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Seattle Mariners

Mariners spring training preview: Shortstop is set with J.P. Crawford

Shortstop J.P. Crawford returns to anchor the infield for the Seattle Mariners.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – In the days after the 2018 season ended with the Seattle Mariners failing to make the postseason again, Mariners ownership approved the plan of then-general manager Jerry Dipoto to start a rebuilding process, eventually labeled a “step back.”

As part of the process, Dipoto and 15 members of the front office/baseball-operations staff participated in an exercise to help shape their actions. They each created a roster for the 2019 season, using the parameters of a $155 to $165 million payroll budget that was expected (those were the days).

Only trades that were possible were allowed and any free-agent signings had to be based on market projections.

Each roster was vetted and critiqued by the group, like a writers’ workshop. The goal was to compare the rosters to see where people felt the organization was at and where it should be headed.

Of the 16 rosters, there was one player who more than half of the participants wanted to acquire – a former Phillies top prospect named J.P. Crawford.

Less than two months later, the Mariners acquired Crawford along with first baseman Carlos Santana from the Phillies in exchange for Jean Segura, James Pazos and Juan Nicasio.

The Mariners’ plan was to give Crawford every chance to become the everyday shortstop and a foundation player in their future success.

Now five years later, Crawford has not only entrenched himself as the starting shortstop, he has become the unofficial team captain. It wasn’t the straightest path and there were times when Crawford and the Mariners wondered if he’d grow into all that was expected. But with each season, he’s taken more ownership into the team’s success.

Who’s back

Crawford, who turned 29 on Jan. 11, returns for his sixth season as the Mariners shortstop. He’s coming off his best season in the big leagues. After spending the offseason working out at Driveline Baseball Inc. to retool his swing, incorporating his legs more to generate power, Crawford produced a .266/.380/.438 slash line with 35 doubles, 19 homers, 65 RBIs, 94 runs scored, 94 walks and 125 strikeouts. He accumulated a 4.9 FanGraphs WAR, which was fourth highest in MLB behind Corey Seager (6.1), Francisco Lindor (6.0) and Bobby Witt Jr. (5.7). He led the American League in walks and had career highs in homers, RBIs, runs scored, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

He was the M’s most consistent offensive producer and helped offset the slow start for Julio Rodriguez. The Mariners knew he was capable of more offense than he’d shown in the past, but even they were a bit surprised by the increases to his power production.

Who’s gone?

Crawford played in 145 games last season and protested the days he had to sit out. When he did sit, Jose Caballero started 13 games at shortstop and appeared in eight others. The Mariners sent Caballero to the Rays in exchange for outfielder Luke Raley in a trade that filled needs for both teams.

Caballero was a competent replacement for Crawford when needed in spot starts.

New faces

Jorge Polanco came up as a shortstop with the Twins and has started 473 games at the position in his career. While the Mariners want him to be their primary second baseman, they could slide Polanco over to shortstop if Crawford needed a day off. They will also have utility man Dylan Moore to fill in when needed.

Trending down

Based on advanced metrics, Crawford’s defense isn’t quite up to his Gold Glove caliber in the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Some regression is expected with age and nagging injuries, but Crawford also is a relentless worker. If there is an issue in his game that is lacking, he will address it.

Prospect to watch

The Mariners have selected shortstops in the first round in each of the past two MLB drafts in Cole Young (2022) and Colt Emerson (2023).

But one of the more intriguing shortstops in the system is 17-year-old Felnin Celesten. The M’s top international signee in their 2023 class received a $4.7 million signing bonus. A switch-hitter with power potential from both sides and a plus throwing arm on a lanky frame, Celesten oozes with athleticism and potential on the field. His 2023 season was cut short after he suffered a severe hamstring injury a few days before the Dominican Summer League was set to open.

By the numbers

6: Crawford tied Rodriguez’s franchise record with six leadoff homers last season.