BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Is the future of the Mariners’ outfield as set as we thought?

Oct 17, 2021, 11:25 AM
Mariners Mitch Haniger, Jarred Kelenic...
Mariners outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Mitch Haniger celebrate a 6-4 win over the Los Angeles Angels (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

After an exciting season, all eyes are on the Mariners and what they do this upcoming offseason to build off their 90-win campaign.

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Will they attract a frontline starter to lead the rotation? Will Kyle Seager return, and who replaces him at third base if not? Which, if any, big infield bats will they target?

These are all valid and necessary questions to ask. They’re also questions that many of us have been asking since before the season even began.

One area we’ve all both discussed at length yet not really at all is the future of the Mariners’ outfield. There are a few reasons why that’s been the case.

Pre-2021 expectations

Hopefully MLB implements a universal designated hitter starting in 2022. If not, the Mariners still play in the American League, which is a big plus.

I bring that up because entering the 2021 season, a big thought with the Mariners’ future was they would have four young outfielders that they’d rotate between the three defensive spots while using the odd man out at DH starting as soon as 2022.

Those four outfielders? Top five prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez, top 100 prospect Taylor Trammell and reigning American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis.

Why wouldn’t you be excited about that group?

Kelenic entered the year as a favorite to win Rookie of the Year as his debut was expected to happen very early. Rodríguez was right behind Kelenic in MLB Pipeline’s top 100 rankings. Trammell, a former first-round pick, had a monster spring training and broke camp with the team. And Lewis was Seattle’s best player in 2020 and became the first Mariner since Ichiro in 2001 to be named AL Rookie of the Year.

And while it was unclear what the future held for Mitch Haniger after missing most of 2019 and all of 2020 due to injuries, he was returning to the Mariners for 2021 and had shown he could do big things when healthy. Depending how he did and how the Mariners performed, Haniger was seen as a potential trade chip at the trade deadline or in the upcoming offseason because of his club control ending after 2022.

What played out for the Mariners in 2021

So what exactly happened?

Well, Kelenic and Trammell made their MLB debuts, and neither went well. Lewis missed the start of the season with a knee bruise in the same knee he’d injured in the minors. Rodríguez, as expected, tore up the minors and helped the Dominican Republic win a medal at the Olympics. And Haniger was one of the best sluggers in baseball.

Quite a lot to unpack.

Let’s start with the rookies.

Trammell broke camp as the team’s center fielder due to Lewis’ injury. And, well, he looked like a rookie, hitting under .200 with some power but way too many strikeouts and no answer for left-handed pitching.

Down Trammell went to Triple-A and up came Kelenic in early May. The early results for the most hyped Mariners prospect since Félix Hernández? Worse than Trammell. Kelenic hit under .100 as hits, naturally, were few and far between. Back to Tacoma he went.

Both Trammell and Kelenic would return to the bigs and both would struggle. Trammell was sent back down and finished the year in Tacoma. His MLB slash line in his rookie year was a meager .160/.256/.359 with eight home runs in 51 games.

Kelenic got a longer leash despite struggling again in his second stint, but he eventually turned things around. Yes, he finished with -1.7 WAR and a .181/.256/.350 slash line in 93 games, but he clubbed 14 home runs and slashed .248/.331/.524 with seven home runs in 29 games between September and October.

Lewis, meanwhile, missed the start of the year and started slow upon his return, but he wound up slashing .246/.333/.392 with five home runs in 36 games before tearing his meniscus in center field in that same oft-injured knee. He had surgery and rehabbed but suffered a setback in September, pushing his return back to next year.

Rodríguez slashed an absurd .347/.441/.560 with 13 home runs in 74 games between High-A and Double-A. He also swiped 21 bases.

But it was Haniger, the old man of the group at 30 years old, who was arguably the biggest success story for the Mariners in 2021. He played in 157 of 162 games, slashed .253/.318/.485 with 38 home runs and 100 RBIs (both career highs) and saved the Mariners’ season in the second-to-last game of the year with five RBIs. And because of the Mariners’ status as a contender, he stayed with the team all year long and doesn’t appear to be on the move this offseason.

The future

OK, so that’s the recap. What’s next in the outfield for the Mariners?

That’s the thing: We don’t know. And it may be even less clear than we thought prior to the season.

A big year from any two of Kelenic, Lewis and Trammell may have made Haniger the odd man out and a prime trade candidate, but Haniger was a star while those three struggled with inconsistency or injury. With the team poised to contend again in 2022, trading Haniger would be foolish, and he looks more likely to be offered an extension than be sent packing to a new team.

Rodríguez had a big year, but with Kelenic, Trammell and (a year before) Evan White all struggling in their first action against MLB pitching, could the Mariners take a more cautious approach with Rodríguez’s timeline?

Speaking of Kelenic and Trammell, both find themselves in interesting spots.

Is Trammell still seen as a potential long-term piece? Does he have a legit shot at starting 2022 in MLB, or does he still have work to do in the minors?

With Kelenic, you’d hope that his September/October surge is what he’ll look more like come 2022, but his early struggles can’t just be ignored.

Unfortunately with Lewis, the health concerns are too big too ignore. Yes, Lewis is a major impact bat – when he plays. But since debuting in 2019, he’s appeared in just 112 games, though part of that is because of a shortened 2020 season. Kelenic, meanwhile, has played in 93 games despite not debuting until May. Lewis barely has more experience now despite being 26 to Kelenic’s 22.

Though Lewis has had success at the MLB level, especially in 2020, you do need to take a step back and look at what he did. After hitting .455 in eight games in July and .286 in 28 August games, Lewis managed to hit just .147 in September.

Do we really know enough about him to continue to pen him in as a long-term fixture? The injuries definitely make that tougher to figure out. Hopefully he returns healthy to start 2022 and can put a full season together for the first time at the MLB level.

The Mariners have many questions to address this offseason in the trade market and free agency, and due to a few less than ideal factors, the outfield may need to be addressed as well. They’ll likely start the season (health-permitting) with Haniger, Kelenic and Lewis in the outfield until Rodríguez is ready, but then what? And how does Trammell factor in, if at all? Don’t rule out the possibility of Seattle acquiring a new face to solidify that position group for ’22.

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Is the future of the Mariners’ outfield as set as we thought?