Editor’s note: This is one in a weekly or semiweekly series called “The Player Plan,” analyzing key Mariners players or prospects, looking back on their 2020 seasons and ahead to the offseason and 2021.
During one of the endless December days of the 2019 MLB winter meetings in San Diego, where everyone from around baseball could actually congregate in person without a mask before the pandemic hit, general manager Jerry Dipoto was asked about how he would handle second base in 2020. The plan was to give young prospects, looked at as possible key core pieces for Seattle’s rebuild, a large quantity of playing time at the MLB level to gain valuable experience.
Second base was a conundrum: Would they continue to use veteran incumbent starter Dee Gordon, still under contract for 2020, every day? Or would they give Shed Long Jr. a chance?
Gordon was coming off two consecutive injury-derailed seasons, while Long, acquired from the Reds, was coming off a strong 2019 finish. 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.
Dipoto confirmed the Mariners had already made their decision. Long was the everyday second baseman, and Gordon moved to a utility role. But because Dipoto hadn’t discussed the situation with Gordon or his representatives, he asked at the winter meetings to keep it off the record until that happened.
When asked about it in January, Dipoto confirmed it on the record.
“We want to see Shed play second base,” Dipoto said. “He did show last year enough versatility to go out and play left field. We don’t think we’re doing him a great service by not finding out if he can handle one position defensively because if you watched, especially the last 30 days of last season, it is a legitimate bat. Shed swings it. … We’ve always thought he had an everyday bat and that the best impact for him was going to be moving around the field. We’d like now just to see if he can play second base on a regular basis.”
But when the 2020 season ended, Long was on the injured list. He hadn’t taken the opportunity and run with it, as manager Scott Servais had hoped during spring training. Meanwhile, the Mariners still don’t really know if Long can play second base on a regular basis, and he likely won’t be handed an everyday opportunity again to prove it.
Looking back at 2020
Long arrived to spring training about five days early, understanding the opportunity.
“It’s a dream come true, honestly,” Long said. “I’ve worked hard and feel like I’ve done the things I need to do to be prepared. Now it’s just time to go, let my ability take over.”
He spent hours with infield coach Perry Hill to clean up fundamental flaws and become more consistent, after complaints coming up through the Reds system about his lack of commitment to improving on defense as a converted catcher.
While his defense showed improvement, his hitting — the reason he was getting this chance — was just “meh” during the interrupted Cactus League play with a .129/.206/.194 slash line in 31 at-bats with two doubles, four RBI, three walks and nine strikeouts.
There is a chance his production would’ve picked up going into the season, but baseball was shut down to the spread of COVID-19.
After initially thinking he would stay in Arizona to work out at the Mariners’ facility, Long returned to his home in Alabama when baseball shut down.
Unlike some teammates, Long had a baseball facility available during the 3½-month shutdown — though sources within the organization were frustrated Long returned for “summer camp” a little heavier than expected, perhaps 10-15 pounds.
Unbeknown to the Mariners, part of the reason for that may have stemmed from a lingering leg issue Long didn’t disclose to the team. He started to feel pain in his right shin during spring training and it never really went away, limiting his conditioning.
Long never looked like the same hitter or even fielder when the truncated 2020 season started. He was a tick slow and uncertain on plays in the field. At the plate, he looked like the hitter who closed out 2019. He was missing hittable fastballs, seemingly trying to pull every pitch for power and forgetting the more patient approach he’d displayed the season before.
Over the first 20 games, he posted a .200/.282/.300 slash line with four doubles, a homer, eight walks and 20 strikeouts. With Dylan Moore producing at the plate and Tim Lopes putting up decent at-bats against left-handed pitching, Long started sitting whenever there was a lefty starter. In the 12 games he played leading up to the trade deadline, Long posted a .105/.150/.289 slash line with a double, two homers, two walks and 14 strikeouts.
When the Mariners acquired Ty France in a trade with the Padres on Aug. 30, Long was told he’d have to go back to a utility role. He played one more game at second base and another in left field before the pain in his right shin became too much. He underwent an MRI that revealed a stress fracture.
His season was over, and surgery was needed.
Long finished with a .171/.242/.291 slash line with five doubles, three homers, nine RBI, four stolen bases, 11 walks and 37 strikeouts in 34 games. He lost the starting second base job, and the Mariners began to wonder if the bat was real.
Was the shin responsible for the struggles? Some people close to Long said “definitely.”
He wouldn’t use it as an excuse.
“I’m not a guy that will say this happened because of this or I wasn’t swinging it (well) because of this,” he said. “I just wasn’t getting it done. It probably impacted me more than I know, but that was something I wasn’t trying to think about. It was my choice to play through it, so I was going out and trying to do what I had to do to help the team win.”
The pressure of trying to keep the spot he’d been given lingered.
“Honestly, the best way for me to explain it is you tell any person in America, or anywhere for that matter, that they’re going to be the starting second baseman for any major-league team, no matter what,” he said. “You get the opportunity, that’s not an opportunity that’s always presented to you. No matter what, I’m trying to do whatever I can do with this opportunity. I’m trying to make the most of the opportunity. I’m trying to take this opportunity and go.”
Long underwent surgery Sept. 22, when Dr. Lyle Cain inserted a metal rod into Long’s shin to provide support and prevent further stress reaction.
Long’s recovery is about six to eight weeks. He posted a video of himself on Instagram wearing a walking boot and slowly pedaling on a therapy bike three days after the procedure. On Oct. 21, Long posted a video of a rehab workout, shuffling and backpedaling with a resistance band around his thighs and catching a medicine ball being tossed at him. He’s continued to rehab and build strength at the Andrews Institute this offseason.
There isn’t a timetable when Long will return to full baseball activities, but he’s expected to be 100% with no limitations when position players report to spring training in mid-March.
Beyond full health, Long also needs to reassess his game. The Mariners said they will likely give Moore a chance at the full-time second base job in 2021, meaning Long may be asked to return to a utility role to make the opening day roster. He needs to recommit to the work with Hill to find consistency at second base. The Mariners are a better team if he’s playing second base and Moore, who is more versatile defensively, floats around the field.
At the plate, he needs to refind the approach that led to his success in 2019. His 28.9 strikeout percentage is up from 23.8 in 2019. Caveat: some of his 2019 success might have been a slight mirage. His .263 batting average in 2019 also came with a .327 batting average on balls in play. That’s not a massive discrepancy but enough to remember. A glance at Long’s numbers on MLB Statcast revealed a .214 expected batting average (XBA) on 112 batted balls — a measure that shows the likelihood of a batted ball will become a hit based on exit velocity and launch angle and even sprint speed on batted balls. This season his XBA was down to .177 on 80 batted balls. His launch angle on batted balls was down, his fly ball percentage was down while his ground ball rate was up to 63.8% from 48.2% in 2019. His chase percentage on pitches out of the strike zone was up to 28.2% from 24.6% while his swing and miss percentage rose from 34.7% from 27.1%.
These increases may seem slight, but they matter.
A look ahead to 2021
Did Shed Long Jr. squander his only opportunity to be a Mariners everyday player? Would a normal season have led to a different outcome? How much did the shin injury lead to his decline in production? Is he still a key part of the Mariners’ rebuild?
Maybe this season will provide clarity.
He just turned 25. There are two roughly equal MLB sample sizes: one of success followed by one of struggles. It would be foolish for the Mariners to simply give up on Long. For all the reasons they gave him that job in 2020, they should keep them in mind and allow him a chance to win the job back this spring or this upcoming season. To determine that he’s not the player they thought in 2019 based on his 2020 season would be foolish and illogical.
The Mariners were supposed to find out about their young players in 2020.
Unfortunately, it didn’t happen for them with Long.