After playing in 57 big league games in 2015, Ketel Marte goes into the 2016 season as the Mariners' starting shortstop. Can he become the organization's shortstop of the future?

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Not since the hallowed and revered days of Yuniesky Betancourt have the Mariners entered a baseball season where a largely unproven youngster was handed the starting shortstop job without competing for it during spring training.

Unlike the past two seasons where the opening day starting shortstop was undecided until the final weeks of Cactus League play, the Mariners head to Peoria, Arizona with youngster Ketel Marte slotted in as their opening day shortstop.

 

The past

Seattle shortstop Chris Taylor picks up the easy ground ball and retire’s Cleveland’s Nick Swisher at 1st to end the third inning. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Seattle shortstop Chris Taylor picks up the easy ground ball and retire’s Cleveland’s Nick Swisher at 1st to end the third inning. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
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A year ago at this time, the Mariners were heading to spring training with no definitive shortstop, the same as the year before. It would be a competition between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor for the starting spot.

Their strengths and weaknesses were known quantities – Miller was the better hitter, while Taylor had the edge defensively.

The competition in spring was relatively close and it looked as though Taylor might grab the job with Miller being sent to Class AAA Tacoma to start the season and also begin working as an outfielder.

But on March 13 in a Cactus League game against the Brewers, Taylor checked his swing on an inside pitch from Jim Henderson and the ball struck him in the wrist. The umpire at the time believed the ball hit the bat, despite Taylor’s obvious pain, and ruled it a foul ball. Taylor remained in the game and singled on the next pitch. But overnight there was swelling in the wrist and a MRI revealed a fracture to his triquetrum bone.

It ended the shortstop competition. But it’s easy to wonder what would have happened had Taylor not broken his wrist and the competition played out. Miller, who beat out Nick Franklin in a similar competition before the 2014 season, was the opening day shortstop for a second straight season.

It was a position that he couldn’t hold.

Unlike 2014, Miller got off to a decent start, hitting .277 with .733 OPS in April. But with the Mariners off to a slow start and struggling on offense, Taylor, who was hitting .313 in 21 games with Class AAA Tacoma, was recalled on May 4. Miller, who had a few shaky moments in the field, was asked to move to a “super utility” role while Taylor played shortstop on most days. It was meant to help the lineup. Miller accepted the assignment and worked hard at learning outfield, but made it very clear that he believed he was a shortstop and should be playing that position.

The Mariners management and coaching staff loved Miller as a hitter, but were frustrated with his inconsistent defense. His poor footwork and funky throwing motion led to wayward throws.

As a coach said, “It’s tough to play every day when the routine is never routine.”

The experiment lasted for about a month. Taylor played his way out of the opportunity and the big leagues, struggling at the plate. In 20 games, he hit just .159 (5-for-63) with a double, a triple and 19 strikeouts. His swing looked mechanical and he was pressing at the plate. The Mariners sent him back to Tacoma to figure out the issues.

Miller was re-inserted as the starting shortstop. But really another injury might have aided that return. At the time, Marte was tearing up Class AAA. He was hitting .343 with a .394 on-base percentage and 17 stolen bases in his first 51 games. Manager Lloyd McClendon was lobbying to have Marte called up to play shortstop and leave Miller in the utility role. And it looked as though that would happen. But on May 31, Marte broke his thumb while running the bases in a game. Had Marte been healthy, he would have been likely called up when Taylor was sent down.

When Willie Bloomquist was designated for assignment on July 2, Taylor was recalled from Tacoma. But this time he would serve as back-up/utility player.

After missing six weeks and rehabbing in the minor leagues, Marte was called up on July 31 with Robinson Cano ailing from an abdominal strain that would later be diagnosed as a hernia. Taylor, who hit just .190 in his second stint with the Mariners, was sent back to Tacoma. He wouldn’t return to the big leagues for the remainder of the season.

Marte started his first two games at second base in place of Cano, getting four hits. In his third game, he started in center field something that the Mariners had experimented with in the minor leagues to take advantage of his speed and athleticism.

He would make just one more start in center field and one at second base. It became apparent that Marte had taken over as shortstop while Miller played predominantly outfield. In a surprising move, interim general manager Jeff Kingston decided not to bring Taylor back when rosters expanded in September. Instead Taylor and Mike Zunino were sent to Peoria to work on their swings instead of being recalled.

At the top of the lineup, Marte was a pest on the bases and made things happen, getting on base at a .351 clip. In the field, he made the bulk of the plays that should be made, which are all the Mariners wanted from him.

 

The present

Mariners shortstop Ketel Marte reaches for a pop-up from Oakland’s Marcus Semien for an out in the third inning Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Mariners shortstop Ketel Marte reaches for a pop-up from Oakland’s Marcus Semien for an out in the third inning Wednesday. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

With his strong showing, Marte was the presumed starter in 2016 the day the 2015 season ended.

It became more clear when new general manager Jerry Dipoto  traded Miller along with Logan Morrison and Danny Farquhar to the Rays for pitchers Nathan Karns, C.J. Riefenhauser and outfielder Boog Powell.

Marte fits what Dipoto’s player profile. He’s young, athletic, gets on base and is difficult to strikeout.

“I really like the athlete. I like the twitch,’’ Dipoto told Larry Stone in October. “I think he’s a major-league player, and he’s ready to play in the major leagues. Whether you’re ready to give him 650 plate appearances as a shortstop remains to be seen, but he’s certainly done a large part toward making me more comfortable to make that move.”

At the winter meetings, Dipoto confirmed that Marte would be the opening day shortstop and the team wouldn’t look at a free agent fill-in.

“He’s earned that right with the finish to his season last year,” Dipoto said.

But what if Marte fails?

It isn’t implausible. Many players have had strong partial-season starts to their big league career only to struggle as the league adjusts to them.

Dustin Ackley hit .273 with a .766 OPS in 90 games in 2011 and never approached those numbers again. In Nick Franklin’s first 38 games as a big leaguer, he hit .287 with a .830 OPS. In 2014, Taylor appeared in 47 games and hit .287 to earn his shot at the starting job in 2015. None of them were able to replicate their early success.

Marte has no such fears. He believes he’s a big league player.  He believed he should have been in consideration for the job last spring. His self-confidence is one of his best qualities.

“I really like what I’ve seen and heard the guys in the office talk about Ketel Marte,” said manager Scott Servais. “Ketel plays with a lot of confidence. He’s got a little swag; that’s a good thing. I think you need to have that when you walk on the field. “

But even the most confident players can still experience failure. It’s how Marte responds to it that will be most telling. The results matter at the big league level.

“We’re also fortunate to have Robbie Cano right next to him, a veteran guy who has been through it,” Servais said. “Whether he hits 2, 8, I think you’ll see him in all different places at the top and at the bottom in spring training, and probably throughout the season. Again, Jerry talked about layering the lineup and making sure it really comes together. Is Kyle Seager going to hit 2? Is Marte? I’m not really that worried about it right now. We can sit and draw it up in a room, and we have talked about a lot of different things. Ketel Marte will let us know.”

Marte’s speed and knowledge of the strike zone will be key to fighting slumps. The Mariners’ push for getting on base above all other things plays to his strengths. There is a chance he won’t bat leadoff this season. The acquisition of Nori Aoki, another on-base machine, gives Servais some options with the lineup.

Perhaps the larger concern will be how he handles the rigors and responsibilities at shortstop. The reason the Mariners experimented with Marte in the outfield was that most scouts – both internal and opposing – believe he profiled as a second baseman at the big league level. Marte doesn’t have exceptional range or the prototypical big arm of a shortstop. But with the Mariners locked into Robinson Cano, the team felt center field might be an option.

That thinking has obviously changed. Marte was solid if not spectacular at shortstop. There are times when the lack of elite arm strength is noticeable. But former infield coach Chris Woodward believed that Marte could overcome that issue by attacking ground balls and quickening up his throwing release.

Groundballs deep in the hole, slow rollers up the middle and tough double play turns will be situations to watch.

But if Marte can produce on offense as the Mariners hope, it will be easier to overlook some defensive shortcomings.

Taylor will come to camp to vie for the back-up utility job with switch-hitter Luis Sardinas, who the Mariners acquired in a trade with the Brewers. Sardinas has 230 games of big league experience. He’s a career .231 hitter with plus speed.

Taylor was a part of the Mariners’ hitting summit in January and has embraced the new teachings of controlling the strike zone. Servais was highly complimentary of Taylor’s attitude and willingness to learn. It will be interesting to see how his swing and approach have improved from a year ago. The Mariners may want to start him at Class AAA Tacoma, which would allow him to play every day and work on his hitting.

 

The future

Marte is the future for now. Taylor was the future before him and Miller before him. They will give Marte every opportunity to be that every day shortstop. If he can’t do it, the Mariners near future would be acquiring a proven shortstop via trade or free agency for next season.

From an organizational standpoint, the Mariners like Tyler Smith, who spent last season with Class AA Jackson. He hit .271 with a .716 OPS, 24 doubles, two triples, three home runs, 32 RBI in 121 games. He had a streak of reaching base in 27 straight games.

The best shortstop prospect in the organization might be Drew Jackson, who had a brilliant first season with short-season Everett.

Selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft out of Stanford, Jackson was named the Northwest League player of the year after putting up huge numbers for the Aqua Sox. His .362 average, .437 on-base percentage, 47 steals and 64 runs all led the league. He had 30 walks and struck out just 35 times.

With Jackson’s plus speed and outstanding arm, a move to the outfield could happen in the future, but the Mariners have no immediate plans to move him out of the infield as of now.