PEORIA, Ariz. – The mere mention of it should elicit a reaction, most likely negative. But there is no violent twitching of his eye or a facial tic. A gag reflex isn’t an immediate response. Whether he knows it or not, Scott Servais does develop a pained look on his face when the situation is relived, even as a humorous anecdote. It’s the same look he made when one of them would boot a routine ground ball or spray an otherwise simple throw well off the target.
When the Mariners opened the 2019 season against the Oakland A’s at the Tokyo Dome, the starting lineup featured an infield of Jay Bruce at first base, Dee Gordon at second base, Ryon Healy at third base and Tim Beckham at shortstop.
That wasn’t a good defense on paper. And on the field, it somehow looked worse. Not even Gordon’s superior range and athleticism could offset what was around him.
A lifelong outfielder who was aging rapidly, Bruce played first base to the low expectations and rarely exceeded them.
Healy, whom the Mariners used as a first baseman for all of 2018, was forced to play third when Kyle Seager got injured in spring training. Big, lumbering and unsure of himself, the drop-off from Seager’s defense was significant.
Beckham was a stopgap until J.P. Crawford waited enough days in Class AAA Tacoma to make sure his free agency would start a year later. A former No. 1 overall draft pick who somehow lost his starting shortstop job to Brad Miller and Nick Franklin while with the Rays, Beckham was one of the few infielders who couldn’t improve under the tutelage of infield guru Perry Hill.
This trio of Gordon, Healy and Beckham would remain together for almost all of April and part of May. Edwin Encarnacion, who had spent much of the past six seasons at designated hitter for a reason, split time with Bruce at first base. That group combined for more than 20 errors in the first 30 games.
But Servais won’t be making that face too often this season. In a year where there are serious concerns about not enough offense being generated, depth of starting pitching and bullpen usage, the infield is expected to be a strength, particularly the defense. There are former Gold Glove winners, potential Gold Glove winners and real athleticism at every position.
In terms of defense, the Mariners’ projected infield might be one of the best it has rolled out since the 2001 infield that featured John Olerud at first, Bret Boone at second, Carlos Guillen at shortstop and David Bell at third base.
More importantly, three of the four projected starting infielders are players who are expected to remain at those positions – if they play well — for years to come. They are part of the current rebuild.
“We’re just so much more athletic,” Servais said. “It’s all of those little things that don’t ever show up in the box score that make a big difference. I think it will start off better and it’s going to get even better as the season goes on.”
Evan White, first base
2019 stats (AA Arkansas): .293/.350/.488 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage), 400 plate appearances, 13 doubles, 2 triples, 18 homers, 55 RBI, 29 walks, 83 strikeouts
2020 outlook: For some, the thinking isn’t whether White will win a Gold Glove award at first base, but when. He’s that good defensively. But the lingering questions surrounding White are more about whether he will hit with enough consistency or power to be an everyday first baseman. The Mariners cite his exit velocities in past years and the offseason work to increase the plane in his swing to elevate more hard-hit balls.
The Mariners are so confident in his ability and attitude that they signed him to an 8-year, $24 million contract without White playing a single game in the big leagues. They trust his work ethic and commitment to make the investment.
Shed Long Jr., second base
2019 stats: .263/.333/.454, 168 plate appearances, 12 doubles, 1 triple, 5 homers, 15 RBI, 16 walks, 40 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: The Mariners handed him the opening-day starting job before he even arrived at spring training. After moving him around the field last season in an effort to get his bat in the lineup, the Mariners want Long to focus on one position this season so he can find some consistency on defense.
In his final 20 games, Long posted a .289/.337/.518 slash line with five doubles, a triple, four homers and 10 RBI, with most of them coming in the leadoff spot. Drafted as a catcher by the Reds and later converted to second base, Long was acquired by Seattle last offseason to be the second baseman of the future. A lively bat and a hitting approach that shows more of a power profile than you’d expect from a player of his stature (5-foot-8, 180 pounds), Long’s hitting has carried him to the big leagues.
But he won’t remain a starter if he can’t become more consistent on defense. He’s the latest improvement project for Hill, who wants to use Long’s athleticism and strong arm to make him automatic on the routine plays.
Kyle Seager, third base
2019 stats: .239/.321/.468, 443 plate appearances, 19 doubles, 1 triple, 23 homers, 63 RBI, 44 walks, 86 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: Last offseason he trimmed off 20-plus pounds of unnecessary weight and focused on core strength and body flexibility. He didn’t get a chance to test the changes immediately after suffering a hand injury early in spring training that would require surgery. It kept him out until the end of May.
A premature return without many rehab games led to a slow start, but a torrid second half — a .260/.339/.524 slash line with 13 doubles, 17 homers and 45 RBI in 68 games — left him and the Mariners hopeful for this season.
He added some muscle back to his trimmed-up frame in hopes of rejuvenating his power production.
J.P. Crawford, shortstop
2019 stats: .226/.313/.371, 396 plate appearances, 21 doubles, 4 triples, 7 homers, 46 RBI, 43 walks, 83 strikeouts
2020 outlook: After failing to find a viable shortstop since Alex Rodriguez took the scandalous money and ran all the way to Texas, the Mariners have settled on Crawford, who has all the potential to be something better than what they’ve tried at the infield’s most important position.
Once a top-10 prospect in all of baseball with the Phillies, Crawford couldn’t quite live up to that expectation. When the Mariners acquired him in a trade last season, his stock as a prospect had declined. But Seattle saw the long, rangy body dripping with athleticism and believed Crawford’s best days were ahead.
They hired Hill to address a lack of fundamentals on defense. After an intensive program last offseason, Crawford cleaned up his footwork and throwing.
This offseason he addressed his conditioning and strength training, admitting that he fatigued in the final months of the season. An adjustment to his set-up and swing should also allow him more consistent hard contact in the strike zone, particularly pitches away.
2019 stats: .275/.304/.359, 421 plate appearances, 12 doubles, 6 triples, 3 homers, 34 RBI, 22 stolen bases, 18 walks, 61 strikeouts
2020 outlook: Gordon is going from starting second baseman to a backup infielder, filling in at second, shortstop and maybe outfield. It’s a role that he certainly doesn’t prefer, but he’s vowed to play at a high level when given the chance. Injuries have hampered him the past two seasons. Gordon believes he had his best offseason in terms of preparation. The ideal scenario for him and the Mariners is to play well enough an opposing team wants him in a trade.
2019 stats: .270/.359/.360, 128 plate appearances, 7 doubles, 1 homer, 12 RBI, 15 walks, 29 strikeouts
2020 outlook: Lopes looks as though he will hit his way onto the opening-day roster. He’s already smacked five doubles this spring. Servais and the staff love his ability to drive fastballs. He also showed he can be competent in the outfield last season.
2019 stats: .206/.302/.389, 282 plate appearances, 14 doubles, 2 triples, 9 homers, 28 RBI, 11 stolen bases, 25 walks, 93 strikeouts
2020 outlook: He adjusted to the utility role quite well last season as a rookie. Defensively, he showed he could handle every position on the field and was better than expected in the outfield. His hitting was streaky at times, but he showed some power. He’s battling with Lopes for a spot on the bench.
2019 stats (AAA Nashville): .240/.332/.513, 453 plate appearances, 15 doubles, 31 homers, 74 RBI, 53 walks, 125 strikeouts
2020 outlook: He’s not a true utility player. He’s more of a corner infielder with power. If something were to happen to White or Seager, Wisdom would be the obvious replacement.