PEORIA, Arizona – After nearly two weeks in Arizona watching the Mariners go through the rigors of spring training, I am much more optimistic about their 2020 outlook.
I now think they will lose only 96 games instead of 104.
OK, I’m being snarky. But not untruthful. I’ll say it one more time: Brace yourselves. This will be a rough season from a wins-and-losses standpoint. It can’t help but be. There is simply too much youth, too little depth and far from enough healthy, major-league-ready pitching.
But – stick with me here – I can also see the road map out of this parched desert with more clarity. It’s hiding in plain sight in Peoria, Arizona, if you just look in the right places, with an open mind and a little imagination.
Now the thing about road maps is that they don’t always lead you where you want to go. Take a few wrong turns, hit a few detours, run into some roadblocks, and you’ll be stuck right where you started. Or even heading backward.
That’s where the Mariners are now. They have more exciting building blocks in the organization than they’ve had in, well, forever. I saw that firsthand in Peoria. How they develop this year will determine if an end is in sight to nearly two decades of misery.
In the meantime, here are some camp observations:
1. Outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez are the real deal. I know Mariners fans are conditioned to expect the worst from their most-touted prospects, but these guys are different, by every indicator. Sure, they could always flop – baseball is littered with can’t-miss talent that missed – but I haven’t seen young Mariners position players with this kind of upside in a long, long time.
2. That said, I would be shocked if Kelenic makes the opening-day roster. That topic grew in intensity Monday when Kelenic went 2 for 2 with a massive home run to raise his Cactus League average to .357.
But let’s cool our jets – that sounds great, but we’re talking an average built on going 5-for-14. It’s a little premature to alter the organization developmental plan for Kelenic based on such a tiny sample size. Remember, he has played all of 21 games above Class A. Kelenic will arrive in Seattle at some point in 2020 – and J-Rod won’t be far behind.
3. On the first day pitchers threw live batting practice, Mallex Smith stepped in against Logan Gilbert, who promptly buckled him with a nasty curve.
“I haven’t seen enough pitching to face THAT yet,” Smith announced to much snickering.
Gilbert is the pitching version of Kelenic and Rodriguez – the breakout candidate the Mariners need to be a bona fide top-of-the-rotation guy for this rebuild plan to succeed at maximum level.
Gilbert, just 22, is raw but far more self-assured than he was last spring. The stuff is readily apparent and perhaps not too far away. The Mariners are counting on him to soar through the system and possibly be ready to hit the majors this year. Certainly, he should battle for a rotation spot next year.
4. The most heartwarming moment of spring training occurred when Sam Carlson, once considered the best pitching prospect in the organization until Tommy John elbow surgery derailed him for more than two years, threw live batting practice on a back field.
It will be a long road back for Carlson, with no guarantees, but it was truly touching to see how many players, coaches and trainers gathered to watch Carlson’s session. And it was especially poignant see how emotional Carlson got while reflecting on his journey. Just 21, Carlson could still be a valuable arm for the Mariners.
5. The Mariners’ level of (relative) success at the major-league level will depend a great deal on the comebacks of pitchers Kendall Graveman and Taijuan Walker.
Both have had some flashes in the majors. But both are coming back from Tommy John surgery. And both are penciled into the starting rotation.
Graveman has looked healthy and effective. Walker, who has pitched a mere 14 innings combined the past two seasons, is being brought along more slowly. The Mariners say everything is OK with Walker, but it’s a bit worrisome he still hasn’t pitched in an exhibition game.
If either has a setback, Justin Dunn is waiting in the wings.
6. Speaking of comebacks, one of the most promising is that of left-handed pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. The Mariners invested $58 million in Kikuchi last year, only to have him deliver a disastrous debut season with a 5.46 earned-run average.
No player in camp has made a bigger turnaround. Kikuchi worked diligently all winter on simplifying his mechanics, and he has unleashed electric stuff at times. The life and velocity in his fastball and slider have kicked up several notches.
If Kikuchi can take that into the season, he has a chance to redeem that investment. And the Mariners would have another piece to build their future rotation around.
7. One clear area of improvement this year will be infield defense, as Seattle Times reporter Ryan Divish has touched upon. After looking for a while like they were going to challenge the team record for errors last year, the Mariners should have a much more competent infield from the start.
The potential weak link is Shed Long at second, but the Mariners hope a crash course with veteran instructor Perry Hill will fix his issues. Hill did wonders last year with shortstop J.P. Crawford, who has the tools to be a plus defender – as does Long, eventually.
The real revelation this spring, though, has been first baseman Evan White, who from the day he was drafted in the first round in 2017 has been touted as having Gold Glove potential. To see is to believe: White has the potential to be the Mariners’ best defensive first baseman since John Olerud.
8. But will White hit in his first major-league stint? Will Kyle Lewis, who will be an outfield starter with just 18 big-league games under his belt? How about Long, with just 42 games, or Jake Fraley, with 12?
As Dee Gordon pointedly put it, the Mariners are handing out a lot of positions to players before they’ve done a lot at the major-league level to earn them. All four have the skills to be productive players – but I wouldn’t be stunned if one (or more) plays his way back to the minor leagues. That’s just the way these things usually work out.
9. Speaking of Gordon, he’ll be a fascinating case study. Gordon clearly is unhappy with his role as a reserve. But he also knows the only way he can play his way into a trade is by performing well enough for another team to want him.
I have a hunch Gordon is going to get more playing time than people might expect. His versatility makes him viable at a number of positions. And the Mariners wouldn’t mind dumping at least a portion of his salary. It’s a delicate balance on both sides.
10. Yes, it’s time to name a camp sleeper. I’m going to nominate 24-year-old reliever Sam Delaplane, who was a sensation last year when he arrived in Class AA Arkansas. In 25 games covering 37 innings, the right-hander allowed just 13 hits and two earned runs (0.49), striking out 58 and walking nine.
Delaplane has allowed one hit and no runs in three Cactus League innings. His curve has the spin-rate numbers that makes analysts drool. Delaplane will pitch in Seattle at some point this year – but so will about 40 of his friends, judging from recent experience.
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