SEATTLE -- After a year of unpredictability, it’s time to make some 2021 predictions. Mariners Spring Training opened on Wednesday with pitchers and catchers reporting to Peoria, Ariz., just six short weeks away from Opening Day.
General manager Jerry Dipoto wasn’t as loud on the transaction wire as he has been in offseasons past, but he still made proactive moves in an effort to bolster the Major League roster, notably acquiring three high-velocity arms for the bullpen (Rafael Montero, Keynan Middleton and Kendall Graveman) as well as an innings-eating starter (James Paxton). Add in the return of right fielder Mitch Haniger, and the Mariners’ Opening Day roster will have a fairly different look to the one that finished last season third in the American League West.
Beyond the challenges of ramping up from a 60-game sprint back to a six-month marathon, MLB rosters will return from 28 to 26 players, leaving the Mariners with fewer spots to go around. With that in mind, here’s a look at how that Opening Day roster could pan out:
Catcher (2): Tom Murphy, Luis Torrens
This will be a 55-45 split to begin the season, Mariners manager Scott Servais said last month, with Murphy in the pole position. The 29-year-old showed major defensive strides in 2019, when he was also the Mariners' best bat, then he suffered a broken bone in his left foot that cost him all of ’20. Torrens had an impressive showing offensively after coming over in a Trade Deadline deal with the Padres, though his catching could use some work.
First base (1): Evan White
White wowed with his defense in his rookie season, becoming the first Mariners rookie since Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 to win a Gold Glove Award. By signing White to a six-year, $24 million extension before he played above Double-A, the Mariners showed their commitment to the 24-year-old as their first baseman of the future. His bat understandably lagged last season, and he’ll need to take a step forward there, otherwise the Mariners could opt to send him down for more Minor League development. José Marmolejos and Ty France are reinforcements.
Second base (1): Dylan Moore
This is the most contested position battle entering camp, with Moore warranting more playing time beyond the utility role after posting a 139 OPS+ last season. He enters camp with a leg up on Shed Long Jr. Long term, the Mariners acknowledge that Moore might be better suited for the utility role, but for now, they’d like to get him regular at-bats. One bright spot for Long in a season that ended with a shin injury was his improved athleticism defensively, but his health and offensive struggles will be a factor of consideration entering camp.
Third base (1): Kyle Seager
The Mariners have been writing Seager’s name into the lineup for 10 straight seasons and will do so again in 2021. Seager is the highest paid Mariner at $18 million for 2021, with a $15 million team option for ’22 that becomes a player option if he’s traded. That contract and the fact Seattle didn’t have a top third-base prospect in waiting has resulted in Seager being the last remaining veteran still on board, but the Mariners do have a viable option now after acquiring France from the Padres at the Trade Deadline.
Shortstop (1): J.P. Crawford
The 26-year-old has quickly become one of the staples in the Mariners’ rebuild, and his big defensive strides since coming over in a December 2018 trade paid off in ’20 with his first Gold Glove Award. Crawford also showed improvement with his bat, enough to assume the everyday leadoff spot. The Mariners think there is a higher ceiling at the plate than the .255/.336/.338 slash line he posted last year.
Outfield (3): Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley
The outfield is a little more in flux beyond Lewis, the reigning American League Rookie of the Year Award winner. Haniger is the Mariners’ best position player, and he’s recovered from the injuries that will have sidelined him more than 600 days. But his health will still be worth monitoring. Left field is the club’s biggest question entering camp. Fraley is the frontrunner if Moore starts at second, with Braden Bishop lurking. But both players enter camp with question marks on their hitting. The Mariners could revolve again around utility players like Long and Sam Haggerty. But this limbo has some purpose and it should be solved pretty quickly -- the spot is earmarked for No. 1 prospect Jarred Kelenic when he is deemed ready to be promoted from the Minors.
Designated hitter (1): Ty France
While waiting in the wings to take over third base long term, France will get the bulk of his playing time at DH, given that the Mariners have called him an everyday player and want to get his right-handed bat in the lineup. The 26-year-old hit .305/.368/.468 in 2020 and will also get occasional starts at third, second and first base, allowing Servais to rotate other players into the DH spot as well.
Utility (2): Sam Haggerty, Shed Long Jr.
Since Seattle will almost certainly carry 14 pitchers, there will be only two bench jobs open, which would essentially cut the fourth outfielder role. That’s where Long’s experience playing left field could be in his favor to land one of the backup gigs should the Mariners stick with Moore at second base. If he’s able to replicate the offensive upside he showed when he produced a 112 OPS+ in 2019, the Mariners might see value in keeping his bat on the 26-man roster. Haggerty can play all over, which makes him a favorite to land the other bench spot, and he showed some offensive potential with a .260/.315/.400 slash line in 13 games in ’20.
Starting pitchers (6): Marco Gonzales, James Paxton, Justus Sheffield, Chris Flexen, Yusei Kikuchi, Justin Dunn
The Mariners will again turn to a six-man rotation after seeing its benefits in 2020, a trend that will likely spread across baseball as MLB returns to the more demanding 162-game schedule that will almost certainly impact pitchers more than any position. Seattle will be able to allocate a big chunk of those innings to the veteran Paxton, who agreed to terms on a one-year return on Saturday, and pair him at the top of the rotation with No. 1 starter Gonzales. Sheffield and Kikuchi are also locks, which puts the Mariners at four left-handed starters. Righty Flexen, who pitched in Korea last season, also has a solidified spot. That leaves the remaining slot up to right-handed Dunn or lefty Nick Margevicius, a waiver claim last year from the Padres who is coming off a nice season. Dunn has the early edge since he’s a righty and is one of the long-term pieces of the rebuild, but his status will be determined by Spring Training performance.
Relievers (8): Rafael Montero, Kendall Graveman, Keynan Middleton, Anthony Misiewicz, Brandon Brennan, Will Vest, Joey Gerber, Yohan Ramirez
Montero will get the first looks at the highest-leverage innings after racking up eight saves in as many tries as the Rangers' closer last season. Gravemen is next on that list after a successful transition to the bullpen following his return from a benign tumor last season, which featured some of the highest velocity readings of his career. Middleton also brings gas and closing experience. Beyond those three, Misiewicz, Brennan and Ramirez will be considered after mostly positive runs last year, and Vest will need to remain on the roster as a Rule 5 Draft selection or he could be reacquired by the Tigers. Gerber didn’t have the debut he would’ve liked, but the Mariners really like his stuff and are seeking much-improved velocity in the bullpen. Some of the lower-leverage spots will be up for grabs in camp.