Tim Lopes looked like another Mariners’ position-player-draftee disappointment when he was traded in 2016. But he’s back, and seems the starter in left field Friday.
One of the more intriguing Mariners personnel developments in 2020 is that the likely lineup for the regular-season opener Friday in Houston will include rookie Seattle draftees at three positions.
He too, was a Seattle rookie draftee, but in 2012’s sixth round. As an infielder. By 2016, the Mariners traded him, which has often been the route to baseball success for Seattle position-player draftees. Call it the Adam Jones Syndrome.
But Lopes didn’t flourish in the Toronto system either. So he was re-signed by the Mariners as a free agent after the 2018 season.
He changed his swing, his position and, at 26, his baseball fortunes. If he starts Friday with Lewis in center and Jake Fraley, 25, in right, the Mariners will have an all-rookie outfield.
“He’s been an infielder and when we shoved him in the outfield last year, he responded really well,” said manager Scott Servais. “He’s done a good job in left field.
“He’s probably made a ton of adjustments in his swing in the last year and a half. He has a track record of hitting, and not getting blown away when guys are throwing 96 and above. He has a really short swing that allows him to get the barrel to the ball.”
When he finally made the majors last season on July 23, Lopes found himself on the injured list three days later with a concussion after a fastball hit him in the head. Upon his return 11 days later, he homered in his first game.
He went on to hit .270, fourth-highest average on the team, with 12 RBIs and 11 runs in 41 games and 128 plate appearances. He played 33 games in left, three in right and three at second base.
In a 2019 season that was mostly a roster teardown, Lopes was a big beneficiary.
“It definitely was very fortunate and blessed for the opportunity that the Mariners gave me,’’ he said. “I was very thankful. I’m just very, very happy to be here.’’
He also had a fantastic spring training this year, batting .440 in 25 at-bats with five doubles and seven RBIs. Hitting coach Tim Laker said Lopes looked better than last year. But COVID-19 shut down spring training and put the career arc of Lopes, drafted out of Edison High School in Huntington Beach, CA., on pause.
“It was disappointing for everybody,’’ Lopes said. “We definitely all want to be out there and playing ball. Just the gravity of this decision, everyone understood. And safety is the number one priority. So it is what it is.”
Lopes worked out on his own the next few months.
“I was fortunate to have a facility where I was able to hit, I was able to throw and take ground balls,’’ he said. “So I just tried to stay as sharp as possible for those three months of quarantine. Trying to get stronger and faster and improve every aspect of my game.
“I think I can be better on both sides. Defensively, I’m just looking at be consistent at every position — outfield, second and third. Even a little bit at first base. And at the plate, trying to get good pitches to hit and make good swing decisions to drive the baseball.’’
Servais sees progress.
“His versatility is really beneficial for us and for him,” he said. “I feel comfortable with him at third base, second base and the corner outfield spots.
“One thing he does as good as anyone is hitting left-handed pitching. He’s been really, really good against the left-handers. He continues to impress this camp.”
The continuing injury absence of veteran OF Mitch Haniger (45-day IR) opened a door for Lopes, who will rotate with CF Mallex Smith and utility players Dee Gordon and perhaps Dylan Moore.
And everyone has to learn to abide by the new protocols that prevent disease transmission. That includes no hugs, high-fives and other typical dugout jubilation.
“That’s tough,’’ Lopes said. “You want to be around your teammates, you want to give a guy a high-five after a big home run. You kind of have to restrain yourself. And just realize what’s important, which is everybody’s safety. Definitely difficult to control your excitement when one of your teammates does something cool.
“To be honest, the staff has done a really good job of making us aware of the situation, what we need to do to be as safe as possible.’’
If Lopes makes it into the starting lineup, he’s entitled to air-hug the world.