As this baseball season has gone on, Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais has used the phrase “step back” much less. He’s instead opted for a different word to describe what this season is for younger and less experienced players on his roster — an “opportunity.”
“When the game starts, I want to win, and everybody in that clubhouse does,” Servais said recently. “But, when you’re putting lineups together and you’re deciding how the bullpen’s going to work on a particular night, we’re going to be smart and just want to give guys opportunity and evaluate how they handle that opportunity.
“That’s what the season’s about,” he continued. “You really want to give those at-bats and those innings to those guys who could be part of your future.”
Four weeks from now, this lost season, which will again end well short of the playoffs, will wrap up. When it’s over, the club will look back and evaluate which players — some of whom weren’t expected to produce at the level they have — seized their “opportunity” at the big-league level.
Here are five players who fit that bill.
1. TOM MURPHY
The Mariners broke spring training in March looking for a viable backup to complement freshly acquired left-handed catcher Omar Narvaez and took a shot on Murphy.
Then 27 years old, Murphy had never played more than 37 games in a single MLB season, despite appearing in parts of four seasons with the Rockies. He was claimed off waivers by the Giants during the final week of March but designated for assignment three days later.
That’s when the Mariners found him, and he’s proved much more valuable than just a secondary option to give Narvaez the occasional day off. In 63 games, he’s slashed at .275/.312/.573, his slugging percentage leads the club, and his 12 doubles, 17 homers and 36 RBIs are among team highs.
His 2.6 WAR is fifth-best in the majors among catchers, and he trails only third baseman Kyle Seager (2.8) in that category among Seattle’s position players.
Murphy’s presence behind the plate also has evolved. Earlier this season, he caught Mike Leake’s near-perfect game.
“Murph has played really well,” Servais said earlier this season. “From Day 1, coming in here, we’ve talked about the adjustments he wanted to make, was willing to make. He’s worked his tail off.”
2. AUSTIN NOLA
Nola instantly became a player to root for when he made his MLB debut in June — at 29 years old.
He was called up because of his utility value when the Mariners were dealing with a handful of injuries to position players, but it wasn’t necessarily anticipated he would stick this long or play this well.
In 59 games with Seattle, Nola has nearly matched the dominant offensive production he showed in the first half with Triple-A Tacoma, slashing at .269/.332/.455 with eight doubles, seven homers and 18 RBIs.
His infield versatility has him in the lineup most days, and his ability to also play catcher — his preferred position, which he only learned three seasons ago in the minors — gives the Mariners the option to play Murphy or Narvaez at designated hitter to add some extra pop to the lineup.
While Nola might not fit into the long-term rebuild plan for the Mariners, he certainly has potential in 2020 to be a regular option at first base — where he has appeared most this season, logging 42 games. Ryon Healy’s future is unknown after season-ending hip surgery, and Daniel Vogelbach is much more efficient primarily as a designated hitter.
“He’s really consistent with his plan and his work, and it’s paid off for him,” Servais said of Nola recently. “It is unique. Usually guys who show up that late don’t do as well as he has, but I can understand why he’s doing as well as he is.”
3. J.P. CRAWFORD
It was more of when than if J.P. Crawford was going to play for the Mariners this season. Considering he’s projected to be Seattle’s starting shortstop for many years to come, the club wanted to give him more development time in the minors after he was acquired from the Phillies during the offseason.
He spent about a month with Triple-A Tacoma before he was promoted. It was perhaps a bit earlier than expected, but injuries created infield need at the big-league level.
Much to Seattle’s satisfaction, the production has been there. Crawford has been Seattle’s everyday shortstop since his promotion (though he’s missed some time with injuries) and has turned in the best offensive numbers of his MLB career, slashing at .241/.322/.397 with 20 doubles, four triples, six homers, 40 RBIs and five stolen bases in 79 games.
He’s also made a few highlight-reel defensive plays, solidifying his position as a key middle infielder for the club moving forward.
“He’s learning a lot,” Servais said recently. “He’s got tired. He’s wore down a little bit. I think that’s the biggest thing for him going into next year is to make it through a 162-game season, (knowing) how strong you have to be physically, and mentally as well, but physically.”
4. AUSTIN ADAMS
Despite missing nearly two months with a shoulder strain, Adams can still be considered the poster child of what the Mariners were trying to find in their bullpen this season.
The turnover in relief pitchers this season hasn’t been pretty. The Mariners have tried out 32 different true relievers (not including starters who followed an opener, or position players who pitched in blowouts), and none of the relievers who opened the season in Seattle’s bullpen are still with the club.
The bullpen has been a revolving door of auditioning younger guys and pitchers who were recently designated for assignment by other teams.
Seattle acquired Adams in a deal with the Nationals in May, and he’s been one of the few in-season tryouts who has stuck.
Before the shoulder injury, he established himself as a solid back-end reliever with a quality slider and remains one of Seattle’s most trusted relievers post-injury, with a 3.33 ERA across 24 1/3 innings with 43 strikeouts and 12 walks. His 1.0 WAR is the best among Seattle’s bullpen pitchers.
5. DANIEL VOGELBACH
The second half of the season hasn’t been great — he’s batting .178/.293/.393 with five doubles, eight homers, 22 RBIs and 48 strikeouts to 21 walks since the All-Star break — but Vogelbach, who was indeed Seattle’s only All-Star, still fits into this mold of players who have seized opportunity.
He entered the season with some relief, knowing he would be guaranteed enough at-bats to show the Mariners his power and patience at the plate. In the first half, he became a crowd favorite, slashing at .238/.375/.505 with 21 of his team-leading 29 homers, 11 doubles, 51 RBIs and 79 strikeouts to 61 walks.
His 2.0 WAR is still third among Seattle’s position players despite the second-half dip in offensive production.
If Vogelbach can somewhat solve left-handed pitching — he bats just .172 against lefties compared to .236 against righties — he remains an intriguing option as an everyday designated hitter and as-needed first baseman for the Mariners moving forward.