The Mariners are going to be bad this year. When the general manager of the team tells you they’re going to be bad, that means they’re really going to be bad. In year two of their rebuild, the team might push 100 losses.
Despite that, I’m kind of looking forward to this season. There’s young talent on the opening day roster, with more coming in the next months and years. There’s never any guarantee in baseball that young prospects will pan out, but I’m looking forward to getting excited about some new guys for the first time in a long time.
This series (I’m being optimistic calling it that, since I average about a post a year right now) will look at each position for 2020 for the Mariners, as well as give thoughts on how the next few years might play out.
In 2019, Omar Narvaez turned in the best offensive season the M’s have had from a catcher in recent memory, and then was promptly traded this offseason. It think it was a necessary move, as Narvaez was bad with the glove and seemed unlikely to improve, but replacing his offense might be tough. Luckily, last year’s backup Tom Murphy had a solid season with the bat as well, and is much better defensively. He’ll take over as the starter in 2020, and the team will hope he can replicate or improve upon last year’s numbers. It’s no guarantee, but Murphy’s a good gamble to take. If he can stay close to his .858 OPS from last year while starting over 100 games, he’ll be a well above average major league catcher.
Backing him up will be Austin Nola, who played about half of last season in Seattle, mostly at first base. He was a big surprise as an older guy who had bounced around the minors before delivering a solid batting line in the big leagues. I’m skeptical he can replicate the performance, but as a backup catcher who can play a solid first base as well, he doesn’t need to be great to add value to the team.
In the minors, the M’s really only have one solid prospect. That’s Cal Raleigh, who will likely start the season in double A. That’s where he ended a really solid 2019, which saw him hit 29 homers, mostly in High A ball, where he spent his first 82 games. His offensive numbers dropped in the final month plus in double A, but they weren’t disastrous. It’s not easy to find switch-hitting catchers with power who are also solid defensively, so Raleigh will get plenty of chances to be the catcher of the future. He’ll need to watch his strikeout numbers and continue to improve his defense, but he’s an interesting guy to keep an eye on. This season will show a ton about what we can expect from him. There’s not a lot else in the minors, but watch for Jake Anchia a level or two behind Raleigh. He has power potential but tons of strikeouts.
The future catcher position is a little up for grabs. Murphy could continue last year’s trajectory and take hold of the job for the foreseeable future, but my guess is he gets exposed a little this year and settles in as a good backup. Raleigh seems like a 50-50 bet, at best, to be a long-term championship level starter. There are interesting options here, but I kind of expect the Mariners to be in the market for a free agent catcher in a year or two.
Suddenly, the future is now at first base. This offseason, Evan White signed a six year contract. That’s a long deal for anyone, but especially for a guy who hasn’t played above double A. It’s a bit of a risk, but if White is even an average starter, it’s an incredible deal for the Mariners. White is an interesting guy. He’s best known for being the best defensive first baseman alive, which is fun. He has a solid bat, but his power is still hope as much as reality. I think there’s room to believe he eventually hits 30 homers, but an average closer to 15 is probably more likely. Unless he looks completely over-matched in spring training, he will be the opening day starter, and with no incentive to send him down with his contract, he’ll have all the leash he needs to succeed. I’d love a .270/.350/.450 line from him this year, but even a tick less would be a solid debut.
There’s no real backup option to speak of, so if White struggles and needs to go to Tacoma for a while, I would guess Nola would take over and they’d call up whatever catcher is in Tacoma. I think there’s a 50% chance of this happening at some point. White’s young and could easily need a little seasoning. There’s not a lot of first base depth worth mentioning in the minors either, although it tends to be a position for guys with good bats who can’t play defense, or who get beat out at their regular position. The Mariners have a lot of outfielders who might fit this description in the next few years.
This position belongs to Evan White. There is no doubt about this. If he can’t handle it, the Mariners will have to convert an outfielder or something else along those lines, or they’ll have to acquire another first baseman. Personally, I believe in Evan White and think he’ll be at least an average starter, with a shot at being an all star.
I often skip over DH in these type of discussions, but we have to talk about Daniel Vogelbach. Everyone wants Vogey to succeed. His first few months of 2019 were so much fun, with him blasting balls off the Hit It Here Cafe and just generally being a lovable teddy bear. And then the wheels came off, and he ended up barely hitting .200, with an OPS under .800. That’s not acceptable from a DH, especially one with mammoth power and a great batting eye. I have no idea what 2020 will bring. I could certainly see him righting the ship and solidifying into a good or better bat. Unfortunately, if I had to bet, I would go the other way. I hope not, because a big time lefty slugger would help this rebuild tremendously.
If Vogelbach doesn’t turn it around in the first half of this season, there’s no real reason to keep him around. As much as everyone loves him, his only job is to hit, and so far he’s struggling to do that. If the team does have to move on, I would expect the Mariners to use DH as a spot to give young players at bats for the next couple of years, rather than finding one guy to play it every game. I’ll leave it at that, since there’s no way to know what even 2021 would look like if Vogelbach doesn’t establish himself as the team’s future designated hitter.
The positive here is that there are good options, both now and in future years, at these positions. The negative is that none of these positions is close to settled. That’s going to be a common theme for every position on the team, though. The main goal for this year is to settle at least a few positions, so the team can focus their energy and assets on the roster holes that remain.