Editor’s note: With MLB shut down because of the lockout, The Seattle Times is doing a position-by-position assessment of the Mariners organization entering a 2022 season filled with expectations of success.
His megawatt smile lit up television screens tuned to MLB Network, bringing a contagious energy to those watching. The emotion of his achievement following his unconventional path to the big leagues was apparent. The earnest intensity in his words during a video conference call with reporters felt palpable as he explained that he was already working toward next season and he was only going to get better.
“I’m not going to let that time go by,” he said.
The date was Nov. 9, 2020, and Kyle Lewis had just been announced as the unanimous winner of the Jackie Robinson American League Rookie of the Year award.
At age 25, he’d cemented himself as the Mariners’ everyday center fielder and foundational piece of a rebuild plan that was starting to yield something more than hope. An eventual outfield with Lewis in center, Jarred Kelenic in left and Julio Rodriguez in right loomed as a dream within grasp.
Did that possibility end May 31 at T-Mobile Park?
In the eighth inning of a Sunday afternoon game vs. the A’s, Lewis made a leaping, unsuccessful attempt on a line drive to the gap. He landed awkwardly on his troublesome right knee, forcing him out of the game. Tests the following day revealed a torn meniscus that required surgery — his third procedure on the knee since being selected 11th overall in 2016.
After missing the first 17 games of the 2021 season with a bone bruise in the right knee, his season was done after playing in 36 games. A setback while running the bases as part of his rehab process forced the Mariners to shut him down for the season on Sept. 7.
Now as the 2022 season looms, the health of Lewis’ knee, his future as a player and the status of center field remains largely unknown.
But it’s become clear that Lewis’ status of the everyday center fielder of the Mariners’ future ended with that 2021 season.
“We anticipate he will be back when we get to spring training,” said Jerry Dipoto, Mariners president of baseball operations, at the GM meetings in early November. “We don’t really have a guess as to what he’s going to be capable of until we see it. So we have to plan our offseason as if whatever he gives us is a bonus, while anticipating that that will look something like center field, plus left field, plus DH. I don’t know if I’m if I’m doling out percentages, which percentage or what position will be what percentage until we see him move around.”
Lewis recently posted videos of himself on Instagram hitting and working out, which is a good sign.
But the belief from sources inside the organization and from professional scouts and front-office types outside the organization is that allowing Lewis to play center field more than once or twice a week would only lead to further issues with the knee and more time on the injured list. A transition to left field hedged by at least four games per week as the designated hitter would be more beneficial for Lewis and the Mariners moving forward.
Asked about the situation and the possibility of adding a proven center fielder, Dipoto said the lack of supply made it unlikely. The Mariners will ask Kelenic to play center field on most days. As a rookie, Kelenic played center field in 93 games, starting 91. While it was his primary position in the minor leagues, he was usually projected by most scouts as a left fielder.
“I still suspect he’s going to play a fair bit of center field,” Dipoto said. “We don’t see it as one of our biggest needs.”
It’s not an illogical assessment. The best free agent available was 33-year-old Starling Marte, who signed four-year, $78 million deal with the Mets.
Based on the defensive runs saved metric, Kelenic was worth minus-16 runs as center fielder in those 93 games, which means his defense cost the Mariners 16 runs. He was minus-2 runs below an average center fielder. He also had negative value based on other advanced defensive metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating (-7.6), Range factor (-6.0) and FanGraphs’ defensive value (-8.7).
“Transitioning to the big leagues and having to play center field, he didn’t have a choice,” Dipoto said. “He had to play every day. And that’s hard. It’s hard on your legs. There’s a lot of ground to cover. I do think that there’s some of that attributed to his slow offensive start. You’re the captain of the outfield defense every day. It was a challenge. We didn’t do that to him into the minor leagues. And all of a sudden, he was dealing with that in a big way out of necessity. We weren’t expecting to be without Kyle Lewis. We feel like he is capable of playing center field. We don’t feel like it’s optimal for him to play center field 160 times a year.”
But he might play there 140 times.
The Mariners have made multiple inquiries to the Pirates about trading for all-star center fielder Bryan Reynolds. But those talks ended when they demanded that Rodriguez must be part of any trade return. If the asking price on Reynolds goes down a little, the Mariners would certainly re-engage.
While he will never replicate Ken Griffey Jr.’s Gold Glove defense in center, there is an expectation that Kelenic should be noticeably better in 2022 as his comfort level grows.
Obviously, if he produces at the plate to his own lofty expectation levels, his defense, good or otherwise, becomes less glaring.
Surrounded by hype and anticipation, the ultra-confident Kelenic proved mortal at times as a rookie. He struggled to adjust in his first stint at the MLB level, lost his confidence, questioned his swing, got sent back down to Tacoma to refind himself and eventually returned to find some success late in the season. In his first 64 games, he posted a .151/.236/.272 slash line with seven doubles, seven homers, 23 RBI, 24 walks and 77 strikeouts in 259 plate appearances. In 29 games in September, Kelenic posted a .248/.331/.524 slash line with six doubles, a triple, seven homers, 20 RBI, 12 walks and 29 strikeouts in 118 plate appearances.
A year ago, outfield seemed like a position with an overabundance talent in the system, particularly when Taylor Trammell made the opening-day roster and Mitch Haniger looked like his old self. But most evaluators don’t believe the Mariners have an outfielder with true center-field talent in the upper levels of the system. While a leaner and speedier version of Rodriguez is expected to play some center field this season in the minor leagues, he projects as a corner outfielder as does Trammell and Kelenic.
Organizational center-field depth chart:
Mariners: Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley
Class AAA Tacoma: Taylor Trammell, Marcus Wilson,
Class AA Arkansas: Julio Rodriguez, Dom Thompson-Williams, Jack Larsen
High-A Everett: Victor Labrada
Low-A Modesto: Walking Cabrera
Arizona Complex League: Jonatan Clase, Gabriel Gonzalez
Dominican Summer League: Luis Bolivar