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Mariners Table Setter: Kyle Lewis’ ROY case and how M’s have righted their wrong of Chris Taylor

Austin Nola and Kyle Lewis have been two of the best hitters in the Mariners' lineup. (Getty)

The Mariners essentially start their second month of the shortened MLB season on Tuesday night, and they have more momentum heading into their road series in San Diego than at any other point yet this season.

Mariners trade deadline: Seattle’s top candidates to be dealt

Seattle completed its first sweep of 2020 with Sunday’s 4-1 win over Texas, and the M’s have won four out of five for the first time this year when you add a victory over the Dodgers last Thursday into the equation.

There have been a lot of positive developments over the last few days for the Mariners – the bullpen allowed just one run over 9 1/3 innings pitched against Texas, Evan White returned to the lineup from a bruised knee by hitting his fifth home run of the season and driving in six runs on Saturday, and young starters Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn shut down the Rangers on back-to-back days to complete the sweep.

We’re going to take a look at some bigger picture things in this week’s Table Setter, though, beginning with Seattle’s leading candidate for awards season.

Start polishing the Rookie of the Year award for Kyle Lewis.

The series between the Mariners and Padres should be a fun one to watch, specifically because of all the young, exciting talent that will be featured on the field.

For San Diego, that’s headlined by Fernando Tatís Jr., the 21-year-old shortstop who is the favorite for National League MVP as he leads the league in home runs, runs, RBIs and total bases, and has stolen six bases (on six attempts) whole sporting a .324/.396/.678 slash line.

The Mariners have their own front-runner for an award, too. Center fielder Kyle Lewis is running away with the American League Rookie of the Year race, as he either leads or is tied for the lead among all MLB rookies in hits, home runs, runs, RBIs, walks, average, on-base percentage and OPS. White Sox outfielder Luis Robert is Lewis’ top competition for the award, but as it stands now, the 25-year-old Lewis has a substantial lead.

Here’s something that surprised me – should Lewis finish the season strongly and win Rookie of the Year, he’d be the fourth Mariners player to earn that honor, joining Ichiro Suzuki and Kazuhiro Sasaki, who won in back-to-back seasons in 2000 and 2001, and 1984 winner Alvin Davis. The thing I didn’t expect? That list doesn’t include the names of Ken Griffey Jr. (he lost to Baltimore reliever Gregg Olsen in 1989) and Alex Rodriguez (he exceeded rookie limits in 1995 and his career didn’t take off until 1996).

So how good are Lewis’ chances of maintaining his spot as ROY front-runner through the end of the season? Well, on the one hand he has just nine extra-base hits (two doubles, seven homers) and he’s second in the majors in batting average on balls in play at .444, which isn’t necessarily a good thing as that’s a stat that tends to even out over time as higher BABIPs usually signal a hitter getting the benefit of a lot of luck.

I like his chances to at least keep his numbers near star-levels over the next two months, however. Something that was being bandied about earlier in the season was that he stopped pulling the ball, instead going up the middle and the other way for singles and the occasional homer after pitchers started giving him a steady diet of off-speed pitches, and that he may struggle adjusting back to pulling fastballs. I’m not so sure that’s going to be a problem and think he’s actually on his way to establishing himself as a remarkably complete hitter because every once in a while he pulls out something like this swing.

Just look at where the pitch was that he turned on for a homer Sunday. To be fair, the offering from Rangers lefty Mike Minor was a breaking ball, but according to the tracer, it wasn’t even over the plate. Lewis still turned on it and got plenty of pop out of his swing for a homer into the visitors bullpen past the left-field wall.

Pitchers may keep trying to adjust to Lewis, but it sure seems like he’s got a handle on how to make adjustments on the fly at the plate, and that’s great news for his and the Mariners’ future.

Austin Nola may be the Mariners’ version of Chris Taylor.

The Mariners’ version of Chris Taylor? What does that even mean? Let me tell you a story.

Now a well-established super-utility player for the Dodgers, Taylor was once a light-hitting Mariners infielder who went to Los Angeles in a minor trade for a pitcher who *checks notes* never appeared in a game for Seattle. A year later, Taylor was a key member of a Dodgers team that made the World Series, mainly playing center field and suddenly hitting like an All-Star candidate. Seriously. With the Mariners and Dodgers from 2015-16, Taylor hit .234/.289/.309 with just one home run, 13 doubles and three triples over 120 games. In 2017, he broke out with 21 home runs, 34 doubles, five triples and a slash line of .288/.354/.496.

Yeah… yikes.

It was hard to ignore, and Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto actually addressed the Taylor trade quite candidly after the 2017 season, even admitting to messing up. He also shared some optimism that he could right the wrong one day.

“We are hopeful the next time Chris Taylor happens, he happens as a Mariner instead of some guy that the Mariners traded,” Dipoto said.

So, have you heard of Austin Nola?

The Mariners’ current starting catcher has a similar makeup to Taylor – he came up as a shortstop, added some positional flexibility along the way, and has shown he has the hitting skills to be a productive part of a regular lineup. And there’s no other way to put it – he’s a diamond in the rough that Dipoto’s Mariners found. Nola was in his late 20s, had yet to make his MLB debut and was still learning how to catch when the Mariners signed him prior to the 2019 season. He proved at Triple-A last year that he can handle the duties of a backstop, and he also tore up Pacific Coast League pitching. Before long, the Mariners needed a first baseman and gave the then-29-year-old Nola a shot, and he’s never looked back.

In his time with Seattle, Nola has played all but three positions – pitcher, center field, and ironically shortstop, the spot he came up at in the minors – and has been one of the Mariners’ best hitters. This season he has a .298/.344/.524 slash line with four homers, five doubles, a triple and 16 RBIs in 90 plate appearances, and over 103 big league games since making his debut he’s at .276/.343/.474 with 14 homers, 17 doubles, two triples and 47 RBIs.

The thing is, after some time it may turn out that Nola isn’t the only “Chris Taylor” on the Mariners roster. I mentioned the comparison of Nola and Taylor in a tweet on Sunday, and Mariners insider Shannon Drayer astutely pointed out that Seattle has a couple other candidates for that distinction.

First, they got a lot of great production from catcher Tom Murphy after acquiring him early during the 2019 season, and they eagerly await his return from a foot injury that has kept him sidelined so far this season. And you can’t rule out some of the Mariners’ utility players eventually proving to be something similar, either. Dylan Moore, who Seattle signed as a minor league free agent (just like Nola) prior to the 2019 season, has five home runs and a league-leading six stolen bases this year. And it’s very (very) early in the Mariners career of Sam Haggerty, but considering he joined the team on a waiver claim, it’s pretty much already paid off as he’s been impressive since making his team debut on Aug. 19.

The Chris Taylor trade will always be a painful memory in Mariners history, but the M’s are well on their way to easing that pain with their ability to hit on players that have fallen through the cracks with other teams.

This week at a glance

Coverage starts on 710 ESPN Seattle each day with the pregame show 70 minutes before first pitch.

Tuesday: Mariners (Marco Gonzales) at Padres (Chris Paddack), 6:10 p.m.
Wednesday: Mariners (Taijuan Walker) at Padres (Dinelson Lamet), 6:10 p.m.
Thursday: Mariners (Yusei Kikuchi) at Padres (Garrett Richards), 1:10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: Mariners at Angels, 6:40 p.m.
Sunday and Monday: Mariners at Angels, 1:10 p.m.

Follow 710Sports.com’s Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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