With MLB and the MLBPA in armistice for the time being, it appears we’re going to have baseball in 2020. That’s assuming COVID-19 doesn’t once again derail the season, which remains a distinct possibility. For now though, I’m just going to ignore this potential reality and anticipate watching my favorite sport beginning in late July. As a primer, I’m sharing the names of the 10 Seattle Mariners I’m eager to watch this summer.

Before going any further, I acknowledge my list likely differs from yours and that’s okay. Which players we want to see most is a personal choice we make with our hearts and minds. All I’m doing is sharing my thoughts since talking baseball is always fun. Particularly during these trying times when an occasional distraction may be beneficial.

About half the names I’ll be discussing were part of last year’s rookie class, which boasted 27 freshmen last year – most in Mariners franchise history. But a pair of familiar veterans with a long history with the club appear too.


Shed Long Jr. – That Bat

Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

Originally a catching prospect with the Reds, Long started double-digit games at second base and in left field as a rookie with the Mariners in 2019. However, it’s widely believed the 24-year-old supplants Dee Gordon as the team’s everyday second baseman this year.

During his big-league audition, Long slashed .263/.333/.454 with 12 doubles and 5 home runs. He also demonstrated solid command of the strike zone. In 2,000-plus minor-league plate appearances, the left-handed hitter had a 9.8-percent walk-rate and produced a similar number (9.5) with Seattle (League-average was 8.5-percent).

Hitting has never been the question with the Alabama native, only position. If the Mariners opt to keep Gordon at second base, the team will find playing time for Long. After all, the player who almost hit a ball into the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh in the preceding video isn’t riding the pine.

Considering his on-base ability, it’s plausible Long hits leadoff this year. Wouldn’t that be a tremendous achievement for a former catcher drafted in the twelfth round after not receiving any college offers?

I think so. It’s why I’ll be watching and rooting for the Jacksonville High School product.


Yusei Kikuchi – Comeback Season

Jamie Squire / Getty Images

It was a turbulent rookie season for Kikuchi after a productive eight-year career in Japan. Among starters with 150-plus innings, he had the second-worst ERA (5.48) behind Boston’s Rick Porcello (5.52). Moreover, Kikuchi’s .344 xwOBA ranked in the bottom 10-percent of MLB.

Still, it wasn’t all bad for Kikuchi. He made 11 starts of six-plus innings, including a complete game. Furthermore, the 29-year-old logged the second-highest inning tally (161.2) behind team leader Marco Gonzales (203).

Before the shutdown, Kikuchi was using a streamlined delivery, which should help improve both his command and pitch velocity. Many observers, including me, believe the Japanese import is on the brink of a breakthrough season with the Mariners.


Kyle Lewis – Encore to 2019

Stephen Brashear / Getty Images

It’s easy to root for a player who’s endured so much during his brief career. Just a month after the Mariners selected him in the 2016 MLB draft, Lewis suffered a major knee injury with Seattle’s short-season Class-A affiliate. Then came an arduous rehabilitation plagued by setbacks, which prevented the Mercer alum from participating in a Spring Training until 2019.

Fully healthy for the first time in three years, Lewis began demonstrating why the Mariners selected him with the eleventh overall pick. Despite relatively low power numbers at pitcher-friendly Dickey-Stephens Park, the 24-year-old delivered excellent offensive production with Class-AA Arkansas. Because of his perseverance, hard work, and superb performance, he earned a September call-up to the big-league team.

Although Lewis played in just 18 games last September, his power bat made its presence known. Here’s the right-handed hitter’s first career home run off Cincinnati’s Trevor Bauer at T-Mobile Park on September 10.

Lewis would hit a home run in each of his first three major-league games, finishing the season with five doubles and six homers. That said; the Georgian is an unfinished product. His 38.7-percent strikeout was third highest among players with 70-plus September plate appearances behind Eric Hosmer (39.6) and Teoscar Hernández (39.0). It’s worth noting Lewis’ strikeout rate with Arkansas was 29.5-percent.

Then again, it’s important to remember Lewis is still developing after overcoming multiple hurdles to reach his current status – the Mariners’ projected starting right fielder. For this reason, I suspect he’ll continue evolving and improving with Seattle this year and into the future. Sure, there will be struggles along the way. But Lewis has already demonstrated the ability to navigate through choppy seas.


Jake Fraley – Shot At Redemption

Chris O’Meara / AP

The injury bug managed to affect Fraley’s trajectory also. A thumb injury terminated the 25-year-old’s rookie debut after just 12 contests with Seattle and underwhelming production – 6 hits with no walks and 14 strikeouts in 41 plate appearances.

Still, Fraley’s brief stay with the Mariners shouldn’t diminish the shine on a fine minor-league season – his first with Seattle. The former second round pick of the Rays slashed .298/.365/.545 with 22 stolen bases, 27 doubles, and 19 home runs during 427 combined plate appearances with Arkansas and Class-AAA Tacoma.

As with Lewis, Fraley projects to be in the Mariners’ starting outfield along with Mallex Smith, who came over from Tampa Bay with the 24-year-old in a deal shipping Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor-leaguer Michael Plassmeyer to the Rays.

Considering his strong 2019 minor-league performance, athleticism, and ability to play all outfield positions, Fraley will have a great opportunity to prove he deserves to be part of Seattle’s long-term outfield plans. I can’t wait to see how it unfolds for him.


Evan White – New Kid in Town

Mark Wagner / Arkansas Travelers

Mariners management certainly believes in White. In the offseason, the team agreed to a six-year/$24 million extension with the 24-year-old despite the fact he has just four games of AAA experience (in 2018). Oh yeah, barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll be Seattle’s Opening Day first baseman.

To date, White hasn’t demonstrated the power bat typically associated with the first basemen. However, evaluators believe his work in the field has Gold Glove potential. It’s plausible a lack of power affects the former Kentucky Wildcat’s long-term value at first base. However, as we noted last November, some first basemen have flourished with relatively low power numbers.

Despite the concerns raised about White’s hitting by respected prospect evaluators, including Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill, I’m looking forward to seeing how the Mariners’ 2017 first round pick actually performs during the upcoming season.


Justus Sheffield – Prime Time Ready

Stephen Brashear / AP

The Tennessee native joined the Mariners via the James Paxton trade with the Yankees just as the club entered its “step back” phase in late 2018. At the beginning of Spring Training last year, it appeared Sheffield would be ready for Seattle’s starting rotation by the All-Star break. Unfortunately, the southpaw struggled so much with Tacoma the organization re-assigned him to Double-A.

Sheffield would rediscover himself with Arkansas and subsequently joined Seattle in late August. Although he absorbed a few punches during his brief audition in the Emerald City, the 24-year-old flashed the stuff that made him a top-100 prospect. Now, the Tullahoma High School product begins the season on the big-league pitching staff with a chance to prove he deserves to be a permanent fixture in the rotation.


Taijuan Walker – Welcome Home

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Walker returns to the club that selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft and subsequently debuted with as a 21-year-old. He’d pitch four seasons with the Mariners before a 2016 Thanksgiving Eve trade shipped him and Ketel Marte to Arizona for Mitch Haniger, Jean Segura and Zac Curtis.

Now 27-years-old and coming off Tommy John surgery, Walker returns home on a one-year deal with the Mariners for a chance to re-establish himself. It’s likely the team places strict innings limitations on the Yucaipa High School alum, but there’s no reason to believe he can’t still be a solid contributor to a major-league rotation.

Although Walker made his first MLB appearance in 2013, his arm has relatively low mileage on it – 528.1 innings and 97 games, including 94 starts. Perhaps the truncated 2020 season doesn’t permit the 6-foot-4 right-hander enough time to demonstrate his true worth. Nevertheless, I’ll watching and rooting for him to prove he’s back.


J.P. Crawford – SS of the Future

John Froschauer / AP

During Spring Training last year, Mariners made the decision to assign the newly acquired Crawford to the minors to give him more time to develop. By May, the 25-year-old joined Seattle delivering excellent production through the All-Star break – .277/.347/.466 with 12 doubles in 39 games. Unfortunately, he struggled afterwards hitting just .194/.291/.306 in 51 contests and then suffered a late-season hamstring injury.

Heading into the upcoming season, Crawford is the Mariners’ starting shortstop. While questions linger about the bat, the former first round pick of the Phillies demonstrated his defensive prowess as the 2019 season progressed. During the Black Lives in Baseball presentation hosted by broadcaster Dave Sims, the Californian credited infield coach Perry Hill for saving his career because he felt lost in the field when he joined the Mariners.

For proof of how the work put in by teacher and pupil paid off, check out the video of this play MLB.com ranked eighth best in the majors last year.

Considering the short duration of the 2020 season, whether Crawford is Seattle’s shortstop of the future may be a question that remains unanswered until next year. Having said that, the club is prepared to give the Lakewood High School product every opportunity to seize the job.


Kyle Seager – The Old Salt

David Zalubowski / AP

Last year, a Spring Training injury led to Seager appearing in less than 154 games for the first time since his rookie season in 2011. Upon returning in May, the former North Carolina Tar Heel initially scuffled before breaking out after the All-Star game with a .260/.339/.524 production line and 17 home runs. Still, it’s worth noting Seager finished with a paltry .675 OPS last September.

Whether Seager can repeat his strong second half is a worthwhile reason to keep my eye on the former All-Star and Gold Glover. Having said that, his veteran presence also matters this year. The departure of Félix Hernández in the offseason makes the 32-year-old the longest-tenured Mariner. With the club expected to have one of the youngest rosters in the majors during 2020-21, Seager’s strong work ethic and leadership make him an ideal role model for the kids.


Logan Gilbert – The Next Big Thing

Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

Okay, I realize it’s quite possible Gilbert doesn’t pitch for the Mariners this season. After all, the 23-year-old hasn’t pitched above AA-level and would’ve began the 2020 campaign in the minors had the shutdown not occurred. Still, GM Jerry Dipoto suggested during the offseason the right-hander could debut in the majors by mid-season.

Perhaps the Mariners accelerate Gilbert’s arrival, if he demonstrates enough growth with the taxi squad to merit a big-league promotion. Among Seattle’s top prospects not named Evan White, Gilbert seems best positioned to make such a jump. On the other hand, it’s plausible the front office determines it can’t justify starting his service time clock during an abbreviated season.

Then again, seeing Gilbert in pitching in the majors this year would be fun. Especially when you consider the two most notable pitcher to attend his alma mater, Stetson – Cy Young winners Jacob deGrom and Corey Kluber.

My Oh My…

Photo of Jake Fraley and Shed Long – Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times

 

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