Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis has been out all month with a deep bone bruise in his right knee, but he could make his 2021 debut within the next few days, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times relays. Manager Scott Servais said the Mariners hope Lewis will return during their homestand – which runs from tonight through Tuesday – while GM Jerry Dipoto told ESPN 710 that he’s likely to come back Monday. Lewis won AL Rookie of the Year honors in 2020 on the strength of a .262/.364/.437 line with 11 home runs and five stolen bases in 242 plate appearances. The Lewis-less Mariners have used Taylor Trammell in center, but he has slumped to a .132/.283/.316 mark over 46 PA.
An abnormal number of picks from the 2020 Rule 5 Draft survived Spring Training and made the Opening Day rosters with their new clubs. The Orioles and Marlins both broke camp with a pair of Rule 5 picks on the active roster, while the Pirates opened the season with one Rule 5 pick on the roster and one on the injured list. Most clubs that are carrying a Rule 5 pick, unsurprisingly, have little in the way of postseason aspirations. There are a few October hopefuls among those still clinging to Rule 5 picks, however, and it’ll take some uncharacteristically strong Rule 5 showings for those players to survive the season.
We’ll take a look at how the surviving Rule 5 draftees are faring periodically throughout the year. Here’s the first glance…
Currently in the Majors
- Brett de Geus, RHP, Rangers (via Dodgers): Injuries throughout the Rangers’ bullpen might have helped the 23-year-old de Geus crack the Opening Day roster in Texas. He’s out to a shaky start, having walked three batters and hit another three against just two strikeouts through his first 5 2/3 innings. On the plus side, 13 of the 15 balls put into play against him have been grounders.
- Akil Baddoo, OF, Tigers (via Twins): Baddoo is one of the best stories (maybe the best) of the young 2021 season. The 22-year-old homered on his first swing in the big leagues as his family rejoiced in the stands, and in less than two weeks’ time he’s added a grand slam, a walk-off single (against his former organization) a 450-foot dinger off Zack Greinke and a fourth homer. Baddoo has a ludicrous 1.342 OPS through his first 29 plate appearances in the Majors, and while he obviously won’t sustain that, he’s forcing a legitimate audition in the Detroit outfield. Baddoo missed nearly all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery and didn’t play in 2020. Despite that layoff and the fact that he’d never played above A-ball, the Tigers called his name in December. It may have seemed like a stretch at the time, but it doesn’t look that way now.
- Garrett Whitlock, RHP, Red Sox (via Yankees): The Sox would surely love for Whitlock to stick, having plucked him from their archrivals in New York. So far, so good. Better than good, in fact. Through 6 1/3 scoreless innings, Whitlock has yielded three hits and punched out nine batters without issuing a walk. He’s sitting 95.6 mph with his heater and has posted a hefty 16.9 percent swinging-strike rate. Whitlock also had Tommy John surgery in 2019, so even though he’s previously been a starter, it makes sense to monitor his workload ease him into the mix as the Sox hope to get through the year with him in the ’pen.
- Tyler Wells, RHP, Orioles (via Twins): Wells has allowed a pair of homers and surrendered three total runs on four hits and two walks with five strikeouts in 5 2/3 frames. The O’s aren’t trying to win in 2021, but their bullpen also has four arms that can’t be optioned (Cesar Valdez, Shawn Armstrong, Adam Plutko, Wade LeBlanc). Keeping both Wells and Mac Sceroler (currently on the IL) brings them to six and will hamper their flexibility.
- Zach Pop and Paul Campbell, RHPs, Marlins (via Orioles and Rays): Pop was technically the D-backs’ pick in the Rule 5, but Arizona immediately flipped him to the Marlins for a PTBNL. The 24-year-old didn’t allow an earned run in five spring frames but as I was finishing this post, he served up a three-run homer, bringing his season line to seven runs on three hits, three walks and two hit batters in 3 1/3 innings. Campbell has struggled to a similar extent. He’s surrendered five runs (three earned) and given up four hits and three walks in just 2 2/3 innings. With the Marlins out of tank mode, it’ll be tough to carry both all year.
- Jordan Sheffield, RHP, Rockies (via Dodgers): Sheffield was the No. 36 overall pick in the 2016 Draft, but control issues prevented him from being protected on the Dodgers’ 40-man roster. FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen gives Sheffield three plus pitches in his scouting report (fastball, curveball, changeup) but also pegs his command at a 30 on the 20-80 scale. Sheffield has walked or plunked 15 percent of the hitters he faced in the minors. He’s yet to walk anyone 13 batters he’s faced with the Rockies, but he did hit one and has also tossed a pair of wild pitches. That said, he’s also sitting 95.5 mph with his heater and is unscored upon in 3 2/3 frames.
- Luis Oviedo, RHP, Pirates (via Indians): Oviedo was the Mets’ pick at No. 10, but they had a deal worked out to flip him to the Pirates in exchange for cash. Oviedo has been hammered for six runs on six hits (two homers) and two walks with five strikeouts through 4 2/3 innings so far. Even pitching for a tanking club, Oviedo will need to show some improvement in order to stick on the roster all season.
- Will Vest, RHP, Mariners (via Tigers): The Mariners kept last year’s Rule 5 pick Yohan Ramirez for the whole season, but it’ll be tougher to do with a full schedule in 2021. The Mariners’ young core is also beginning to rise to the big leagues, and Vest will need to fend off some intriguing young arms. He’s done a decent job so far, allowing a pair of runs (one unearned) on five hits and four walks with five strikeouts in 7 1/3 innings.
- Trevor Stephan, RHP, Indians (via Yankees): Stephan whiffed 16 of 44 hitters this spring to earn a spot on the Indians’ Opening Day roster, but he’s allowed four runs in his first four MLB frames. The 25-year-old has surrendered five hits (including a homer), walked a pair and hit a batter so far while facing a total of 21 hitters.
- Ka’ai Tom, OF, Athletics (via Indians): Tom, 26, raked at a .310/.412/.552 pace with a homer, two doubles and a triple in 34 spring plate appearances. After that strong audition, however, he’s just 1-for-16 with six strikeouts through his first 16 trips to the plate with the A’s.
On the Major League injured list
- Jose Soriano, RHP, Pirates (via Angels): It wasn’t a surprise to see Soriano open the year on the injured list. He’s still recovering from Tommy John surgery performed in Feb. 2020 and didn’t pitch in a game with the Pirates this spring. He’ll be sidelined for at least the first two months, as the Bucs put him on the 60-day IL to open a 40-man roster spot when they signed Tyler Anderson. Soriano hasn’t pitched above A-ball, but the Pirates aren’t exactly a win-now club, so they can afford to stash him as a seldom-used bullpen piece in order to secure his rights beyond the 2021 season.
- Mac Sceroler, RHP, Orioles (via Reds): Sceroler fanned six hitters in 3 2/3 innings early in the season but also yielded three runs on five hits (two homers), three walks and a hit batter. The Orioles recently placed him on the 10-day injured list due to tendinitis in his right shoulder, although it’s not expected to be too lengthy an absence.
- Dedniel Nunez, RHP, Giants (via Mets): Nunez was hit hard in the Cactus League, surrendering four runs in 3 1/3 innings. He’ll now miss the entire 2021 season after sustaining a UCL tear that required Tommy John surgery this spring. Nunez will spend the season on San Francisco’s 60-day injured list and receive a year of MLB service, but he’ll still be subject to Rule 5 restrictions in 2022 once he’s healthy. He’ll need to spend at least 90 days on the MLB roster before he can be sent to the minors; if he doesn’t last that long, he’ll have to pass through waivers and, if he clears, be offered back to the Mets.
Returned to their original club
- Jose Alberto Rivera, RHP, Angels (via Astros): The Angels didn’t take much of a look at Rivera, returning him to Houston on March 24 after just one inning of official work in Cactus League play.
- Kyle Holder, SS, Reds (via Yankees): The Reds weren’t sure who their shortstop was going to be heading into Spring Training, but they ultimately settled on moving Eugenio Suarez back to that spot, sliding Mike Moustakas back to third base and giving prospect Jonathan India the nod at second base. A strong spring from Holder might have at least given him a bench spot behind that trio, but he hit just .219/.359/.250 in 39 plate appearances. The Reds returned him to the Yankees on March 30.
- Gray Fenter, RHP, Cubs (via Orioles): The Cubs returned Fenter to the Orioles on March 12 after just one spring appearance. He hasn’t pitched above A-ball yet.
- Dany Jimenez, RHP, Athletics (via Blue Jays): The 27-year-old Jimenez was a Rule 5 pick in consecutive offseasons — once by each Bay Area club. The A’s returned him to the Jays on March 15, however, after he yielded four runs (two earned) in three innings of work this spring.
The Mariners announced Thursday that they’ve selected the contract of right-hander Robert Dugger to the 40-man roster and called him up from their taxi squad as the 27th man for their doubleheader against the Orioles.
Dugger, 25, will now have the chance to pitch for the club that originally drafted him in the 18th round back in 2016. That appeared unlikely not long ago, as Seattle traded him to the Marlins alongside righty Nick Neidert and infielder Christopher Torres in the trade that brought Dee Strange-Gordon to the Mariners.
Things didn’t pan out for Dugger in Miami. He posted strong numbers through Class-A and Double-A before struggling immensely at Triple-A in 2019 (albeit in the juiced-ball season of an already hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League). The Fish called Dugger to the big leagues for a look both in 2019 and 2020, but he was tattooed for a 7.40 ERA in a total of 45 innings. Miami tried to pass him through waivers to open a 40-man spot back in December, but the Mariners scooped him back up — only to later DFA him after signing Ken Giles. Seattle then succeeded in passing Dugger through waiver themselves.
While Dugger hasn’t had success above the Double-A level, last year’s small sample of work included a nearly two-mile-per-hour jump in fastball velocity (90.3 mph average to 92.1 mph) as well as some notable spin-rate increases on that four-seamer (2191 rpm in 2019; 2321 rpm in 2020) and on his slider (2311 rpm to 2443 rpm).
Dugger will be available out of the ’pen behind Marco Gonzales in Game 1 and Justin Dunn in Game 2 today. He still has a minor league option remaining, so the Mariners can shuttle him between their alternate site/Triple-A and the Majors for the remainder of the season without exposing him to waivers if the change of scenery brings about some improvement in his overall results.
April 13: Servais confirmed today that Paxton will undergo season-ending surgery (Twitter link via The Athletic’s Corey Brock). Servais did not specify the procedure, only that it would be season-ending elbow surgery.
April 10: Paxton hasn’t yet decided on surgery and will seek a second opinion on his injury, Mariners manager Scott Servais told reporters (including MLB.com’s Daniel Kramer).
April 8: Tommy John surgery has been recommended for Mariners left-hander James Paxton, Jon Heyman of MLB Network reports. If Paxton undergoes the procedure, he’ll miss the rest of this season and at least some portion of the 2022 campaign.
Paxton began his career with the Mariners, who used a fourth-round pick on him in 2010, though after spending 2013-18 in their uniform, they traded him to the Yankees. But Paxton, 32, returned to Seattle in free agency this past offseason on a one-year, $8.5MM deal. Unfortunately, the Big Maple exited his first (and potentially lone) start of 2021 on Tuesday because of forearm troubles. The Mariners then placed Paxton on the 10-day injured list.
While Paxton has typically pitched well in the majors, evidenced by his 3.59 ERA/3.62 SIERA over 137 appearances (all starts) and 754 2/3 innings, various injuries have haunted him since he entered the league in 2013. He has never thrown more than 160 1/3 innings in an individual season, and he totaled just 20 1/3 frames last year while dealing with back issues and a flexor strain. The Yankees then elected against bringing Paxton back, though he did draw substantial interest from teams on the open market before returning to the Mariners. It doesn’t appear the reunion will be fruitful for either side, however.
The Mariners entered the season with Paxton as a key part of their six-man rotation, but it looks as if they will have to make other plans for the rest of the year. At least for now, Nick Margevicius will take Paxton’s spot in the M’s starting staff, complementing Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Chris Flexen and Justin Dunn.
- Mariners center fielder Kyle Lewis is progressing in his recovery from a bone bruise in his right knee and could make his season debut during the team’s April 16-20 homestand, Corey Brock of The Athletic tweets. The injury has prevented Lewis from building on last season’s American League Rookie of the Year-winning campaign, in which he batted .262/.364/.437 with 11 home runs and five stolen bases over 242 plate appearances. The Mariners have mostly used Taylor Trammell in center during Lewis’ absence.
- Sticking with the Mariners, first baseman Evan White exited their game against the White Sox on Wednesday with tightness in his left quad, Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times tweets. The team replaced White with Jose Marmolejos. White was off to a less-than-ideal start to the season even before the injury, as the 24-year-old has collected just three hits in 24 plate appearances and struck out seven times. The Mariners signed White to a six-year, $24MM extension before last season, but he wound up struggling to a .176/.252/.346 line with a 41.6 percent K rate in 202 PA as a rookie then.
12:35pm: The Mariners announced that Paxton and Fraley have both been placed on the 10-day injured list. Paxton has been diagnosed with a left forearm strain, while the MRI confirmed a hamstring strain for Fraley. The Mariners recalled outfielder Braden Bishop and righty Ljay Newsome from their alternate training site to take their spots on the roster.
8:22am: James Paxton returned to the Mariners’ rotation last night after two years in the Bronx, but his start was cut short by another forearm injury, as he exited after just 1 1/3 innings. Outfielder Jake Fraley, meanwhile, left the game with what the team later announced as a hamstring strain after making a diving catch in left field. Both players will undergo an MRI this morning, manager Scott Servais told reporters after the game (via Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times).
Paxton’s 2020 season with the Yankees was cut short by a forearm strain, so it’s obviously a concerning development for him to suffer this type of injury — particularly so early in the season. The lefty did tell Divish and others that the pain he’s feeling in his arm isn’t at the same level as it was when he sustained that injury last summer.
The Mariners brought Paxton back to the organization on a one-year, $8.5MM free agent deal over the winter. The 32-year-old had interest from several teams, as one would expect based on his track record of success, but he seemingly preferred to return to Seattle. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto noted at the time of the signing that Paxton had been sharp in workouts for MLB teams and gave the club something of a “hometown discount.”
The reunion looked to be going well in Spring Training, where Paxton struck out half of the 34 batters he faced and allowed just one run during Cactus League play. For the time being, he struck an optimistic tone that the current issue could be muscular in nature and something from which he can quickly return.
As for Fraley, the 25-year-old is out to an unusual start to his 2021 season. He’s just 1-for-10 through five games, but he’s drawn eight walks and been hit by a pitch, leading to a bizarre .100/.500/.200 batting line through his first 19 plate appearances. Acquired from the Rays as part of the Mike Zunino trade, Fraley hasn’t hit much in two prior stints with the Mariners in 2019-20, but he only tallied 70 plate appearances during that time. He’s a career .286/.362/.480 hitter in the minors — including a .276/.333/.553 showing in 38 Triple-A games.
For the moment, however, it seems that an IL stint could be on the horizon, which will have the baseball world watching intently. The most straightforward move for the M’s would simply be to recall Braden Bishop from their alternate site, as he’s on the 40-man roster already, but Seattle also has top prospect Jarred Kelenic on the cusp of his first big league promotion as well.
Kelenic’s service time status was thrust into the national spotlight when now-former CEO Kevin Mather blatantly indicated in a Q&A with the Bellevue Rotary Club that the 21-year-old Kelenic had turned down an extension offer and wouldn’t be called to the Majors until mid-April (the general point at which the Mariners would gain an extra year of control over Kelenic). Kelenic missed some time in Spring Training with a minor knee injury, but he returned to the lineup and immediately went 3-for-6 with a double and a homer in two games before being reassigned to minor league camp, so the injury looks to be behind him.
It still seems likelier that the Mariners will turn to Bishop for the time being, as calling up Kelenic now would still give him enough time to accrue a full year of Major League service in 2021. That would no longer be the case as soon as next weekend, however.
Turning back to the pitching staff, the Mariners were already using a six-man rotation, so it’s likely they’ll simply shorten up to five starters for the time being and carry an extra reliever. The bullpen had to cover 7 2/3 innings last night and took a beating at the hands of the White Sox in the process, so Seattle would probably prefer to get a fresh arm into the relief mix anyhow.
It’s at least worth noting that as with the Fraley/Kelenic situation, the Mariners have a highly regarded pitching prospect who is near MLB readiness: 2018 first-rounder Logan Gilbert. While this comment didn’t draw as much attention as the Kelenic revelation, Mather indicated in that same interview that he expected Gilbert to be pitching in the Majors by mid-April (obviously, an allusion to his service time). Gilbert, however, only tossed a pair of innings in Spring Training before being reassigned to minor league camp, so he may not yet be built up to the point where he’s an option even in the event that Paxton is shelved for a notable period of time. If the Mariners want to stick with a six-man rotation and Paxton does miss some time, they could give a few starts to Ljay Newsome and/or Nick Margevicius. Before too long, however, Gilbert seems likely to emerge as an option at the big league level.
The Mariners added some recognizable veterans to a roster that will soon see some of baseball’s top prospects surface in the Majors. The “reimagining” phase appears to be nearing its conclusion.
Major League Signings
- James Paxton, LHP: One year, $8.5MM
- Ken Giles, RHP: Two years, $7MM
- Chris Flexen, RHP: Two years, $4.75MM
- Kendall Graveman, RHP: One year, $1.25MM
- Keynan Middleton, RHP: One year, $800K
- Total spend: $22.3MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RHP Rafael Montero from the Rangers in exchange for RHP Jose Corniell and a PTBNL
- Claimed RHP Domingo Tapia off waivers from the Red Sox
- Claimed RHP Robert Dugger off waivers from the Marlins (later outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers)
- Selected RHP Will Vest from the Tigers in the Rule 5 Draft
Notable Minor League Signings
- Drew Steckenrider (made roster), Matt Magill, Roenis Elias (since released), Paul Sewald, JT Chargois, Gerson Bautista (released), Taylor Guerrieri, Jimmy Yacabonis, Brady Lail, Sam Travis, Jack Reinheimer
- Dee Strange-Gordon, Yoshihisa Hirano, Tim Lopes, Mallex Smith, Phil Ervin, Carl Edwards Jr., Bryan Shaw, Walker Lockett, Taylor Guilbeau, Art Warren, Joe Hudson
Entering the offseason, the Mariners looked as though they had the potential to spend more than some rival clubs. Seattle carried a 2021 payroll projection of just over $70MM — a number that would dip all the way to $7.15MM in 2022. With many clubs around the league not expected to spend at all, an opportunistic approach seemed plausible.
As it turned out, the Mariners front office was also reportedly limited in its dealings by an ownership group reeling from last year’s lost revenues. The Mariners still spent some money, but the majority of their investments were on affordable one-year pacts. Exceptions included affordable two-year deals for KBO returnee Chris Flexen and Tommy John rehabber Ken Giles.
Flexen, guaranteed a total of $4.75MM on the deal, tossed 116 1/3 frames of 3.01 ERA/2.74 FIP ball in South Korea last year, notching impressive strikeout and walk percentages (28.1 and 6.4, respectively). Those 116 1/3 innings are 30 more than any big league pitcher threw in 2020’s shortened slate of games, so his workload will be less of a concern than that of the Mariners’ other starters. Giles, meanwhile, won’t pitch in 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer, but he’ll be expected to hold down a key bullpen role in 2022.
The most notable addition to the pitching staff, of course, was James Paxton, who returns to Seattle after spending two years in the Bronx. Paxton will slot into the rotation alongside the pitcher he was traded for, lefty Justus Sheffield. The 32-year-old Paxton missed most of the 2020 season as he battled injuries — February back surgery and an August forearm strain. He pitched with greatly diminished velocity in 2020, but Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said after signing Paxton that “Big Maple” had recovered the lost zip on his heater by the time he threw for scouts over the winter.
A healthy Paxton is the Mariners’ best starter — probably one of the best 20 or so starters in the game. At a year and $8.5MM, he’s an affordable and sensible gamble for Seattle even after last year’s injuries. It seems that a return to the Mariners was always something of a best-case scenario for Paxton; he was reported at multiple points to be seeking more than the $11MM that fellow injured ace Corey Kluber received from the Yankees in free agency, but Dipoto said after the contract was completed that Paxton gave his club a “some form of hometown discount,” adding that he “wanted to be a Mariner” again.
With Paxton and Flexen now penciled in as part of what’s expected to again be a six-man rotation, the Mariners have a fairly interesting starting staff. Marco Gonzales has been nothing but solid over the past three seasons, pitching to a combined 3.85 ERA in 74 starts. Sheffield was knocked around early in 2020, but his final eight starts looked an awful lot like the solid starter he’s long been projected to become: 47 1/3 innings, 3.58 ERA/3.17 FIP, 50.6 percent grounder rate, 20.7 strikeout rate, 8.6 walk rate.
The 2021 season will be a critical one for 29-year-old southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, whose contract allows the Mariners to extend him for four years and $66MM at season’s end. If the team declines to do so, he can exercise a $13MM player option. Based on Kikuchi’s track record, it’s unlikely that the M’s would pick up their end of that deal, but the lefty showed some interesting signs in 2020. His average fastball spiked from 92.9 mph in 2019 to 95.2 mph in 2020, while his strikeout and ground-ball rates soared by eight percent apiece. Kikuchi’s walk rate rose from 6.9 percent to 10.3 percent, which is a notable red flag, but if he can get back to his previous control while maintaining some of the other positive gains, he could yet be a quality big league starter.
Right-hander Justin Dunn, meanwhile, outlasted Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome in the spring battle for the sixth starter’s role. While he’s yet to find much big league success, Dunn was a top 100 prospect when the Mariners acquired him from the Mets, and he’s still just 25 years old. He could very well just be keeping a spot warm for top prospect Logan Gilbert, but Dunn has at least one more chance to show he can stick in the rotation.
As is the case in the rotation, there are some new faces in the bullpen after Dipoto and his staff brought in a trio of inexpensive relievers. Former Mets top prospect Rafael Montero had a resurgence in the Rangers bullpen over the past two seasons, pitching to a 3.09 ERA with a strong 28.6 percent strikeout rate and a terrific 5.9 percent walk rate.
Montero went 8-for-8 in save attempts with Texas last year and will close games for the Mariners in 2021 following a trade that sent righty Jose Corniell to the Rangers. Corniell received the largest bonus given out by the Mariners in the 2019-20 international free agent class ($630K), but he’s yet to play a pro game. The Mariners will also send a PTBNL to Texas to complete this deal at some point in the coming months, but for two years of control over Montero, the price tag seems reasonable for now. Corniell currently ranks as the Rangers’ No. 30 prospect at Baseball America.
Seattle also re-signed righty Kendall Graveman to a one-year deal and will put him straight into the bullpen role in which he thrived last year. The Mariners initially tried out the former A’s starter in their rotation before he went down to an injury. When he returned in September, Graveman went to the ’pen and saw his average sinker velocity jump from a career 93.2 mph to 96.3 mph. He didn’t miss many bats but posted a sizable 55.2 percent grounder rate with strong control. For a $1.25MM base salary with incentives to take the deal to $3.5MM, the Mariners will see if he can sustain that output.
Hard-throwing righty Keynan Middleton gives the Mariners another former division rival to count among its setup corps. The Angels non-tendered Middleton despite having three years of control remaining and an arbitration projection around $1MM. The 27-year-old missed most of 2018-19 due to Tommy John surgery early in the ’18 campaign, but when he was healthy he looked like a solid late-inning option in Anaheim. From 2017-18, he logged a 3.43 ERA and 3.73 SIERA while punching out a quarter of his opponents. There was some improvement needed, but for a young pitcher with a heater that averaged 97 mph, the results were encouraging. He was cut loose despite regaining that velocity in 2020, and the Mariners will now hope to benefit.
There won’t be many new faces in the Seattle batting order. The Mariners didn’t add any position players over the winter, due in no small part to the growing number of prospects they’re seeing rise to the big league ranks. Evan White struggled to make contact in 2020, but when he did he was among the league leaders in exit velocity. Strikeouts were never a major issue for him in the minors, either, and he won a Gold Glove at first base in his rookie season, so expect to see plenty more of him.
Kyle Seager returns across the diamond, and the Mariners had a second Gold Glover at short in J.P. Crawford, so he’s locked in there. Dylan Moore gets the first look at second base after a breakout 2020, but Shed Long Jr. will also be seeking a rebound after playing through a stress reaction in his tibia last year. Behind the plate, the Mariners will lean on Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens, both of whom have shown they can provide solid offense. Catching prospect Cal Raleigh will continue to rise through the upper minors as well. Ty France, acquired from the Padres alongside Torrens, figures to see plenty of work at DH and also fill around the diamond. He’s done nothing but rake in Triple-A, the big leagues, and Spring Training. The Mariners are aiming to get him 500-plus plate appearances between DH and spelling White, Seager and Moore.
Things get more interesting in the outfield. In right field, the Mariners are set to welcome back Mitch Haniger after an arduous two years of rehabbing a chain reaction of fluke injuries that began with a ruptured testicle after a woefully placed foul ball. Now 30 years old, the 2018 All-Star will look to round back into form after missing the past season and a half. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis opened the year on the IL, clearing a path for top prospect Taylor Trammell to make his debut in center. Lewis isn’t expected to be out long, so the Mariners could soon see an alignment of Trammell, Lewis and Haniger.
Of course, all eyes are on uber-prospect Jarred Kelenic, who was the subject of numerous headlines after now-former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather blatantly indicated the organization planned to hold him in the minors until late April. The words “service time” weren’t directly used, but the implication was clear, particularly given that Mather also revealed in that Q&A with his rotary club members that Kelenic rejected a contract extension prior to the 2020 season.
Kelenic and agent Brodie Scoffield told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale in the aftermath of the interview that the organization made clear to him at multiple points that he would’ve made his MLB debut in 2020 had he signed the extension offer — a six-year pact with a trio of club options to buy out three free-agent seasons. While Scoffield told MLBTR at the time that Kelenic is still open to extension offers, a spotlight has been shined on the situation. Kelenic missed time this spring with a minor knee sprain, which made it easier for the Mariners to send him down to begin the year. But if he’s called up in late April just as Mather said he would be, the organization will have a hard time claiming that it was a strictly development-driven decision to send him out in the first place. Kelenic went 6-for-20 with two doubles, two homers, four walks and just one strikeout in 25 spring plate appearances.
To be clear, the majority of big league clubs play service time games. It’s not that the Mariners’ plan was necessarily nefarious or previously unheard of — far from it — but such matters simply aren’t discussed publicly, as teams don’t want to give players and their agents any fuel for possible grievance filings. Mather’s indication that late-April promotions were likely not only for Kelenic but the aforementioned Gilbert broke the norm of making such manipulation a poorly kept but still-unspoken “secret.”
Had Mather’s service-time comments been the only questionable moments in his Q&A, the fallout probably wouldn’t have been so great. But he also made disparaging comments about foreign players’ English skills (or lack thereof), lamented having to pay translators and rattled off various negative comments about established players on the big league roster. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Mather resigned from his post in the days after the interview, and chairman John Stanton revealed later that Mather also gave up the minority stake in the club he received when initially being elevated to CEO.
Turning back to the on-field product, the Mariners very much have the look of a team that is on the rise. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if” Kelenic makes his Major League debut in 2021. Fellow outfield wunderkind Julio Rodriguez isn’t too far behind him, and we’re already getting our first look at Trammell. Gilbert is the first in a growing line of high-end pitching prospects funneling through the system, with recent first-rounders George Kirby and Emerson Hancock both on the horizon.
Each of those prospects could be in the big leagues before midseason 2022, and as previously noted, the Mariners’ long-term payroll is squeaky clean. They have just $15.45MM in guaranteed salary committed in 2022 (not including the $3.75MM they owe the Mets as part of the Robinson Cano deal).
Considering the Mariners had a franchise-record $158MM payroll in 2018 and averaged a hefty $150.25MM payroll from 2016-19, a spending spree during next year’s free agent mega-class seems eminently plausible. Contending in 2021 is long shot but not impossible with enough breaks from their young big leaguers. However, even if the Mariners extend a two-decade playoff drought this season, the future in Seattle is brighter than it’s been in quite some time.
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7:06 pm: The Mariners officially selected Steckenrider’s contract (via Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times). Right-hander Ken Giles was placed on the 60-day injured list in a corresponding move. The veteran reliever will miss most or all of the 2021 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last fall.
4:10 pm: Right-hander Drew Steckenrider has earned a spot in the Mariners’ season-opening bullpen, per Corey Brock of The Athletic. Steckenrider is not on the Mariners’ 40-man roster, which is at capacity, so they’ll need to make a corresponding move in order to add him.
An eighth-round pick of the Marlins in 2012, Steckenrider made his debut with the team in 2017 and thrived. He threw 34 2/3 innings of 2.34 ERA/3.04 SIERA ball that year, struck out just under 36 percent of batters and averaged 95.3 mph on his fastball. Steckenrider continued to put up useful numbers the next season – 3.90 ERA/3.55 SIERA with a 27.2 percent K rate and a 94.7 mph mean fastball in 64 2/3 frames – but he barely took the mound over the previous two years.
In his most recent action, the 2019 season, Steckenrider yielded 10 earned runs on nine hits (six of which were home runs) and issued 14 strikeouts against five walks in 14 1/3 innings. His season ended that May on account of a flexor strain, and he hasn’t pitched in the bigs since then. The Marlins went on to outright Steckenrider, who elected free agency last fall and then signed a minor league contract with the Mariners. He earned a roster spot with the M’s after throwing seven innings of two-run, seven-hit ball with nine strikeouts and four walks in the spring.
MARCH 31: Lewis will indeed begin 2021 on the injured list, Corey Brock of The Athletic tweets.
MARCH 27: Reigning AL Rookie Of The Year Kyle Lewis is suffering from a deep bone bruise on the outside of his right knee, Mariners manager Scott Servais told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times (Twitter links) and other reporters. Lewis hasn’t played since Monday, when he suffered the injury colliding with the outfield wall in pursuit of a fly ball.
It isn’t yet clear if Lewis will be able to return to the field for any more Cactus League action, or even be available for the Mariners’ opener on Thursday. An injured list placement could be inevitable, as the M’s are naturally going to be as careful as possible with the health of their young star.
Between the shortened 2020 season and his brief call-up during the 2019 campaign, Lewis has made only 317 plate appearances in 76 Major League games, yet he has already made a big impact. Lewis has hit .264/.347/.477 with 17 homers as a big leaguer, and established himself as a key piece for the rebuilding Mariners.
If Lewis isn’t available at the start of the season, Taylor Trammell, Jake Fraley, or Braden Bishop could play center field, or Lewis’ replacement might not yet be on the roster. Divish reports that the Mariners have been checking out other teams’ roster for any intriguing late-spring cuts, and Servais said that GM Jerry Dipoto will look at adding an external option depending on Lewis’ recovery timeline. Of course, Seattle fans would love to see star prospect Jarred Kelenic as soon as possible, but Kelenic has already been optioned to Triple-A and likely won’t be making his big league debut until a bit later in the season (i.e. when the Mariners can ensure another year of team control).
The latest minor moves from around baseball…
- Shortly after the Mariners released righty reliever Matt Magill, the team brought him back on a two-year minors pact, Chris Cotillo of MassLive.com tweets. Magill has appeared in the majors in parts of five seasons (including with the Mariners in 2020), and put up a 4.63 ERA in 149 2/3 innings with strikeout, walk and groundball rates that have rated below average. His season came to a premature end last September when he underwent arthroscopic shoulder surgery.
- Nationals first baseman Jake Noll and right-hander Dakota Bacus went unclaimed on the waiver wire and have been reassigned to minor league camp, as per a team announcement. The duo were both recently designated for assignment. The 27-year-old Noll has received 30 MLB plate appearances with Washington and batted .276/.300/.345 in that tiny sample, while also hitting .285/.327/.410 over 489 PA at the Triple-A level. Bacus, meanwhile, yielded 10 runs through 11 1/3 innings in his MLB debut last year. The 2012 ninth-rounder has had a respectable ERA and strong ground-ball rate at virtually every minor league stop but has never missed bats at a high rate or limited walks all that effectively. Both players will stick with the Nats as depth options.
- Right-hander Kevin McCarthy will remain in the Red Sox organization, MassLive.com’s Chris Cotillo tweets. The former Royal’s minor league contract with the Sox included an upward mobility clause that would have enabled him to leave the organization had he not earned a 40-man roster spot, but McCarthy will now report to Triple-A. McCarthy appeared in only five games in 2020 but the groundball specialist was a steady member of the Royals pen from 2017-19, posting a 3.65 ERA and 59.5% grounder rate over 177 1/3 innings (154 games) in that three-season stretch.