PEORIA, Ariz. – For J.P. Crawford, his new path of commitment to finding success at the major-league level ran parallel to another sort of long-term commitment – home ownership.
Once a top-10 prospect in all of baseball when he was with the Phillies, Crawford came to the Mariners as an unfulfilled promise, failing to achieve all that was expected of him in Philadelphia.
And now one season after being traded to Seattle in a shortstop swap that sent sulking Jean Segura to Philadelphia, Crawford has embraced ownership of the position that was given to him last May. He knows that it’s his job for the foreseeable future.
But the satisfaction of having an everyday spot in the big leagues hasn’t led to complacency. In an effort to make his offseasons more productive, Crawford decided to change everything he was accustomed to in previous years.
“Me and my fiancée bought a house down here,” he said.
Instead of returning to Los Angeles and working out on his own, Crawford moved to Phoenix to be near the Mariners’ facility in Peoria. It would allow him to work out with strength coach James Clifford and other members of the player development staff any day he wanted.
Last offseason, he spent a month in Arizona working with infield coach Perry Hill to address his fielding fundamentals. It led to significant improvement that Crawford said he believes changed his career. He became consistent making the routine plays and it allowed him to make the highlight-reel plays.
“Before I came here, I was having problems in the field and I didn’t know what was going on and neither did my coordinators over there (with the Phillies),” he said. “But I came over here and he just simplified everything. His little fundamental program — it works and it’s so easy.”
The change was immediate.
“Right away,” he said. “My throws were straight. I hadn’t thrown a straight ball for years before I started working with him. You feel the difference right away if you do it right.”
With his defensive fundamentals addressed, Crawford spent this offseason adding some muscle to his lanky frame.
The purpose wasn’t just to look better in his uniform – he still looks relatively thin compared to the average baseball player. No, the Mariners felt Crawford wilted in the season’s final months. He fought fatigue, seemed to have a slower bat and hit the ball less hard. The Mariners wanted Crawford to get stronger for the physical rigors of playing the position.
“I’ve known I needed to get stronger,” he said. “It’s just a matter of staying consistent with it, and not slacking off. This year was the first year I’ve probably lifted all offseason. Cliffie (Clifford) pushed me really hard, but I needed it.”
Crawford added at least 10 pounds of muscle.
“He’s got a good frame, he certainly can carry the extra weight very well,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “There’s room for growth in how he continues to mature and grow into his man muscles so to speak. Julio (Rodriguez) is already into his man muscles. Other guys it takes a little longer. But I look for J.P. to have a good spring and get off to a good start for us.”
The weight gain is noticeable in his shoulders and upper body. And it’s very noticeable during his early rounds of batting practice. Crawford is hitting the ball as hard as anyone.
“I feel a difference on the field already from it,” he said. “The balls are jumping off my bat a lot harder now.”
But the rockets he’s been hitting in batting practice aren’t only a product of the muscle gain. He made some changes to his stance and swing.
“His intent is much different,” Servais said. “The offseason is the time to make a few more mechanical adjustments than in-season. He has made a few in how he’s loading (his swing) and you’ll see his set-up at the plate is a little narrower. He’s taller in the box and trying to handle more pitches within the strike zone.”
Crawford got off a torrid start after being called up from Class AAA Tacoma on May 10. In his first 33 games, he posted a .310/.380/.500 slash line with 11 doubles, two triples, three homers, 22 RBI and 15 walks.
“He was killing it,” Servais said. “He came up and he got off to a great start. I don’t know if that was realistic to expect him to stay at that pace, but he ran out of gas a little bit at the end of the year.”
A sprained ankle kept him out of 11 games in September, but really the decline had started in July. Over his final 60 games, he posted a .178/.275/.297 slash line with 10 doubles, two triples, four homers, 24 RBI, 28 walks and 50 strikeouts.
“That’s one of the reasons we got his attention on how important it was for him to put on some more strength and a little bit more weight and maintain that throughout the year so he can play through a full season and not have the dip at the end,” Servais said. “The pitchers also pitched him a little bit differently.”
Besides expecting more from Crawford at the plate, Servais also wants more from a leadership standpoint on the field. Crawford started to display ownership of his position and all its responsibilities.
“I still think he can be even a little bit more vocal,” Servais said. “It’s something we’ll try to get out of him as things come up. But I want him to be who he is. It’s not naturally his personality to be yelling and jumping around. He is one of the most competitive guys in that clubhouse. He’s focused on winning that day’s game. It rubs off on his teammates and everyone around him. Over time, as he evolves and he matures, I think you’ll see more of that take charge (mentality) and being a little more vocal.”
Crawford plans to be that way.
“My role changed drastically from last year,” he said. “Last year, I was trying to make the team and show people what I could do. No one had ever seen me over here before. But this year, I’ve got to be a leader.”
To him, it’s a rite, not a given.
“I felt I’ve finally earned the right to be a leader, to say stuff, if I need to,” he said.
And what will this all add up to? Can Crawford be the shortstop anchoring this rebuild? His progression of making it to the big leagues and earning a spot have been achieved.
“It’s consistency,” Servais said. “The game will tell you where your deficiencies are at. Now can I make adjustments? How quick can I get better? That’s where J.P.’s at right now. I think the sky is the limit. Why can’t he win a Gold Glove? Why can’t he play in an All-Star game? He has that type of ability. He can be as good as he wants to be.”