Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford fields a ground ball during Game 2 of an American League Division Series game against the Houston Astros on Oct. 13, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)

Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford fields a ground ball during Game 2 of an American League Division Series game against the Houston Astros on Oct. 13, 2022, in Houston. (AP Photo/Kevin M. Cox)

M’s position analysis: Club hopes healthier Crawford is still answer at SS

The team believes nagging injuries helped lead to a steep decline in production after a torrid start in 2022.

  • Ryan Divish, The Seattle Times
  • Monday, January 23, 2023 3:16pm
  • Sports

By Ryan Divish / The Seattle Times

Whether you agree with his philosophy or not, Jerry Dipoto, the man who makes all baseball-related decisions for the Seattle Mariners, has maintained that J.P. Crawford will be the team’s starting shortstop for the “foreseeable future.”

Over a year ago, Dipoto first made that assertion going into an offseason where Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, Corey Seager, Trevor Story and Javier Baez were all free agents.

“One of the first conversations I had this offseason was with J.P.,” Dipoto said at the GM meetings on Nov. 9, 2021. “I told him, ‘Hey, you are our shortstop. You will see that we are courting other shortstops, but it is with the understanding that the inquiry is made with the intent that that player is willing to move to another position.’”

Even after Crawford signed a five-year, $50 million contract extension on opening day of the 2022 season, there was some hope among the fan base that Dipoto would attempt to sign a shortstop from this offseason’s free-agent class that featured Correa (again), Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson and move Crawford to second base, filling a need without giving up prospects in a trade.

All four shortstops would’ve represented significant offensive upgrades over Crawford’s production, which dropped off significantly after a torrid two months to start 2022.

Perhaps knowing the market for those shortstops would be out of their comfort level in terms of financial or yearly commitment, or understanding that there might be minimal interest in coming to Seattle, Dipoto once again asserted his commitment to Crawford as shortstop.

“Our preference is that J.P. plays shortstop, because I think he’s a good shortstop and all of the things that I said at the end of the year wrap-up remain true today,” Dipoto said at this year’s GM meetings on Nov. 9, 2022. “Part of what has aided the evolution of our club is the static nature of the roster. There’s a lot of guys that have played together now. And that means something when you’re trying to build a lasting, a cohesive, forward-moving, sustainable team. J.P. is our shortstop. He’s been our shortstop for the last three years. We’d like him to be our shortstop for the foreseeable future.”

That sentiment remained true as the Mariners were never players for signing those four shortstops, whose combined contracts total $957 million. It would have been a billion had the Giants or Mets not pulled long-term deals of more than $300 million from Correa because of questions about his surgically repaired ankle. The Twins, who Correa played for last season, were happy to take him back on a six-year, $200 million contract.

If Crawford is indeed the shortstop for the “foreseeable future,” the Mariners need to see more consistent offensive production.

He posted a .363/.454/.582 slash line with 33 hits in 108 plate appearances to start the season, which was unsustainable. But the regression went beyond the mean. Crawford had a .218/.314/.283 slash line with 18 doubles, two, triples, two homers, 32 RBI, 55 walks and 67 strikeouts over the next 119 games.

To make matters worse, his defense, while still solid, wasn’t at the elite levels of 2020 and 2021.

Per the Wins Above Replacement measure, Crawford was worth 2.0 wins on FanGraphs (fWAR), which was 17th best among MLB shortstops and 2.8 wins on Baseball Reference (bWAR), which was 16th best.

The Mariners’ believe that part of Crawford’s swoon was a myriad of minor injuries that nagged him over the season. He dealt with a sprained finger on his throwing hand, back spasms and lingering issues from a headfirst slide into first base and chronic knee discomfort.

The plan going into the 2023 season is to try and get Crawford at least one day off per week if not more, using Dylan Moore as the shortstop against a tough left-handed starting pitcher.

A quick query of a handful of opposing MLB scouts showed that they believe that resting Crawford could lead to a slight uptick in offensive consistency, but the bigger issues are in the fundamentals of his swing.

“It’s just too long,” said an opposing AL scout. “You look at the barrel and where it starts and where he has to get to. It’s just not ideal for his body type.”

“The lack of shifts could help him,” said an NL scout. “But there’s just a lot of unnecessary moving parts to it.”

Opposing teams didn’t aggressively shift on Crawford in 2022. Per MLB Statcast data, teams shifted him 97 times in 601 plate appearances. In 2021, he saw the shift in 165 plate appearances.

“Teams should still be able to stop him up the middle still even without shift,” said the AL scout. “But he doesn’t really have a hitting identity. He tried to add power a few years ago and that was a mistake. He gives a really competitive at-bat, but he needs to just be a slasher and on-base guy.”

The Mariners have no immediate heir apparent to push Crawford. They traded away their top two shortstop prospects — Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo — to the Reds to acquire Luis Castillo at the trade deadline last season. To be fair, few people in baseball believed that Marte could play shortstop at the MLB level, while Arroyo’s bat always profiled as a second baseman.

It could be at the end of Crawford’s five-year deal when there is a shortstop ready to replace him.

Cole Young, who the Mariners selected with the 21st pick in last season’s draft, is rated as the No. 2 prospect in the organization. He’s expected to play for Low-A Modesto this season at age 19.

Young could eventually be passed by 17-year-old Felnin Celesten, who the Mariners just signed to a club record (for an international signing) $4.7 million contract. Celesten, a switch-hitter with power potential, is on an accelerated path that includes coming to the Mariners’ minor league minicamp in Peoria during spring training. Realistically, both players are at least three to four years away from their MLB debut.

Until then, J.P. Crawford is the Mariners shortstop for the foreseeable future.

Triple-A Tacoma

Mason McCoy

Jose Caballero

Double-AA Arkansas

Patrick Frick

High-A Everett

James Parker

Axel Sanchez

Low-A Modesto

Cole Young

Edryn Rodriguez

Arizona Complex League

Michael Arroyo

Dominican Summer League

Felnin Celesten

Martin Gonzalez

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