For several years, the baseball world has been buzzing with anticipation about the 2021 free-agent class of superstar shortstops.
Between them, the Cubs’ Javier Baez, the Astros’ Carlos Correa, the Dodgers’ Corey Seager and the Rockies’ Trevor Story have combined for eight All-Star appearances and three World Series titles. And between them, they could command contracts in the neighborhood of $700 million this winter.
Add in the $341-million contract given by the Mets to Francisco Lindor, who was on track to be part of this free-agent class until signing his new deal in March, and major league teams might well pledge north of $1 billion on shortstops over a 12-month period.
At the beginning of this year, if you had given the Seattle Mariners’ front office truth serum and asked if the M’s were planning to jump into the shortstop spending-spree, the likely answer would have been a definite yes. The Mariners have money to spend this winter — and team executives have publicly promised they plan to spend it — and the idea of acquiring Story’s bat or Baez’s leadership, or stealing Correa away from a division rival, had to be enticing possibilities.
But now? Now they have a different answer.
J.P. Crawford is the Mariners’ shortstop, for now and for the foreseeable future.
Crawford’s transformation in the first half of the season helped the Mariners (48-43) become one of MLB’s most surprising teams and, just as vital, opened new possibilities this winter as the Mariners plan in earnest to become legitimate playoff contenders in 2022 and beyond.
Coming off a Gold Glove season in 2020, Crawford enters the second half of this season in the midst of a career year at the plate — posting a .279 batting average, a .341 on-base percentage and a team-leading 2.8 wins above replacement — and his breakthrough just might be the most important big-picture development for the organization this year.
“For me, the question is: Is this guy going to help you win? Can this guy play the middle of the field for a championship club?” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And when my boss asks me that, I give him a very definite yes.”
When the Mariners made the decision to rebuild after the 2018 season, Crawford was one of the first players the front office identified as a potential future centerpiece. Acquiring Crawford from Philadelphia, in a trade package that included Jean Segura, was one of the first significant moves in that step-back plan.
Crawford was a former first-round draft pick and had been the Phillies’ No. 1 prospect, but he was hardly a finished product when he arrived in Seattle. During his first spring training with the Mariners, he spent early team meetings sitting in the back of the room, half paying attention as coaches went through various defensive situations.
Servais challenged the young shortstop, and Crawford can most often be found now in the front row for team meetings, taking notes and speaking up.
“He took it to heart,” Servais said, “and it never happened again.”
Still just 26, Crawford is an emerging leader in the Mariners’ clubhouse. And in an organization boasting one of baseball’s most-talented farm systems, he has also become a prime example — maybe the best example — for up-and-coming prospects on what it takes to be an everyday major-leaguer, and the no-days-off mentality required to push through inevitable struggles.
“I tell everybody who comes in, all these rookies, ‘If you guys got questions, come to me.’ I want to be there for my guys,” Crawford said. “Because they’re going to have questions … and I want to be that guy that, no matter what time it is, they can always hit me up.”
It wasn’t a straight line to success for Crawford, and it usually isn’t for even the most-touted prospects. Jarred Kelenic got a taste of that this spring.
“No matter who you are, no matter what number prospect you are, this league is going to handle everybody differently. If you’re not ready, it’s going to show,” Crawford said. “It’s going to humble a lot of people. It humbled me.”
Added Servais: “It is a good lesson for our fan base, and for everyone else: It does take time. They don’t show up and become All-Stars right away.”
There was a little serendipity involved with Crawford’s offensive breakthrough. It started when the Mariners acquired well-traveled backup catcher Jacob Nottingham off waivers in late April. Crawford introduced himself to Nottingham, gave him a hug and peeked into his bat bag. “Oh,” Crawford said to his new teammate, “this bat feels nice.”
At the time, Crawford was hitting .238 with a .578 OPS through the season’s first 26 games. He got permission to use Nottingham’s bat that night, April 30, and had two hits against the Angels. He used it again the next night and had two more hits.
“I’m keeping this, thank you,” he told Nottingham. Crawford then ordered his own shipment of the bat, from the manufacturer Chandler. Nottingham’s bat was 33.5 inches, a half-inch shorter than the one Crawford had been using for years; most notably, the weight on the new bat was more evenly distributed, not as top heavy as Crawford’s.
“I realized my old bats were really sucky,” he said. “I got a more balanced bat, and I can get through the zone quicker.”
Not long after that, he reclaimed the leadoff spot atop the M’s lineup. And in June, Crawford was one of MLB’s most productive hitters, posting a .352 average, a .400 OBP and a .928 OPS in 26 games.
Crawford isn’t a home-run hitter, but he did add about 10 pounds in the offseason in hopes of increasing his power output. When that didn’t translate in April, he settled into a more gap-to-gap approach that, with the new bat, has produced more consistent results.
“He’s evolving as a hitter,” said one NL scout who has watched the Mariners closely. “He’s figured out who he is. From 2019 to now, his barrel angle at the plate is more efficient getting from Point A to B. He uses the whole field, and that’s giving more ability to compete against velocity. … I do think he can hit at the top of the order — and hit competitively — for a good club.”
Crawford has often credited Perry Hill, the Mariners’ 69-year-old infield coach, for saving his career.
As a prospect, Crawford was generally viewed as an elite athlete who would hit major-league pitching but might not stick long-term defensively at shortstop. His major-league career has unfolded in the opposite fashion — it’s because of his glove, and because of his work with Hill, that he first got an everyday opportunity with the Mariners.
In early 2019, Hill corrected several technical flaws with Crawford’s fielding — mostly with his footwork — and was struck at how quickly the young shortstop was able to incorporate the changes. Within a year and half, Crawford had emerged as perhaps the best defensive shortstop in baseball, becoming the first Seattle shortstop to win a Gold Glove since Omar Vizquel in 1993.
“I’ve been around a long time,” said Hill, “and J.P. is probably the most coachable player I’ve ever had. He takes in information and applies it. Tremendous work ethic. Never takes a day off. He takes every ground ball as if it’s meaningful, even at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”
The Mariners take a full infield practice before every game, and they might be the only MLB team to do so. They started doing it two years ago at Dee Strange-Gordon’s request; they’ve kept it going at Crawford’s insistence.
“He’s all-in,” Hill said. “He put in the time, he put in the work, and this is what you see.”
Veteran third baseman Kyle Seager said he was impressed last year by Crawford’s confidence and leadership on defense when the young shortstop started re-positioning the one-time Gold Glove third baseman between pitches.
“He has taken ownership,” Seager said. “This is his infield.”
The rest of the organization is catching on now too.
“Someday,” Hill said, “this will be his team.”
Reporter Ryan Divish contributed to this story.