By Lauren Smith
McClatchy News Service
PEORIA, ARIZ. — Standing at his locker in the Seattle Mariners spring training clubhouse one morning last week, Shed Long Jr., at 24 years old, looked around at all the young guys.
“I feel old, kind of,” he said.
Then he laughed at the thought, surely knowing when camp breaks he is projected to be one of the youngest players in the big leagues with an everyday starting job.
But, in this Mariners camp, it’s easy to see why Long, less than 50 games into his major league career, might feel such a way. More than a dozen of the 71 players competing for spots on Seattle’s roster this spring are indeed even younger than he is. And as for the culture that youthful energy creates, he’s all for it.
“It’s nice to have a younger group in here, and a hungry group,” Long said. “I like it. The vibes around, and the mood around — everybody’s hungry and expecting to win, so I’m enjoying it for sure.”
Count him among the young and hungry guys. Just over a year after he arrived in Seattle, Long has his opportunity to break out.
‘A huge year for Shed’
The Mariners acquired him last January in a trade with the Yankees, via Cincinnati, and he quickly became one of their most intriguing minor leaguers, with a flashy bat and the ability to move around the field on defense.
Last season with Triple-A Tacoma, where he spent most of the season, Long logged time at second, third and in left field. He was drafted by the Reds in 2013 out of Alabama’s Jacksonville High School as a catcher.
By moving veteran Dee Gordon into more of a utility role this season, the Mariners have opted to take a shot on Long as their everyday second baseman.
“This is a huge year for Shed Long,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It really is. Does he take it and run with it? There was talk last year that he might be a utility guy — he might be a guy who can play some left, some second, some third.
“We’re going to give him a chance to try to find a home at second base, and hopefully he takes it.”
After patiently working his way through the minors with both the Reds and Mariners over the course of seven seasons, Long finally made his big league debut in May.
He played in a game in Tacoma — and belted a two-run homer — hours before hopping on a plane to join the Mariners on a road trip in Boston.
Long’s positional flexibility made him a strong option for Seattle’s ailing infield, which had just lost Gordon and utility man Dylan Moore to wrist injuries. He stayed up with the club for about three weeks, playing primarily second base, before he was optioned back to Triple-A.
Though he appeared in just 19 games during that first stint, the offensive numbers — a .232/.329/.377 slash with seven doubles, one homer, five RBI, 10 walks and three stolen bases — were enough to turn a few heads.
Injuries stunt season
It seemed Long would rejoin the big league club sooner rather than later. Then he got hurt. Two weeks into his return to Tacoma, he dove for a ball on the damp infield dirt, got stuck, and tweaked his left shoulder. He spent eight days on the injured list, but was determined to recover quickly from the setback.
Four innings into his first game back from the IL, he got hurt again, breaking the middle finger on his left hand trying to turn a double play.
“I didn’t want to face the fact,” Long said last season. “I was just like, ‘A few days, and I’ll be back. No worries.’ ”
But, it turned into the longest IL stay of his career, and he didn’t play again until the end of August, missing out on perhaps another opportunity to join the big league club.
“Honestly, there were times I was depressed, wasn’t getting any sleep, just because I wanted to play so badly,” Long said then.
When Long finally did return to the field, he was almost immediately called back up to Seattle to spend the final month of the season with the Mariners, and was motivated to reconcile a somewhat lost summer.
He made the absolute most of his September. He appeared in 23 games, and took firm ownership of the leadoff spot in the Mariners’ batting order, hitting .289/.337/.518 with two doubles, a triple, four homers and 10 RBI.
Whatever his regular defensive position would end up being, it became clear to Seattle’s staff Long’s bat needed to be in the lineup moving forward.
“He can hit,” Servais said. “It’s a different kind of bat. … You just go watch BP and it sounds different. The ball jumps off the bat. It’s power all over the field. He drives the ball in gaps.
“It’s a real threat, certainly at the top of the lineup. If the lineup flips over and he’s at the top, it’s nice. The best teams do have those guys.”
‘Like a big brother’
As the offseason progressed, the Mariners leaned toward moving forward with Long at second base in place of Gordon, as they continue to roll out young players as part of this rebuild.
Long recognizes the weight of the opportunity in front of him, and spent the offseason preparing, including traveling to Orlando to work out with Gordon, who is one of his closest friends, in December.
“We just trained — weights, baseball — and then just chilled,” Long said. “He was giving me knowledge like he always does. We’re pretty close. He’s like a big brother to me. It’s like blood couldn’t even make us closer. We’ve got a good relationship.”
Gordon has been one of Long’s most important mentors in baseball. The two infielders were introduced back in 2015 through Gordon’s brother, Nick, who Long had met while playing in the minors.
“That offseason I started working out with them in Orlando,” Long said. “After that, it just continued. … We’re kind of similar in a way. Our backgrounds, the way we were brought up is similar.
“We relate well and he just took me under his wing.”
Both come from church backgrounds and strong family structures, Long said, and with Gordon being nearly seven years older, Long has looked to him for guidance.
“Some of the things I feel like I do and say, he’s done that, and he said that when he was my age,” Long said. “I think he sees that, and he tries to steer me in the right direction.”
Now, with everything he’s learned, and continues to learn this spring, Long is finally on the cusp of realizing his dream to be an everyday player at the big league level.
“It’s like the hard work is finally paying off,” he said. “Now I’ve just got to keep working hard and attacking every day like it’s the last.”
He’s spent his spring tirelessly working with legendary Mariners infielders coach Perry Hill, who has already coached eight Gold Glove winners — including Gordon in 2015 with Miami.
“He’s so hands-on and so genuine,” Long said. “You can tell that he cares. … I’ve made strides from last year to this year. It’s like night and day. Without him that wouldn’t have happened.”
Long still tries to be too quick on defensive at times, Hill said, and the two have focused on slowing him down, but the fundamentals are coming along. Long has the arm strength and athleticism, it’s just about developing consistency and accuracy when making throws or turning double plays.
Hill can see Long developing into a solid second baseman at the big league level. And, like Servais, recognizes the impact Long can have on the other side of the ball.
“He can hit,” Hill said. “You’d like to have his bat somewhere. I think (second base is) probably his best position. He knows what to do and how to do it, we’ve just got to tone him down a little bit.”
“Guys settle in on one spot and get comfortable and know what to expect,” Servais said. “They get in a nice routine.”
Long is ambitious, and not shy about it. He’d like to be an All-Star when all is said and done this season, but as the spring develops, he wants to emphasize trusting the process.
“Be better the next day than I was yesterday — that’s my main focus,” he said.