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Drayer: How Mariners’ hitters compare to expectations when 2019 began

The Mariners found a big contributor on offense this year in catcher Tom Murphy. (Getty)

For the past few years, at the start of each Mariners season I have written a post looking into what Seattle has and given insight into what I believed the team would be bringing north after spending a month with them in spring training.

Related: Shannon Drayer’s Mariners preview from March 2019

This year, as the Mariners got set to embark on their first year in the rebuild plan, the post (click the link above) presented more questions than answers as it was known from the get-go that the team we would see at the end of the season would have little resemblance to the team that left Peoria.

There were veterans on the roster in late March who had been absorbed as part of deals made in an effort to get younger and clear payroll that Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto would look to move as the season went on. We knew that the majority of the younger players that the Mariners were banking on as being difference-makers in the future would not be seen at the big league level in 2019. We knew this team was not expected to compete for a spot in the postseason.

While 2019 was mainly a transition year at the big league level, there were players on the roster that the team hoped would play roles of varying significance on the eventual “reimagined” team that would be expected to compete. We will dive deeper into what we saw from the prospects later in the offseason, but for now, let’s take a look at what was learned this year at the big league level. The good, the bad, and the surprises with players the team could chose to go forward with.

First, let’s check in with that post from March:

The Mariners’ hitters

Of course the numerous question marks that could go either way will ultimately determine how potent an offense this is. How much of a bounce back will we see from Dee Gordon? A healthy Jay Bruce looked good in spring training, will that translate to the regular season? Tim Beckham won’t continue to hit .700 but does he take a step forward? Does Mitch Haniger repeat, build on or perhaps fall back a bit after his breakout season? Will Edwin Encarnación’s bat wake up? Does Mallex Smith continue to develop at the plate? What can Domingo Santana do with regular playing time once again?

Bruce, Beckham and Encarnación of course are gone. Mitch Haniger did not repeat. He did fall back, but injuries did not afford him the opportunity to rebound from first half struggles. It is impossible to know what Haniger would have done with a healthy second half but as it stands, he entered the 2019 season as a core player and leaves a question mark. The optimist would point out that Haniger will enter 2020 just a year separated from an All-Star season where he played every day and hit .285/.366/.493 for an .859 OPS. Tough to ignore, however, that he had his most lengthy struggle at the plate as a Mariner in 2019. Also troublesome, the back injury that derailed his rehab assignment following surgery for the ruptured testicle that initially sidelined him. It already has lingered – will it pop up again?

“It’s been a rough year for Mitch,” manager Scott Servais said, “but you have years like this. If you play for a long time in this league you have the one injury-riddled year, it doesn’t go your way. Mitch is a big part of what we are doing here. He’s a really good player and we have missed him.”

Did Mallex Smith continue to develop at the plate? In terms of numbers, no. In terms of experience, perhaps. His was perhaps the most roller coaster season for any Mariner, but through the ups and downs the one constant was the work. We learned he was committed to the work both offensively and defensively and still appears to be very much a work in progress. The bad news – he’s not there yet. The good news – the potential is there for him to be better, and perhaps a bit different of a player as there is the belief he can be a bit more of a doubles guy. Is he the Mariners’ center fielder of the future? Probably not, but he’s still an interesting player – there is a very good chance he takes the stolen base crown in MLB this year – worth developing.

As for Santana, he along with Daniel Vogelbach fell into the tale-of-two-halves category. Both were among the team’s offensive leaders in the first half of the season and both had dramatic falloffs in the second half. They are currently last and second to last on the team in wRC+ in the second half of the year, with Santana’s strikeout rate jumping from 29.1% to an alarming 44.1% and Vogelbach’s from 23.2% to 31.2 – obviously not numbers you want to see from your designated hitter. While there is most likely time for both to show they can turn things around – and with Vogelbach we are still waiting for him to hit lefties – with younger players on the way and the emergence of some of the utility players, they might not have much time.

Kyle Seager bounced back from his injury-plagued 2018, and the physical changes he made in the offseason appear to have paid off. He is tied with the Yankees’ DJ LeMahieu for the 21st-best wRC+ in the American League, just one point behind A’s slugger Matt Olson.

Dee Gordon saw his playing time decrease due to injury and the desire to see younger players who were up with the big club. Dylan Moore got a good look in the utility position, most importantly showing that he could step in at shortstop if needed.

Not in the conversation coming out of spring training but two players that should go in the “win” column are Tom Murphy and Austin Nola, two players who were discovered as big league talents.

Murphy, DFA’d by the Rockies and acquired by Dipoto in a small trade with the Giants on March 29, had played in small parts of four seasons with Colorado but never had a permanent spot on a roster. He has put up the best second half numbers on team while posting the second-best wRC+ and slugging percentage for a catcher in the AL this season.

Nola, who was signed to a minor league deal mainly for his ability to play multiple positions (including catcher), was not expected to crack the big league roster at the time of his signing. He put up career numbers at Tacoma, however, and has made the most of his opportunity since making his MLB debut June 16. While relatively new to catching – he converted in 2015 – he grades out well behind the plate and is said to be an exceptional pitch framer. Nola could play a super utility role going forward but you have to wonder if his emergence makes one of the other catchers expendable. Dipoto has raved about the Murphy/Omar Narváez combo behind the plate but it is hard to see him not moving one – most likely Narváez – if they believe Nola can catch. It will be interesting to see what the catching situation is on reporting day.

For part two of this series looking at the Mariners’ pitching staff, click here.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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