SEATTLE – It was headed toward being one of those ill-fated Mariners washout trades that people love to throw in their faces. Daniel Vogelbach could have joined the list of touted Seattle prospects who fizzle and fade, then quietly disappear.
But this story veered off that familiar course and took a sharp turn toward redemption – on multiple fronts. Vogelbach will be in Cleveland for next Tuesday’s All-Star Game, having been selected as the Mariners’ lone representative. And it was more than just a token selection because of a Major League Baseball rule that says each team must be represented; he earned it.
It’s a rare bright spot in this gloomy Mariners season, and another milepost on Vogelbach’s journey toward full-fledged folk-hero status. If the MLB decision-makers come to their senses and invite Vogelbach into the Home Run Derby – a move that makes so much sense it probably won’t happen – he could be baseball’s newest cult sensation by Monday night.
There’s just something endearing about Vogelbach. Of course, it starts with his Chris Farley build and Popeye power. Everyone loves a big man who can rake. But there’s also a kind of goofy enthusiasm that exudes from Vogelbach. He seems to love playing baseball, and not every player conveys that sentiment.
Acquired from the Cubs in July 2016 for left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery, Vogelbach seemed for a long while to be a classic “4A” player. He put up sparkling numbers in the Pacific Coast League but faltered during his intermittent (and irregular) major-league opportunities.
Coming into the 2019 season, Vogelbach had a .197 career average in 146 plate appearances, and it was hard to conjure a scenario that had a prominent spot for him in the Mariners’ plans.
Montgomery, meanwhile, threw the final pitch of the 2016 season, the one that netted the Cubs their first World Series title in 108 years. That made him a legend in Wrigleyville until the end of time. He became a reliable swingman on Chicago’s staff, not quite Adam Jones to Vogelbach’s Erik Bedard, but a persistent reminder of an early deal by Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto that seemed to have backfired.
Instead, it may pay long-term dividends. Call it delayed gratification, which often is the case when evaluating trades. Dipoto loved the combination of power and batting eye that Vogelbach displayed, which coincided with Seattle’s new mantra to “Control the Zone.”
So, for that matter, did the Cubs, who picked him in the second round of the 2011 draft, right after Javier Baez. But first base in Chicago was blocked for the foreseeable future by perennial All-Star Anthony Rizzo, making Vogelbach expendable.
He continued to flaunt his skills at Tacoma, putting up an OPS of .844 in 2017 and .979 last year. But whenever he was called up – Vogelbach had five stints in the majors in 2018 – he never got enough consistent playing time to get into a groove. He was mired behind Nelson Cruz at designated hitter, and the likes of Danny Valencia and Ryon Healy at first base.
But this is where Vogelbach deserves plaudits for his persistence, and Dipoto for his patience. Vogelbach worked diligently in multiple offseasons to get in better shape and improve his range in the field. He changed his batting approach to maximize launch angle. All he needed was an opportunity.
It seemed like Vogelbach was on the verge of a breakout in 2018 when he led all major leaguers in spring training in the three slash-line categories. He hit .407 with a .529 on-base percentage and .926 slugging percentage. But once the season started, the playing time was not there. And he did little to seize more.
That seemed to be the danger for Vogelbach this year, as well. With Edwin Encarnacion and Jay Bruce needing to be in the lineup if for no other reason than to inflate their trade value, Vogelbach was in danger of sporadic playing time once more, or another Tacoma stint. You even wondered if Dipoto would try to deal him.
But when Encarnacion suffered a wrist injury early in the season, Vogelbach seized the opportunity. He hit so well – a four-game stretch of five homers and nine runs batted in – that manager Scott Servais couldn’t take him out of the lineup.
The more playing time Vogelbach got, the more comfortable and locked in he became. And the more his personality was unveiled. “Fun” isn’t a word often associated with the 2019 Mariners, but much of it has been provided by Vogelbach.
His growth has been a highlight of this season, and gives hope that the Mariners have found their designated hitter of the future – as well as a colorful presence who can be a leader of the talented young core the Mariners hope is on the way.
There’s still work to be done, mind you. Though Vogelbach’s .379 on-base percentage, 20 home runs and .898 OPS puts him among the American League leaders, his .244 average could (and should) improve. And Vogelbach’s .129 batting average against left-handers (8 for 62) is alarming. He’s done a serviceable job in the field since Encarnacion’s trade, but with defensive whiz Evan White the heir apparent at first base, Vogelbach’s future is as a DH.
And now that future is brighter than ever. Forget about being a 4A player.
Daniel Vogelbach is an All-Star.
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