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The top Mariners storylines to follow in shortened 2020 season

Kyle Lewis had a strong first showing in a Mariners uniform in September 2019. (Getty)

After a number of delays and some at times contentious negotiating, MLB action will be returning in late July, and here in the Pacific Northwest, we will finally get to see what the Mariners will do in this shortened 60-game season.

A Mariners guide to the 60-game season | M’s set 60-man player pool

While the Mariners weren’t expected to compete in a full 162-game season in 2020, there were still a number of storylines to follow with the rebuilding club. And now with just 60 games, not only do many of those storylines still exist, some have been amplified with changes to how the season will be conducted.

Here’s the first of our two-part series on what to follow closely with the Mariners’ season.

1. Evan White’s rookie season

Currently Evan White is the Mariners’ fourth overall prospect and the No. 56 prospect in all of baseball per MLB Pipeline, just a few years after Seattle made the first baseman the 17th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft after a successful career at the University of Kentucky. He won’t be considered a prospect for long, though, as once baseball resumes, White will likely man first base in the big leagues.

With how the Mariners have jumped players from Double-A to the majors in recent years, such as Justin Dunn and Kyle Lewis last season and Edwin Diaz a few years back, it was thought that White could win the position in spring training with an impressive camp. After all, in 92 games last year, White hit .293 with 18 home runs and 55 RBI in a very pitcher-friendly league and home stadium in Arkansas. But before spring training began, the Mariners signed White to a long-term deal that keeps him in Seattle through at least 2025 with club options through 2028, making it certain that he would start 2020 as the Mariners’ starting first baseman.

In nine spring training games, White hit .333 and drove in three runs and stole a base. He also showed why his glove is so impressive that some consider him the best fielding prospect in baseball regardless of position.

Seeing White’s first “full” season in the majors should be exciting for Mariners fans as he and 2016 first-round pick Kyle Lewis (more on him next) will be among the first of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s draft picks to be playing in the majors full-time.

2. Will Kyle Lewis’ impressive power numbers continue?

We go from Dipoto’s second first-round pick to his first.

After being drafted 11th overall in 2016, Lewis became Seattle’s top prospect and hit well, but a major knee injury cost him developmental time and shot him down most prospect rankings lists. He is currently Seattle’s No. 10 prospect.

In 122 games at Double-A Arkansas last season, Lewis hit .263 with 11 home runs and 62 RBI. He then made his MLB debut in September and hit home runs in each of his first three games, joining Colorado Rockies shortstop Trevor Story as the only players in MLB history to accomplish that feat. He ended the year with six home runs while hitting .268 and driving in 13 runs in 18 games.

While the strikeouts (29) and walks (three) could use some work, there was no mistaking Lewis’ power in his short time in the majors. For some more context, Lewis’ 162-game average would put him at 54 home runs and 117 RBI. It’s obviously unlikely for him to reach that total in a full year, but there’s excitement over the thump he can add to Seattle’s lineup.

In fact, it wouldn’t be out of the question, based on what we saw in September, if Lewis leads the Mariners in home runs during this 60-game season. He’s expected to start in left field this season.

3. The starting pitching

As spring training was ongoing, it looked like the Mariners’ starting rotation was set.

Lefty Marco Gonzales, 28, who signed a long-term extension this offseason, was poised to lead the charge with free-agent signings Kendall Graveman, 29, and Taijuan Walker, 27, right behind him. Rounding out the rotation was to be 2019 rookie Yusei Kikuchi, who struggled in his first season outside Japan, and Justus Sheffield, who was the prize of the 2018 deal with the Yankees that saw James Paxton head to New York. Also in the mix was Justin Dunn, Seattle’s No. 7 prospect.

Those six could be the guys starting initially, as 710 ESPN Seattle’s Mariners insider Shannon Drayer reports that Seattle’s plan is to start with a six-man rotation as well as use “piggyback” games where multiple starting pitchers appear in the same game.

There are some major possibilities just in terms of what that rotation will look like, but there’s also the question of how the pitchers will do.

Gonzales has pitched well the last two years and had a sub-4 ERA and threw 200-plus innings last season.

Graveman, when healthy, has great stuff, but he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Speaking of Tommy John, Taijuan Walker, who had the surgery in 2018, is back with the team that drafted him in the first round in 2010. He threw just one inning for the Arizona Diamondbacks in September 2019, his first appearance in an MLB game in over 17 months.

Kikuchi’s rookie campaign was one to forget as he went 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA in 161.2 innings, though he looked better this spring, especially with his slider, and had a 4.05 ERA in six innings.

Sheffield also turned heads this spring, which is good as his 2019 season was a bit of a roller coaster. After posting a 6.87 ERA in 55 Triple-A innings while walking nearly as many as he struck out (41 to 48), Sheffield dominated in Double-A with a 2.19 ERA in 78 innings and earned a promotion to Seattle, where he threw 36 innings with a 5.50 ERA. With a new two-seam fastball, Sheffield threw eight innings with 12 strikeouts no walks. He is Seattle’s No. 13 prospect.

Dunn also excelled in Double-A last season with a 3.55 ERA in 131.2 innings. He made his MLB debut in September and finished with a 2.70 ERA in 6.2 innings, mostly as an opener.

Others who could wind up starting some games? Nick Margevicius and Logan Gilbert (see below).

4. Any surprising MLB debuts?

Will Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby or some of Seattle’s other top prospects make their MLB debuts in a shortened 2020 season? There’s a chance given how rosters are being filled out.

Teams will start the season with 30-man rosters and will also have a 30-man “taxi squad” where any of those players can be added to the major league roster. Plus, there will be no minor league games, so maybe to keep some of the higher-touted guys on a better schedule and get some in-game action, they stick with the big league team.

Mariners CEO John Stanton told 710 ESPN Seattle’s John Clayton that some of the team’s top prospects will be on the “taxi squad,” which will be stationed in Tacoma, where the Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate is based out of. And sure enough, Seattle’s top 14 prospects according to MLB Pipeline were included on the team’s initial 60-man roster for the continuation of training that begins this week.

Gilbert, Seattle’s No. 3 prospect, is the most likely to join the MLB team of the four prospects mentioned above. The big right-handed pitcher was dominant across three levels in 2019 and if things would have played out normally, he likely could have been on the team by now. Overall, he was 10-5 with a 2.40 ERA and 165 strikeouts to 33 walks.

Next up would probably be Kelenic, Seattle’s top prospect and the No. 11 prospect in all of baseball. The young outfielder was excellent last season in his first full season of pro ball, playing good defense in center field and hitting .291 with 23 home runs, 20 stolen bases and 68 RBI across three levels. Both he and Gilbert finished the season in Double-A.

Kirby, a right-handed pitcher who was Seattle’s first-round pick in 2019, would likely rank third of those four, as he is a strike-throwing machine who should rise through the ranks quickly, but he pitched just 23 innings after being drafted last year. He is Seattle’s No. 5 prospect and MLB Pipeline’s No. 100 overall prospect.

And Rodriguez, the talented right-handed hitting outfielder, would likely rank fourth because making the jump from High-A to the major leagues as a hitter, especially one who has played just one season in the U.S., is asking a lot, even if Rodriguez has all the tools to be a perennial superstar. He is Seattle’s No. 2 prospect and 18th in all of baseball.

Three other guys who could be in the running? Switch-hitting catcher Cal Raleigh, and a pair of right-handed pitchers – 2019 second-round pick Isaiah Campbell, and 2020 first-rounder Emerson Hancock.

Raleigh, Seattle’s No. 8 prospect, made it to Double-A last year and hit .251 with 29 home runs in between High-A and Double-A. He also caught a lot of the top prospect arms like Gilbert, Dunn, Sheffield and some younger bullpen guys who will get to in the next article.

Campbell was a recent draft pick and hasn’t pitched professionally yet. He pitched well his junior season, but Arkansas, his college team, went deep in the College World Series and because of that, the Mariners didn’t have Campbell pitch last year. He has a four-pitch mix with plus control and could be someone like Gilbert and Kirby who rises through the rankings quickly.

5. How will the AL West shape up?

Seattle plays in a very interesting division, and while playing just 60 games levels the playing field a bit as far as the Mariners’ playoff chances go, they will still have an uphill battle. For context, even after the Mariners’ hot 13-2 start, they were 25-35 in their first 60 games last season. Plus, the Astros still made the World Series last season and return nearly every major player aside from Gerrit Cole. It will be interesting, however, to see how Houston and their opponents respond to the sign-stealing scandal that was the talk of sports earlier this year.

The Athletics also made the playoffs, losing the Wild Card game to the Rays. They could again be a top contender in the AL West and the AL in general this season, especially as their starting pitching figures to be more healthy.

The Rangers added some talent this offseason, including two-time Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, and could be a team on the rise. In a new ballpark, the Rangers very well could be a dark horse to crash the playoffs in this shortened season.

The Angels didn’t do much to address their lack of starting pitching, but they added arguably the top position player in free agency in third baseman Anthony Rendon. Oh, and they have a guy named Mike Trout who’s pretty good at this whole baseball thing.

Look for five more Mariners storylines to follow in 2020 soon in another post on 710Sports.com.

Follow 710Sports.com’s Brandon Gustafson on Twitter.

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