The Mariners’ Ty France takes a swing during a game against the White Sox on Sept. 6, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

The Mariners’ Ty France takes a swing during a game against the White Sox on Sept. 6, 2022, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Which version of Ty France will Mariners get in 2023?

Seattle’s first baseman got off to a torrid start last season, but his production fell off after a midseason injury.

  • By Ryan Divish The Seattle Times
  • Tuesday, January 24, 2023 4:38pm
  • SportsMariners

By Ryan Divish / The Seattle Times

Ty France sat in the clubhouse at T-Mobile Park, lamenting an 18-inning playoff loss to the Astros and the end of a magical 2022 season. His usual mixture of sarcasm, self-deprecation and good-natured humor had been replaced with sadness and frustration.

How could it be over?

“I can’t wait to do it again,” he said.

The Seattle Mariners will need their starting first baseman to be as good, if not better, in 2023 to return to the postseason for a second consecutive year.

In the second installment of our Mariners position overviews, here’s a look at first base:

France was the Mariners’ best player for much of the season’s first half. That torrid start was slowed only by a severe left-elbow strain suffered in a collision with a base runner while playing first base June 23.

It forced France to the 10-day injured list a day later.

He had played in 70 of the Mariners’ first 71 games and posted a .316/.390/.476 slash line over 311 plate appearances with 14 doubles, 10 homers, 45 RBI, 20 walks and 43 strikeouts. During that stretch, France was producing a 156 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) — a metric that measures runs created, with league average being 100. It led American League first basemen.

With uncertainty surrounding the seriousness of the injury and no experienced replacement options on the 40-man roster, the Mariners acquired veteran first baseman/designated hitter Carlos Santana from the Royals.

France returned July 7 after missing 12 games.

But the production that eventually earned him a spot on the American League All-Star team didn’t come all the way back.

From July 7 to Aug. 27, a span of 37 games, France scuffled more than he had since coming to the Mariners during the 2020 season. He posted a .196/.253/.315 slash line with five doubles, four homers, 17 RBI, nine walks and 28 strikeouts in 158 plate appearances.

France injured his left wrist while making a diving stop on a ground ball July 25. He played through mild discomfort for a handful of games. But a couple of hard swings and misses on pitches aggravated the wrist, and he sat out four consecutive games to reduce the inflammation.

The prevailing thought among some fans was that the wrist was a major cause of France’s struggles.

But on Aug. 16 in Anaheim, France was blunt when asked if the wrist was still bothering him.

“Why because I suck at baseball right now?” he said sarcastically. “No, the wrist isn’t the reason I suck at baseball. You can tweet that.”

France said his struggles were likely a product of “chasing hits and swinging at bad pitches.”

He rallied over his last 33 games of the regular season, posting a .278/.326/.489 slash line with eight doubles, a triple, six homers, 22 RBI, six walks and 23 strikeouts. But it wasn’t quite the dominance of the first 70 games.

France finished with a respectable .274/.338/.436 slash line in 140 games with 27 doubles, a triple, 20 homers and 83 RBI. But other than an increase in homers (18 to 20) and RBI (73 to 83), France’s numbers were down from his breakout 2021 season.

So which version of France will the Mariners have in 2023? Will it be the dominant, middle-of-the-order force from 2021 and the first 70 games of 2022 or the good-but-not-great run producer of last season’s second half?

“I’m sure that starting in spring training we’ll see the same type of France that we’ve always seen, which is just a good hitter,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said in a radio interview after the season.

Dipoto believes much of the struggles were related to swing decisions.

“I’m not very concerned; Ty’s always been terrific hitter,” he said. “For whatever reason he didn’t have a great second half. There was a period of time there where he got so conscious of the ball running in on him that he just started to drift open and swing at bad pitches. Any type of slump is almost always going to be predicated by the pitches that you swing at. It’s the same as your successes. If you swing at good pitches, your likelihood of success is much, much higher. And Ty swung at much worse pitches for the bulk of the second half of the season.”

France is entering his first year of arbitration eligibility and will make $4.1 million this season. This could be a seminal season for him financially if he’s hoping to sign a contract extension.

But what happens if France were to get hurt again? He had IL stints in 2021 and 2022 because of left-wrist injuries stemming from diving for ground balls. He also gets hit by pitches with a fair amount of regularity — 27 times in 2021 and 21 last year.

Though the did not add a first baseman/DH in free agency and didn’t re-sign Santana, the Mariners recently signed veteran infielder Tommy La Stella as a bench player. A left-handed hitter who can play first, second and third base, La Stella could fill in at first base to allow France an “off day” as the designated hitter.

The status of Evan White, a former first-round draft pick and one-time first baseman of the future, remains uncertain. The Mariners’ opening-day first baseman in 2020 and 2021 (France was the opening-day DH in 2021), White has dealt with hip and groin issues since mid-May of 2021 when he suffered a strained left hip flexor.

After spending two months on the injured list trying to rehab his hip back to full strength, White opted for surgery. His 2021 season ended after just 30 games. Hoping to return to the field in 2022, White felt more discomfort in his legs during a Cactus League game. He was diagnosed with a sports hernia that required surgery.

White had three rehab stints in May, June and August with Triple-A Tacoma. Each time, the recovery from both surgeries forced him off the field. He played 28 games in 2022.

Dipoto said at the winter meetings that he wasn’t certain of White’s status moving forward.

Even if White is healthy, the missed games are an issue. He was far from an established or consistent hitter at the MLB level before the injury. In 84 career big-league games, he has posted a .165/.235/.308 slash line with 115 strikeouts in 306 plate appearances. There is some concern that his Gold Glove-level defense and above-average speed on the bases will be lessened by the leg issues. The idea/hope of White being the Mariners’ first baseman of the future has dissipated.

The Mariners signed veterans Mike Ford and Colin Moran to minor-league contracts to serve as depth options at first base.

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