Bakersfield, California — From his three years of college ball, to the four he’s spent in the minors, and to his two big league brothers, Seattle Mariners prospect Justin Seager brings a wealth of experience to the Bakersfield Blaze. The first baseman, who was in High-A last year, is now repeating the level in Bakersfield. He is something of an elder statesman on this club. At 24 years old, it’s a role he’s learning to embrace as his career evolves.
“You mature a little bit as you go, and this is a couple years of pro ball for me now, I’ve learned the ins and outs,” he told me before a recent Blaze game. “When you’re first fresh, you go, ‘OK, I’m gonna go hit every ball out, I’m gonna hit four doubles a night, I’m gonna climb the ladder in a week.’ That’s what everybody thinks, but it doesn’t work like that.”
Justin has seen his fair share of adversity. A broken back in high school nearly derailed his college hopes before local program UNC-Charlotte came with an offer. He made it to the minors, but a difficult 2015 summer in Bakersfield (.191/.277/.281 in 278 at-bats) firmly placed the “organizational” label on him, at least among outsiders. Yet, to the middle brother of stars Kyle and Corey, that’s water under the bridge and experience gained for the future. To Justin’s teammates, that adversity is a badge of honor.
“The wealth of knowledge that he has is second to none,” Blaze outfielder and well-regarded Mariners prospect Braden Bishop told me in Bakersfield’s clubhouse, ironically with Justin looking on and teasing Bishop throughout the interview. “He has two brothers in the major leagues that are obviously thriving, but he is just another guy, and I want to be around a guy like that who comes from such a good baseball family.”
Bishop, who himself knows a thing or two about being a good teammate, is the new hotshot prospect, the kid promoted to Bakersfield less than a month ago. The Mariners see him as a big part of their long-term plans. It’s doubly a testament to Seager that almost immediately, a guy like Bishop gravitated to the relative veteran.
“He knows what he’s talking about, and this is his second year in the league, so he obviously knows his way around here,” Bishop continued. “The more I can be around someone like that, the more it’s going to create better habits for myself.”
It’s not just Bishop, either; Seager is an affable guy. He’s liable to strike up a conversation with anyone — with fans, the bat boys between innings, or with me after Blaze batting practice, about the state of North Carolina. (As it turns out, Seager and I lived 15 minutes apart in small towns north of Charlotte.)
That relaxed approachability speaks to his maturity and big-picture understanding of the game. Seager grasps this league and his role within it. More than a power hitter, or a first baseman, or really anything on-field, the story I kept hearing about Seager revolved around how great a blessing he’s been to his teammates.
Isaac Sanchez, a relief pitcher with the Blaze, came over to the Mariners’ organization this winter after being selected in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft. Plucked from the Pittsburgh Pirates, the only organization and teammates he’d ever known in pro ball, Sanchez walked into Mariner camp the first day of spring training as a total stranger.
It didn’t take long for Justin Seager to change that.
“Justin, man, I love that guy,” Sanchez told me, immediately breaking into a smile when I asked about the first baseman. “He was the first guy that came up to me in spring training, and ever since then, I’ve clicked with him. I thought he was going to start here in Bakersfield, and unfortunately it didn’t happen, but as soon as he got here I kind of clicked with him again.”
Who could’ve guessed that a first baseman like Seager (who started 2016 at Double-A Jackson before returning to Bakersfield) and a relief pitcher like Sanchez would click. On the field in drills during spring, the two rarely cross paths in their responsibilities. Off the field, Seager is a talkative, good-natured Southern boy, the experienced Mariner farmhand with two big league brothers. Sanchez is a bilingual, extremely soft-spoken Northeasterner, the product of Dominican-born parents and, at least back in March, a total stranger to the organization. That Sanchez speaks so highly of Seager as a friend, then, ought to tell you where Justin’s priorities lie with his teammates.
“Whether it’s a position player or a pitcher, you just connect with somebody, and you end up clicking with them,” Sanchez said, acknowledging how unlikely it was that he connected with Seager. “Whether you talk all the time or you talk just a little bit, whether you interact a lot on or off the field, you’ll always click. And for me, that’s Seager. That’s my boy right there.”
All this teammate talk is great, and it no doubt matters insofar as it makes Seager an important clubhouse guy for the Blaze, a club in the thick of the California League playoff race. That aside, there is an on-field component too, and slowly but surely, it looks like Seager is figuring it out at the plate. In 54 games with Bakersfield entering Sunday night, he was hitting .212/.333/.364 with seven home runs—all significant improvements over his time with the Blaze last year.
“I definitely didn’t have the year I wanted to have last year,” Seager conceded. “I knew I had holes in my swing, I knew I had things to fix. I went back in the offseason with my brothers and my dad, and we made some adjustments. I’m controlling my bottom half better. Now, I’m getting in a better position to make my swing a lot more consistent, and I’m getting through the ball a lot better now.”
It took Seager 256 games to hit his first eight career home runs, and he’s now hit seven more in the 56 games at Bakersfield this summer alone, so something has clearly changed for him. It’s not just the California League’s advantageous parks, either; those ignorant to Bakersfield will point to Sam Lynn Ballpark’s 354-foot center field wall as evidence of a short porch, never actually understanding just how hard it is to hit a home run unless they see it firsthand.
Eschewing his home ballpark (“the ball actually doesn’t go very far here, and that messes with you,” he admitted), the North Carolinian credits his power to a quieter stance and stride to the pitch. It’s also a product of better understanding how to pick his spots—a sentiment I’ve heard from other power hitters in the Cal League.
“It’s easy for me to say now, because I went through the hard part, but I knew I had to get back to what I do best, which is drive the ball,” Seager said. “That means low line drives, spray the field, that sort of thing rather than trying to launch every ball out of the park. Drive the ball in the gaps for a while, and then the home runs come. That’s how you get the power.”
The slow development of power numbers might be a perfect metaphor for the slow development of Seager’s own career. Sure, there’s the obvious—and maybe lazy—comparison to his phenom brothers, but Justin Seager is his own man, with his own career at hand. His journey is reflected by those homers he’s hitting in Bakersfield: slowly but surely, things might be turning for the better.
“He definitely had a slow start, but now he’s really getting there,” Sanchez summed up. “I like the way he plays, and I like the way he is in the clubhouse with the team. He’s not a selfish guy. It always seems like he’s sacrificing himself for a victory for the team.”
Bishop added this word of appreciation:
“Anywhere you go, you want to fit in, and I knew a lot of these guys from spring training. But to have a guy like Seager come over and take me under his wing and show me the ropes, I really appreciate that.”
I stopped the recorder and thanked Bishop for his time. As I walked out of the Blaze clubhouse, Seager turned around in front of his locker towards Bishop, ready to rib the outfielder over the interview.
“So… what’d you say about me?”
“Nothing much,” Bishop responded. “Just that you couldn’t hit.”
I walked to the other end of the clubhouse before I could hear the response, but I like to imagine Seager shot right back at Bishop as only a veteran could do.