While the 2020 season for the Seattle Mariners is all about development, moving the club closer to contention and doing it without sacrificing recently-created roster and payroll flexibility, there are some veterans — non-rookies, non-prospects — that warrant watching for specific reasons.
Here are six I’ll be watching closely, and why.
Taijuan Walker, RHP
Walker wasn’t signed simply in hopes he’d blow up and Jerry Dipoto could trade him… but that was one of the factors. The other is the possibility he mans a rotation spot in the early years of the Mariners’ next competitive window so the club can take its time with young arms. For that to be a possibility, however, four things have to happen.
One, Walker has to be healthy, but the right-hander is slated to start in Anaheim, so all is good on that front… knock on wood. Two, he has to stay healthy throughout the 2020 season. But he also has to pitch well, and if he does, (4) the Mariners would need to engage on a contract extension.
The problem with that is the cloud left by the short season. Even if Walker pitches well for 8-10 starts, it’s a small sample and difficult to make future, full-season decision based on 50-60 innings of work. I could see Walker getting another one-year deal, perhaps with some options attached.
Walker is 27 now (28 in August), and hits 94 mph with easy arm action after Tommy John surgery kept him almost all of last season. He features a four-seam fastball (91-95), a traditional curveball (74-77), hard splitter (86-90) and a cutter-slider (86-90).
At his best, Walker spots the fastball and cutter in on left-handed batters, expands the zone with the splitter and curveball and increases the usage of the cutter-slider versus right-handed batters.
If he can do that in 2020, the Mariners may very well be into the idea of being back Walker for another run in 2021.
Kendall Graveman, RHP
Graveman, like Walker, is most likely a placeholder of sorts that holds down the fort until enough of the kids are ready to stake their claim, or frontline acquisitions push the rotation out through the bottom.
But unlike Walker, Graveman’s deal with the club includes a club option for 2021.
The right-hander looked very good in four frames at T-Mobile Park this week, touching 97 mph with a fresh four-seam offering, showing good run on the sinking two-seamer and flashing the cutter, slurve and changeup.
He’s 29 years old and missed most of 2018 and all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery. He’s an interesting upside play, but he also brings both reliability — if healthy, of course — and a wealth of experience most of the Mariners current pitchers don’t have.
Graveman spent four years with the Oakland Athletics after debuting with the Toronto Blue Jays. He’s spent a lot of time around the likes of Edwin Jackson, Sonny Gray, Rich Hill, Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill, offering a wide variety of their own experiences.
But in 2019, while rehabbing, Graveman was with the Cubs where he had conversations with Mr. Old-School himself Kyle Hendricks, and was able to watch the likes of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish up close and on the daily.
Graveman has been a groundball guy in his career, entering 2020 with a career GB rate of nearly 52%, and posted a 55.2% mark in 2018.
The addition of a four-seamer to his repertoire may reduce the raw rates of ground balls he induces, but the trade-off may very well be more missed bats.
Graveman’s career strikeout rate is just 15%, or 5.77 per nine innings pitched and a career best of 7.1/9 two years ago. But 94-97 at the top of the zone in Major League Baseball these days is a swing-and-miss pitch when hitters are looking for the ball up.
And versus Graveman, that’s exactly what they’re doing because of the effectiveness of the sinker and changeup that work down in the zone.
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
I’ve talked about Kikuchi a lot in the form of confidence, but I was hoping for the full season for him to work out any bumps in the road as he unveils a new delivery designed for more consistent release points and velocity.
Kikuchi, 29, sat 91-94 mph with his fastball last year, but has shown signs of a firmer version of the pitch, both in March and this month in Summer Camp. It’s not a high-spin pitch, so command and velocity matter more here.
His best swing-and-miss pitch is the slider (15.4% whiff), followed by the changeup (11.6% whiff) and when put in play, neither pitch is squared up with any regularity. But he had trouble getting to either pitch last season, often falling behind in counts and being forced to go to the fastball in the zone, a pitch that was pasted to the tune of a .623 slugging percentage. He also had to use the curveball too much, a pitch designed to steal strikes, rather than serve as a go-to.
Kikuchi proved durable last season, making every start and only being short-scripted once, despite making the transition to the MLB rotation schedule. He’s athletic and is very self-aware, a factor in development for pitchers of all ages in baseball these days.
We may not see a lot of it in 2020 because Kikuchi likely makes but 10 starts, but I expect fewer blow-ups and more signs he’s a legit mid-rotation starter.
J.P. Crawford, SS
While I’m not seeing significant changes to the swing I believe are absolutely necessary if Crawford is to hit for average with regularity, it’s clear the shortstop got a lot stronger over the winter, which may allow for his current swing to work a little better for him.
Crawford’s average exit velocity a year ago was 84.3 mph, a very pedestrian mark, but his launch angle wasn’t a suboptimal 11.2, even considering the fact he wasn’t consistently hitting the ball hard.
For comparison, Domingo Santana also posted a launch angle of 11.2 a year ago, but at an average of 89 mph off the bat. Somewhere around 103 mph is considered the mean value for home runs and around 90 mph for singles.
While it’s not exactly this simple, it remains pretty clear Crawford didn’t square it up enough in 2019 and strength can only go so far to remedy that.
Having said all that, the 25-year-old Crawford doesn’t swing and miss much (8.1%) and appears to be looking for fastball he can pull — judging by his spring and Summer Camp plate appearances — which could make a meaningful impact in his results.
The reason Crawford is so watch worthy in 2020 is he’s the only current option the club has at shortstop for the foreseeable future, including the first few years of the club’s competitive window.
Noelvi Marte, the club’s top prospect at the position, is more likely to move to third base than stick at short, and is at least three years away, anyway.
But Crawford also brings relatively high floor for the position as a plus defender, and when his swing starts to create leverage there could be 12-16 homers available to him.
Kyle Seager, 3B
Seager’s next few years could go one of two ways
1. Play out his current contract as the starting 3B with the Mariners which runs through 2021 if he remains in Seattle.
2. Get traded to a club with a considerable amount of cash to help cover the majority of his $18 million 2021 salary and the $15 million option for 2022 that becomes the player’s choice if he’s dealt.
On the surface, one would think if Seager proves last July and August wasn’t a fluke just a result the club will see a little more of after he made swing adjustments that his chances to be trade skyrocket. And while that may be true — think of Seager, who will be 33 and 34, as a two-year, $20 million player, assuming Seattle includes about $13 million in cash.
If Seager shows he’s a 3-win player or better, that’s not only a tradeable commodity, it’s one with some sneaky value.
Again, he has to hit with consistency this summer for a trade to be possible.
But I’m buying the swing adjustments to the extent I think he gets back relatively close to where he was prior to his career year of 2016 when he batted .278/.359/.499 with 30 homers and 36 doubles. All those marks are career highs. Before that season, Seager was pushing through .250-.260 averages with OBPs in the .330s and slugging percentages in the .450s.
And he slugged .468 last season and posted a .321 OBP., so if all he does is repeat last summer’s triple-slash, it’s a viable regular — Seager posted 2.9 fWAR despite playing just 106 games.
But the trade part of Seager’s saga isn’t likely unless there’s consistency in 2020.
Tom Murphy, C
Murphy, who is starting the 2020 season on the IL with a fracture in his foot, is 29 and was very good last year in what some might call a BABIP year for the backstop.
He posted 3.2 fWAR and a 126 wRC+ on the strength of 18 homers and a .535 slugging percentage.
He did bat .273 with a .324 on-base mark, both above league average and far exceeding the mean for catchers.
But it was a 76-game sample and Murphy’s batting average on balls in play was .340, which likely regresses some in 2020. But I’m not on the whole “he’s going to sink hard” wagon. Some hitters just produce more when they make contact than others. Good hitters have higher BABIPs. Domingo Santana, for example, boasts a .361 career BABIP in 1630 plate appearances.
Murphy, like Santana, strikes out a lot, but when he puts the ball in play he hits it hard. Suggesting Murphy can hit .250 or better and continue to produce power is far from unreasonable. It’d be more surprising if he fell entirely off the planet this season.
The fact Murphy is 29 makes little different. He’ll be arbitration eligible for the first time after this season and a free agent after the 2023 season, which means he’s likely to be good enough and affordable for Seattle as they groom their next catcher, likely Cal Raleigh.
But he could also end up being solid trade bait, considering the dearth of catching in baseball.