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Drayer: Player development is most important for Mariners this season, so how are they doing at MLB level?

Mariners LF Domingo Santana has been shaky on defense and up and down offensively. (Getty)

As we have traveled and conversed with media members from other cities who have seen plenty of the Mariners through the years, there are two things I hear from many of them.

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The first: “Man, that’s got to be the worst defense I have ever seen.”

And the second: “That 13-2 start may be the worst thing that could have happened.”

The defense? Well, not much explanation is needed with that one. The numbers do not lie.

The start? It raised expectations outside the organization, which for some appears to have made what we are watching now all the more painful.

The Mariners’ development plan is what their development plan is, and I don’t think anyone around the club believed that the start was an indicator that this could indeed be a playoff team. Ups and downs were more than likely to be a part of the season and the Mariners just so happened to start on an ‘up.’ The ‘down,’ however, has been rough – to be honest, rougher than I expected. Now 52 games into the new direction, I’m not sure what that means, and I’m not sure we can know at this point what it means. We can take a closer look, however.

The first 50 to 60 games of a season are a good representation of where a team is at, what its needs are and where it could be heading. But the first 50-60 games in a multi-year plan? Tough to see the forest through the trees, if that makes any sense whatsoever (and no guarantees that the forest will be standing at the end), but here’s an attempt to get a better look at what we are seeing at the major league level, focusing on the position players. We will get to the pitchers at a later date.

First, a reminder that this is a ‘step-back’ year. In my mind, the term ‘transition year’ better defines what we saw in the building of this team. A number of what are hoped to be impact players in the future will not be seen in the big leagues this year. Right now we see a roster made in large out of a lot of roster cleanup.

Moving veterans like Robinson Canó and Jean Segura off the roster came at a price and that is part of what we are seeing right now. General manager Jerry Dipoto has been very up front about what the 2019 roster is. There are veteran players that he would like to trade for younger players or prospects. He was clear that the bullpen would not be an area of priority when it came to spending in the step-back year. There are also young players who have room for growth in the majors. In the first 52 games we have seen mixed results with all of the above, and in the big picture all results do not carry equal weight.

Positive development in the majors

If you can get beyond the wins and losses, the focus should be on players the organization would like to see contributing on this club in 2021, and as with the team there have been ups and downs with the individuals as well. The biggest positive is what we have seen from catcher Omar Narváez, who has a slash line of .307/.377/.511. While he is striking out a bit more than he has in the past, his power numbers are up significantly. Coming in to the season, the book on Narváez was all on-base skills, no power. Right now he is on-base with perhaps developing power.

The defense is improving with Narváez too, showing the ability to steal a strike here and there and having made a few better throws to second as of late. It’s still a work in progress but Narváez is progressing and very willing to work, so much so that he showed up at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., in January to begin work despite the fact that his first child was due in the next few weeks. He brought his wife along and got to work.

Off the field, Narváez has displayed everything you want to see in a catcher. He works well with the pitchers, I’ve heard he is good in meetings, I’ve seen him help formulate game plans, he is a good presence in the clubhouse and is team-first guy. Fifty games in, Narváez is showing what you want to see in your foundation catcher. They Mariners may have their long-term backup catcher, as well, with Tom Murphy also earning good internal reviews early.

If Narváez has been the standout, I think Daniel Vogelbach has followed the arc you would expect to see early on from a key player in his first full season. The Mariners have been careful in easing him into his first full year in part because of the roster crunch at first base and designated hitter but also in part because of his development. His line, or damage if you rather, of .258/.393/.629 (for an OPS of .1.021) has been done mostly against right-handed pitching. Against lefties this year he has hit .143/.280/.429 in 25 plate appearances. He will need to be seen more against lefties as the season goes on, but there is time for that.

In the meantime, we have been able to see Vogelbach work his way through a slump, an important milestone of sorts for a first full MLB season. From April 10 to May 12 he hit just .179/.320/.357 with 18 walks and 24 strikeouts. While he wasn’t hitting he did manage to still get on base, but strikeouts were up as pitchers seemed to be challenging him up in the zone and for a short time he was taking some uncharacteristically wild swings. In eight games since May 12, however, he has gone 8 for 26 (.308) with five walks, five strikeouts and five home runs. For an offense-only player like Vogelbach, the key will be to limit the slumps. While it is good to see the on-base percentage stay up, can he make quicker adjustments?

Less positive development in the majors

On the not-so-encouraging side of potential future position players are the outfielders. Will Domingo Santana and Mallex Smith be mainstays in the Mariners’ outfield of the future? The defensive issues have been shocking. It is one thing to look at a player on paper, another to put eyes on them, and with both players it is very evident that there is a lot of work to be done. Fundamentals have clearly been missed. Can they learn to play better defense at the major league level? You need your future center fielder to be average in field at the absolute worst, and you need your future left fielder to not be a DH.

There are huge question marks on offense with both players as well. Smith has a decent track record but he needs to build off of it and to do that he will need to get going at the plate. Santana has been almost Jekyll and Hyde at the plate, going from showing a great approach at the plate early to striking out in just over a third of his plate appearances since April 26.

Just as there is time for things to go wrong with Narváez and Vogelbach, there is time for things to go right for Santana and Smith. If it doesn’t, however, the Mariners should be covered. While the hope is Smith will be a big part of the Mariners’ future outfield, I’m not so sure the same could be said of Santana, who was a later offseason pickup. Dipoto was looking for a right-handed outfield bat and found a match in Milwaukee, who needed a left-handed outfield bat, which the Mariners had in Ben Gamel. It wasn’t a big trade for either side and Santana didn’t appear to be as important of a target for the Mariners as others who were acquired. Regardless, with Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Jake Fraley, Kyle Lewis and Braden Bishop all in the farm system, there are options.

Where there are not options, at least in the next couple of years, is at shortstop. J.P. Crawford was acquired to be the guy. The grade on him right now is obviously incomplete as he has had just a handful of games at the big league level for the Mariners, but so far, so good. The focus first and foremost with Crawford has been the defense, with the Mariners going so far as getting him to Peoria in January to begin work with infield coach Perry Hill. Crawford moves well at short and has improved his throwing mechanics dramatically. This will continue to be a development year for him, but in a step-back year the Mariners can afford to do that.

Obviously everyone would like to see more wins now, but the progress of the individuals is what is most important to and what will ultimately determine the success or failure of the Mariners’ chosen path. That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be goals of improvement for the team as a whole, however. There are huge challenges with the current roster and that roster will continue to change starting with Saturday when third baseman Kyle Seager returns from the injured list. It would be good to see some sort of roster stability in the second half, which would hopefully give the team as a whole a better opportunity to take a step forward at the end of the step-back year.

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