Breaking down paths to the Majors for Locklear, Bliss

February 23rd, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Cellphone footage of top prospects hitting towering home runs on a backfield is about as cliché as any in Spring Training, but what Tyler Locklear did on Thursday nonetheless drew praise from those who watched.

Seattle’s Minor League first baseman mashed a massive pull-side homer on the second pitch he saw from prospect Marcelo Perez during live batting practice, sailing just outside the Peoria Sports Complex main stadium, where the Dodgers and Padres were in the middle of the Cactus League opener. It was the type of power that has been touted as plus-plus, easily Locklear’s most notable tool.

Locklear is the Mariners’ No. 10 prospect per MLB Pipeline, though he’ll jump higher once the 2024 rankings are unveiled next month. He’s also the club’s closest prospect to the Majors, by both age and player development. This is the first big league camp for the second-round Draft pick in 2022. At age 23, he’s on the older end of the prospect spectrum, but he was a college senior when he was drafted and has hit at each stop.

He missed two months when he broke the hamate bone in his right hand on a hit-by-pitch in June but returned for the season’s final six weeks, followed by a standout stint in the Arizona Fall League. For the season, Locklear hit .288/.405/.502 (.907 OPS) with 13 homers and led all Mariners Minor Leaguers in OPS.

Locklear supplements his power with good strike-zone awareness and little chase -- evidenced by a 20.3% strikeout rate -- which forces opposing pitchers in the zone more and allows him to do damage. Mariners player development staff have suggested that he just needs to continue showing what he already has on a consistent basis to take the next step.

“Defense has always been one thing ... that we always talk about, so just improving on my defense,” Locklear said. “And then trying to shrink the strike zone a little bit and swing at better pitches, because the damage was done when I swung at good pitches.”

Seattle drafted Locklear as a hybrid corner infielder but last season shifted him exclusively to first base, where he profiles better. He’s already begun work with infield coach Perry Hill.

If Locklear has the clearest path to the Majors, second baseman Ryan Bliss is there with him or close behind.

Part of the trade package in the Paul Sewald deal last July, Bliss also played in the AFL, hitting a grand slam in the semifinals. That came on the heels of one of his most productive seasons in the Minors, when he hit .304/.378/.524 (.902 OPS) with 86 RBIs and 55 stolen bases.

“This is my first big league Spring Training, so I was pretty nervous coming in,” said Bliss, Seattle’s No. 13 prospect. “New org, didn’t know anybody. But it’s been a great experience, everybody is great.”

Bliss’ 5-foot-6 frame has been described as deceptive, and his 23 homers last season -- including 10 in 47 games with Triple-A Tacoma -- suggest as much. While he doesn’t have the most raw power, he’s found a way to tap into it without selling out, something he did in his first full season with a big leg kick. He’s since closed off his stance more and stayed shorter to the ball, which led to more consistent hard contact.

Scouts have suggested that Bliss’ lack of arm strength and general defensive qualities profile him at second base. And according to MLB Pipeline scouting reports, at worst, Bliss is poised to be a super-utility man who can impact the game offensively in a number of ways.

“My speed is up there,” Bliss said. “Just being able to wreak havoc on the bases. Get on base, for one, and then when you're on base, create some havoc and for the opposing pitchers and the other team. I think that's a big part of my game.”

Eyeing Opening Day, both Locklear and Bliss are blocked by veterans at their projectable positions, but it’s a long season and the Mariners will need reinforcements at some point, whether due to injury or other attrition.

“I think with them, getting the experience, getting the reps, being a sponge to the players who have done it and carrying that forward into their Minor League seasons,” Mariners general manager Justin Hollander said. “What they do this spring I don’t think will really drive one way or the other how their season starts.”