Last Updated on September 5, 2020 by Luke Arkins
Sure, the Seahawks will start their season soon and, as usual, they project to be a playoff team. Perhaps even a Super Bowl contender. Still, I suggest Seattle sports fans make time for their baseball too – even if it finishes the month on a losing note.
If you’ve been paying attention since the Mariners began rebuilding in late 2018, you know the team’s present state was never important to management – especially during this wacky year. In reality, constructing a long-term sustainable winner is the priority.
With that in mind, here are my reasons to keep watching Seattle baseball during the stretch run of the regular season.
Check Out The New Guys
Last weekend, the Mariners dealt Austin Nola with Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla to the Padres in exchange for minor-leaguer Taylor Trammell, Ty France, Andrés Muñoz and Luis Torrens. Trammel is joining the team’s alternate training site in Tacoma, while Muñoz continues recovering from Tommy John surgery. But France and Torrens have joined the big-league club and will likely see extensive action.
During his brief MLB career, France has made starts at each corner infield spot and second base. He even tossed two innings of relief for San Diego. It’s unclear where in the field the Mariners will use the former San Diego State Aztec. However, manager Scott Servais has stated his newest infielder will receive plenty of opportunities to hit this month.
Short-term, it’s not that important where France plays. Perhaps he’ll evolve into the heir apparent behind Kyle Seager, who has a year remaining on his contract. It’s possible the 26-year-old serves as competition for Shed Long at second base heading into next season.
Then again, some analysts have made comparisons of France to former major leaguers Ty Wigginton and Ben Zobrist. Both Wigginton and Zobrist were multi-position players with good bats. Maybe France’s value to the Mariners inevitably develops in a similar fashion. For now, we’ll have the opportunity to evaluate his right-handed bat and positional versatility with our own eyes.
The Padres acquired Torrens from the Reds after Cincinnati poached him from the Yankees during the 2016 Rule 5 draft. To retain the Venezuelan, he had to remain on San Diego’s MLB roster serving as an understudy to starting catcher Austin Hedges for the entire 2017 campaign. Afterwards, the Friars sent him back to the minors to continue his development.
Torrens projects to be Seattle’s main catcher in September, although the 24-year-old likely serves as a backup to the currently injured Tom Murphy in 2021. But you never know. At the beginning of last season, how many Mariners fans had heard of Austin Nola?
Last weekend serves as a reminder that GM Jerry Dipoto and his staff aren’t shy when it comes to leaning forward in the trade market when an opportunity presents itself. Perhaps Murphy is the next Seattle catcher moved at the trade deadline.
Watching For Strong Finishes
There may be just a few of them, but several Mariners are having great seasons. Shouldn’t we be tuning in to see how they close out the season?
I think so.
During his September call-up last year, Lewis clobbered six home runs in 18 games thrilling Mariners fans. By doing so, the Mercer product set high expectations for 2020 – he certainly hasn’t disappointed.
Heading into this month, Lewis is competing for AL Rookie of the Year with highly touted White Sox prospect Luis Robert. In the end, who wins this prestigious award likely comes down to who has the best September. If both players perform well this month, the determining factor may be the stats individual voters decide to rely on.
Lewis has a distinct edge in old-school AVG and he’s significantly more successful at reaching base than Robert. Moreover, the Mariners center fielder has a superior OPS+.
Conversely, Robert’s power bat has been more evident with more home runs and a higher SLG. When it comes to WAR, the Baseball Reference (bWAR) and FanGraphs (fWAR) versions are too close to say either player is delivering more value to their team.
It’s possible the standings will influence a segment of voters. Some scribes may justify selecting Robert over Lewis because the White Sox are in the thick of the AL Central race, while Seattle isn’t likely to reach the postseason.
Considering the tight nature of the race, Seattle fans should maintain a vigilant watch on their team and Lewis to see if he can create a distinct statistical lead over Robert by season’s end. After all, wouldn’t it be fun if the top rookie of an otherwise dreary year were a Mariner?
I believe so.
The Mariners shortstop started hot before cooling off considerably. But the 25-year-old’s bat reignited during the recent road trip. The following illustrates those three periods.
When Crawford struggled during games 11-28, his strikeout rate doubled to 22.5-percent compared to the initial 10 contests. As you can see from his xwOBA, his quality of contact also declined significantly. With 23 games remaining in the regular season, we should want to know which version of the Californian will be on display.
It’s important to note the stats we’re using to discuss Crawford and every other player are small sample sizes of bizarro baseball season, which is essentially a small sample itself. Having said that, one takeaway to consider is the former first rounder’s ability to earn free passes.
Even during his worst stretch, Crawford still maintained a 8.8-percent walk rate, which is slightly above league-average. Being able to reach base even during a slump is a key attribute a top-of-the-order hitter must possess.
Although Seager is having his best season since 2016, some fans expected or hoped the Mariners would deal former North Carolina Tar Heel at the trade deadline. Much to their chagrin, he’s still here.
On the 2020 Mariners, Seager is the second best player on the team behind Lewis. With a month to go, I want to see if he can finish the season on a high note. Doing so might compel other clubs to express more interest in acquiring the 32-year-old during the offseason.
Personally, I’d prefer Dipoto holding onto the team’s longest-tenured player for the final guaranteed year of his contract.
Rooting For Rebounds
On the flip side, there are three young hitters, who’ve struggled during the abbreviated season. It’ll be interesting to see how they perform with a month to go. Naturally, we should tune in to cheer them on.
By now, everyone knows the Mariners signed White to a six-year/$24 million extension in the offseason despite the fact he had just four games of AAA experience. During the first few weeks of the season, it was glaringly apparent the 24-year-old played at Class-AA Arkansas last year.
In his first 20 games and 77 plate appearances, White slashed a paltry .113/.169/.197 with one home run and 47.8-percent strikeout rate. The slick-fielding first baseman often looked over-matched at the plate and appeared increasingly frustrated by his struggles.
Then came the rebound.
During his next 11 contests, White has hit .273/.351/.697 with four home runs. Granted, it’s a small sample and his strikeout rate remains too high (35.1-percent). Still, even during his worst struggles, there was one positive indicator he could turn things around – hard contact.
Despite White’s propensity to swing and miss too often, the former Kentucky Wildcat’s bat makes a lot of noise when it does make contact. His 56.9-percent hard hit rate trails only Fernando Tatis Jr. (64.5), Eloy Jiménez (57.8), Miguel Sanó (57.6), and Corey Seager (57.3).
Again, there’s work to be done. White needs to cut down on the strikeouts to take advantage of his ability to strike the ball hard. Nevertheless, the fact he’s dusted himself off and is still standing is an encouraging development.
Whether the Mariners’ 2017 first round pick can continue to bring the heat with his bat this month is a good reason to remain engaged – at least it is for me.
A thumb injury ended Fraley’s 2019 major-league debut with the Mariners prematurely. Making matters worse, the LSU product has yet to find his footing this season. He’s hitting just .174/.269/.304 after failing to make the roster out of Summer Camp, which was a bit of a surprise.
Still, Fraley is just 25-years-old and coming off a strong 2019 minor-league campaign. Assuming he gets playing time, September would be a prime opportunity to demonstrate he deserves to be part of the club’s 2021 outfield rotation. Doing so sooner than later would be preferable considering the team now has Trammell and fellow top-100 outfield prospects Jared Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez advancing through its pipeline.
Prospect evaluators have always expressed confidence in Long’s hit tool. Only his long-term position in the field was uncertain. Ironically, the Mariners installed the 25-year-old as their regular second baseman prior to Spring Training and his bat has been dormant for most of the season.
Not only has the Alabaman struggled at the plate, he appears to be tentative in the field. Perhaps more reps at second base is all that’s needed. After all, Long was initially drafted as a catcher by the Reds and spent more time at third base and in left field with the Mariners than at second base last year.
One area of concern is Long’s 27.9-percent strikeout rate, which is second highest behind White among Mariners with 100-plus plate appearances. That’s a four-point jump from last season. On a positive note, Shed did hit two home runs in his last five games.
Maybe those dingers are an indicator of things to come for Long in September. But it’s plausible his struggles this season costs him playing time. Especially with the arrival of France and the return of Dylan Moore from the IL. I’ll be watching to see how it pans out for all three players.
Growth In The Rotation
After Marco, there were no sure things entering the season. Yet, we’ve witnessed the starting staff exhibit signs of growth in August. Whether it can continue that positive trend into September is important for a franchise attempting to make top-shelf starting pitching a cornerstone of its identity.
The following illustrates the starting staff’s numbers to date, sorted by expected on-base average (xwOBA).
The overall numbers of several individuals may not seem impressive. But the starting staff’s .317 xwOBA is fourth best in the majors behind Cleveland (.303), Cincinnati (.305), and Philadelphia (.315). Impressive considering the inexperience of Seattle’s starting six.
Newsome just joined the rotation, so we can’t reasonably evaluate the rookie’s performance. Still, we can glean from his 2019 minor-league numbers that he doesn’t like handing out free passes. The Maryland native’s 2.4-percent walk rate and 9.94 SO/BB were the best in all of the minors last year.
Although the sample size is minuscule, Newsome is off to a good start with the Mariners. In seven innings, he’s struck out five and walked no one. Obviously, the 23-year-old will eventually give up a base on balls. But wouldn’t it be fun if it didn’t happen in 2020?
As most fans know, Kikuchi’s rookie season was a tough slog. A 5.48 ERA that was second worst in the majors just behind Rick Porcello (5.52) and a .344 xwOBA wasn’t much better – bottom 10-percent among MLB starters. This season though, there have been signs the southpaw has turned a corner even though his ERA remains ugly.
Per Statcast, hitters have made “poor” contact on 69.1-percent of batted balls against Kikuchi. That’s eighth highest among starting pitchers. Moreover, opponents have a .191 AVG on those balls.
Another sign Kikuchi is making progress is his .302 xwOBA, which ties him with Gonzales for best in the rotation. Furthermore, the Japanese import has surrendered just one home run in five starts. In 2019, he permitted multiple homers in 12 outings.
Kikuchi taking the next step in his development is critical for financial purposes also. The 29-year-old must decide by the fifth day after the 2021 World Series whether to exercise a $13 million player option for the following season. Simultaneously, the Mariners must determine whether to exercise the first of four one-year $16 million club options that run through the 2025 season.
Depending on how Kikuchi performs between now and the end of next season, he could be a free agent after 2022 or a key contributor with the Mariners when the team projects to be a serious contender in 2023.
Margevicius made the Opening Day roster as a member of the bullpen, but joined the rotation when Kendall Graveman went down with an injury. After tossing 3.1 shutout innings in his first start, the Rider University alum pitched 17.1 innings in his next three starts allowing eight earned runs, 17 hits, and three walks, while striking out 15.
Much like Newsome, it’s too early to tell what Margevicius might do. That’s why it’s worth paying attention to the 24-year-old down the home stretch.
Sheffield struggled in his first two starts – eight runs, eight hits, and six walks allowed against seven strikeouts in 7.2 innings. Since then, the left-hander has been delivering the kind of production the Mariners expected when they shipped James Paxton to the Yankees to acquire him.
In Sheffield’s next three starts encompassing 18 innings, he struck out 16, walked two, and allowed just two earned runs. Plus, he went six innings in each outing. Still, the Tennessean did absorb some punches in his most recent outing against the Angels – six earned runs, four walks, and the first home run allowed this season.
His last start notwithstanding, Sheffield appears more comfortable as a major-league pitcher. If that’s the case, it’ll become increasingly evident during the lefty’s final starts in 2020.
The Freeport, New York native entered the season as the least experienced starter on the staff and it showed early. Therefore, there are good and not-so-much results to discuss.
Dunn’s 13.8-percent walk rate this season is third highest among starters with 20-plus innings. Only Robbie Ray (20.1) and Spencer Turnbull (15.1) are worse than the former Boston College Eagle. Moreover, he’s surrendered five home runs in 27 innings.
On the other hand, Dunn’s 67.9-percent “poor” contact rate is fourteenth best in the majors among starters. Not only that, opponents are hitting just .057 on those balls.
The box score also highlights Dunn’s inconsistent season thus far. The right-hander logged just nine innings in three starts. Yet, he also has three quality starts, including a pair of six shutout inning affairs in his last two outings.
Despite the unevenness of his performances, it’s evident Dunn possesses a great deal of upside. The challenge he faces is having to put it all together at the big-league level.
Perhaps it’s unfair that Dunn didn’t get a chance to hone his skills at AAA, but 2020 has been unforgiving in so many ways. That said; the New Yorker is making the best of the situation and not wasting the opportunity to prove he belongs. That’s why I’ll be watching him in September.
What Will Yohan Ramírez Do?
There’s no getting around the fact the bullpen has been bad this season. But I have to admit, I can’t turn away from the TV when Ramírez is pitching. The 25-year-old is an intriguing figure with a dynamic arm, although his command and control have been volatile at times.
As Mike Petriello of MLB.com noted last month, Ramírez had the eighth highest strikeout rate among minor league pitchers with 100-plus innings last year. Unfortunately, the native of the Dominican Republic had the highest walk rate to go with it. Basically, it’s what we’ve seen from him this season too.
With the Mariners, Ramírez’s 35.6-percent strikeout rate is slightly better than his minor-league rate and good enough to place him in the top-30 among big-league relievers this year. Unfortunately, his 23.7-percent walk rate is the worst in the majors.
Then again, opponents have a .114 AVG against Ramírez – tops among Mariners pitchers and ninth best among relievers. If he can harness his electric stuff, the righty could be a key piece in the team’s bullpen when the club is ready to contend.
With the departure of Altavilla and Williams, Ramírez could potentially get more opportunities to pitch in high-leverage situations this month. Sure, the 2019 Rule 5 pick from the Astros could crash and burn a few times. Then again, he can be dazzling, which makes it tough to turn away when he’s on the mound.
Will We See Logan Gilbert?
The masses have been pining for the arrival of Kelenic, but it seems unlikely he’s going to appear in 2020. You know, service time and all that stuff. If I were going to bet on the arrival of a top prospect from Tacoma this season, I’d place money on Gilbert getting the call.
To me, Gilbert is the prospect best positioned to join the Mariners this month. Perhaps the club prefers to have the Stetson alum begin 2021 with Class-AAA, which was the initial plan for this year before the pandemic shutdown. Assuming management is pleased with his development at the alternate training site; why not expose him to major league hitters this month?
The answer is probably the same as it is with Kelenic. Although no team will never admit it, starting the service time clock is a big deal. Particularly for a club like the Mariners that isn’t likely to contend next year. I’m not justifying the practice, just acknowledging the reality of the situation.
Still, seeing Gilbert pitch at T-Mobile Park this month would be fun. The 23-year-old would represent a preview of what we may see from the Mariners in 2022-23 – when Seattle could begin becoming a baseball town again.
Yes, I know. Go Hawks and all that stuff. But baseball remains the best sport.
My Oh My…