BY Art Thiel 06:00AM 04/01/2021

Thiel: With Mariners, it’s all about gradualness

Thursday, fans gradually start to return to the yard, as the Mariners gradually start toward contention. But if a faster pace is to develop, it has to start with Evan White.

Superb in the field, 1B Evan White needs a breakthrough at the plate. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

The overdone ritual of baseball’s Opening Day is often more about the return of decent weather than it is a chance see players cavort, spit and overthrow the cutoff man. This year, however, is different.

The regular-season openers Thursday across the fruited plain, including one at Seattle’s T-ball Park (San Francisco, 7:10 p.m., Root), feature the return of fans, who spent all of 2020 hiding from airborne cooties. Tra-la, tra-la.

More accurately, it is the return of some fans. The lingering cooties factor will limit crowd sizes everywhere. Well, everywhere but Texas (Motto: Don’t Mask in Texas), where the Rangers expect to host a sellout super-spreader event Monday with the Toronto Blue Jays. The club’s decision irked President Biden, who told ESPN Wednesday that the club’s decision was “not responsible,” certainly a rare description when it comes to Texans and governance.

In Seattle, seating is capped at 9,000, public-health officials here being what they are — stern. Thankfully. That’s the figure for the foreseeable, because we favor the gradual approach.

And if you are among those who like gradual, does Seattle have a ball team for you — the Mariners.

A powerhouse of gradualness, the Mariners continue their carefully calibrated step-back program by featuring mostly the same lineup as the one that executed the stump season of 2020 at 27-33.

Returning to their same starting spots are 1B Evan White, SS J.P. Crawford, 3B Kyle Seager and C Tom Murphy, the latter booked to start 2020 but missed the season with a broken foot bone.

Kyle Lewis, the American League rookie of the year, would be in center except for a bone bruise in a knee that put him on the 10-day injured list. His place is taken by the only new face in the lineup, Taylor Trammell, making his major league debut at 23.

Utility guy Dylan Moore, who hit .255 with eight homers in 38 games last year, replaces Shed Long at second base, and Ty France replaces Dan Vogelbach at DH. Left field could have either Jose Marmelejos, who started Opening Day a year ago, or Jake Fraley.

In right field is a newbie/oldie, Mitch Haniger, who at 30, has endured nearly two years of injuries and surgeries to reclaim his spot and career. If he pulls it off, he will be the next Captain America.

“It’s going to be exciting and fun,” the stoic Haniger told the Seattle Times at spring training. “I’m sure there will be a lot of emotions.” For him, emotions may be a fascinating experience.

Another newbie/oldie is James Paxton, 33, in the six-man starting rotation. He returns to Seattle and joins newbie Chris Flexen, who pitched last season in Korea. Repeating from 2020 are Thursday’s starter, Marco Gonzales, and Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.

With the possible exception of closer Rafael Montero, the bullpen could be any of seven men in line behind you in the pop-up vaccination clinic. Same as last year, only no vaccines then.

The point here is that the Mariners are much as they were last year, with probable upticks with Paxton, Haniger, Murphy, Moore and France. But if Paxton and Haniger play well, the Mariners likely will deal them to contenders for prospects at the trade deadline. So the club is still in that mode of outsider looking in at the party.

Of course, any of the returnees are capable of noteworthy improvement.

In that regard, the biggest difference-maker needs to be White, not only because he was the worst lineup regular in 2020. A better year would validate the talent evaluation skills of general manager Jerry Dipoto, which are about to come under more scrutiny as the gradualness moves on slowly to . . . whatever.

Before White played a major league game, it was Dipoto’s idea to sign him to a deal for six years and $24 million guaranteed, while White agreed to sign away all of his arbitration years and up to three free-agent years. That meant college draftee White, 25 on April 26, would be 30 when he reaches free agency, which is considered a little late, should his performance mandate big money. A comprehensive explainer can be found here by Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated.

A similar sort of deal was reportedly offered to Mariners’ superstar-in-the-bud Jarred Kelenic, to which he responded with an oh-hell-no chortle. That led to the service-time delays that now-former club president Kevin Mather articulated to the world in what turned out to be his exit interview.

White responded in 2020 with a defensive performance that won him a Gold Glove, but at the plate delivered a .176/.252/.346 slash line and a 41.6 percent strikeout rate that was a full Mike Zunino.

As we know, the jump from Class AA to the majors is a high one. Although spring training numbers are often dubious, White did improve last month to .222/.296/.400, and 10 strikeouts in 54 plate appearances.

Asked about what White needed to accomplish this season, manager Scott Servais not only dismissed any any intended criticism, he gushed about the upside.

“He’s in a different head space right now than I’ve ever seen him,” Servais said on a Zoom conference Wednesday from the ballpark ahead of a club workout. “He’s not just trying to survive — do I belong? — he knows he belongs. I think he’s taking an ownership in his career. We’ve seen a difference in him over the last month or so, and I’m anxious to see how it plays out.

“Evan did have a good spring. He’s certainly learned a lot last year, going through the first time, and how it can speed up on you. He has to understand you don’t have to say yes all the time, or be a pleaser all the time. You need to do what’s best for you. It’s maturing, starting to take control. His confidence is at an all-time high for him at this level.”

If White’s purported confidence turns into quality production at the plate, the Mariners’  penchant for gradualness may give way to some acceleration. The doughty 9,000 in the house may start to feel a breeze, although it could be from Dipoto waving White around the bases.


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YourThoughts

  • Alan Harrison

    The gradualness is by design, and I keep thinking it’s a good one. I have worries about the two catchers having lousy springs (although springiness is not usually a catcher’s best trait anyway) and have hope that they’ll bring up Raleigh if both guys go south. The SS position will be better next year (when the superstar free agents become available), but who knows? JP Crawford could walk 100 times and steal 100 bases from it. Ah, opening day, when the M’s are tied for first.

    • art thiel

      We don’t often see designs in sports lasting 44 years.

  • Mark Stratton

    Hide in the basement with Joe and Jay. Texas got it right.

    • Brent Hannon

      yes! all kinds of marketing possibilities: a mascot dressed like the virus, free baseballs to the first 100 fans who catch covid, player visits to intensive care wards, virus-shaped beer cups . . . you’re on to something.

      • Mark Stratton

        If you prefer to follow the governor who couldn’t put together a distribution plan for the Trump vaccine though he had nine months, and can’t figure out how to pay unemployment benefits after ten months of folly, and can’t figure out how hackers from an impoverished country stole hundreds of millions from said unemployment funds, go right ahead. Cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are all down in Texas. Or maybe you want to follow the dotard in the White House who wouldn’t know his own name if it wasn’t on a teleprompter

        • PerconteSauce

          ha, whatever

        • Ed Norton

          Thanks for expressing the same thoughts I have.

        • art thiel

          Every state government has made mistakes, largely because under Trump, the federal govt intentionally abdicated responsibility for disaster tasks it has previously handled. With no warning, the feds handed out 50 steaming piles and told each governor you’re on your own. Infection rates are down in many places because vaxxes are up, not because Abbott intentionally did something right.

          • Mark Stratton

            Trump didn’t force Cuomo to abuse the senior population in New York Abbott gave Texans the ability to choose for themselves. I strongly approve of that. Otherwise I get your point.

      • Mark Stratton

        And for all fans of irony, the Nationals game in mask-tastic Washington DC was canceled.

        • art thiel

          Where did the Nats have spring training? DeSantisLand.

          • Mark Stratton

            As did the Mets who reported no issues. It’s karma not Florida

    • art thiel

      Are there any basements in Texas without water from the most recent Texas-got-it-right moment?

  • Brent Hannon

    how far back are these guys going to step anyway? personally, I can’t shake the feeling that DiPoto is just shuffling and churning the roster without any consistent guiding approach or philosophy. I sincerely hope I’m wrong, but is there any real indication so far that DiPoto knows what he’s doing in terms of finding and identifying talent?

    • art thiel

      That’s why I cited White as the bell cow. This is a player Dipoto is pot-committed to see succeed. Kelenic, Rodriguez and probably Gilbert are difference-makers, but they’re likely full-timers in 2022, not this year.

      • Brent Hannon

        White is a good one to watch. As Joe Torre liked to say, ‘let’s go out there and see what happens.’

        • art thiel

          Joe may have heard that before. :)

  • Kevin Lynch

    A six man rotation seems to expect churn. Whatever happened to Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain? Marco/Justus/Paxton/rain. Marco/Justus/Paxton/rain. Etc.

    • art thiel

      There is little analogy to 1950s baseball and today. The six-man rotation is the trend throughout baseball to save wear on pitching arms. It only makes sense. I imagine Spahn and Sain were smokers, and that’s out of fashion too.

  • Husky73

    Unless it’s about the 1995 and 2001 seasons on the continuous ROOT Sports loop, it’s always about the future for M’s. Just for fun, I picked a random year in the past, selecting the Seattle team of 1985. Here’s their lineup: C Bob Kearney and Scott Bradley 1B- Alvin davis 2B- Harold Reynolds SS- Spike Owen 3B- Jim Prsley LF- Phil Bradley CF- John Moses and Dave Henderson RF- Danny Tartabull DH- Ken Phelps Rotation- Mike Moore, Mark Langston, Mike Morgan and Bill Swift Closer- Matt Young

    • Archangelo Spumoni

      ALL of the players listed had at least 1 facet of their play or personality that endeared them to us; fond memories exist for that one special game at the Kingdome when somebody carried the day.
      I was working 2nd shift back then and we used to gather toward ends of games for a few minutes back during that stretch when Ed Vande Berg had at least 70 appearances, then Caudill. If they won ANY games then, it was those 2 pitchers closing out.

      • art thiel

        As a general rule of human nature, we all have fondness for players who were good when we were young. With each passing year in pro sports, most sports fans get a little a little grouchier the further they get in age from the player cohort.

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    • art thiel

      The 19-year absence from the playoffs underscores your point about the M’s, but all teams have to be about the future since free agency mandates annual change.

      I do like the ’85 rotation, but I’ll take the ’21 position players for the upside. The ’85 team with mostly mid- or late-career veterans who won only 74 games. This year’s group of position players are MLB’s fourth youngest, and they should beat 74 wins.

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  • jafabian

    I’m wondering if by some miracle the M’s are in the playoff hunt will they trade Paxton and Haniger? The Astros championship window is closing and Verlander shouldn’t be much of an impact this season if at all. The Angels are mired in mediocrity and the Rangers even worse. The A’s didn’t add to their depth, they really didn’t have to, but will probably as they usually do contend for a postseason berth and that’s about it. If the M’s players have grown from last season, stay focused, are smart about COVID19 the way the Seahawks were, and keep hounding the A’s the way they did the M’s in ‘92 they might make some noise. Because I just don’t see the AL West being all that good. If they could have added a veteran reliever to the bullpen that might have bettered their chances.

    • art thiel

      You’re right about the AL West; lots of transitioning going on. There’s probably a 25% chance for this group to be on the outskirts of contention by Labor Day, but the trade deadline is a month earlier. I think the Mariners will deal Paxton/Haniger/Murphy for more prospects.

  • Tman

    Gradually, the M’s will add fans to their cardboard cutout base. The seats will begin to fill a bit when the phenoms become known by name.Go

    • art thiel

      Yes, that’s how it works. Keep an eye on Trammell. He has an ability to connect with people.