Due to the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Players Association, the owners have invoked a lockout that includes a freeze on all transactions involving players on teams’ 40-man rosters. With no news breaking, The Seattle Times will do a position-by-position assessment of the Mariners organization entering a 2022 season filled with expectations of success.
Over the past 20 years, dating back to when the Mariners last played in the postseason, there have been stretches of seasons where specific positions provided inconsistency and lack of production.
For a time, left field was considered the known problem. Since 2000, the Mariners had 18 players tally 200-plus plate appearances while playing 60% of their games in left field — only four produced a Baseball Reference wins above replacement (WAR) of 2.0 or higher — Raul Ibanez (2004, 2006, 2008), Randy Winn (2003) and Stan Javier (2001).
Similar issues and more turnover lingered at shortstop following the departure of Alex Rodriguez after the 2000 season. But there were at least seven players with plus-2.0 WAR seasons.
And of course, Mariners catchers have received a fair amount of derision since Dan Wilson’s retirement, with only Mike Zunino (2017), Kenji Johjima (2006) and Omar Narvaez (2019) providing more than 2.0 WAR in a season.
But really first base, a position that is supposed to provide power and run production based on typical lineup/roster construction, has yielded abysmal results for the Mariners over the past 20 seasons.
Before Ty France produced a 4.3 WAR in 2021, no Mariner who primarily played first base had a WAR of at least 3.0 since Richie Sexson’s 3.9 WAR in 2005.
Or to look at it from a different perspective, in four seasons and 509 games with the Mariners, Sexson totaled a 5.5 WAR. In five seasons and 496 games, Justin Smoak produced a 1.4 WAR. France has played one full season and one month of the shortened 2020 season with Seattle and has produced a 4.8 WAR in 175 games.
Perhaps it’s why Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto was comfortable saying that France would be the everyday first baseman in 2022.
“Ty is going to start the season, and he’s going to play first,” Dipoto said. “He earned that.”
The 2022 season
When Dipoto and manager Scott Servais met with Mariners chairman and managing partner John Stanton and other members of the ownership group in September 2018, convincing them to embark on a shortened rebuild, often called “the step-back,” France wasn’t part of the organization.
And even when Seattle acquired France along with outfielder Taylor Trammell, catcher Luis Torrens and reliever Andres Munoz in a trade with the Padres on Aug. 31, 2020, he wasn’t expected to be the team’s everyday first baseman when it would eventually transition from the rebuilding to the winning phase.
That job was supposed to belong to Evan White.
You remember White? The once-heralded prospect, who signed a six-year, $24 million contract before the 2020 season despite never playing a game in the big leagues.
With club options that could push the deal to nine years and a total of $55 million, White was supposed to be the first baseman of the future and a core piece of the rebuild.
“Evan White stands out in so many ways,” Dipoto said. “We love the player, and we love the person. The combination made it very easy to want to sign him for the better part of the next decade.”
France, who primarily played third base in college with “hitter” being his best position, figured to be a candidate to replace Kyle Seager as the full-time third baseman in 2022.
Though White won a Gold Glove at first base in the shortened 2020 season, he struggled at the plate, posting a .176/.252/.346 slash line and striking out at an alarming 41.6% rate.
A hopeful bounce-back season in 2021 that featured a simplified approach at the plate never materialized when he suffered a hip-flexor injury running to first base May 14. The injury eventually required season-ending surgery. White played 30 games, posting a .144/.202/.237 slash line with a 29.8% strikeout rate.
France basically took over as the full-time first baseman upon returning from the injured list.
His season — a .291/.368/.445 slash line with 32 doubles, a triple, 18 homers, 73 RBI and 27 hit by pitches — exceeded expectations. Based on weighted runs created (wRC+) — a metric used to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs vs. the league average with park effects, with 100 being average — France’s 137 wRC+ was third-highest from a Mariners first baseman since 2000.
But it wasn’t just France’s offense that led Dipoto to slot him at first. With the aid of infield guru Perry Hill, France blossomed into an outstanding first baseman.
So what does that mean for White?
Well, he’s fully recovered from the surgery and is back to doing baseball activity. The Mariners hope he will be ready for spring training, where he’s expected to take some reps in left field.
“We’re gonna take it as we go with Evan,” Dipoto said at the GM meetings. “We still think he’s a wildly talented player. At Kentucky and with Team USA, he played some outfield. Kind (of) like the Dodgers did with Cody Bellinger, it just presents you with the potential of plate appearances. Having the versatility to play three different spots on the field gives us the chance to maximize opportunities for Evan.”
Still, positional versatility won’t keep White in the big leagues if he struggles at the plate.
There is a belief from some in the organization and scouts outside that White needs to start the season in Class AAA Tacoma. He essentially skipped playing at that level after signing his extension.
Last spring, he worked hard to simplify his approach and stop focusing on trying to hit the ball in the air to just hitting the ball hard. He never got a full season to implement it. Trying to do that at the Triple-A level seems more logical.
White is under contract through 2025, so there’s still time for him to develop into a contributor. France is under team control through the 2025 season as well. It gives Dipoto options, particularly if White can show some aptitude and consistency at the plate. If White forces his way back into consideration for an everyday job, Dipoto could certainly trade one of them to address other needs or move France back to third base.
It also might be contingent on whom the Mariners add this offseason. If they add Kris Bryant, Trevor Story or Seiya Suzuki, the roster equations change. But it’s clear White won’t be on the big-league roster if he can’t contribute offensively.
There is also a scenario in which Dipoto is forced to add a first baseman as an impact hitter if he can’t get a third baseman, second baseman or outfielder to fill that role.
The Mariners didn’t acquire Ty France to be their first baseman of the future, but with their current roster, he is their best option now.
Organizational depth chart:
MLB: Ty France
Class AAA Tacoma: Evan White, Joe Rizzo
Class AA Arkansas: Jake Scheiner, Bobby Honeyman
High-A Everett: Connor Hoover
Low-A Modesto: Robert Perez, Ben Ramirez
CORRECTION: Alex Rodriguez left the Mariners after the 2000 season, not before as originally reported.