PEORIA, Ariz. – In past years, the first day of full-squad workouts has often been greeted by cooler temperatures, cloudy skies and even rain. Tuesday, though, as the Mariners held their first full-squad workout of 2020, the Phoenix area offered the perfect cliché of what spring training weather is supposed to be: blue skies, warm-to-hot sun and temps nearing 80 degrees.
Even in a rebuilding year, when the team plans to play most of its young prospects to gain experience for seasons ahead – and 90 to 100 defeats are a distinct possibility – there was still a level of optimism and energy as 66 of the 70 players invited to camp took to the six fields at the Mariners complex.
Absent were infielder Dee Gordon, who is awaiting the birth of his first child, outfielder Mitch Haniger, who is recovering from a recent surgery, infielder Alen Hanson, who is dealing with a visa issue, and reliever Austin Adams, who was at the complex but not participating because of knee surgery.
“I’m fired up,” manager Scott Servais said before the workout. “I really am. After the last five days just with pitchers and catchers, it’s gone very well. Now the full squad comes in and I think this might be the most players we’ve ever had in a camp since I’ve been here. I think everybody looks forward to this day. We’ll talk to the troops here in a few minutes and get them going.”
Clad in new powder blue jerseys and crisp white pants – now all manufactured by Nike – the Mariners worked out from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m., with a larger-than-expected group of fans roaming the complex to watch them do individual work in the field, team situational drills and take batting practice.
Chatter, laughter, yelling from coaches and the familiar sounds of gloves popping and baseballs hitting bats filled the air.
“It’s like the first day of school,” outfielder Mallex Smith said. “Everybody is excited about that and has high hopes to be in this moment right now. It’s a good day to start making that first impression.”
That oft-used school simile from Smith might be even more fitting for the Mariners given the number of young and inexperienced players in camp, most of whom are participating in their first or second big-league camp. There is much to learn and prove in the coming weeks.
A large portion of that group of young players has been in Arizona for more than a week, working out with coaches. Some players have moved to the area, while others wanted to be here early for what will be a seminal camp. Still, the first workout offered a different, more official feel.
“It’s different when you put that jersey on for the workout today and everyone is out there,” outfielder Kyle Lewis said. “This year for me, it’s fun. I already know what’s going on and have a better idea.”
A year ago, Lewis was a wide-eyed participant in his first spring training. He knows what it’s like for touted prospects Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, who are in a similar situation this year.
“It’s been pretty cool to be around all these guys out there, having fun and doing what you like to do – playing baseball,” Rodriguez said. “My first day of my first spring training; I will never forget this day.”
“We are really young,” Kelenic said. “And it makes the transition coming from minor league camp to big league camp that much easier. You can relate to guys that much more, especially with Julio. He and I have come up together and that makes it that much easier. It’s really exciting to be out here with all these guys and competing.”
Because there are so many younger players, this spring training is expected to be heavy on instruction in the days before and after Cactus League games begin. It starts even before they take the field with daily meetings.
“We have things to work on,” Servais said. “We have a very young team. I’m looking forward to this spring because we have the ability to slow it down a little bit.”
Unlike last season, the Mariners won’t have an early series in Japan. That limited them to just 30 days in Arizona, and there was a rushed sensation to camp. There is no time crunch this year, which is useful with so many new faces with minimal to no MLB experience.
“I’ve talked about just simplifying,” Servais said. “How clear can we be in what we do, and why we do it, is really going to be the message that I’ll be driving. … So we’ll take advantage of those opportunities this spring and I’m looking forward to it.”
Part of that message is a reminder of Servais’ team slogan for each season. A year ago, it was “kaizen,” a Japanese word for the concept of continuous improvement. It was something he picked up while reading about the competitive nature of businesses in Japan.
While it seemed clear he didn’t want to expound on the slogan for this year too much, the signs all over the clubhouse were noticeable, reading:
“Doesn’t matter, get better.”
The saying and mindset stems from the Mariners’ annual leadership summit held in January. The club invited around 50 players to the multiple-day event at T-Mobile Park. The keynote speaker of the summit was Brian Kight, the founder of Daily Discipline. Per his website, Kight has delivered talks and workshops to Fortune 500 businesses and several college and professional teams. One of those discussions is about the mindset of “doesn’t matter, get better.”
It’s obviously something that resonated with Servais and the organization.
“Just get better,” Servais said. “We have a lot to work on. Everybody comes from different backgrounds and they all got into the room on a different path, but it really doesn’t matter, just get better. You’ll hear it often.
“It’s really important that we do explain what we’re doing, why we’re doing it. All the players know what we’re trying to do organizationally here. We’re trying to build a foundation for a championship ballclub and it starts today. We continue to make steps in how we shuffle our roster and coaching staff and different things along the way. But all the decisions we make are geared toward winning a championship and that is from top to bottom.”
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