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Seattle Mariners

Mariners spring training preview: Is an MVP season in store for Julio Rodriguez?

Playoff optimism for the Seattle Mariners this season starts with center fielder Julio Rodriguez.  (Tribune News Service)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Julio Rodriguez, it appeared, had some pretty sweet seats inside Allegiant Stadium to watch the Super Bowl in Las Vegas on Sunday.

Soon after the Kansas City Chiefs closed out a dramatic victory over the San Francisco 49ers in overtime, Rodriguez posted a picture on social media of the Chiefs’ celebration on the field. Along with the picture, he wrote: “I want to know what that feels like. #starving”

The post had more than 1 million views by midday Monday, and Rodriguez elicited a lot of excitement among Seattle Mariners fans as pitchers and catchers got ready to report for spring training in Arizona.

Any optimism building around, and about, the 2024 Mariners, and any reasons to believe this might just be the year their championship drought ends, center around their 23-year-old center fielder.

After a rough start in 2023, Rodriguez was among the most valuable players in baseball over the second half of the season.

There are some questions about how the Mariners’ corner outfield spots will take shape this year, but there is little doubt about the catalyst for this team. The more relevant question: Is this the year Rodriguez wins his first MVP?

Who’s back

Just how good was Rodriguez in the second half of 2023?

Over his final 68 games, he hit 19 home runs, drove in 54 runs, stole 15 bases and posted a .308/.363/.578 (.941 OPS) slash line. Among position players, only Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Matt Olson had a higher Wins Above Replacement (FanGraphs) in the second half.

And according to MLB’s Sarah Langs, Rodriguez was the only player in the majors last season to rank in the 90th percentile or better in batting, baserunning and fielding run value. The only other player in the Statcast era (since 2015) to do that over a full season is Betts, who did it three times (including his 2018 AL MVP season).

Rodriguez heads into his third season with what the Mariners envision as a deeper and more dynamic lineup around him.

Dominic Canzone, the key return in the Paul Sewald trade-deadline deal last July, is one of the team’s top breakout candidates this year.

As a rookie, Canzone slashed .215/.248/.407 in 44 games with the Mariners, with five homers and 11 doubles in 141 plate appearances. The Mariners like his power potential, and the left-handed-hitting 26-year-old figures to open the season in platoons in either right or left field, along with some combination of Mitch Haniger, Luke Raley and Dylan Moore.

Cade Marlowe and Taylor Trammell are also back and will compete in spring training for a bench role.

New faces

Haniger returns after a salary-swapping trade with San Francisco last month that sent veteran starter Robbie Ray to the Giants.

Haniger, 33, had another injury-shortened season in 2023, and he’s played in just 118 games over the past two years. In his last full season, in 2021 with the Mariners, Haniger had 39 homers, 100 RBIs and an .804 OPS.

The Raley acquisition has a chance to be the Mariners’ best move of the offseason, relative to cost. (The Mariners, on paper, would not have had much of a role for Jose Caballero, who was traded to Tampa Bay in a 1-for-1 swap last month.)

Raley, listed at 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, played all three outfield spots and first base for the Rays last season, posting a 2.5 WAR (Baseball Reference) in just 406 plate appearances. The Mariners expect Raley to match, if not exceed, the production of Jarred Kelenic, their former top prospect who was traded to Atlanta early in the offseason.

Trammell and Marlowe will compete for the fifth outfield spot.

Trending up

The Mariners ranked as the sixth-best defense in the majors in 2023, according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) metric, and Rodriguez ranked fourth among all MLB outfielders with 12 OAA recorded.

He was No. 1 among all MLB players on balls hit to his left, recording nine OAA.

Trending down

Raley had a torrid first half in 2023, hitting .270 with 15 homers and a .925 OPS in 70 games.

But he dealt with leg and neck issues in August and September, and his production dipped. He hit just .219 with a .677 OPS with 55 strikeouts and 11 walks in his final 48 games.

Prospect watch

Jonatan Clase, a 21-year-old center fielder, became the first minor leaguer since at least 1961 (when statistics began recording) to hit 20 homers and steal 70 bases in a season. He finished with 79 steals, third most among all minor leaguers in 2023.

Alberto Rodriguez, 23, earned an invitation to big-league camp this spring. He hit .300 with 14 homers and an .884 OPS between High-A Everett and Double-A Arkansas last season.

Lazaro Montes, the 19-year-old Cuban slugger nicknamed The Lazer, is one of the most interesting prospects in the Mariners’ system. Promoted to Low-A late in the summer, he helped the Modesto Nuts win the California League championship, hitting .321 with seven homers and a .994 OPS in 131 at-bats.

By the numbers

30/30: Julio Rodriguez finished with 32 homers and 37 stolen bases in 2023, becoming just the fourth player age 22-or-younger to join the 30/30 club, along with Alex Rodriguez (1998), Mike Trout (2012) and Ronald Acuna (2019). Rodriguez also became the only player to win a Silver Slugger Award in each of his first two MLB seasons since the award was first given out in 1980.

.824: Luke Raley’s .824 OPS last season ranked eighth among American League outfielders (minimum 400 plate appearances), and his 2.6 WAR (FanGraphs) ranked 13th among AL outfielders.