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Baseball: Kyle Seager stays humble

The size of Seattle third baseman Kyle Seager’s paychecks will change dramatically this year, but there’s little chance success will spoil him.

He signed a $100 million contract with the Mariners shortly after Thanksgiving. It’s a seven-year deal with the heavier dollars scheduled for later in his career. He received a $3.5 million signing bonus, and his salary for the 2015 season will be $4.5 million.

Seager, who turned 27 on Nov. 3,  played with a $540,000 contract in 2014, but he doesn’t plan any lifestyle changes.

“It’s just been kind of a whirlwind the last few months,” said Seager, who played in last summer’s MLB All-Star Game. “A lot of things have happened at once.”

Driving to Kannapolis from the Greensboro airport for the holidays, Seager checked in with the Salisbury Post to talk about old times, his exciting present and a bright future. His two younger brothers, Justin, a first baseman in the Seattle organization, and Corey, a touted Los Angeles Dodgers prospect , were riding with him and joined the conversation via speakerphone.

“But I’m doing the driving — it’s not like I can trust these guys,” Kyle joked.

Kannapolis’ American Legion team was so stacked in 2004 that Kyle, coming off a fine sophomore season at Northwest Cabarrus High, sometimes batted ninth and often served as the DH. But by the end of that summer, he was the leadoff man for the Area III champions. There was a game against Greensboro in the Area III championship series in which Seager hit two homers and drove in six runs. Caldwell County, which had a pitcher/DH named Madison Bumgarner, eliminated Kannapolis from the state tournament. Bumgarner now has three World Series rings with San Francisco.

As a junior at Northwest Cabarrus in 2005, Kyle swung the biggest bat for a powerful team that was runner-up in 3A. He didn’t play American Legion that summer, shining instead on the showcase circuit.

But after his senior year at NWC in 2006, he was reunited with his Kannapolis American Legion teammates — the Wojans, half A.L. Brown Wonders and half NWC Trojans —   for one last try at a state title.

When the MLB draft came around that June, Seager wasn’t selected at all. He had signed with UNC-Chapel Hill, and his parents, Jeff and Jody, had let scouts know that unless he was taken in the early rounds, not to waste the pick.

Seager went 8-for-20 with three homers as Kannapolis beat Rowan County in a playoff series and was 7-for-15 as Kannapolis handled Randolph County for the Area III championship. Rowan County coach Jim Gantt said there was no way to pitch to Seager, and East Rowan coach Brian Hightower declared him the best high school hitter he’d ever seen.

But once again, Kannapolis fell short in the state tournament. Caldwell County’s Bumgarner launched two homers to beat Kannapolis, 11-10, at High Point’s Finch Field in the game that crushed their chances.

Seager’s three-year career at UNC unfolded as expected. He was an exceptional player, pounding streams of doubles and fielding adequately, usually at second base. He played on three teams that reached the College World Series. He was never considered the Tar Heels’ best player or their strongest pro prospect. Scouts liked his left-handed bat but most projected his ceiling as a utility infielder. He wasn’t expected to have the power to be a regular at third base or the quickness to be a regular at second base.

Seattle saw him the most in college because it was extensively scouting his teammate, Dustin Ackley. In the 2009 draft, the Mariners took Ackley with the second overall pick. Seattle got Seager in the third round. He was the 82nd player chosen.

Seager hit .328 in the minor leagues, but with a modest 22 homers in 1,090 at-bats, so there still were plenty of doubters that he’d make any sort of MLB impact. Seattle called him up in 2011. In 2012, the Mariners had enough faith in him to turn third base over to him. He hasn’t looked back.

In three seasons, Seager has 94 doubles, 67 homers and 251 RBIs. He’s second among MLB third basemen in RBIs and extra-base hits in that stretch. He’s also an iron man. He’s played in 520 of Seattle’s last 540 games.

That’s why Seattle offered a contact that exceeded Kyle’s childhood dreams. The Mariners see him as a fixture in their lineup into his mid-30s. Many thought Seager, who is married to a local girl (Julie) and has a 1-year-old son (Crue), might return closer to his roots when he signed his next contact. He was eligible for salary arbitration and would have been eligible for free agency after the 2017 season.

But he’s thrilled with everything about Seattle, from the organization that gave him a chance, to the evergreen forests. He considers Seattle his second home now.

“It’s a beautiful city, a great place, and my wife just loves being part of the community there,” Seager said.

Seager had his best season offensively and defensively in 2014, batting .268 with 27 doubles, 25 homers and 96 RBIs. He started slowly, but a game-winning homer on April 23 got him going. From that night up to the All-Star Game, he batted .307 and had 61 RBIs in 73 games. That’s why he was picked as an injury replacement for the All-Star Game when Toronto slugger Edwin Encarnacion went down. Seager found out he’d been added to the team while he was out buying diapers.

“There were a lot of great things about the All-Star Game,” Kyle said. “Corey was there (he played in the Futures Game) with my family, and I got to play with Derek Jeter in his last All-Star Game. When I was growing up, Jeter was always my guy, and to be there with him —  just an unbelievably great experience.”

Seager got to bat against closers Francisco Rodriguez and Aroldis Chapman, who threw him a 101-mph fastball.

Seager’s other major accomplishment for 2014 was the Gold Glove Award for American League third baseman. People have known Seager could hit for a long time, but his fielding hasn’t received much praise. The Gold Glove is a testament to the work he’s put in. He had the highest fielding percentage for third basemen at .981, with just eight errors in 422 chances. Seager credits Seattle infield coach Chris Woodward for his improvement.

“That Gold Glove is pretty special,” Seager said. “”I’m prouder of that than any award I’ve ever gotten.”

Kyle is also intensely proud of his younger brothers.

Corey, the most gifted Seager,  has been considered a can’t-miss prospect since his high school days at Northwest Cabarrus.

Justin is always the underdog. The middle Seager is the right-handed-hitting Seager and the Seager who’s had to overcome injuries. Justin, 22, was never touted, but he blossomed enough as a hitter as a Charlotte 49er to be picked in the 12th round of the 2013 draft by the Mariners.

Justin played full-season Class A ball for the Clinton Lumberkings last summer — a league  equivalent to the South Atlantic League in which the Kannapolis Intimidators play. In 171 minor league games, Justin has hit six homers, driven in 67 runs and batted .250.

Justin is fine with being Kyle’s “little brother” in the Mariners organization.

“There aren’t any disadvantages to being Kyle’s brother and there are a lot of advantages,” Justin said. “For one thing, he gets to see every  one of my at-bats on video tape. He analyzes those at-bats, offers advice, and I make adjustments.”

While Justin’s stats have been modest, it would be a mistake to write off a Seager. No one’s going to outwork Justin, and you get the feeling he’s going to keep plugging until he has his breakout.

“This past season was my first full season in pro ball,” Justin said. “I learned a lot about myself, learned a lot about my swing.”

Corey was a South Carolina commit by his junior year in high school, but as a 6-foot-4 athlete with a textbook swing, there was never doubt he’d be a high draft pick. The Dodgers took him with the 18th pick in the first round in 2012. Corey played on the USA national teams growing up and batted .514 in the Pan-Am Games in Mexico.

He’s always been a strong-armed, smooth shortstop as well as a lefty masher. The 215-pound 20-year-old is large for a shortstop, so the assumption has been  he’d move to third base  at some point, but he’s reached Double A and is still making the plays at shortstop.

“Shortstop is where I’ve always played and it’s where I’m most comfortable,” Corey said.

The Dodgers recently signed 36-year-old Jimmy Rollins, National League MVP in 2007. The thinking is that Rollins will handle shortstop until Corey,  ranked among baseball’s top  prospects by everyone, is deemed ready. Corey can already hit lefties with authority and drives the ball to the opposite field.

Corey hit .352 with 18 homers and 70 RBIs in 80 games in advanced Class A last summer before being moved up to Double A, and he recently was rated among the best prospects in the Arizona Fall League.

“Arizona had a lot of the top guys and was a very tough league, but I honestly don’t pay much attention to lists or rankings or what people are saying about me,” Corey said. “I just want to play the game, and I’m happy about the Dodgers signing Jimmy Rollins. There’s a lot I can learn from a guy like that.”

The three Seagers will hit together, run together and work out together as much as possible this offseason.

Kyle is excited about the recent signing by Seattle of slugger Nelson Cruz, an all-star who powered 40 homers last season. The Mariners just missed the playoffs in 2014, and now they have Cruz, Robinson Cano — and Seager.

“Cruz is a huge pickup, you put him hitting behind Cano, and we’ve got a very tough lineup, ” Kyle said. “We’ve got a great chance to win.”

You might assume Kyle will relax a little now that he has that big contact in his pocket, but if you believe that, you don’t know Kyle.

“I plan to work harder this offseason than I’ve ever worked in my life,” Kyle said. “Seattle has given me and my family a great opportunity.  I want to bring them a championship.”

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