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‘It’s on’: Mariners star prospect Julio Rodriguez makes opening day roster

Seattle Mariners' Julio Rodriguez bats during the second inning of a spring training baseball game against the Texas Rangers Monday, March 28, 2022, in Peoria, Ariz.   (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – The “if” was never considered. And the “when” is now.

“It’s time for Julio Rodriguez to play in the big leagues,” manager Scott Servais said in his Monday morning media session.

His announcement, which was followed by an immediate and still ongoing social media blast from the organization, verified what has been evident from the first days of spring training and grew more concrete with each day that brought another shake-your-head highlight moment from the young phenom – there was no way the Mariners could keep him off the opening day roster.

“That was quite a conversation,” Servais said. “He is so, so excited. He’s just a fun kid. The joy and the excitement he plays with, I think it’s contagious. It’s going to serve our team very well. And I think he’s a really good player on top of it. It should be fun.”

Rodriguez knew he was playing well this spring, but wouldn’t allow himself to actually believe it until the words came out of Servais’ mouth.

His response to his manager in the moment?

“It’s on,” he said. “It’s on. That’s what I told him. I’m ready to go.”

But he was ready to go back in October 2021 when he came to Seattle to receive his Mr. Mariner award. As he watched the Mariners play in front of sold-out crowds in the final series of the 2021 season, it added fuel to a motivation already on overdrive to make the MLB team out of spring training.

“I’m gonna go out there and go compete, like I do all the time,” he said that day. “That’s what I do. Even if they were to say, I don’t have a shot, I’m definitely gonna go compete. That’s what I do. It’s who I am.”

Coming into the shortened spring training, the Mariners were cautious in their expectations for Rodriguez. They wouldn’t dispel the notion that he might make the team out of spring training.

“We left the door open to him, and told him, ‘If you have a super showing and it all clicks, that the opportunity would be there for you to make the team,’” Servais said.

Rodriguez smashed through the slightly ajar door and announced his presence with a mammoth homer in his first Cactus League at-bat.

“After I got it going, once I put my foot on the gas pedal in spring training, I just kept making my adjustment and kept going through everything, I feel that’s when it became evident I could make this ballclub,” he said.

On Sunday, Rodriguez went 3 for 4 with three runs scored and two runs batted in, including a prodigious solo homer to deep right-center and a line-drive RBI double to left field as the Mariners beat the Royals 10-8.

In 12 games this spring, Rodriguez has posted a .419/.471/.839 slash line, including four doubles, three homers, eight RBI, nine runs scored, three walks, nine strikeouts and three stolen bases.

Realistically, Rodriguez made the decision for the Mariners. And he made it an easy one by showing up faster and lighter on the bases and in the outfield, more polished at the plate and just as explosive in every aspect of the game.

“I think probably the first or second day that he was here and I saw how he was moving,” Servais said. “His body was working differently. The first day it stood out to me, we were doing a base running drill, it was the third day of camp and I’m watching this guy run like first to third. I’m like, ‘Oh my God. That’s different.’”

There is so much different about Rodriguez. At 21, he has an advanced understanding of the commitment it takes to be successful at the MLB. Following the 2019 season, he slowly began adjusting his offseason workouts, adding different aspects to address what he felt were areas of needed improvement.

After the COVID-shortened 2020 season that featured a wrist fracture during “summer camp” and a learning experience playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic, Rodriguez took his offseason training to higher level. He increased his speed training, reworked his hitting approach to be more disciplined and changed his eating habits. It’s the self-realization that some players never find in their careers.

And it got him to the big leagues on an expedited timeline that few expected despite his overwhelming talent.

“I don’t think I would be here right now and taking advantage of this opportunity if I wasn’t preparing myself for the past two years,” he said. “I feel that played the biggest part in my whole development. I feel like that’s what allowed me to be here right now standing in front of you guys.”

Rodriguez’s commitment to preparation during the offseason and on a daily basis this spring has helped ingratiate himself into a team with like-minded players.

“I’ve been very impressed with him,” said Mitch Haniger. “He’s one of first ones here every day and he works hard. I think that’s really important for sustainable success in this game. So he’s obviously got all the tools and the makeup looks really good too.”

Some veteran-laden teams can take a side-eye view of rookie prospects, viewing as disruptive threats to their jobs or their success, particularly ones that have generated as much hype as Rodriguez, particularly from the organization. But in a season where winning and the postseason are the known expectations of the players, they can see that Rodriguez can help them achieve that goal.

“There’s no question, the players know,” Servais said. “I’ve always said you can’t you can’t fool the players, you can’t (expletive) the players. They know. And just hearing the comments over the last 10 days is how you know it’s from some of our guys who have been around a little bit. It’s ‘This kid is for real, isn’t he?’ or ‘Hey, this kid ain’t bad.’ That’s all they need to say. That’s telling me right away they recognize this guy can help them and he can (help) us.

“I don’t want to hype a player too much, but there’s something about Julio that excites everybody. It’s not just the fans. It’s not just the media. It’s the players in the clubhouse. That’s ultimately who you have to earn the respect from, and I think he’s done that.”

How will the Mariners allot the playing time between Rodriguez, Haniger, Jarred Kelenic and Jesse Winker? Both Rodriguez and Kelenic have the ability to play all three outfield spots and will take turns playing center field.

“Hanny is going to continue to get his DH days and Winker will get some DH days,” Servais said. “ We really need to keep them healthy all year. So you know, you’ll see those guys DHing some. You’ll see certain nights where one of those four guys will have a night off. It’s really nice to be able to give a young player a day off when he gets in a rough stretch and Julio will hit a rough patch. It’s gonna be a one for 15 or whatever and you know what, he just may need a day off.”