I’m back in record time for the second post in this series. I’m speculating on what each position will look like for the Mariners in 2020, as well as what future years might hold. Today, we finish our trip around the infield, a set of positions that might be the most lacking in talent of any in Seattle’s rapidly improving farm system.
Second base in Seattle is in the strange position of returning a starter who will almost assuredly not be the starter in 2020. That starter is Dee Gordon, who will likely fill a utility role for the club in 2020. That is, if they can’t trade him before the season starts. I’m sure they spent all offseason trying to move Dee, but to no avail. It’s not impossible that Gordon returns to being a solid starter somewhere, but his past two years have been poor. Combined with $13 million remaining on his contract this year, it’s no wonder he’s been difficult to trade. I expect they’ll eventually move him, along with a lot of money to cover most of the contract, and receive next to nothing in return.
Why trade him at all, you ask, if you’re going to pay for him anyway and you won’t get much back? Good question, but the answer is Shed Long. The diminutive infielder with the great name and big lefty swing is the present at second base in Seattle, and the M’s want him to get lots of at bats. Whether he’s the future or not will hopefully be answered by the end of the season. Shed’s defense is okay at best, but there’s reason to hope for improvement, as he’s relatively new to the position and has the athleticism to be at least solid. It’ll be up to him to put in the work this year to improve. However his defense ends up, Shed’s bat is likely to always be his premier tool. He’s put up decent, and occasionally very good, offensive numbers throughout his career in the minors. His brief trial in Seattle last year was mixed, but he showed real promise toward the end of the year. He has a lot more power than his size would indicate, and it’s reasonable to think he could be an average or better starting second baseman. I’m not sure I’m convinced, but Shed’s certainly interesting enough to warrant a season seeing what he can do full time.
I’m not sure there’s anyone else in the whole system who’s currently playing second base and could be an impact starter in the majors. There are utility types, including Dylan Moore and Tim Lopes at or near the big leagues. Donnie Walton, who spent last year in double A, might have a shot. He’s currently the definition of a utility man, but he’s beloved by his teammates and a coach’s kid who seems like he might keep beating the odds to end up a starter.
If Shed Long doesn’t lay claim to the position this year, I have no idea what the Mariners will do going forward. If Shed is okay but not great, they’d probably give him a little longer for improvement. If he’s not eventually the long-term answer, they’ll likely have to acquire a second baseman. That might mean free agency, but I could see the team stocking up on middle infielders in the next two drafts and seeing if one of them can blow through the minors quickly.
Shortstop is very settled for 2020, but the long-term future is still up in the air. J.P. Crawford came over in trade as a failed top prospect, known for a solid all around game. He showed flashes of being an above-average starter, but his consistency, especially with the bat, was lacking. He started well, and posted a .983 OPS in 16 games in June, but he fell apart from there, batting well below .200 the rest of the way. Whether it was the result of fatigue or the league simply figuring him out is hard to say. He’s gotten bigger this offseason, and 2020 will be a huge year for him to establish himself as an offensively viable starting shortstop. I have high hopes, as he’s still quite young and came through the minors pretty quickly. Luckily for him, last season brought drastic improvements to his defense. I shouldn’t say luckily, as it’s clear he put in a ton of work. No one will forget his incredible backhand stop and no-look, falling down throw, but he was dependable and often spectacular for most of the year.
The only real hope for a big time talent behind Crawford is an 18 year old who has yet to play a game in the United States. Noelvi Marte put up a monster season in the Dominican Summer League last year and will make his debut stateside this season, likely either in low A or possibly short season Everett. He has all the potential to be a big time prospect and player, especially offensively. He has a long ways to go, but he could move quickly. He’s likely not quite as talented as Julio Rodriguez, but he’s on a similar development path, albeit a possibly slower timetable. He may have to move off shortstop eventually, but that’s not definite, and he should be able to shift to third or second if he does.
The best case scenario at shortstop for Seattle is that Crawford blows up this year and looks like an impact player. Shortstop is still the most important position on the field. Crawford showed he can play the position, and if he can develop into an above average hitter, the Mariners will have a playoff level player. In theory, that could allow Marte to shift to third eventually as well, where the M’s have a black hole of talent. There’s not much in the system outside of those two, but they’re two pretty good lottery tickets.
Speaking of people the team would probably like to trade, Kyle Seager is still here. His 2019 season was delayed by injury, and then he was very bad, and then he was pretty good. It seems entirely possible that he’ll be back to something in the realm of vintage Seager, but he could also just be bad. The team will keep trying to trade him, but due to well-publicized contractual issues (he gets paid a lot more if he’s traded, basically), it may not be possible unless he turns in a big first half. I’m guessing he plays the year in Seattle, but they manage to move him next offseason.
While I understand why Dipoto would want to move Seager, namely his contract, I also think it’s a little strange, because the team has almost no talent behind him. It’s not like there’s a top prospect they need to give at bats. There are the aforementioned utility guys who could fill in for a while but aren’t likely long-term answers. Two prospects have a shot, albeit a small one. Joe Rizzo is a short guy who has made slow but steady progress through the system and will likely be in double A this year. He’s known as a hitter, and 2019 was by far his best season, but middling power and mostly unimpressive numbers leave me doubtful. He has defensive questions as well and is no lock to stay at third base. Further down, Austin Shenton was a 2019 draft pick who had a nice debut in Everett before falling off some when he moved up a level to West Virginia. He profiles similarly to Seager, actually, but it’s anyone’s guess how he’ll perform this year. He has a shot, but he’ll have to answer a lot of questions. Really, the future at this position is likely Noelvi Marte, but it would be better if he can stay at shortstop.
I have no idea. Seager will likely still be here next year, but there is no definite long-term third baseman in the system, in my opinion, unless it’s Marte in three or more years. I see an impact veteran addition here in the near-ish future.
For all the improvements the Mariners have made to their farm system, these three positions have seen the least talent added. Crawford and Long have real shots to be starters, but otherwise the future is resting on Noelvi Marte, who would be graduating high school this year if he were born in the United States. I expect additions here, both at the major league level in the next few years and with major reinforcements through the next few drafts. These are some of the most important positions on the field, and the Mariners just need more bodies.