BRENT STECKER

José Caballero keeps playing like he’s Mariners’ answer at 2B

May 21, 2023, 3:09 PM | Updated: 10:11 pm

Seattle Mariners José Caballero...

José Caballero of the Seattle Mariners hits his first MLB home run on May 21, 2023. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

The door has been opened for José Caballero to become the Seattle Mariners’ starting second baseman, and so far, the guy no one saw coming is running right through it.

Caballero has impressed since joining the M’s as a call-up from Triple-A Tacoma in mid-April, though that statement doesn’t mean much on its face. The 26-year-old infielder was somewhat of a forgotten prospect in that he didn’t rank even semi-highly on any M’s prospect lists and his name was hardly known when he joined Seattle’s roster, so any kind of positive contribution could have been seen as a surprise.

It seemed like every time Caballero received an opportunity to play, though, he did something positive. He may not have hit right away, but he made solid contact, showed patience at the plate, was solid on defense, and displayed more than a little bit of moxie. And with offseason acquisition Kolten Wong struggling at second base, the calls for Caballero to receive more playing time only got louder and louder, and he’s made steady improvements at the plate to justify it.

With Wong still slumping, the Mariners cleared the way in the short-term for Caballero to be their primary second baseman starting this weekend. Though he he went hitless Friday and Saturday, he turned in his finest performance yet Sunday that likely guarantees at least another start when they return home Monday.

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In Sunday’s 3-2 loss, Caballero went 1 for 1 with a walk and a hit by pitch.

His first time on base, he stole second, then stole third.

His second time on, he stole second again, doubling his season total for steals from three to six in the span of a few innings.

Then in his third plate appearance, Caballero drilled his first home run in the big leagues, cutting Atlanta’s lead to one run in the eighth inning.

After his homer, Caballero owns a .278/.379/.389 slash line for a .768 OPS in 23 games. Things look even better when you focus on just his last 15 games, where he’s posted a .353/.465/.500 slash line for a .965 OPS.

“We’re enjoying what we’re seeing right now,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said about Caballero after Sunday’s game. “He’s been great, no matter where we put him. Obviously he’s done really a nice job at second, fills in at short, third base, no matter where you put him in the lineup. … He’s got sneaky pop, works the count – he just does all the things a good baseball player does.”

Servais added that Caballero has acted like he belongs in the bigs since Day 1 even though when he was called up he was best known as the player the Mariners received when they traded Mike Leake to Arizona in 2019, if he was known at all.

“I think what’s stood out for me is from the day he showed up here, he was not in awe of anything,” Servais said. “He even made comments, ‘All the little things that I do get noticed here’ at the big league level – you know, stealing bases, turning a double play, just getting on base. Doing the little things that oftentimes get overlooked as you’re trying to climb your way through the minor league ladder and maybe you don’t put up gaudy numbers, you don’t hit a ton of home runs but you’re a good baseball player, and that’s what’s really stood out for me. He understands how to play and he doesn’t back off. He puts it in play on the biggest stage daily.”

The Seattle Mariners have been looking for an answer at second base for some time now. Before Wong, the hope was that Adam Frazier could return to the form that made him an All-Star in Pittsburgh, though that never materialized in 2022. In 2021, the M’s hoped to see Dylan Moore continue to hit like he did during the shortened 2020 season, and when he didn’t, they traded for Abraham Toro to try his hand at the position.

All of those players (Wong excluded) have had their moments for the M’s, and in that respect, Caballero may be no different and could easily fall back down to earth. But for now, he’s earned his chance to see regular playing time and could potentially become the solution to one of the few holes that has persisted ever since Seattle graduated from a team in rebuild mode to a contender with their back-to-back 90-win seasons.

Now who saw that coming?

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