5 key questions facing the Mariners this spring

February 12th, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As pitchers and catchers prepare to report to Mariners camp on Wednesday, there are many uncertainties surrounding a club that will soon begin to find out where it stands in the rebuilding process.

Here are five key questions facing the Mariners on the eve of camp:

Is Evan White ready for the jump?
Of all the youngsters who’ll get an opportunity to shine this spring, the 23-year-old from Kentucky figures to have the straightest path to a starting role as the Mariners made their intentions clear with a six-year, $24 million guaranteed contract in November.

But with that contract comes expectations and White will need to avoid placing too much pressure on himself trying to immediately live up to that deal. Though he’s never played an inning in the Majors, the 2017 first-round Draft pick will instantly make the Mariners’ infield better as he’s an outstanding defender.

The question -- and the pressures -- will come at the plate. The right-handed-hitting White posted a solid .293/.350/.488 line with 18 homers and 55 RBIs in 92 games at Double-A Arkansas last year. He doesn’t project as a big power bat in the Majors and he’ll need time to adjust to big league pitching, but he is capable of being a solid offensive contributor. The key will be not getting too caught up in the early results and just playing his game.

Can Shed be the long-term solution at second?
The Mariners are intrigued by 's quick bat and impressive pop for a 5-foot-8, 184-pounder, and he shined so bright last September that the plan is to put him at second base and perhaps in a leadoff role atop the young lineup.

But as the reverse image of White, Long’s question is where his glove fits in. The 24-year-old was drafted by the Reds as a catcher, but converted to second base in 2016. With already at second, the Mariners split Long’s time between left field and second base last year.

Long didn’t embarrass himself in the outfield, but he’s clearly more comfortable at second base -- and he’ll get the chance to show that now as the veteran Gordon moves into more of a reserve role in the final year of his contract.

Which Vogelbach is the real deal?
Designated hitter had a bipolar season in 2019. His splits:

First half: .238/.375/.505 with 21 homers and a 133 OPS+ (100 is league average).

Second half: .162/.286/.341 with nine homers and a 66 OPS+.

Where does that leave the burly 27-year-old? For now, he’s still in the thick of the Mariners’ plans as their primary DH. Manager Scott Servais feels Vogelbach lost his confidence after his All-Star first half and just needs to get back to being his fun-loving self.

Vogelbach has silenced the doubters before. Few expected him to even make the club last year when he was out of Minor League options and Jerry Dipoto had acquired veterans Edwin Encarnación and Jay Bruce via trades. But the Mariners let Nelson Cruz go in order to give youngsters like Vogelbach an opportunity to get at-bats and he jumped at the opportunity with his monster first half.

Now the challenge is to balance that production out over a full season as the DH, with first base no longer an option if White capably handles things there.

Can Kikuchi help carry the load?
While turning over his roster to get younger and gain financial flexibility for the future, Dipoto has made just one major free-agent acquisition in the past two years. But that deal has come with question marks as Japanese left-hander struggled through a rough rookie campaign last season.

After signing a four-year, $56 million deal that could climb to seven years and $109 million with club options, Kikuchi pitched well initially before wearing down and finishing with a 6-11 record and 5.46 ERA in 32 starts.

While Kikuchi was adjusting to a new league, culture and country, the Mariners also felt he tinkered too much with his delivery and are looking for him to lock back in to his natural throwing motion and approach and get back to being the pitcher they felt they signed in the first place.

That would be a critical development for a club that has only one other returning veteran -- -- in a rotation that is otherwise being turned over to prospects like , and eventually and other youngsters.

Who are those kids in the corners?
With expected to miss all of camp following sports hernia surgery, it’ll be interesting to see how things play out in left and right field as four rookies -- , , and -- appear to be the likeliest candidates to flank 26-year-old center fielder .

The Mariners did come to an agreement on a Minor League deal with 34-year-old on Tuesday to add a needed veteran presence, but CarGo was released by both the Indians and Cubs last year after hitting just .200 with an OPS+ of 51 in 45 games and it remains to be seen if the three-time National League All-Star has anything left.

Lewis seems a lock for one spot after his eye-opening debut last September, with Fraley the front-runner at the other corner. Bishop and Siri -- an athletic 24-year-old who was claimed from the Reds -- are outstanding defenders. Yet those four rookies have played just 57 MLB games combined and hit .186 in 167 at-bats, so the jury remains out.

Much of the attention this spring will focus on and , two of the top prospects in MLB. The dynamic duo are just 20 and 19 years old, respectively, and their MLB future isn’t here quite yet, but how they handle themselves in their initial time with the big league club will definitely be something to watch.