PEORIA, Ariz. – Thanks to injuries, ineptitude and a rebuilding plan that was going to focus on the future more in 2020, the Mariners had to make some creative decisions for the day-to-day outfield in 2019. At times, they were forced to play infielders Tim Lopes (29 games) and Shed Long (14 games) in left field despite neither having really played the position. And if that wasn’t bad enough, they had to play Mac Williamson, a player they picked up for Class AAA depth, in 24 games, including 21 starts, and Keon Broxton, an outfielder who struggles to hit at the MLB level, in 25 games with 17 starts.
Even with Mitch Haniger’s absence from his most recent surgery – his third due to a wayward foul ball that struck him in the groin in early June – the Mariners will roll out an outfield that should still have a higher level of talent and athleticism.
There might not be another area in the organization with more high-level talent and depth. That surplus and the current rebuilding plan will allow the Mariners to give extended looks to several of those prospects.
The projected starters
Mallex Smith, CF
2019 stats: .227/.300/.335, 134 games, 566 plate appearances, 19 doubles, 9 triples, 6 homers, 37 RBI, 42 walks, 141 strikeouts, 46 stolen bases
2020 outlook: Acquired for the second time in a trade by general manager Jerry Dipoto last offseason, Smith was expected to replicate his production with the Rays in 2018 where he hit close to .300 and was a consistent menace on the bases. But Smith arrived at spring training with a strained elbow and it put him into a hole that he could never come out of. It earned him an early demotion to Class AAA Tacoma. Smith called his season “trash” and “embarrassing.” He vowed to make improvements this season at the plate and in the field. It seems unlikely he will be the hitter who hit .296 with a .367 on-base percentage in 2018. But he certainly can clean up last season’s numbers.
It’s an important year for Smith as he becomes arbitration-eligible in 2021 and could make a decent pay raise. Given the young outfield talent in the Mariners’ system that is pushing toward the big leagues, he is a candidate to be traded if he plays well.
Jake Fraley, LF
2019 stats: .150/.171/.300, 12 games, 41 plate appearances, 2 doubles, 1 RBI, 14 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: Acquired along with Smith from the Rays last offseason, Fraley turned heads at spring training, dominated at Double-A (.313/.386/.539, 15 doubles, 11 homers, 47 RBI in 61 games), produced at Triple-A (.276/.333/.553, 12 doubles, 8 homers, 33 RBI in 38 games) and earned a promotion to the majors. But a personal issue caused him to miss a few games and a nasty thumb injury ended his call-up prematurely.
The Mariners believe Fraley was fatigued toward the end of last season and pushed for him to come into 2020 with some added muscle to withstand the rigors of a 162-game schedule. Fraley obliged their wishes, looking noticeably bigger with the addition of 15-plus pounds of muscle. With Haniger out indefinitely, Fraley is going to be given an extended everyday audition. The Mariners will use him in all three outfield spots when needed and even let him face some left-handed pitching to see how he handles it.
Kyle Lewis, RF
2019 stats: .268/.293/.592, 18 games, 75 plate appearances, 5 doubles, 6 homers, 13 RBI, 3 walks, 29 strikeouts
2020 outlook: Few players have the sort of major-league debut that Lewis had last season. A former first-round pick who had been sidetracked by a gruesome knee injury, Lewis had his first full season of professional baseball. After a solid season with Class AA Arkansas, he debuted Sept. 10 and hit a homer in his second big-league at-bat, smashing a deep shot off Reds ace Trevor Bauer. Lewis homered in the next game and the next game after that, becoming just the second player in MLB history to homer in each of his first three MLB games. Lewis hit six homers in his first 10 MLB games, which was also a record. But there were also times in his call-up where he looked overwhelmed by the higher-level breaking pitches, slowly adjusting near the end.
Early in the offseason when Haniger was expected to be ready for opening day, Lewis was going to start the season in left field. But with Haniger out, he will likely play right field on most days. Lewis has real opposite-field power to right-center and right field. There will be swing-and-miss issues early in his career. The Mariners know he could strike out 150-plus times, but also hit 30 homers.
The bench candidate
Braden Bishop, OF
2019 stats (AAA): .276/.360/.486, 43 games, 211 plate appearances, 15 doubles, 8 homers, 31 RBI, 23 walks, 44 strikeouts
2020 outlook: With Jose Siri being sent out of camp, it would seem like Bishop is locked into the fourth outfield job. He is one of the best overall outfield defenders in the organization, a solid base runner and a plus teammate. As a right-handed bat, he would fit the roster in a logical way. But opposing pro scouts have real questions about whether he can be even a viable hitter at the MLB level to fill a fourth outfield spot. A ruptured spleen last season robbed him of a chance to see extended playing time. Even six months removed, he doesn’t quite look the same as before the surgery to repair the damage.
Still, Bishop isn’t locked into the spot. The Mariners could keep an extra utility player like Sam Haggerty on the roster. Haggerty and Dylan Moore have both shown they can handle outfield duties at an adequate level and that fourth outfielder could be avoided.
2019 stats: .220/.314/.463, 63 games, 283 plate appearances, 13 doubles, 1 triple, 15 homers, 32 RBI, 30 walks, 81 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: There might not be much of a 2020 season for Haniger. In the month leading up to spring training, he underwent two separate surgeries – sports hernia and microdiscectomy – to repair issues due to complications from a surgery to repair a ruptured testicle suffered June 7.
Haniger arrived at spring training looking like he’d lost almost 25 pounds of muscle from his frame. He is still unable to do anything but walk.
The Mariners have put no timetable on his return. But it’s difficult to imagine Haniger returning before July 1 at the earliest. Any thoughts of trading Haniger at midseason are gone. Any playing time that Haniger gets on the field — a month or three — will be a bonus for 2020.
Julio Rodriguez, RF
2019 stats (Low A/High A): .326/.390/.540, 84 games, 367 plate appearances, 26 doubles, 4 triples, 12 homers, 69 RBI, 25 walks, 76 strikeouts
2020 outlook: He’s a large man-child with bigger talent and a personality that dwarfs everything.
In terms of pure ability and potential, the Mariners haven’t had a prospect of his caliber since Adam Jones or maybe Alex Rodriguez. His raw power from his natural strength and lightning-quick bat give him the potential to be a 35-plus-homer hitter at the MLB level. The balls he hits are similar to Nelson Cruz’s – laser line drives that just keep climbing and climbing.
Some players shy away from the hype and expectations, Rodriguez embraces them. He wants to be a star, but understands it won’t be given to him. He was expected to start this season in High-A Modesto, but there is an outside chance he might start the season in Class AA Arkansas. It would be a significant leap.
Jarred Kelenic, CF
2019 stats (Low A/High A/AA): .291/.364/.540, 117 games, 500 plate appearances, 31 doubles, 5 triples, 23 homers, 68 RBI, 20 stolen bases, 50 walks, 111 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: If you could build a baseball player in a lab and fit him with the proper amount of talent, athleticism, strength, work ethic, belief and just a tinge more confidence than the average player, well, you get Kelenic.
He has been impressive this spring, showing poise far beyond his age of 20. He believes that he will be in the big leagues by the end of the 2020 season, which isn’t an impossibility. He will start the season in Arkansas. If he produces to his past levels, he will be in Class AAA Tacoma by June and then the big leagues are just one step away.