In 2020 the world is changing, baseball is changing and on a smaller scale, the Seattle Mariners are changing. This baseball season will be unlike any other we’ve seen. Start with a shortened schedule and new rule changes. Throw in daily Covid-19 tests and remove the minor league games. There will be no fans in the stands for health reasons. Also, some notable major league players have chosen to opt out of the season for various reasons. The possibility of being surprised by the events and results of the 2020 season seem likely.
With a promising group of young talent and a clear direction of how they want to play moving forward, the 2020 Seattle Mariners will have an opportunity to be one of those surprises. It would take a multitude of things going their way but we have already seen stranger things happen in 2020.
Mariners Navigating Uncharted Waters
When spring training began back in February, the expectations were for the Mariners to be in the running for another high draft pick in 2021. Not that they were going to intentionally try to lose games. It was that their roster is made up of mostly young and unproven players. The grind of a 162 game marathon would certainly wear them down, as most of the roster had little to no experience withstanding a full season.
A 60-game season is a sprint, not a marathon. Anybody who gets hot can win it all and even a huge underdog like the Mariners have a chance. A key to a successful season is going to be limiting COVID-19 infections. There is little doubt some teams are better prepared to handle this than others.
Finding New Ways to Develop Talent
The way 2020 has begun, will it be crushing to a developing team like the Mariners? In baseball, there is no substitute for repetition. Repetition is important in every sport but, in baseball, it is as essential as water is to life. Typically players are not called up until they have been to the plate 1500 times professionally or pitched in 300 innings. For the Mariners, developing players like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, and company definitely need repetition. Traditional baseball wisdom tells us that the lack of repetitions this season could end up slowing their progress to the big leagues. This may end up being true for them all, which would be unfortunate.
Another possibility is that all of the substitutes for live-game repetition could end up working in these players’ favor. Having a few extra days with the major league coaches, players, and analytics department won’t hurt either. Only time will tell how this season affects player development and the results may vary greatly from player to player.
The First Wave
The season will start with basically the same group that was expected to start in April. For the most part, it’s a group of young players who are getting their first opportunity at the highest level in the sport. There is some competition at various positions, while other positions seem fairly set barring injury, trade, or other changes. This season is a proving ground for the young major league players.
J.P. Crawford, who impressed last season on defense, is expected to make a jump at the plate. Shed Long will get an opportunity to play and play often if he continues to hit the way he did last season. Kyle Lewis has shown a tremendous ability to hit for power in his short time in the big leagues; if he keeps that up he will be a huge piece of this teams core moving forward. Daniel Vogelbach has shown power and the ability to take a walk, both coveted by Mariners brass. He has to improve against lefties this season or the team will be forced to find another DH moving forward. Mallex Smith needs to bounce back or his time in Seattle may be short as the next wave of outfield talent begins to arrive.
The Second Wave
How soon will the trio of first-round starting pitchers be ready? That largely depends on them individually and how fast the coaches can get them ready. Remember none of these guys are even close to the 300-inning milestone mentioned earlier. Gilbert is the closest with a mere 135 innings pitched in the minors. It’s probably best to let him continue developing this season. He may be in a Mariners uniform late in the year if coaches believe he is ready. Don’t count on it, though.
This season, it is Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield‘s turn to show what they have. Neither has looked great in short stints at the major league level. Both have the potential to be part of the starting rotation moving forward. Now is the time for these two because the competition will stiffen as Gilbert, Kirby, and Hancock are next up.
The 2020 Mariners Starting Rotation
Marco Gonzales heads the group and is coming off of his best season as a pro. After that, Yusei Kikuchi, Kendall Graveman, and Taijuan Walker are a trio of veterans with something to prove. Each will be given an opportunity to quiet the naysayers in 2020. Rounding out the group is the first wave of young starting pitchers, Dunn and Sheffield. Both are 24 and just beginning their major league careers.
While there are no household names in this group, it has the potential to be a solid rotation. It’s not going to rival the 90s Atlanta Braves or the 60s Los Angeles Dodgers. Their ceiling is probably something like what we saw from the 2018 Mariners when the team gave up a little over four runs per game and five starters pitched more than 150 innings. Getting that type of production again could help make this team a contender. On the flip side, there are a ton of question marks here. If this group isn’t able to consistently give the team quality start, things could get out of hand.
2020 Mariners Bullpen
Carl Edwards Jr., Yoshihisa Hirano (on IL tested positive for coronavirus), Dan Altavilla, and Matt Magill are the relief pitchers currently on the 30-man roster who have thrown north of 100 innings in the majors. All four have experienced their ups and downs in doing so. There is not an obvious closer in this group, and it is likely that the role will be shared until someone asserts themselves as the best man for the ninth inning.
At times Erik Swanson and Brandon Brennan looked like they belonged last season. Gerson Bautista has the devastating power fastball/slider combination teams look for. Unfortunately, he is out indefinitely due to a flexor strain. Austin Adams looked great in 30 games last season and in intrasquad games thus far. He may be the anchor this bullpen needs.
The relief corps has some electric arms, and it wouldn’t be shocking if they were able to have some success for the 2020 Mariners. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be shocking to see them struggle. Predicting relief production is at least as difficult as predicting the stock market. They are volatile groups, and for many reasons. The first of which is it is a tough job. They are often brought into a game during critical points and relied on to get tough outs. At least those are the moments, good or bad, that they end up being remembered for. Another is guys who pitch in relief typically do so because they are forced to in order to continue playing baseball. Not many pitchers envision themselves as setup men growing up, and it takes a special breed to enjoy these roles.
Both Tom Murphy and Austin Nola are inexpensive and fairly productive options behind the dish. That equals job security for the time being. Murphy, who was brought in via trade last season, didn’t disappoint. He earned his opportunity to be the team’s number one catcher this season. For Nola, this will be his first season as a full-time catcher in the big leagues. His ability to play first, second, and third base or a corner outfielder could also be utilized at some point in 2020. The next wave of catching talent will come in the form of top prospect Cal Raleigh. The 23-year-old will start the year on the taxi squad. If he exceeds expectations or if there is a need he could get a taste of the show this season.
It is Evan White time, and barring something unforeseen, he will be the everyday first baseman from now until his contract runs out in 2026. He is regarded as one of the best defensive first base prospects in the history of the game. The Mariners believe his bat will also contribute, as his line at Double-A Arkansas in 2019 was .293/.350/.488 with 18 home runs. That not bad, considering he missed time due to a concussion and a quad strain. Behind White will be Nola and Vogelbach, who can both play a decent first base if needed.
This is Shed Long’s spot to lose. Veteran Dee Gordon is behind him if something goes wrong. Long is a player who exudes confidence. In his first big league action in 2019, he slashed .263/.333/.454. He also showed some power with five home runs in 162 at-bats. He has decent speed as well as an above-average glove. Signs point to Long being on this team for years to come. Even if prospect Kaden Palcovich pans out, Long is still capable of finding his way into the lineup because he can play at multiple spots. If Long continues to hit, he will continue to play. Utility men Tim Lopes and Dylan Moore can also play second.
Kyle Seager has been nothing if not consistent. He is the most proven hitter on the Mariners 2020 roster and provides veteran leadership for this group of twenty-somethings. You know what you are getting with Seager — an above-average glove and above-average power at his position. He seemed to make the proper adjustments to the defensive shifts against him last season, producing a .239/.321/.468 line. That is quite the bounceback after a .221/271/.400 line in 2018. If the Mariners are to make the playoffs in 2020’s shortened season, Seager will have a lot to do with that accomplishment. That might not be the most exciting reality for Mariners fans, but it is the truth. Lopes and Moore will back up Seager at third base.
J.P. Crawford is a potential superstar shortstop and will be counted on to help produce runs in 2020. Up to this point, Crawford has not been able to put together a great 162-game run at the plate. He has been able to put together some nice runs of 30, 40, or 50 games. If he gets hot, Crawford could carry the young Mariners lineup to success. The Mariners are as invested in Crawford as any of their first wave of young talent. Baring a trade, Crawford is going to be the starting shortstop in Seattle for the time being. He has a chance to prove himself as one of the better players at his position in 2020. Gordon will back him up in 2020.
We know we will see a trio of young talented outfielders for the 2020 Mariners. Mallex Smith looks to improve on a disappointing 2019. Jake Fraley will get an opportunity to show what he can do in the shortened season. Then Kyle Lewis has emerged as a potential superstar during both camps this year. He has shown exceptional power to all fields. Lewis appears set to be the most exciting Mariner at the plate this season. After those three you have, you guessed it Lopes backing them up to start the season. Mitch Haniger might return from injury in 2020, but that is uncertain. If he does make it back, it could provide a big lift for this young group.
Don’t expect to see Julio Rodriguez or Jared Kelenic starting in the outfield anytime soon. There is no reason to throw the future of the franchise to the wolves; their development is more important than the results of the 2020 Mariners season. If one or more of the young stars emerge as a generational talent who can emotionally handle the jump, then we may see them called up to contribute late in the season.
Daniel Vogelbach will be the DH vs righties in 2020. When facing left-handed starters, Vogelbach will be in the lineup if he can improve his OBP against them. If not, there are several players capable of doing an adequate job in his place.
What to Expect From the 2020 Mariners
In any other season, this is not the team that will break the 18-year playoff drought. In a COVID-19 shortened season, the 2020 Mariners are capable of making the playoffs. Again, many things would need to fall into place for them. Everything will be intensified in 2020 and there won’t be much room for teams to start cold. They have the talent and the coaching to make a short run happen.
As they would say often in the golden era of baseball, the 2020 Mariners will go as far as their pitching takes them. If Gonzalez continues to improve, two out of the three veteran question marks pitch well, and one of the two rookies make an impact, then maybe this team can compete. The rotation needs to do its job and take some pressure off of the bullpen. Manager Scott Servais needs to find a couple of relievers he can trust and the bats need to average around 4.5 runs a game and the unexpected could happen.
Connected through Hardball
Regardless of the playoff drought ending, the 2020 Mariners will be a fun team to watch. They are young and talented. The team shows discipline at the plate and makes spectacular plays in the field. They will hit some home runs. Watching them in camp, they look like they are having fun playing baseball. In a year like 2020 without college, pro, or even high school sports for months, the fans can get behind a team that is entertaining and has fun competing.
It will be strange without fans in the stands. Over the past four months, our society has learned how to stay connected without physical contact and baseball fans will adapt. As regular season play starts, there will be millions of people connecting over their common love of baseball. As divided as we have been recently that is a huge success in itself. The results of the games are just an afterthought. Let’s Play Ball!
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