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Mariners 1B Evan White
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The 5 Mariners players who are facing the most pressure in 2021

Mariners 1B Evan White struggled at the plate during his rookie campaign. (Getty)

Just like in 2020, the Mariners will be one of the youngest teams in MLB once again this season.

New M’s addition Ken Giles has made it through tough times before

Many of the same players who got the bulk of innings and at-bats last season will be back on the diamond for Seattle in 2021, and with the Mariners trying to turn a corner towards playoff contention, the 2021 season will be critical for many young players to show they can be key parts of the team’s future.

So which young players should you be keeping an especially close eye on this season? 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jake and Stacy, along with producer Curtis Rogers, broke down the five young Mariners with the most pressure on them in 2021.

LHP Yusei Kikuchi

Kikuchi is the oldest player on this list at 29 years old, but he’s only entering his third season in MLB after a standout career in Japan.

Across two seasons for the Mariners, Kikuchi has compiled a 8-15 record with a 5.39 ERA, 1.466 WHIP and 163 strikeouts to 70 walks in 208.2 innings. Most of those numbers came during his first full season in 2019, but there were signs of improvement in 2020 even if the record and ERA leave a lot to be desired. (You can read more about Kikuchi’s advanced metrics here.)

Kikuchi, the second-highest paid Mariner at over $16 million, is entering a crucial year for a variety of reasons, though.

“He needs to prove he can be a reliable part of your starting rotation,” Stacy Rost said. “Not only that, but he needs to prove that he’s well deserving of that (No. 2 or 3 rotation) spot.”

Additionally, Kikuchi’s future is tied directly to his 2021 campaign due to his contract.

“If he performs well, if he becomes that sort of top-of-the-rotation guy the Mariners had envisioned for him, they could pick up that four-year team option on his contract, which would make him a Mariner for the foreseeable future,” Rogers said. “If he doesn’t, they could decline that. He has a player option available for 2022, so there’s a good chance he’ll be back next season in a Mariners uniform, but beyond that, who knows?

“This is a crucial point in Kikuchi’s future in the big leagues whether it goes beyond just one year left with the Mariners or potentially a half decade.”

1B Evan White

The Mariners made a surprise move in the 2020 offseason by signing 2017 first-round pick Evan White to a long-term deal, essentially assuring he’d be the team’s starting first baseman at the MLB level in 2020 despite never having played above the Double-A level at that point. Let’s just say White’s rookie campaign as far as at the plate goes left a lot to be desired for someone the team billed as a foundational building block.

White slashed .176/.252/.346 and with eight home runs and struck out in more than 40% of his plate appearances. While the bat struggled, though, the glove shined as he won the American League’s Gold Glove at first base.

“He is the first player in your farm system who you truly brought up and paid money to,” Jake Heaps said, noting that the Mariners made it clear they had no concerns over his glove whatsoever. “Evan White did a great job in terms of being a great defensive first baseman, a Gold Glover. That is fantastic coming out in your first year in the bigs.”

And even with the rough slash line and the high strikeout numbers, White showed plenty of promise at the plate.

“You see him, when he makes contact with the ball, it is unbelievable. The cover on the ball is in jeopardy of flying off,” Heaps said. “… But the reality is he struggled at the plate, and jumping from Double-A to the big leagues is a big jump, so there has to be some forgiveness there and some willingness to see how he’s going to transition, how he’s going to battle through it. But he’s a guy to me that if he can step up and really improve at the plate, I will be highly, highly encouraged about this turnaround.”

RHP Justin Dunn

While Kikuchi’s actual numbers were worse than some of his advanced metrics, it was the opposite for Justin Dunn. He had a 4-1 record with a 4.34 ERA in 45.2 innings in 2020, but he didn’t miss many bats and didn’t throw enough strikes, as shown with his 38 strikeouts to 31 walks.

Now, even with a six-man rotation, it’s no sure thing Dunn starts the 2021 season as a member of the Mariners’ rotation. Rost questioned if 2021 was more critical for Dunn or the Mariners when it comes to his development, especially when compared to other young players on the roster.

“Justin Dunn isn’t quite as important when it comes to guys you really, really need to see a lot from, but I personally like Justin Dunn,” she said. “I would like him to continue to take a step forward. That means getting better command.’

Heaps said that Dunn taking a big step forward from 2020 to 2021 would be nice, but isn’t as critical because of the state of the Mariners’ farm system when it comes to starting pitching.

“It’s not make or break because of Logan Gilbert, because of Emerson Hancock, because of some of those guys who are waiting in the wings,” Heaps said.

Heaps also noted that there’s a chance Dunn can help the club without being a starting pitcher.

“There’s areas you can move Justin Dunn where he can still be a really good piece and potentially a piece for your bullpen if it didn’t work out as a starting pitcher,” he said.

Rodgers said Dunn “was never brought in to be the anchor of the staff moving forward,” and that if Dunn develops into a true MLB starter it would be a “cherry on top” of the trade the Mariners made with the Mets that brought Dunn and top prospect Jarred Kelenic to Seattle.

“If Justin Dunn can become a middle-of-the-rotation starter, that trade goes from great to maybe the best trade the Mariners have ever made,” he said.

LHP Justus Sheffield

While Dunn’s performance in 2020 left a lot to be desired, the Mariners had to be pleased with the play of Justus Sheffield, who went 4-3 with a 3.58 ERA, 1.301 WHIP and struck out 48 while walking 20 in 55.1 innings. Sheffield also threw six or more innings in six of his 10 starts, went seven innings twice and five or more innings seven times.

Heaps is really excited to see Sheffield, a former top-100 prospect and first-round pick, build off of last season.

“This guy has elite-level stuff as a pitcher,” Heaps said, “and (it would be big) if he can come through and continue to hone in on his control, his craft, and can develop (other pitches) to complement his (slider).”

OF Kyle Lewis

How do you build off a season in which you were the unanimous Rookie of the Year in the American League? That’s the question for center fielder Kyle Lewis, who became the fourth player in Mariners history to win Rookie of the Year honors and the first since Ichiro in 2001.

Lewis slashed .262/.364/.437 with 11 home runs and 28 RBI, but that was aided largely by a hot start. In eight July games, Lewis slashed an absurd .455/.500/.636. In 28 games in August, Lewis slashed .286/.393/.490. But from there on out, Lewis cooled off big time, slashing .147/.270/.280 with 33 strikeouts in his last 22 games.

“He needs to look a lot more like first half of the 2020 season Kyle Lewis and a lot less like (he did in the) second half of the season,” Rost said. ” … I would like to see him quickly buck that trend and jump right back into it.”

Heaps said that 2021 is a big year for guys to show they can be foundational pieces, and that Lewis showed in 2020 that he can be that kind of player. Heaps is a little surprised, though, that Lewis is almost an afterthought when discussing the team’s future after a year in which he was named Rookie of the Year.

“This is the guy that everybody is not talking about for whatever reason,” Heaps said. “We’re talking about different elements, talking about young prospects. What about the future potential All-Star you have in Kyle Lewis with you right now?”

If Lewis shows more consistency, Heaps thinks the Mariners can really have something special with one key position group.

“He would truly solidify your lineup, he would solidify your outfield, and now you have an outfield that is the envy of the rest of MLB if Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez come through for you,” Heaps said, referring to Seattle’s two top prospects.

Listen to the discussion at this link or in the player below.

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Jake & Stacy