the majors the following year. Apart from a rehab assignment, he spent the entirety of 2018 with Seattle, and played in 113 games.
Paxton also played in Tacoma in 2016, before becoming a regular in the Mariners’ rotation in 2017 and 2018. He threw a no-hitter last May.
McKay said the Mariners will look for continued consistency in Crawford’s performance throughout the summer, but the early returns have been promising.
“He’s obviously had a great month of April, but you can’t check all the boxes off in four weeks,” McKay said. “So, it’s continuing to do what you do. The hardest part of baseball is the length of the schedule, and trying to be consistent through it.”
While in Tacoma, Crawford said he will continue to put in the work each day, and try to be the best teammate he can be.
“I don’t think he’s looking up the road, which is easy to do when you’re this close,” Brown said. “Guys need to pay attention to where they’re at, and getting better here, and I think he’s done a good job of that.
“He’s got a chance to be a really good player. He’s working to try to become that player.”