Evan White slipped on the crisp, white Mariners jersey with the No. 12 on the back, fumbling with the buttons and shaming himself for his clumsiness, while apologizing for taking so long as people waited to take his picture.
He was the first player in the organization to slip on the 2020 game jerseys featuring a Nike swoosh, the symbol of Major League Baseball’s newest uniform partner.
And if all goes right with his progression to the big leagues, White will wear a Mariners jersey for the next nine seasons.
On Monday the Mariners announced that White, their No. 4 prospect, had signed a six-year, $24 million contract with three club options that could push the length to nine years and the compensation to more than $55 million.
“Obviously, the news slipped out this past Friday,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “This is a moment we’re all really excited for. To move forward with Evan White at the core having just signed a contract for a minimum of six years, but what could be nine, for what we expect to be nine, is really groundbreaking.”
Indeed, White is the first player to sign a long-term major-league contract despite having never played above the Class AA level.
A first-round pick in the 2017 draft out of the University of Kentucky, White posted a .293/.350/.488 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) with 13 doubles, two triples, 18 homers and 55 RBI in 92 games while helping lead Class AA Arkansas to the Texas League playoffs. He’s rated as a Top 100 prospect in baseball by the three main prospect publications: MLB.com (No. 58), Baseball America (No. 73) and FanGraphs (No. 77).
“When I (first) stepped foot in Seattle … in 2017 when I got drafted, I really fell in love with the city,” White said. “I fell in love with the people, and I fell in love with the ballpark. Right away I knew this is where I want to be, and I’m very excited to get back to work.”
This deal essentially buys out White’s first three years of salary arbitration and possibly three years of free agency. Not many young promising players would give away those prime moneymaking years for early financial security.
“Talking with family, talking with my fiancée (Kari) and my agents, I didn’t take this lightly,” he said. “It’s something we took a lot of time thinking about. I think it’s the best thing for us.”
Conversely, not many organizations are willing to make a sizable financial gamble and long-term commitment for an unproven player. White as a prospect and player made it a possibility. White as a person and a leader finalized the decision.
“In Evan’s case, that’s the separator for us,” Dipoto said. “The quality of the human being. The way he treats his teammates. The leadership qualities he embodies. They are all extraordinary. I could go on for quite a while about what I think of him on the field. But it’s the combination of what he’s done on the field and what he does away from it.”
Dipoto took the idea to Mariners chairman John Stanton and CEO Kevin Mather to gauge their interest in the unusual move.
“It wasn’t a particularly hard thing,” Dipoto said. “We sat down. We talked about it. We weren’t oblivious that there are cons to these kind of deals. But we laid it out, and immediately John said, ‘I love it. I think this is a terrific idea, and I’d like to explore it.’ That led to a pretty quick turnaround.”
There have been two notable long-term deals to prospects with no MLB experience in recent years. The Phillies signed infield prospect Scott Kingery to a six-year, $24 million contract similar to White’s before the 2018 season despite never playing in an MLB game. After a slow 2018 season in which he posted a .226/.267/.338 slash line, Kingery posted a .258/.315/.474 line in 2019 with 34 doubles, four triples, 19 homers and 55 RBI in 126 games.
Houston signed first-base prospect Jon Singleton to a five-year, $10 million contract before the 2014 season. He showed some promise in 2014 but eventually was designated for assignment. An admitted longtime addiction to marijuana eventually led to a 100-game suspension.
White’s reputation within the Mariners organization is impeccable. It grew this past season as a leader on the Arkansas team that featured a dozen of the organization’s best prospects.
“Of the players that have come through our system, so many have shown growth, so many have shown high character, but few have shown all that plus the maturity and advanced leadership that Evan has shown,” Dipoto said. “And he does it without being the loudest guy in the room. He does it by being the most-respected guy in the room. Nobody has a negative thing to say about Evan White.”
Does the contract change White’s timeline to the big leagues? He was expected to compete for a starting job this spring with Austin Nola. But now his chances have increased.
“Going into spring training, he’s going to get every opportunity to be the first baseman when we break camp,” Dipoto said. “He’ll get a very long rope, because we believe in the player and we believe in the skill set.”
The roster could change as well. If the Mariners trade catcher Omar Narvaez this offseason, Nola could move to backup catcher behind Tom Murphy.
To make such a commitment to an organization, White has trust in Dipoto’s “step-back” plan, which is rebuilding around him and many of his Arkansas teammates such as outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Kyle Lewis and pitchers Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and Logan Gilbert to go with current Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford and expected second baseman Shed Long.
“I have full trust in the organization and where we are going and in the front office and the players coming,” White said. “I truly believe in this organization, and I’m more than blessed to be a part of it.”