Spring training starts Wednesday with Mariners pitchers and catchers reporting, and other position players roll in Monday. The weather definitely will be better in Peoria, AZ, than it has been in Seattle this winter — how could it not? — but the larger question is whether the Mariners will be better than the 68-win, self-inflicted sorrow of 2019.
Seattle is loaded with young players at the major league camp — probably the American League’s youngest lineup — and a decent amount of them will make the roster because the Mariners have dispatched nearly all longtime, expensive veterans and seek to build on youth. With little to no major-league experience in the regular lineup, the learning curve will be more than steep.
The conventional wisdom of athletic decline after age 30 is deeply in play here, though the Mariners had a few great ones age well — Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr. and Randy Johnson, to name three. Yet there is no assurance that the well-regarded youngsters general manager Jerry Dipoto has assembled eventually will be even major-league average.
At the start of camp, here’s the likeliest bets by position to make the 26-man roster (MLB has increased roster size by one) for the March 26 regular-season opener against Texas at T-Mobile Park:
- Catchers: Tom Murphy and Austin Nola
- First baseman: Evan White
- Second basemen: Shed Long Jr. and Dee Gordon
- Shortstop: J.P. Crawford and maybe Dylan Moore
- Third basemen: Kyle Seager (please keep him and Gordon)
- Outfielders: Mallex Smith, Kyle Lewis, Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley and Mitch Haniger (when he’s healthy)
- Designated hitter: Daniel Vogelbach
- Starting pitchers: Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Kendall Graveman, Justin Dunn (or perhaps rookie Logan Gilbert).
- Relievers: Matt Magill, Sam Tuivailala, Erik Swanson, Carl Edwards Jr., Yoshihisa Hirano, Dan Altavilla
Here’s some details about the new crew, and others who may break out in spring:
A rookie, White signed a six-year, $24 million deal in November even though he has not played in the majors. He batted .293 with 18 home runs and 55 RBIs in 92 games at AA Arkansas last year and also made the MLB Futures Game roster. In three minor league seasons since being the Mariners’ No. 1 draft choice (17th overall) in the 2017 draft, he has hit .296 with 32 home runs and 133 RBIs, also striking out 206 times.
Younger players to watch are the organization’s top three prospects, outfielders Jarred Kelenic (also in last year’s Futures Game) and Julio Rodriguez and starting pitcher Logan Gilbert.
The highly rated Kelenic, 20, played in A and AA last year, batting .291 with 23 home runs and 68 RBIs in 117 games, striking out 111 times. Rodriguez, 19, played Class A last season, batting .326 with 12 home runs, 69 RBIs ,63 runs and 76 Ks in 84 games (players strike out a lot more now.)
Gilbert probably had the best 2019 season among the three, going 10-5 with a 2.13 ERA and 165 strikeouts in just 135 innings at AA and AAA. He walked 33 batters and allowed seven home runs. He turns 23 in May and could be the first among the three to get called up to the bigs.
There are veterans to follow as well, such as Murphy, 29 in early April. After four seasons with Colorado, he homered 18 times in 75 games with Seattle last year and batted .273 and was a much better fielder than Omar Narvaez (whom the Mariners got rid of even though he had the club’s highest batting average in 2019).
Kikuchi, the sixth Japanese pitcher the Mariners have had (they recently signed Hirano, No. 7), turns 29 in June. He pitched several years for the Seibu Lions in Japan ( 73-46 with a 2.77 ERA). He did not do that well his first season with Seattle last year (6-11 with a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts). But after a year of learning about the MLB game, the Mariners hope he begins a contribution similar to Hisashi Iwakuma’s six years in Seattle (63-39 and 3.42).
The newcomer to the rotation is Graveman, also 29, who pitched with the Blue Jays and Athletics — he twice was the A’s Opening Day starter — before undergoing Tommy John surgery. After signing him as a free agent, Dipoto said: “We really trust him and his ability to consistently throw strikes. He has the ability to stay in our system for a period of time and gives us something to look forward to.’’
In 2016, Graveman went 10-11 with 4.11 ERA in 31 starts, then followed in 2017 with 6-4 and 4.19. But in 2018 he was 1-5 with a 7.60 ERA and was sent down to the minors. After surgery, he signed with the Cubs and pitched in two minor league games before being released. If he has a bounce-back, the Mariners will have a steal.
On the bench is former University of Washington star Braden Bishop, 26, the club’s best defensive outfielder. He also is a great person whose charity work in pursuit of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, called 4MOM, has drawn raves. But he had just six singles in 56 at-bats in 27 games a year ago with the M’s, so a big uptick in spring is critical.
Other campers are catcher Cal Raleigh (29 home runs in 121 games at A and AA last season), infielders Sam Haggerty, Tim Lopes, Donnie Walton and Patrick Wisdom, outfielders Jose Siri, Carlos Gonzales and Eric Filia, pitchers Sam Delaplane (who averaged about two strikeouts an inning at A and AA last year), Nick Margevicius, Nestor Cortes, Phillips Valdez, Gerson Bautista, Art Warren and Wyatt Mills.
Dipoto was clear about the low ceiling – “We don’t think we’re likely to threaten for a playoff position this year,’’ he said — so 2020 is all about player development. But that means a 19th consecutive season without playoffs, and after the Washington Nationals won the 2019 World Series, the Mariners are now the lone team to never have appeared in the Fall Classic.
But at least they didn’t cheat to get there, which is more than can be said for some MLB teams.