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Seattle Mariners

Out of Right Field: Missing the Northwest League? Here’s a suggestion

Seattle right fielder Mallex Smith hits the wall as he misses a deep fly ball from Colorado’s Charlie Blackmon on Aug. 8.  (Associated Press)

Spyder Webb, the now-retired trainer of the Bellingham Mariners and Everett AquaSox whose name adorns the visiting clubhouse at Avista Stadium, used to affectionately refer to the short-season, Class A Northwest League as “Z-ball.”

The reason?

You couldn’t get any further from the major leagues.

Going to a Spokane Indians game wasn’t about wins and losses (as the league’s reduced playoff attendance would clearly show), but about having a good time at the ballpark, eating some peanuts and Cracker Jack, downing it with a cool beverage of your choice and cheering the between-innings promotions as vigorously as any double down the left-field line.

You might get to see some of the organization’s top prospects and, who knows, likely a future major leaguer or two.

Perhaps you could get really fortunate, as I did, and see something like Ken Griffey Jr., at age 17, hitting his first professional home run at Everett Memorial Stadium.

In many ways, it’s the same mindset with the Mariners. Especially in this pandemic-shortened season.

I’m not saying the M’s are playing at a “Z-ball” level – although the results of Friday night’s game in Houston might suggest otherwise, when they committed three errors in the first inning, allowing the Astros to score nine times on their way to an 11-1 victory.

But maybe we should view them through that same prism.

This abbreviated, 60-game Major League Baseball season is even shorter than a regular 76-game NWL campaign.

And it’s certainly not about wins and losses, because even the most optimistic M’s fan realizes they’re still a couple of years away from contention.

So maybe we should grab a pack of hot dogs at the grocery store, lean back in the recliner with that cold beverage and take in their contests the way we’d view a minor league game.

It’s all about having a good time and looking for future major league stars.

The Mariners would seem to have some of those, especially judging by Baseball America’s midseason rankings that came out last week. Seattle’s farm system came in at No. 3 overall.

That’s a far cry from the 2018 preseason rankings, when Baseball America had the M’s pegged at No. 30 – among 30 MLB teams.

No, general manager Jerry Dipoto’s “step-back” plan hasn’t come to fruition yet, at least at the major league level. But the farm system’s ranking is measurable progress.

In 2018, the only M’s farmhand among the magazine’s top 100 prospects was outfielder Kyle Lewis, and he was No. 67 at the time. Now the M’s have six players among the top 100 in outfielders Julio Rodriguez (No. 8) and Jarred Kelenic (12); right-hander Emerson Hancock (54), their first-round pick this year; first baseman Evan White (56); right-hander Logan Gilbert (63) and shortstop Noelvi Marte (99).

White is the only player among that group in the major leagues. And, while he’s shown he has a tremendous glove, the former first-round draft pick is batting just .113 with one home run and five RBIs entering Saturday’s game and has struck out a major league high 34 times in 71 at-bats.

“He’s learning a lot right now,” M’s manager Scott Servais said of White a few days ago. “Sometimes, life’s toughest lessons are hard to go through. Everything he’s looking for is all within himself. I saw Evan turn around a 98-mph fastball in summer camp and hit it out of the ballpark. I’ve seen him take two-strike sliders and slap them into right field and drive in runs. It’s all in there. Now, it’s what do we need to do to let it all come out?”

In a normal season, White likely would’ve been sent back to Triple-A Tacoma for a little more seasoning. But without Minor League Baseball being played this year because of coronavirus concerns, the only fallback is intrasquad games at the club’s alternative site at Cheney Stadium.

While White, second baseman Shed Long Jr., batting just .203, and outfielder Mallex Smith (.143) have struggled, there have been just as many positive signs.

Lewis, who is batting .333 with four home runs and 14 RBIs, has been mentioned among the American League Rookie of the Year candidates. Shortstop J.P. Crawford (.293) has shown he’s not just a good-field, no-hit infielder, reaching base in every game in which he’s played. Utility guys like Dylan Moore and Austin Nola have forced their way into the lineup with their bats. And starting pitchers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn recorded their first big league wins on consecutive days last week.

(For the purposes of brevity, we’ll skip Daniel Vogelbach – that’s another column entirely.)

Yes, the bullpen burped up a four-run lead in a 7-4 loss at Texas on Thursday. But even while allowing five runs in two-thirds of an inning and hitting two batters with pitches, Erik Swanson flashed a 99-mph fastball.

“Giving young guys opportunities in those spots is really, really valuable,” Servais said. “They will learn from it, and we will benefit from it down the road.”

All M’s fans can do now is try to enjoy the ride. It’ll be bumpy, but there are signs some of the roadwork is nearly complete.