White readying for Mariners' everyday 1B role

After inking 6-year contract, 23-year-old to make leap from Double-A

February 24th, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year ago, was happy just to be in his first Mariners camp, rubbing elbows with veterans and getting some valuable experience with the big league club before being sent to Double-A Arkansas.

There was never any thought of White making the Mariners at that point. Not with the big league roster already bloated at first base with Edwin Encarnación, Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach and Jay Bruce.

White, MLB Pipeline's No. 56 overall prospect, went about his business, soaked up what he could, dealt with a hamstring injury and eventually reported to Arkansas, where he hit .293/.350/.488 with 18 homers in 92 games while playing outstanding defense.

But things are different this spring. Encarnación, Healy and Bruce are all gone. Vogelbach is destined for designated hitter duties. And White? Despite playing all last season at Double-A, he was signed to a six-year, $24 million deal on Nov. 25 that could escalate to nine years and $55.5 million if the Mariners choose to extend it with three potential club options through 2027.

The contract did more than assure that White and his family will be well cared for in the coming years. It also delivered the clear message that the 23-year-old is Seattle’s first baseman not just of the future, but now.

White went 0-for-3 in Sunday’s 7-5 loss to the Rangers in the Mariners’ Cactus League opener, but he made several outstanding defensive plays to remind why the Mariners like him so much, including a diving grab to rob Greg Bird on a shot down the line in the second inning.

“We’re going to see that a lot. Vogey tried to convince us all that he would have had that play, too,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said with a smile. “I’m not so sure about that. Evan is really gifted defensively. He’s got range and is very, very athletic. We’ll see a lot of that out of him.”

It would take a stunning development -- or an injury -- for White to not be the Mariners’ Opening Day starter, with Vogelbach earmarked for the DH role. Austin Nola, who played well at first base in the second half last season, is now the backup catcher and doesn’t figure in the first base plans at all at this juncture.

White, however, is wise enough to take nothing for granted.

“I’ll come in and do the same thing, just learn as much as possible and continue to work every day,” White said. “That stuff is going to take care of itself. That’s kind of been my approach to everything for as long as I can remember. Coming into college, it was the same thing. You just work as hard as you can and see where we go.”

For White, that level-headed approach got him drafted with the No. 17 pick in the first round in 2017 out of the University of Kentucky. It helped him put up a strong season last year at Arkansas. And it’s given the Mariners confidence to cast their future in him despite the fact he’s never played in a Major League game and has just 18 at-bats at Triple-A Tacoma -- two years ago in a temporary promotion.

They must be wary of putting too much initial pressure on a youngster who’ll be challenged to adapt quickly to Major League pitching, but the Mariners believe that White has the mental makeup to handle such a jump.

“I just want Evan to come in and be who he is,” Servais said. “Relax, play, pick the balls out of the dirt, do what you do defensively, get a good pitch to hit and good things will happen.”

White wasn’t projected as a big power bat when he was drafted, but in a lineup loaded with lefties, he’ll bring some needed right-handed balance and the ability to drive the ball in the gaps and do increasing damage as he continues maturing.

“He looks great,” Servais said. “He put on about 10 pounds of muscle in the offseason. He looks like a big leaguer. A lot of guys when you first sign them, whether it’s high school or college, it takes a while for them to fill out. He looks like the real deal.”

The 6-foot-3 White came to camp last year at about 214 pounds, but he dropped to 208-210 during the long season. He’s at 220 pounds now after a winter of workouts.

“I feel good where I’m at, and hopefully I can maintain it,” he said. “I feel stronger. My legs feel really good. That’s what I want -- a solid base and to be able to last a full season.”

And if early signs this spring are any indication, White might surprise some people with his increased pop at the plate as well.

“I don't know that people are really paying attention to what happened over the last season and a half of Evan's development,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “His exit velocities rank in the above average to elite zone, like 92-93 mph on average, which is a big number. Evan also learned how to lift the ball.

“What gets lost in the shuffle with Evan is that he was playing his home games in very pitcher-friendly environments. He hit 18 home runs last year in a league that shouldn't have allowed that big a number, and he did it in an abbreviated number of at-bats. We think it's real power. He's a physical guy who hits the ball hard and he's just now starting to scratch the surface of what he can do.”