PEORIA, Ariz. -- It was probably the Mariners’ most athletic infield play so far in this young Cactus League season, but more encouraging was how Evan White looked executing it.
Playing in on the grass and way off the bag, Seattle’s first baseman lunged to his right on a chopping grounder during Saturday’s 5-1 loss to the Angels. He scooped the ball with his outstretched right arm, quickly gathered himself and then heaved it to the plate to nab Taylor Jones, who thought he would easily score from third. An inning later, White dove in the other direction and halted a similar grounder that just barely hooked inside the first-base line.
They were familiar highlights for the 2020 Gold Glove Award winner -- and reminders of both how athletic he is and how long it’s been since he’s made such a play in a big league environment, having been sidelined since May 2021 due to left hip and core surgeries and setbacks while rehabbing in the Minors.
“It felt really good to just kind of go out there and play and not really think about it,” White said.
In the Mariners’ clubhouse, his teammates who had been pulled from the game were watching a live feed when White went acrobatic on the play that prevented the run. They erupted. Given how long he’s been sidelined, it’s easy to forget that White is super close with many in Seattle’s young position-player nucleus, having grown up with them after being taken in the first round of the 2017 MLB Draft.
Seeing his teammates end the drought last fall left White feeling liberated but also vacant. After all, he was among the centerpieces of the rebuild and had all the faith from the front office after signing a historic $24 million extension in 2019 before his MLB debut.
“You're incredibly excited for your guys,” White said. “You're happy for them. You spend a lot of time with them. You see all the work that they put in to get to where they're at. I've been here since 2017, so to kind of see how the team and the organization has evolved was awesome. And to see us win was incredible. But there's a part of you where you definitely want to be a part of it.”
White might have taken part in at least some of the Mariners’ late-season run had he not experienced three separate setbacks from the hernia surgery he underwent last Spring Training. But after extensive treatment from a pelvic specialist in Scottsdale, Dr. Tonya L. Bunner, whom he texted about his health after the plays on Saturday, White feels “as healthy as I’ve ever been.”
If that’s the case, and if the Mariners reach the postseason again in 2023, it’s likely that White could be a part of it.
“I said to our coaches, ‘I believe at some point this year, Evan White will help us,’” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He's going to impact us. Certainly, Ty France has first base locked down right now. But things happen. Things happen throughout the course of the year. But [White] just needs to go play baseball, put himself kind of back on the map again -- and the only way he can do that is to be available.”
Barring the unforeseen, White’s path back to the Majors probably won’t be on the Opening Day roster, given that France has emerged as an All-Star talent. Given White’s struggles against MLB pitching -- a .165/.235/.308 (.543 OPS) slash line and a 37.6% strikeout rate in 84 games over his first two seasons -- and that he only played 32 Minors games in 2021 and ‘22, the Mariners will probably first want to see an extended and consistent run at Triple-A Tacoma.
Before his final setback, White hit .289/.373/.731 (1.104 OPS) for the Rainiers in August. With no reservations about his hip and after working this offseason with Joe Thurston, one of his former hitting coaches, he has more confidence in his swing. White’s defense, as he showed Saturday, remains as good as any since he became the first rookie first baseman to win a Gold Glove since the award began in 1957. He’ll remain at first for now, but he could see more outfield reps if the situation dictates.
White is also beaming this spring after becoming a first-time father to his son, Cade, whom he and his wife, Kari, welcomed last August. These days, he has many reasons to smile.