Photo by Mark Wagner/Arkansas Travelers
The Seattle Mariners made hot stove news today without acquiring a marquee name. Instead, the team announced a six-year/$24 million extension with first baseman Evan White. Sounds humdrum except White is a minor-leaguer with just four games above the AA-level.
Adding intrigue to Seattle’s decision, White’s unconventional profile. Prospect Insider projects the 23-year-old as a potential Gold Glover, as do other evaluation outlets. However, questions remain regarding his ability to generate power commensurate with the first base position.
This year, fourteen MLB first baseman hit 20-plus home runs with clubs averaging 30 dingers from the position. White has just 29 total homers in two full seasons.
This is a good time to point out placing undue emphasis on minor-league stats is unwise. Obviously, the Mariners agree believing in the Kentucky product for reasons beyond his stat-line.
David Laurila of FanGraphs recently captured a comment by GM Jerry Dipoto underscoring his team’s confidence in White’s upside. Dipoto noted White had the second-highest exit velocity among the organization’s prospects behind Kyle Lewis.
That said; let’s temporarily suspend reality and ignore the data fueling Dipoto’s optimism. Assume White’s power numbers remain below the level of a prototypical first baseman after reaching the majors. Will it matter?
Perhaps, but I believe the answer can be no.
Value Without Pop
White can still prove valuable without hefty home run totals. To do so he’ll have to hit doubles, reach base at an above-average rate, and provide elite-level defense. There are examples of this approach leading to long, productive careers.
To demonstrate this point, I identified first basemen meeting the following criteria through their first 500 career games:
- At least 80-percent playing time at 1B
- Less than 100 home runs
- OBP over .325
- SLG under .500
Preferably, these individuals were Gold Glovers. But it wasn’t a requirement for inclusion.
Notable First Basemen With Low HR Totals*
|* Thru first 500 career games|
Galarraga averaged 18 home runs through his first seven full seasons. The Big Cat subsequently hit 30-plus dingers five times during the late nineties – an era when homers were up across baseball.
This year, Freeman hit 38 home runs; nearly double his 2018 tally. However, the Californian averaged 17 bombs and a .466 SLG through his age-25 season (751 games). Perhaps a juiced ball helped propel his recent power surge.
Everyone mentioned was an All-Star; Hernandez was an NL MVP. Defensively, Belt and Casey were the only non-Gold Glovers.
Low Power, Less Value
We’ve highlighted successful players lacking home run punch. But there must be first baseman with limited power, who didn’t enjoy comparable success. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be concerns raised regarding White.
Less Notable First Basemen With Low HR Totals*
|* Thru first 500 career games|
Each player listed above had their moments and demonstrated on-base ability. However, they didn’t reach the same heights of our first group with several having much shorter careers.
Centralia, Washington native Lyle Overbay and James Loney were productive at different points in their respective MLB careers. Overbay led the majors in doubles in 2004; Loney placed sixth in 2007 NL Rookie of the Year voting.
In the end, factors such as below-average defense, platoon limitations, injuries, and inconsistency curtailed the impact of Overbay and the others. If White avoids these landmines, it’s plausible he enjoys sustained big-league success.
Perhaps White isn’t the next Keith Hernandez, although that’d be fun. But the precedent exists for success without prototypical home run production. All the former first round draft pick has to do is execute.
Naturally, that’s the challenge facing every prospect – deliver results in the majors. It’s possible White experiences a similar outcome to what Justin Smoak endured with the Mariners than Hosmer did with the Royals.
Then again, there’s different leadership guiding the Mariners than during Smoak’s stint with the team. Player development wasn’t a core competency within the organization back then; it is now.
On that note, Smoak did experience some success after leaving the Mariners. The South Carolina alum delivered 7.1 WAR in five seasons with the Blue Jays, compared to 0.9 WAR during the same duration in Seattle.
Naturally, the team’s lean-forward move of extending White energized Mariners Twitter. Some fans love the idea of the organization committing to a prospect expected to be part of the team’s long-term future.
Another demographic of the fan base panned the team’s tactic suggesting it’s doomed to fail simply because the Mariners were doing it.
“Same old Mariners.”
In fairness, it’s understandable if Mariners fans feel disenfranchised. After all, the club’s checkered player acquisition and development history combined with its chronic postseason irrelevance foster a built-in sense of skepticism.
Still, using the rear-view mirror to navigate through life prevents moving forward, which is what Dipoto is trying to do with his team. Remember, he’s been calling the shots for just four seasons – not 20. Moreover, the current ownership group took over a year earlier.
Perhaps White doesn’t flourish with the Mariners or even in the majors. But lacking home run power doesn’t have to be his downfall. Past and present first basemen have proven success without the long ball is attainable.
White mimicking the production of any of these notable names would certainly be fun to see. His doing so would also help the Mariners reach the postseason sooner than later.
That would be even more fun to see.
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