Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
Kikuchi displayed mid-rotation raw stuff a year ago, but reliever mechanics. He flashed a handful of times, but his command and the consistency of his secondaries was rarely a present combination for the southpaw. The result was a back-end starter that might ultimately be a middle reliever.
The club helped Kikuchi make some mechanical adjustments over the winter, however, and in his spring showing in March he sat 93-96 mph with a sharper slider and better command of everything.
The fix was essentially eliminating the pause at the top of his delivery, allowing a more fluid, consistent delivery, much easier to repeat, getting Kikuchi out front to release point on time with momentum. He was also over-striding at times a year ago and there were a few signs in the spring he’d cleaned up that, too.
It also seems to allow more violent lower-half work, producing better arm speed, and therefore the high range of Kikuchi’s velocity. A year ago, Kikuchi’s fastball averaged 92.9 mph per FanGraphs’ Pitch Info. If he can add a tick or more to that and attack the edges of the zone more effectively, everything else will play up and we’ll see a mid-rotation or better version.
He’s already a horse, so any kind of consistent production likely gets Kikuchi on a 200-inning pace, which in a shortened season won’t happen of course, but a strong 2020 could be harbinger for a big 2021.
J.P. Crawford, SS
Crawford, too, entered the offseason needing to make some swing adjustments (plural) and he’s made at least one and was putting it to the test in the Cactus League when things were shut down in mid-March.
The idea is more balance and better timing, allowing Crawford to generate a little more pop, plus a hand position adjustment that could help the left-handed batter create a bit more loft.
Crawford showed good plate discipline and a reasonable 145 ISO for a defensive-minded shortstop, but there’s too much physical talent present (bat speed, hand-eye) to let his 2019 production stand.
If everything works by design, Crawford not only uses more of the field, makes more — and more valuable — contact, but may also show a bit of additional power in 2020. In a full sample, a .260/.340/.420 triple-slash isn’t out of the question.
Kyle Seager, 3B
Seager posted wRC+ marks of 108, 116, 127 and 115 his first four full years in the majors. In 2016, he jumped to 134 when he bashed 30 homers and hit .278/.359/.499 — all career highs. A year later, he dipped to 107, which was more in line with his first four seasons.
In 2018, his walk rate sank to a career-low six percent, his strikeout rate rose to a career-high 21.9% and it resulted in the worst year of his career by far. An 83 wRC+ and a .221/.273/.400 triple-slash was one of two outliers in Seager’s career. The other, a bit more subtle but still an outlier nonetheless, was the 134 he posted in ’16.
Seager has been a pull hitter his entire career, typically landing in the low-to-mid 40-percent range in pull rate, and using the opposite field less than a quarter of the time he put the ball in play.
It doesn’t help that Seager’s above-average power doesn’t support a severe fly ball swing (career: 44% FB, 8% IFFB ), so the former third-round pick may have been overdoing the power approach, particularly with two strikes.
Seager crowds the plate — he’s always wanted to pull the ball — and his swing is engineered to hit the ball in the air. That combination makes it awfully tough to handle hard stuff in unless he cheats a bit, which in turns exposes soft stuff away.
Last season, Seager employed a more line-drive friendly approach, which helps him keep the bat in the zone longer and get some value off balls in play that aren’t in the air to his pull side. His pull rate dipped five percent from 2018 and he used the middle and backside over 60% of the time he made contact.
He also stayed back better versus right-handed pitching, though the numbers didn’t pan out in his favor in just under 300 PAs against northpaws.
Seager was one of the more predictable left-handed bats in the American League the previous four years, making him a lot easier to defend, and therefore an easier hitter to attack from a pitching standpoint. All pitchers needed to do was stay out of his wheelhouse and make him deal with the outer edge.
The adjustments led to a terrific six-week period that began in late July. Sidebar: No, it had nothing to do with being moved down in the order by Scott Servais in early August. Seager was already raking, homering on July 22, hitting two balls hard in each of the next two games before homering again on July 25. The full results weren’t there thanks to some hard-hit outs, but he stayed hot until about September 5 — a two-homer game at Houston.
Seager may have found something legit here and it’s too bad we won’t see more than 60 games of it in 2020. His new swing and game plan actually forces pitchers to attack him differently, and more specifically forces them to consider throwing fastballs middle-in a bit more often if he continues to hit the ball hard to center and left-center field on pitches middle-away.
If he finds more consistency for two months in 2020 it’ll be more of a return to prominence than a breakthrough, but Seager belongs in this discussion.
Justus Sheffield, LHP
Sheffield needs to find a way to get his slider more and avoid hitter’s counts. It starts with throwing more strikes, but digging a little deeper it may be about confidence in his fastball.
He threw a lot of two-seamers in March in attempt to limit the backspin and keep the ball in the ballpark more — and perhaps generate a few more ground balls. He sat 91-95 mph with the pitch, and still has the 93-96 mph four-seamer when he reaches back.
Most importantly, Sheffield seemed to have simplified his delivery a bit — a less aggressive leg kick for more control and balance — which helped him throw more strikes and hit his spots with more consistency. It was a small sample, like with Kikuchi, but there’s promise here that should excite Mariners fans.
Sheffield’s slider is above-average to plus and if he gets ahead in the count more he can offer a promising changeup to right-handed batters, who sat on the hard stuff last year and slugged .500 against him.
I expect more flashes of No. 2-3 stuff from Sheffield in the shortened schedule, and because the club may go with six starters for a decent portion of the season, both Kikuchi and Sheffield may show the high end of their velocity ranges more than otherwise could be expected.
CJ Edwards, RHP
Edwards signed for $950,000, which is a bargain considering the upside he brings to the table. The right-hander has a loose arm, athletic delivery and terrific arm speed, producing a fastball with life up to 97 mph, and a 70-grade power curveball.
The key for Edwards is to throw more quality strikes with the heat; he’s never posted a walk rate under 10%, but he misses bats — career 32.8% strikeout rate and a 14.7% swinging strike rate — and despite turning 29 in September has but 176 big-league innings under his belt.
Any fix that improves his control offers at least setup upside for Edwards in 2020, which would make him a prime trade candidate in August.
Bonus 1: Marco Gonzales, LHP
Gonzales isn’t likely to vastly improve upon the year he had in 2019 when he surpassed 200 innings for the first time in his career and was worth 3.7 fWAR in 34 starts.
But coming into the year I thought Gonzales might find a little more velocity in the fastball this year — not a lot, but maybe more toward where he was right after the trade from St. Louis to Seattle when he was sitting 90-92 mph and occasionally touching 93, rather than living 88-90 mph as he did a year ago.
Everything he threw in 2019 was softer. The fastball was down 1.5 mph from 2018, the cutter was 2 mph slower, the changeup was down to 81.6 mph from 84.2 mph the year before and the curveball was 2 mph off the pace of the pitch the previous season.
This was partially by design, and while it’s not all that important the velocity ticks up with those other pitchers, the fastball is the key, since everything else works off the heater. Gonzales threw a lot more four-seam fastballs in 2017 than the last two seasons, which explains at least some of the dip in velocity. But even when he did throw it last season it often failed to scrape 90 mph.
Gonzales now is four full years off Tommy John surgery and three since he last had any symptoms. This may be the year Gonzales’ arm is strongest of any year in his entire career. It may not be intended, but we could see a little more out of the fastball if the lefty discovers the zip in side sessions and uses the four-seamer a little more in games.
And since everything works off the fastball, that can only be good for his curveball, cutter and changeup. He’s not going to change who he is, which is a command-and-feel sinkerballer with a plus changeup, but he had a tough time with the cutter last year and the effectiveness of the curveball works off the fastballs and the cutter.
If all else is equal to 2019, a little more bite on the heater makes Gonzales the equivalent of a 4-win starter in a league that had just 22 of them a year ago. That’s 22 in all of baseball. The American League had just eight such starters last season.
Bonus 2: Mitch Haniger, RF
Haniger has to get healthy and on the field consistently. That’s it. That’s the entire reason he’s mentioned here.
He wasn’t quite himself in 63 games prior to his season-ending injury last year, but his batted ball data and the scouting report match up pretty well, which suggests his time was coming.
Haniger was swinging under fastballs more than usual last year and that led to more pitcher’s counts, more strikeouts and more balls in play off offspeed pitches in defensive situations. He was also a bit unlucky.
Still, he smacked 15 homers — a 40-HR pace — and continued to draw walks at a high rate of 10.6%.
The only question is the health. Can he get back in 2020 for a significant enough amount of plate appearances to post confidence-building numbers heading into the offseason?
Starting camp this past week on the 60-day IL isn’t a great sign, but it doesn’t seem like it surprised anyone.