Even if the Mariners are in the midst of a “step-back” season, the current conditions outside make it a little easier to think about warm Arizona days in the sun for spring training.
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report on Monday to Peoria, Ariz., here are three things to watch this spring.
What is Edwin Encarnacion’s Mariners future?
As of these words being typed, Edwin Encarnacion is still a member of the Mariners. That could change before position players report on Feb. 15 or perhaps some time during spring training.
The expectation for people around baseball and for Encarnacion was that the Mariners would trade him after acquiring him in the offseason. Sources indicated the Mariners even made their intention of flipping Encarnacion known to him. It seemed like a decent plan. With the Twins, Rays and Astros all showing interest in signing former Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz, the Mariners figured they could trade Encarnacion to one of the two teams that were unable to sign Cruz. They knew they’d have to eat a sizable portion of the $25 million owed to Encarnacion in 2019, but it seemed worth it for a decent prospect or even a compensatory draft pick.
So when Cruz signed a one-year deal with the Twins, the best fits for Encarnacion were the Astros and Rays. But MLB sources said the Rays didn’t value Encarnacion as a hitter as much as Cruz and weren’t interested in a trade, even if the Mariners picked up half of the contract. Seattle shopped Encarnacion to the Astros, but they seem content with using a rotation of players including Tyler White and Yuli Gurriel at designated hitter.
Where does that leave Encarnacion and the Mariners? Well, it’s complicated. The market for him isn’t exactly booming. Most teams view him as a primary designated hitter and a sometimes first baseman. It limits him to American League teams — most of whom aren’t shopping for a designated hitter on a big contract or really even trying to win.
Perhaps if a contending team were to suffer an injury at first base or DH during spring and be in need of a right-handed bat, the demand for Encarnacion would go up.
Who will pitch out of the bullpen?
Of the Mariners’ relievers who made more than 45 relief appearances in 2018, only right-hander Chasen Bradford remains on the roster. Seattle parted ways with five of its most-relied-upon relievers from last season.
- Edwin Diaz, 73 appearances, 73 1/3 innings pitched,
- Nick Vincent, 62 appearances, 56 1/3 innings pitched
- James Pazos, 60 appearances, 50 innings pitched
- Alex Colome, 47 appearances, 46 1/3 innings pitched
- Juan Nicasio, 46 appearances, 42 innings pitched
That’s a total of 288 appearances, 268 innings pitched and a combined 3.29 ERA from that quintet. Obviously the departure of Diaz, who was sent to the Mets along with Robinson Cano, is the most noticeable absence. He set a plethora of records in his second full season as the Mariners closer, including a whopping 57 saves. But the remaining appearances and innings from the the four other relievers have to be covered along with expected increased usage from the bullpen in 2019.
The Mariners have more than a dozen relievers coming to MLB spring training, and that number could grow in the next week with some late minor league signs. Of that group, there are a handful of locks to be in the bullpen based on their contracts and roster status.
“There’s no question that the bullpen is our biggest guess,” Dipoto said. “The bullpen is, right now, a work in progress. We’re gonna use this as a proving ground.”
Which veterans will bounce back?
The Mariners don’t lack for players looking to rebound from forgettable performances last season. And besides their own personal benefit, it would also be helpful for the Mariners in this step-back plan. A strong start to the 2019 season would raise the player’s value, allowing Dipoto to trade them at the deadline and pick up additional prospects.
Second baseman Dee Gordon, third baseman Kyle Seager and outfielder Jay Bruce are three possible candidates.
Both Gordon and Seager dealt with toe issues that hampered them at the plate in 2018. Gordon hit .268 with a .288 on-base percentage and just 30 stolen bases, while Seager posted a career-worst .221 batting average and .273 on-base percentage.
The Mariners believe that ending Gordon’s conversion to the outfield and moving him back to second base will allow him to find comfort emotionally and mentally.
“Getting back to home for him is second base, and then getting into the lineup, feeling good about where he’s at,” Servais said. “It’s about getting on base. … He did not walk last year. We knew when we acquired Dee, Dee doesn’t walk, but it was a record low last year. It’s something that we’ve talked about this offseason.”
Seager spent the offseason working on flexibility and agility while also addressing aspects of his strength training that were lacking. More than anything, the broken toe didn’t allow him to pull the ball as well. Seager’s $57 million owed on his contract and a “poison pill” clause that kicks in a $15 million player option if he’s traded makes him more difficult to move.
“You talk about Kyle, Dee, they want to get back to playing like they know they’re capable of,” Servais said. “They’re very proud, and the one thing both of those guys have done is they’ve adjusted their offseason programs a little bit.”
Bruce, 31, is owed $28 million over the next two seasons. A hip injury limited him to 94 games for the Mets last season where he hit .223 with a .680 OPS, 18 doubles, one triple, nine homers and 37 RBI. In 2017, he posted an .832 OPS with 36 homers and 101 RBI. He’s a proven power bat when healthy and could be attractive to teams in need of a left-handed hitter at the deadline.