We're in the final stretch of Spring Training and Opening Day is creeping up in less than two weeks. In case you missed it, fans will be invited back to T-Mobile Park for the first time in more than a year and a half.
After a year of unpredictability, it’s time to make some 2021 predictions. The Mariners came to Spring Training with pretty sound roster clarity, but a few pleasant surprises have emerged for consideration to break camp with the Major League club, most notably No. 5 prospect Taylor Trammell.
Even with many returning pieces, and familiar faces from years past back in the mix -- such as James Paxton and Mitch Haniger -- the Mariners’ Opening Day roster will have a fairly different look to the one that finished last season third in the American League West.
And 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
Mariners manager Scott Servais said last month that playing time will be a 55-45 split to begin the season, with Murphy in the pole position. The 29-year-old showed major defensive strides in 2019 -- when he was also the Mariners' best bat -- before sustaining 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. He was a bit delayed in camp due to a weight room incident that lacerated his right middle finger, but Torrens has been behind the plate in Cactus League games over the past week. No. 8 prospect Cal Raleigh -- whom Servais praised for his work catching Marco Gonzales' impressive start on March 13 -- is waiting in the wings and will likely be needed at some point over the grind of a six-month season.
First base (1): Evan White
White's timing at the plate appears to be getting closer after going 4-for-20 over his past six games after going hitless for two weeks. The bat remains a work in progress for the 24-year-old, who wowed with his defense in his rookie season. White's revamped setup in the box, with his hands lower, has helped him make consistent contact -- so far totaling just four strikeouts in nine Cactus League games. Since there will be a Minor League season this year, the Mariners will have that to fall back on if White needs more development. José Marmolejos and Ty France are first-base reinforcements.
Second base (1): Dylan Moore
This was the most contested position battle entering camp, but the competition essentially ended before it even started due to Shed Long Jr.'s surgically repaired right shin not progressing as quickly as he and the club had hoped. Long began running this week, but he still hasn't appeared in a Cactus League game. Moore warranted more playing time beyond the utility role after posting a 139 OPS+ last season. The Mariners acknowledge that he might be better suited for the utility role long term, but for now, they’d like to get him regular at-bats. France will also see action here.
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 '21, 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. France has been seeing a bulk of his infield reps at third in camp.
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 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 last year. The Mariners think there is a higher ceiling at the plate than the .255/.336/.338 slash line he posted in 2020.
Outfield (3): Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Taylor Trammell
The outfield is a little more in flux beyond Lewis, the reigning AL Rookie of the Year Award winner, who has really hit his offensive stride over the past few days. Haniger is the Mariners’ best position player, has looked every bit the part this spring and has emerged as the favorite to become the everyday leadoff man.
Left field is the club’s biggest question among position players. Trammell was arguably the most impressive player early in Spring Training -- which has catapulted him into consideration for the Opening Day job. But it'll be interesting to see how he fares against stiffer pitching over the final week of camp.
Jake Fraley was the frontrunner entering camp, but his 0-for-15 start did not play in his favor, and he entered Sunday hitting .167/.359/.300 in 30 at-bats.
No. 1 prospect Jarred Kelenic should earn a big portion of the playing time here over the course of the 162-game regular season, but the key question is when. He's recovered from a Grade 2 adductor strain and has looked stellar in the field and at the plate since. But the Mariners want to get him more at-bats in the Minors before calling him up.
Designated hitter (1): Ty France
No hitter in Mariners camp -- heck, maybe even all of the Majors -- has been hotter than France, who entered Sunday with a 1.403 OPS and five homers in 33 Cactus at-bats. He's shown more and more why the Mariners have called him an "everyday" player and intend to inject his bat in the lineup. Though he'll spell some infielders throughout the year, his primary position in 2021 will be at DH.
Haggerty can play all over, he runs the bases well and generates energy towards him when he's on the field. He also showed some offensive potential with a .260/.315/.400 slash line in 13 games in ’20, and he's got pretty good backing from Servais, too.
Marmolejos can play left field and first base, and he's a left-handed bat, which gives him an edge for consideration. He's also out of Minor League options, so there's more incentive to keep him on the 26-man roster.
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. Seattle will be able to allocate a big chunk of those innings to the veteran Paxton 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 had the early edge since he’s a righty and is one of the long-term pieces of the rebuild, but Margevicius has put up better numbers of late.
Relievers (8): Rafael Montero, Kendall Graveman, Keynan Middleton, Anthony Misiewicz, Yohan Ramirez, Casey Sadler, Erik Swanson, Joey Gerber
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. Graveman is next on that list after a successful transition to the bullpen -- which featured some of the highest velocity readings of his career -- following his return from a benign tumor last season. Middleton also brings gas and closing experience. Beyond those three, Misiewicz and Ramirez will be considered after mostly positive runs last year. Gerber hasn't had the strongest spring, but the Mariners really like his stuff and are seeking much-improved velocity in the bullpen. Sadler has been a guy that Servais has repeatedly mentioned as a positive contributor, and Swanson has longman capability. Some of the lower-leverage spots will be up for grabs over the final week of camp -- don't rule out Rule 5 Draft selection Will Vest just yet.