Mariners hope Toro can be their Zobrist

March 27th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Jerry Dipoto stood with his arms crossed on a backfield as the sun was beating down, intently watching outfielders taking batting practice. The Mariners’ president of baseball operations was in scout mode, and one of his favorite acquisitions in his six years in Seattle was stepping into the batter’s box.

But Abraham Toro, the up-and-coming infielder that Dipoto traded for last summer, was out of place ... wasn’t he?

No, as it became clear when Toro was installed in left field late in Friday’s Cactus League game against the White Sox. Yet Dipoto had hinted at the club’s plans during that BP session days prior, dishing a lofty player comp for Toro in the process.

“We hope he can become our Ben Zobrist,” Dipoto said.

Toro has quite a ways to get to the level of the three-time All-Star and 2016 World Series MVP with the Cubs. Zobrist was a career .266/.357/.426 hitter over 14 years and only hit more than 20 homers in a season once, but as the Swiss Army knife for any team he played for, his value was immense and that role was relatively novel in the greater context of baseball’s positional landscape.

Dipoto’s comp was more rooted in that the Mariners view Toro as an everyday player despite trading for Adam Frazier and Eugenio Suárez to fill his most natural positions at second and third base, respectively. Like Zobrist, Toro also switch-hits, has good plate discipline and a sound approach, ranking in the 89th percentile in both whiff and strikeout rates last year. But moving around the field is still very new to him.

“It's just remembering what you work on,” Toro said. “Because at different positions, you work on new things and then you don't want to forget what you work on at each position. So, that's the challenge. ... Just every day, I’ve been working on our new positions. I'm trying to be ready, trying to be valuable, and show that I can be the utility guy.”

The Mariners are cognizant that his defense at other spots could -- and likely will -- be a work in progress, at least early.

“I'm not looking for Gold Glove defense,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s in there because he can really hit and it's an opportunity to get him on the field. ... That multi-positional guy who can do what he can do, it's really valuable for a manager, and I think everybody knows here that we really value that. You'll see Toro moving around a lot.”

The Mariners are building in insurance for if and when they suffer injuries or other attrition over the 162-game haul. Dylan Moore, who is the superior defender but inferior hitter compared to Toro, is also transitioning back to a super-utility role. Even at full health, both will be injected around the field to spell Seattle’s starters with a DH or off-day.

“That’s what Spring Training is about,” Servais said. “Getting these guys some reps, so it's not like you're halfway through the season and something happens that you weren’t planning on and you say, ‘Oh my gosh.’ I've said this many times: ‘We should have done this with this guy in Spring Training.’”

Before Friday, Toro had played all of one of his 530 games professionally in left field, and he’s played just nine games at first base, where he’s also getting work. Infield coaching guru Perry Hill worked extensively to get Toro up to speed at second after the Mariners acquired him from the Astros, who developed him as a third baseman.

In Houston, Toro worked almost exclusively at the hot corner in Spring Training, making this camp the most unique -- and demanding -- of his young career. But he’s thriving, at least at the plate, with a .538/.600/.692 (1.292 OPS) slash line through six games.

“I'm feeling good,” Toro said. “I feel relaxed with my timing. I think the key for me is just timing, and I’ve been swinging at good pitches.”

Toro was at the center of the polarizing deal that sent clubhouse favorite Kendall Graveman to the division-rival Astros ahead of last year’s Trade Deadline. He got off to a stellar start, hitting .312/.387/.459 (.846 OPS) in his first 32 games -- including a game-winning grand slam off Graveman on Aug. 31 -- but following that full-circle moment, he hit .183/.259/.260 (.518 OPS) over his final 28 games.

The downward finish and the Mariners’ trades this offseason led to an uncertain picture for what Toro’s role in 2022 might be. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that Seattle sees him as a big part of its plans.