PEORIA, Ariz. — Evan White never saw the collision, just the carnage.
After signing a few autographs quickly and then hustling between fields for his next drill during the first full-squad workout Saturday for the Seattle Mariners, White saw a frazzled fan on his knees with baseball cards strewn all over the crushed red dirt and an empty box by his side. The steady breeze was starting to spread the mess about even more. White realized he had just signed a few baseball cards for him.
“It took me a second to comprehend what happened,” White said. “I looked up and saw cards still falling from his hands. I don’t know if he got bumped or just lost them. But there were so many cards, and I think he lost balance.”
That fan is Niklas Jarvinen, a 21-year-old “diehard baseball fan” and a senior at Oakland University in Michigan.
“I attend a ton of baseball games every year and I’d really like to work in a major league front office one day,” Jarvinen said via email. “I get autographs as a hobby to stay around the game and players I love. I came down here during my spring break to meet players.”
So what happened?
“There were some little kids behind me and while this is my hobby I always try to let them ahead or at the very least not block them out or run into them and I was trying to not run into them,” Jarvinen said. “I managed to be able to do this, but you can see the end result was my cards scattered. All in all, it was embarrassing and bad timing but I’m grateful for the memory. I actually usually have a binder for my cards but as fate had it I had some other cards in it so I decided to use the box!”
With it being White’s first official day in major league camp, it would have been understandable if he had just kept going to avoid being tardy. Sometimes early bad impressions aren’t forgotten. A veteran player can be a few minutes late without repercussions, but a young player with less than two full seasons of professional baseball gets no such leeway. While the fan was panicked about his prized possessions, this was far from a life-or-death situation.
White never hesitated. He dropped his bag full of equipment and squatted and began collecting the cards with care, knowing how much they meant to Jarvinen. Other players kept walking.
“He was like, ‘This is the worst day of my life,’” White said. “I felt bad for the guy. That’s just how I was raised. It goes back to my faith and respecting other people. You do what you can to help out.”
As they gathered the cards, Jarvinen was embarrassed about the mess and frustrated that his intricately sorted collection, which made it ideal for getting autographs, was no more.
“That’s when I started to feel really bad. He was like, ‘I’m just picking them up, but I had them all in alphabetic order,’” White said. “I said, ‘Oh man that sucks.’ That’s a tough day for sure.”
Once White helped Jarvinen get settled, he headed off to his original destination.
Ask anyone around the Mariners’ organization about the scene and they aren’t surprised.
“He’s that good of a kid,” manager Scott Servais said.
The story was relayed to a few of the Mariners’ clubhouse attendants and they laughed.
“You mean the nicest guy in camp,” one said. “And it’s not the fake nice guy. He’s just genuinely a nice guy to everyone.”
The concept of someone wanting his autograph is something White is still getting used to.
“In high school when I was taking notes in class, I’d practice my autograph sometimes,” he said. “For people to want it now, it’s pretty cool.”
People want it not because he’s a nice guy, but because he’s a talented player and one of the top prospects in the Mariners’ restocked farm system. Baseball America ranks White as the No. 4 prospect in the Mariners organization and has him as the No. 5 first-base prospect and No. 100 prospect in all of baseball. In the Mariners’ new step-back plan with a focus on 2020 and 2021, he’s slotted in as the starting first baseman.
Seattle selected White out of the University of Kentucky with the No. 17 pick in the 2017 draft. After a nagging quad injury limited him to just 14 games for short-season Everett in the weeks after being drafted, White came back strong in his first full professional season in 2018. He played in 120 games for High A Modesto, posting a .303/.375/.458 slash line with 27 doubles, seven triples, 11 homers and 66 RBI.
Always known for his defense, athleticism and speed, White’s progress at the plate was major step forward.
In the final month of the season, White made the simple adjustment of lowering his hands pre-swing that led to a major leap forward in results. In his final 28 games, he hit .374/.365/.673 with 11 doubles, three triples, five homers and 27 RBI.
White also got the chance to play in the Arizona Fall League as a “priority selection” for the Mariners since he didn’t play at the required level of Class AA. White posted a .257/.333/.429 line in 18 games with six doubles, two homers and 14 RBI.
Having a full offseason to continue working on the late-season swing changes from 2018 should be beneficial for 2019.
“It’s huge,” he said. “Last year, I had little bit of an idea what to work on. But I didn’t have a full first season. I only played in like 14 games that first half season. Now that I’ve played a full season, and I know what I need to work on. And having that fall opportunity to face higher-level pitchers and see what you need to do there was huge for me. I feel like I’m in a good spot now.”
White spent his offseason working out with a personal trainer to prepare for a season that will start at Class AA Arkansas.
“I learned a lot about my body and a lot about preparation and getting my body right once the games start,” he said. “It was translating that stuff into hitting and fielding.”
White gained a fair amount of muscle in the offseason. Servais called it “getting into his man muscles.”
The increased strength to go with the offensive improvement moves him closer to being big-league ready. He’s already the best defensive first baseman in the organization and all of minor league baseball. He has an outfielder’s athleticism and a third baseman’s throwing arm. Names like Mark Grace, Todd Helton and John Olerud have been used as comparisons by scouts when talking about White’s hands and fielding ability.
“I always look at (comparisons),” Servais said. “The fact that I’ve been at the MLB level for 31 years and you think about guys you played with or against throughout the time I was playing. There’s not a play that Evan can’t make. He’s got really good hands; he can throw. He’s athletic, and he can get to a lot of balls that first baseman don’t. I played with J.T. Snow, and I thought J.T. was awesome at first base with his ability to pick balls in the dirt. Obviously being a left-handed first baseman is an advantage.”
On the 20-80 scouting scale, White grades out as a 70-75 on defense.
“Whatever grade you want to put on Evan White near the top of the scouting scale, it’s very comfortable,” Servais said. “It’s why he’s graded out as one of the best defensive first baseman in all of minor league baseball. You don’t want to put too much on a guy, but there’s no reason that shouldn’t translate at the major league level.”
White impressed defensively last season while appearing in a handful of Cactus League games. He’s expected to play in plenty of them this spring. It’s an early audition for him with Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto watching. Given his defensive ability and his trajectory on offense, White could be a September call-up if he continues to progress.
“This is definitely exciting,” White said. “The goals are still similar to last year. Stay on the field and play as many games as possible and keep learning. I have the opportunity now to talk with veterans, pick the mind of Jay Bruce, pick the mind of Edwin Encarnacion, all those guys, talk to Kyle Seager. This is a great opportunity, and I’m going to use it and take it into the season and improve as much as possible so I can be prepared if that call ever comes.”