Mariners measuring development of youth in 2021

Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto hopeful of competing for postseason berth

Anyone expecting bold moves by the Seattle Mariners this offseason has been disappointed, but general manager Jerry Dipoto said earlier this week that is by design.

According to Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, Dipoto said instead the 2021 season will be more about measuring the continued development of the team’s young players, particularly after there was no formal minor league play for the organization’s top prospects in 2020.

Indeed, the biggest deals made by the Mariners this offseason have been to sign free-agent pitchers Chris Flexen, a starter, and reliever Keynan Middleton and trading 17-year-old right-hander Jose Corniell to the Texas Rangers for veteran reliever Rafael Montero, who handled some of the closing duties last season for Texas.

After a dismal 68-win season left them last in the American League West in 2019, the Mariners were more competitive in the shortened 2020 campaign, finishing 27-33, good for third in the AL West and two games out of the spot in the expanded playoffs claimed by the second-place Houston Astros.

The only real veteran among the every-day players in 2020 was third baseman Kyle Seager, who appeared in all 60 games and hit .241/.355/.433 with nine homers and 40 RBI.

It was much more about how the kids came along and that will also be the theme for this season.

On his 2021 expectations, Dipoto said:

“Right where we were at the end of the season. We feel like the next steps for this team are to continue to integrate the young players to this roster. We feel like there are another handful who are not far off. …

“And first and foremost, it is to gain that experience, to continue to grow the base … and then introduce the next group with the idea that if things break well for us, we get into mid-summer and we stay close in this thing and we do have an opportunity to sneak up on the back of the playoff field. That’s a possibility for us and would be a goal.”

But Dipoto, who succeeded interim GM Jeff Kingston in Seattle in September 2015, made sure to temper expectations.

“We can’t go in expecting that we’re going to run to the top of the American League West, but I think we can set the goal of competing for a playoff spot.”

But there are factors that can help the Mariners in the division — the personnel losses by the Astros, the continuing pitching woes and mismatched roster of the Los Angeles Angels, the Oakland A’s never-ending budget issues and the Rangers’ rebuilding plan.

Some of the younger players showed a lot of promise in 2020, while others struggled mightily.

Center fielder Kyle Lewis was named AL Rookie of the Year after hitting .262/.364/.437 in 58 games and 242 plate appearances, finishing with 11 homers, 28 RBI, 37 runs scored and five steals in six attempts.

Shortstop J.P. Crawford made progress at the plate in his first full season as a starter, hitting .255/.336/.338 in 53 games, with seven doubles, two homers and 24 RBI in 232 trips to the dish. He also won a Gold Glove for his defensive work.

But first baseman Evan White and second baseman Shed Long were often overmatched by major-league pitching.

White showed some power in his first taste of big-league competition. The first-round pick in 2017 had eight home runs and 26 RBI in 202 plate appearances, but he also slashed just .176/.252/.346 and struck out a whopping 84 times.

Long played 34 games and had a batting line of .171/.242/.291 in 128 plate appearances, with three homers and nine RBI.

Position players to watch for this season include outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Taylor Trammell, both among the organization’s top five prospects according to MLB.com.

Kelenic, a 21-year-old taken in the first round by the New York Mets in 2018, progressed from Class-A to Double-A in 2019 and spent last season at the alternate training site. He came over from the Mets in the Robinson Cano trade in December 2018 and was assigned to Double-A at the end of last season. He’s the Mariners’ No. 1 prospect.

Trammell, 23, was taken by the Cincinnati Reds in the first round in 2016 and has already been traded twice before making his debut in the majors. He went to the San Diego Padres at the July 31 deadline in 2019 as part of the three-team blockbuster that sent Trevor Bauer to Cincinnati.

He came to the Mariners organization in a seven-player trade on Aug. 31.

On the mound, Seattle got solid results from left-hander Justus Sheffield last season. Acquired in the James Paxton trade from the New York Yankees, Sheffield had a 3.58 ERA and 1.301 WHIP in 10 starts and 55.1 innings last season, striking out 48 and walking 20 while allowing only two home runs.

Right-hander Justin Dunn also took a regular turn in the rotation, with a 4.34 ERA and 1.358 WHIP in 10 starts and 45.2 innings. He struck out 38, but was hurt by both his 31 walks and the 10 home runs allowed. Like Kelenic, he was acquired from the Mets in December 2018.

Another lefty, Nick Margevicius, had his ups and downs, but showed marked improvement over his 2019 debut with the Padres. In 10 appearances, seven of them starts, last season, Margevicius had a 4.57 ERA and 1.258 WHIP in 41.1 innings, fanning 36 and walking 14. He did surrender six home runs.

In 57 innings with the Padres in 2019, he had a 6.79 ERA and 1.614 WHIP and served up 12 long balls. Seattle claimed him off waivers last January.

Right-hander Ljay Newsome came up in mid-August last season and made four starts and one relief appearance, with a 5.17 ERA and 1.340 WHIP in 15.2 innings. He walked only one with nine strikeouts, but was touched up for four homers.

On the farm, 2018 first-round pick Logan Gilbert is ranked as the No. 4 prospect in the system and is on target to debut some time this season. In 26 starts across the Class-A, High-A and Double-A levels in 2019, he worked 135 innings with a 2.13 ERA and 0.948 WHIP, striking out 165.

The 6-foot-6, 225-pounder has a big arm, with a consistent mid-90s fastball with both a curveball and slider having plus potential.

In an AL West that is in flux, the Mariners might just surprise some folks if the kids come along as the organization hopes they can.