Let me be clear: I’m not worried about Evan White right now. He was a 24-year old rookie last year, making the jump from AA to the Majors, fresh off of a contract extension that bought out his cheap team control and arbitration years to give him a guaranteed $24 million over 6 seasons, with the possibility of being worth up to $55.5 million over 9 seasons. There was a worldwide pandemic, no fans in the stands, and he’s on a rebuilding team that’s looking to go from mediocre-at-best to elite within the next few years. He was a first round draft pick in 2017 and has been handed the keys to the first base position for the foreseeable future.
There was, in short, A LOT on his plate in 2020. And, other than his defense – which was superb enough to garner him the first of probably many Gold Glove Awards – a lot went wrong. He had a slash line of .176/.252/.346. His strikeout rate was through the roof, his swing-and-miss rate skyrocketed compared to his minor league norms, and he got off to a REALLY bad start; so those terrible numbers are a result of him sort of turning things on a little bit towards the end of the truncated season (emphasis on “a little bit”).
Many fans are concerned, because the Mariners are planning on giving him a LONG leash, for obvious reasons: his contract, the fact that he’s a high draft pick, the fact that he’s so elite at defense, the fact that we’re still not projected to legitimately contend for championships for at least another few years. This doesn’t have the feel of rushing someone along like it did with so many guys prior (Mike Zunino most notably), because he’s not on a team that’s expected to do anything, other than incrementally improve year by year. Rather, he’s being given the experience he needs – in a low-pressure environment, relative to expectations (obviously, it’s high-pressure in the sense that it’s the MAJOR LEAGUES and therefore the dream of everyone who’s ever picked up a baseball bat as a child) – as this organization continues to grow through its rebuild. He’s not the Franchise Savior; White has always been projected as a solid complementary piece to a potentially-great team. If everything pans out with the rest of the rebuild, you’d be happy with White bringing you his usual brand of defense, and batting 7th in the order every night. Best case scenario still only has White maybe batting in the 2-hole (if he gets his strikeouts under control and starts walking and hitting for power more).
Even though the plan seems sound, you never know if it’s a case of too much too soon. White needs to hit to make it in the Majors, that’s the bottom line. He doesn’t need to be a guy who hits .300, or who bashes 35+ home runs; with his defense, you can excuse some mediocre or streaky hitting. BUT, he can’t be a sub-.200 guy who strikes out 200 times; that’s never going to fly.
I won’t say 2021 is a Make Or Break year for White, like it might be for someone like Haniger or obviously Kikuchi; I will say that it would be nice to see some improvement. If it’s more of the same – or God forbid worse – then I think that’s a very ominous trend, and you’d have to start wondering if he will last through his contract. At the very least, we would seriously alter our expectations. A prolonged slump to start his Major League career can very well be his reality, since he brings so much with his glove; it’s nearly impossible to sit him (made all the more apparent by the fact that we have no other first basemen of note in the pipeline behind him). It’s White Or Bust, for at LEAST the next two seasons!
The Mariners can make it easier on him by other guys producing in the lineup. If we can hide White towards the bottom of the order, then I think it’s okay to keep a struggling hitter who is otherwise a value add in the field. But, if everyone else underperforms, that’s only going to magnify White’s presence, since he is considered a piece of this team’s future.
I know we’re all rooting for him to succeed; it’s always a bonus whenever you can draft and develop your own talent and turn them into viable everyday players. An Evan White who pans out means we have one less hole to fill on this roster going forward; a roster full of more question marks than definite answers. And since expectations for him have been tempered from the beginning – he was never projected to be a huge power bat in the middle of the lineup, for instance – the bar he needs to cross isn’t unreasonable at all. Be a .250 hitter. Get on base at a .350 clip. Hit 20 homers and 30 doubles a year. And be a regular finalist for the Gold Glove at first base. That isn’t too much to ask, I don’t think. Anything beyond that is gravy.
It would be nice if he could clear this benchmark starting in 2021, but if he doesn’t, it’s not the end of the world. However, if he isn’t at that level for 2022 and beyond … then I think it could be time to worry.