Mariners Table Setter: 3 X-factors who could help Seattle turn the corner

Mar 31, 2021, 2:08 PM | Updated: 7:26 pm
Mariners Ty France...
Ty France was among the MLB leaders this spring training in OPS and extra-base hits. (Getty)

One of two things will happen at the end of this Mariners season – either their playoff drought will reach an even 20 years, or the young, rebuilding team will shock the baseball world and get into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Mariners’ opening day roster: Lewis to IL, Kikuchi gets Game 2

Now, I’m not saying the Mariners are going make the playoffs. But I’m also not ruling it out, because there will be a lot of talent on the team this year, whether you’re talking about the players on the opening day 26-man roster or the prized prospects expected to make their MLB debuts with the team this year.

On Sunday, I posed a question on Twitter: Who will be the X-factor for the Mariners this season? I got all kinds of replies about many different players that had validity to them, which underscores the immense amount of potential Seattle has going forward.

There aren’t a lot of sure things for these M’s, but there are a lot of ‘ifs.’ And while it tends to be said around every opening day, the point remains the same. If a bunch of those ‘ifs’ get answered, the Mariners are going to turn some heads.

With that all in mind, here are the three players I think are going to be the biggest X-factors for the Mariners in 2021.

1. Ty France

The Mariners have a number of young players and prospects who many think could eventually be superstars. Ty France isn’t usually on that list.

Maybe he should be.

The 26-year-old infielder has hit wherever he’s been in his pro career. In college at San Diego State? He had a .337 average with a .904 OPS in three seasons. In short-season A-ball on the other side of the state with the Tri-City Dust Devils? A cool .294 and .896. How about his 76 games with Triple-A El Paso in 2019? This is not a typo – a .399 average and 1.247 OPS.

The hits kept on coming in 2020, his first extended look in the big leagues, as he posted a .305 average, .836 OPS and four home runs in 43 games combined between Seattle and San Diego. And in March at spring training, he was positively on fire. His 1.135 OPS in 19 Cactus League games was seventh-best in baseball, with his nine extra-base hits tied for 13th.

I can’t get a comparison out of my head from Mariners history for France, but you’re not supposed to say things like that out loud so I’ll be careful about it.

All I’ll say is that he was little regarded as a 34th-round pick in the 2015 MLB Draft, and despite that his bat kept him moving up the ranks in the minors and turning heads along the way. And that third base is his natural position, but he’s destined to be a designated hitter. Also, he’s a bit older for somebody entering his first full MLB campaign, set to turn 27 around midseason. Oh, and he’s an on-base machine who likes to hit singles and doubles but also has 30-homer power potential.

If you haven’t yet figured out the comparison I’m getting at, well, let’s say that when it comes to their similarities, it just continues.

I’m certainly not saying you should expect France to be the next, uh… guy I didn’t explicitly compare him to, but we’re talking about X-factors for this season here. If France establishes himself as a solid on-base presence and run-producing bat in the middle of Seattle’s order, he will be quite the cornerstone for the M’s.

2. James Paxton

With a six-man rotation, starting pitchers will only be able to do so much to move the needle this season for the Mariners. But after ace Marco Gonzales, if there’s one starter who can, it’s Paxton.

Back in Seattle after two years in the Bronx following a trade from the Mariners to the Yankees, Paxton is still looking to put together his first truly great season. That’s not to say he hasn’t been great at times. He was Seattle’s best pitcher for his last two seasons before the trade to New York, making some great memories like the first no-hitter in Canada by a Canadian-born player, but he was never fully healthy and as a result hasn’t made an All-Star team even though he certainly has pitched like an All-Star for periods of time.

Injuries continued to hold him back in 2020 with the Yankees, but Paxton was absolutely electric in spring training (when visa issues weren’t keeping him from throwing in Cactus League games, that is). And if ever there was a situation built for the 32-year-old southpaw to put together an entire season of his full potential, it’s this one where he gets an extra day of rest and training between starts in the rotation. If Paxton’s body takes well to this new way of doing things, look out.

3. Rafael Montero

There are so many players who could be on this list, like rookie outfielder Taylor Trammell, veterans returning from injury like Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy, or the young starting pitching trio of Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn.

But, again, we’re talking X-factors. And if some of the many aforementioned ‘ifs’ are answered in a positive manner, then the biggest thing the Mariners will need to be able to do is protect a lead in the late innings. So yes, one of these spots has to go to the bullpen, and since Rafael Montero is the likely closer, we’ll let him be the representative.

Montero, 30, is coming off a couple of nice seasons with Texas, including a 2020 campaign where he served as the Rangers’ closer. In 17 games in 2020, he posted a 1.019 WHIP, 4.08 ERA, 19 strikeouts, six walks and eight saves in 17 appearances (17 2/3 innings). He was even better in 2019 despite having a lesser role, finishing with a 2.48 ERA and 0.966 WHIP in 22 appearances (29 innings). And though he had a shaky start to the spring, he did get on a roll with five straight outings where he threw a perfect inning until he got roughed up in his Cactus League finale Monday against the Reds.

The bullpen has been a weakness for the past two seasons in Seattle, and that certainly needs to improve as the rebuild inches closer and closer to the finish line. If Montero can be trusted in the ninth inning, it will only make it easier for the team to figure out how the rest of the pieces fit into the bullpen puzzle.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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