PEORIA, Ariz. — The “official” stats of spring training say otherwise, but Shed Long recorded two stinging doubles against the Oakland A’s in the Cactus League opener Feb. 21.
The A’s attempted to play that day, when even the worst weather forecaster could’ve predicted the outcome: a canceled game after 1 1/2 innings and discarded results. But even if the stats don’t show it, Long’s two plate appearances did happen against the A’s on that rainy, miserable day at Hohokam Stadium in Mesa, Ariz. The Seattle Mariners coaching staff, which is important in Long’s progression toward reaching the big leagues, still remembers — two doubles, which led to a run and an RBI.
Officially, Long is now hitting .300 (3 for 10) with a .462 on-base percentage, a homer, two walks, a hit by pitch, four RBI and a stolen base. A RBI single in two at-bats Thursday raised his average. But if you add the stats from the canceled game, he’s got a .416 batting average, two doubles, a homer and five RBI with an on-base percentage over .500.
The small sample size of numbers are fun to manipulate. But it’s been Long’s approach at the plate and the quality of his at-bats that have caught the eye of manager Scott Servais this spring and verified general manager Jerry Dipoto’s offseason decision to trade for Long.
“You see the players we’ve acquired, and they have a certain skill-set that fits into what we believe,” Servais said. “I’m talking about Shed Long, he has the quality at-bats and controls the strike zone and is doing the things we believe in. And then he’s got real talent behind it so when he does hit the ball, it’s impactful.”
Seattle acquired Long from the Reds/Yankees in a three-way trade. Seattle sent outfielder Josh Stowers to New York to complete the deal. The deal culminated a year-long quest for Dipoto, who had tried on multiple occasions to acquire Long from the Reds since last offseason.
“We been trying to trade for Shed Long for a long time,” Dipoto said. “Shed Long can really hit.”
Long was somewhat surprised he’d been traded. He considered himself part of the Reds’ future, but he also wasn’t aware of Dipoto’s infatuation with him.
“It’s never fun to get traded, but it was a trade for the better,” he said “It was a good trade. I looked at it as a positive for me — new place to go, a new beginning, eyes that haven’t saw me before. I could come in and make my own impression with them.”
That impression came quickly when he started ripping balls all over the park during early batting practice. While he’s generously listed at 5 feet, 8 inches, he’s probably a little shorter than that. Standing in batting practice groups with Kyle Lewis and Evan White, he looks diminutive.
But don’t assume he’s a soft-swinging singles hitter like Chone Figgins or David Eckstein and other players of similar height. His smaller frame has plenty of muscle and hidden power, which is generated through a violent, compact swing that elicits high exit velocity off the bat.
“He doesn’t get cheated on his swing,” said one opposing scout.
Servais invoked a familiar name in shedding stereotypes for players based on size and appearance.
“There’s a guy in Houston and he’s not very big either and the ball seems to get off his bat pretty well — Mr. (Jose) Altuve,” Servais said. “That’s the beauty of our game, you don’t need to be 6-foot-7, 285 pounds or 6-11 or dunk the ball. They come in all different shapes and sizes from Altuve to Aaron Judge. It’s awesome to see how it works.”
Long has never limited himself to be a certain kind of hitter. He believes in hitting the ball as hard as he can.
“I don’t worry about backspin or launch angle or all that stuff, I just hit it hard,” he said. “I’m blessed to be able to hit the way I hit. For them to say it, I feel like it’s a compliment.”
He learned to hit from his father, also named Shed.
“When I was younger, my dad and I worked every single day,” he said. “Even when I was playing other sports, we worked on baseball every single day. He definitely gets most of the credit. He built the base for me. He still knows my swing. I send him videos and everything.”
When Long is scuffling at the plate, he checks with his dad.
“He knows his hitting,” Long said. “He’s definitely a huge part of it.”
Long is part of the Mariners’ offseason plan that Dipoto has often called a “step back.” As part of the process, the Mariners began a reshaping of the organization with an emphasis on the 2021 and 2022 season. They wanted to find players in their early 20s who were either big-league ready or on the cusp in hopes that they will come together and flourish at the same time. Long is 23. He joins Mallex Smith (25), Justus Sheffield (22), Evan White (turns 23 on April 26), Kyle Lewis (23), Jake Fraley (23), Justin Dunn (23) and Erik Swanson (25) as part of that group.
“(Dipoto) let me know about all the young guys he had here and what the vision was for the team in the future,” Long said. “It’s always good when you’ve got a bunch of guys your age to play with. Young guys are hungry. Everybody is hungry. We know there is opportunity. It’s nice to feel that vibe.”
Having spent all of last season at Class AA Pensacola, Long will start at Class AAA Tacoma this season. He’s the logical replacement for Dee Gordon at second base. That timetable is contingent on whether the Mariners trade Gordon before his contract expires after the 2020 season. But the organization has decided to have Long play multiple positions, which could speed up his arrival to the big leagues.
If Long can play third base, the corner outfield spots and even fill in at shortstop for a game, he could find a spot on the 25-man roster much sooner because his offense is so intriguing.
“There’s very few young players that just come to the big leagues and it’s, ‘Here you go, you are going to play every day and we are going to let you play 150 games,’” Servais said. “No, you work your way in, you might be utility guy, you have some versatility and then all of the sudden, ‘This bat is pretty good, so let’s just stick him here and let him go.’ That’s how it happens.”
Long has played left field in the late innings of a couple of games this spring as well games at third base and second base. He didn’t seem concerned about the time in the outfield.
“I think I can get out there and do it,” he said. “I’m an athlete. We are still just playing baseball.”
Long isn’t afraid of trying different positions. As a kid, he played them all and then settled on catcher because he was on one of the few kids on his team who didn’t flinch when hitter swung at a pitch. He was drafted as a catcher out of Jacksonville High School in Jacksonville, Ala. He is quick to point out it isn’t in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Reds decided he was too athletic and might not survive the pounding of playing catcher. So they converted him to second base. He had a Hall of Famer for a private tutor.
“The Reds came to me and said that we want your athleticism to play and your bat to play more so we are going to move to second,” he said. “I was fine with the move. They linked me up with Barry Larkin. I just had to follow him around the rest of spring training. I just tried to learn as much from him as I could at second and gain some knowledge.”
That relationship continues to this day. Long trains with Larkin in the offseason.
“He knows his stuff and he’s so down to earth,” he said. “You could never tell he’s a Hall of Famer by the way he acts.”
Asked about Long as a utility player, the same opposing scout said, “his best position is hitter.”
Long doesn’t like the quote necessarily, but understand what plays.
“I’m an all-around player,” he said. “I can play defense too, but I am a hitter.”
If playing multiple positions will get Long to the big leagues, then he’ll happily do it.
“You see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “You are trying to do whatever you can to get there.”
The Mariners can also see that light.
Said Servais: “My eyes are wide open on Shed Long.”