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Seattle Mariners

Mariners superstar Julio Rodriguez expects greatness from himself. He’s not satisfied yet.

Julio Rodriguez has high expectations this season, hoping to recreate the magic from two seasons ago when he led the Mariners to the postseason.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – The two-word phrase was rarely mentioned during last year’s spring training. As if the mere mention of it might mutter it into existence. And when the struggles came early in the season, it was said in hushed tones and cautious conversations as if publicly acknowledging it as a growing possibility might make it worse.

“Sophomore slump” was not something anyone in the Mariners organization or fan base wanted to or considered associating with Julio Rodriguez going into last season.

Following a magical rookie season in 2022 when he helped lead the Mariners back to the postseason at age 20, bringing superstar-level talent to an organization that had been lacking one, winning the American League Rookie of the Year Award and finishing seventh in AL MVP voting, there was no way he would regress in 2023.

But asked about his performance last season, the organization’s young superstar wasn’t afraid to say those two words.

“I don’t know how it fits in other people’s minds, but for me, that was a sophomore slump,” he said before the Mariners’ first full-squad workout of spring training. “I was grateful for it. I was able to learn from it. It’s going to help me out down the road in my career, and that’s something that I’m not going to take for granted. That’s something that I will never forget. It’s always going to keep pushing me to keep getting better and never feel that way.”

A look at Rodriguez’s overall numbers for 2023 don’t say sophomore slump.

He played in 155 games, posting a .275/.333/.485 slash line with 37 doubles, three triples, 32 homers, 103 RBIs, 37 stolen bases, 47 walks and 175 strikeouts. His 5.9 FanGraphs WAR was fourth highest among all American League position players.

That’s a career season for most players. In this supposed sophomore-slump season, he finished fourth in the AL MVP voting.

But the overall numbers didn’t tell the entire story of Rodriguez’s season.

“Julio has done a really good job of sitting back and assessing: ‘This is how I trained going into last year. This is how my season played out,’ ” manager Scott Servais said. “And he’s admitted it. He had one really good hot streak, a month, maybe month and a half, and it was an unbelievably awesome streak. But other than that, there were inconsistencies there in his game. He just wants to be more consistent, like all the guys do.”

The signs pointing toward that unspoken second-year slip were accumulating in the first three months of the season.

From opening day to July 1, Rodriguez posted a .238/.302/.407 slash line with 14 doubles, a triple, 13 homers, 42 RBIs, 26 walks and 96 strikeouts in 78 games and 354 plate appearances.

In high leverage plate appearances, where the outcome of the game could dramatically change, Rodriguez had two hits in 26 plate appearances while striking out six times and grounding into six double plays.

He failed in the moments he expected to succeed.

The cold start was mitigated by a torrid two-month stretch that included a record-setting display of hitting in August. From July 1 to Sept. 1, Rodriguez played in 48 games, posting a .360/.413/.597 slash line with 17 doubles, 11 homers, 45 RBIs, 14 walks, 49 strikeouts and 17 stolen bases. It helped the Mariners not only surge back into the postseason race, but move into first place in the AL West on Aug. 25, which hadn’t happened that late in the season since 2003.

But in the final month of the season and with the Mariners struggling to stave off the Astros and Rangers in the postseason race, Rodriguez regressed to his early season struggles. He posted a .227/.277/.496 slash line with six doubles, a triple, eight homers 16 RBIs, six walks, 32 strikeouts and two stolen bases. In the final 10 games of the season, all against the Rangers or Astros, he had just four hits and 14 strikeouts.

The Mariners missed out on making the playoffs, getting eliminated after the penultimate game of the season. Rodriguez felt his inconsistencies at the plate were a factor.

“I wasn’t happy with it,” he said. “A lot of people can say, ‘Oh, he was fourth in the MVP, he did this, he did that, how can he not be happy with it?’ Well, I feel like there were a lot of moments that I feel like I should have done better. I could have done better. I know my ability. I know what I want for myself.”

It’s clear the subject was something Rodriguez had analyzed in his mind because he just kept talking about it.

“I know a lot of people are going to say, ‘He should have done this, he should’ve done that,’ but none of you guys know. With respect to all of you guys, everybody that watches and everybody that supports me, none of you guys will want me to be successful for this team like I want to be successful for this team.”

The Mariners have marveled at the ownership Rodriguez has taken with the organization. They have lauded his elevated sense of responsibility when it comes to helping the team achieve success and taking blame for its failures. It was obvious in the unexpected soliloquy.

“I want to be successful for this team because I’m the one that’s out there working, putting myself through a lot of things that you guys don’t see, and you will never see, because I will never show you guys,” he said. “But I’m the one that is going after it. I want to win with this team. I want to do the best I can to be able to win with this team. I know people will get frustrated, nobody’s gonna get frustrated as I will be when I fail. The only thing I can do is learn from it, grow from it, work on it and come back here (and) get better.”

Rodriguez reassessed his offseason workout plan, paring down his obligations away from the field and refocusing his training. He spent most of his offseason in Tampa, Florida, training with his strength/speed coach Yo Murphy, including some workouts with new teammate Jorge Polanco.

“I got here because of how hard I work and how hard I pushed in my (workouts),” he said. “I feel like last year kind of even opened my eyes more, like how much more disciplined I should be, like how much more into it I should be. I feel like it cemented even more with how much more I should approach it.”

On Sunday, the day before players had their mandatory physicals, most veteran position players exited early from voluntary workouts to spend time with family or even took the day off completely. Rodriguez hit in the cages and worked out in the weight room for hours, conditioning and stretching.

“His offseason this year was about as structured than maybe it’s ever been for him,” Servais said. “Wanting to be that guy on a consistent basis and doing it every day, to do that you need to train consistently. You need to have the right focus mentally every day when you come out there. … He’s learning a lot. It’s really impressive to watch a guy like that work that way.”

Rodriguez welcomed the addition of Polanco, Mitch Garver and Luke Raley, and the return of Mitch Haniger, knowing they shared similar ideas about work and preparation.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “They’re really hardworking people. They’re really disciplined. They go about their business, and I feel like they’re going to add so much more to our team than what people think.”

Does he feel like they make this team a contender for the division title?

“We feel good,” Rodriguez said. “We feel good.”