Jake & Stacy: The 4 young Mariners on the hot seat entering 2022
The Mariners were able to win 90 games and remain in the playoff race until the final game of the regular season in 2021, and they did so without much help from some younger players the franchise expected to be cornerstones at this point in time.
In particular, four young players who all at one point in time were top prospects not only in the Mariners’ farm system, but in all of baseball, didn’t contribute much in 2021 despite previous high hopes for them both short-term and long-term.
“There are four players in particular where not only did they have a down year or have an injury or get sidelined or what have you, but they’re also looking at pretty crowded rooms where it’s like it’s make or break for more than just one reason,” Rost said.
Pitchers Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield
“So how about Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield as two of the four?” Rost said.
When the Mariners began their rebuild after the 2018 season, two of the first and more notable trades they made involved receiving former first-round pick pitchers in return. Seattle acquired the lefty Sheffield from the New York Yankees and the righty Dunn from the New York Mets. Both were top-100 prospects per MLB Pipeline at the time, and both instantly became two of the Mariners’ top prospects.
Both Dunn and Sheffield saw time with the Mariners towards the end of 2019, but it was in the shortened 2020 season where we got a real full look at them.
For Sheffield, he looked like a potential long-term member of the rotation as in 10 starts, he recorded a 4-3 record with a 3.58 ERA, 3.17 FIP, 1.301 WHIP and 48 strikeouts to 20 walks in 55 1/3 innings. Additionally, Sheffield went six or more innings in six of his final eight starts of the season and allowed only seven extra-base hits in total.
But Sheffield struggled out of the gate in 2021 and also dealt with a forearm injury and he was relegated to the bullpen upon his return. Overall in 2021, Sheffield had a 6.83 ERA in 21 appearances (15 starts) across 80 1/3 innings and his walks, hits and home runs per 9 innings went up, his WHIP shot up to 1.842 and he missed few bats.
For Dunn, he went 4-1 with a 4.34 ERA in 10 starts in 2020 but his velocity was down, his offspeed pitches didn’t offer much and he struggled to miss bats (38 strikeouts in 45 2/3 innings) while walking far too many (31) and allowing too much hard contact. His 6.55 FIP also indicates he got a bit lucky as a rookie. But Dunn looked better at the start of 2021 in terms of his velocity and secondary offerings and he posted a 3.75 ERA and 4.74 FIP in 11 starts with 49 strikeouts to 29 walks in 50 1/3 innings. But a shoulder injury ended Dunn’s season in June.
“Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield both took a step back this past season and also done dealt with an injury this past season,” Rost said. ” … It’s kind of hard to tell what their season would have been. But both of these guys were supposed to be part of that initial wave of the Mariners rebuild. These weren’t just guys that they brought in to be like, ‘let’s see what happens.’ These were guys that were supposed supposed to be part of the plan. Sheffield especially took a step back this past season. Now you’re wondering as the rotation starts to fill out where their places and whether or not they can bounce back this year.”
The Mariners are expected to run with a five-man rotation for 2022 after experimenting with a six-man turn for 2020 and part of 2021. Of those five, four appear set with Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen and Logan Gilbert all returning and the addition of reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray.
“When you talk about where the Mariners are at, remember, the skipper Scott Servais came on our show at the end of the year to talk to us one last final time and one of his biggest messages was, ‘Look, there are no gimmes anymore. Everyone is going to have to compete and earn their roster spot,'” Heaps said. “There is no, ‘Hey we’re gonna throw Justin Dunn or Justus Sheffield out there in the starting rotation and we’re going to let them grow and we’re going to let them develop and we’re going to let them prove to us whether they can be a part of this thing or not. No, you are going to have to earn your spot in spring training. You’re going to have to earn your spot every single day because our room is now extremely competitive.'”
Heaps said that Dunn and Sheffield are “kind of fighting for their lives right now” and he thinks their best path forward may be as members of the bullpen.
“Both of these guys, the unique part of it is you were wondering whether or not they were going to be able to fit in the starting rotation. I think that they answered that question for you,” he said. ” … I still think that there is value in having a long reliever, having someone that can come in and legitimately eat up two innings if need be. … That is one area that I think that Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield could potentially thrive in is maybe a long reliever role if need be.”
OF Kyle Lewis
Expectations were sky high for Kyle Lewis, the Mariners 2016 first-round pick, after he was the unanimous American League Rookie of the Year in 2020 and was Seattle’s best player for much of that season.
But Lewis, who suffered multiple knee injuries and setbacks in his minor league career, started the season on the injured list with a knee bruise suffered in spring training and wound up playing in only 36 games before tearing his meniscus in the same oft-injured knee while leaping for a ball in center field.
In 2021, Lewis slashed .246/.333/.392 with five home runs and 11 RBIs.
“For obvious reasons for either of these four players, the player who would theoretically make you most excited would be Kyle Lewis,” Rost said. “And Kyle Lewis, his biggest problem hasn’t necessarily been performance based. It’s been that he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. And you wonder whether his future with this team if there’s no outfield position, can you bring enough at the plate to just be DH?”
Rogers said that the Mariners have another viable designated hitter option in Luis Torrens, but in “a perfect world” Lewis is a member of the Mariners’ outfield rotation while also spending some days as the team’s DH.
“I think if (general manager) Jerry Dipoto has his way, that’s how it goes this season where you’ve got (Jarred) Kelenic, (Julio) Rodriguez, (Mitch) Haniger and Kyle Lewis at some point, or maybe even there’s a free agent that they add in the outfield,” Rodgers said. “Seiya Suzuki’s name gets thrown out a lot. Maybe they trade for somebody. Bryan Reynolds of the Pirates is a name that gets thrown out there. But I think they do want Kyle Lewis part of that rotation just because of the upside that he brings. I mean, we know what he’s like when he’s healthy. He’s an exciting player to watch. The problem is he’s hardly ever healthy.”
1B Evan White
The last member of this list has had the least success at the MLB level, and that would be first baseman Evan White.
White was the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2017 and after hitting at every level in the minors, he signed a contract extension buying out his arbitration years and potentially keeping him in Seattle through 2028 with team options. After signing the deal, White was the Mariners’ starting first baseman in 2020.
Simply put, White’s first taste of MLB action went poorly. He made some loud contact, but he didn’t make enough of it, slashing .176/.252/.346 in 54 games with eight home runs and 26 RBIs and striking out 84 times in 202 plate appearances. He did win a Gold Glove for his defense at first base, however.
But White struggled again in 2021, slashing .144/.202/.237 with two home runs and 31 strikeouts in 104 plate appearances in 30 games. His season then ended due to a hip injury that required surgery.
“Evan White, for obvious reasons,” Rost said. “You’re just trying to find a role for him and Ty France was legitimately great at first base.”
France started the year at second base and DH but he took over at first base and played very well defensively to go along with his elite bat. He slashed .291/.368/.445 with 18 home runs and 73 RBIs in 152 games.
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