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Drayer: 3 areas of focus as new-look Mariners begin 2019 Spring Training

Dee Gordon is one of the Mariners veterans looking for a bounce-back season in 2019. (AP)

Mariners pitchers and catchers are set to hold their first workouts Tuesday after reporting to Peoria, Ariz., for physicals Monday, and just like that Spring Training is upon us once again.

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This week bullpens will be thrown, catchers will take batting practice, and the full squad will hit the field for the first time on Saturday. I have one more week before I escape the snow for Arizona, and once there these will be the three key areas that are sure to be of focus.

Who are these guys?

Obviously there has been dramatic turnover with the roster and a lot of get-to-knows will be necessary. That goes for the staff, too, with new pitching, hitting and infield coaches, as well as a new coach in a new position: Major League field coordinator.

Of particular interest in Peoria will be the young players, both those who were drafted as Mariners and those who were acquired in the offseason. While it isn’t too hard to predict which position players and starters will make the final 25-man roster, are there younger players that could push for jobs sooner than expected? Justus Sheffield, the 22-year-old southpaw acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton trade, could be one. While the expectation has seemed to be that he would start the season in Triple-A, a strong spring could land him on the Opening Day roster, particularly if there is an opening in the rotation. If not, fellow lefty Roenis Elias is there to fill in.

How close do pitching prospects Erik Swanson (also acquired in the Paxton trade) and Justin Dunn (brought to Seattle from the Mets in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz deal) look to being ready? What about Shed Long, who hasn’t played above Double-A but who ESPN’s Jeff Passan called “a big leaguer” on the day of the trade that sent him from Cincinnati to Seattle via New York?

The Mariners are high on both Long and Dylan Moore as utility players and both will see their names in the lineups quite a bit this spring.

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Outfielder Kyle Lewis and first baseman Evan White will be in big league camp for the first time, and there will be plenty of eyes on Seattle’s 2016 and 2017 first-round picks. What does Lewis look like day in and day out on a surgically repaired knee? Did a late-season swing adjustment truly gave White the bit of power he was lacking that has kept his prospect ranking down? A lot to look for with the younger players on the spring roster.

How does this group take steps forward?

General manager Jerry Dipoto has done his part with the roster. Now it will be up to manager Scott Servais and his coaches – no doubt with a big assist from the analytics department – to get the group moving in the same direction. Success this year will be measured in how much progress is made on an individual and team level. The Mariners should be a better team at the end of the year than at the start, regardless of moves that are made in between.

What does the process look like at the start? What is the tone that is set and the message that is put forth for a team that appears to be in transition mode? What are they selling and what buy-in is required? Servais has talked about a re-commitment to “C the Z” – Seattle’s Control the Zone philosophy – and perhaps even making it more visible at the big league level. What impact will a new hitting coach and assistant coaches who are more analytically-driven have on this? We will see if there are changes.

Extra work has already been put in with a number of players, including new shortstop J.P. Crawford, who spent time in Peoria in January, and first baseman Ryon Healy, who worked with new hitting coach Tim Laker throughout the offseason. New catcher Omar Narváez also was at the spring facility this winter as the Mariners went to work on understanding his defensive issues and how to fix them. What extra individual work do we see once camp begins?

As for the veterans, bounce-backs are needed from a few. What have they done to avoid repeats of 2018? Do they look different? Do they talk a different game, and does it reflect a better understanding of what caused them trouble last year? Success with the older players can have an impact on the younger players as it provides a better environment for them to come into. It will be an interesting mix to watch and perhaps challenging mix to coach. How does it all come together?

The bullpen

Even under the best of circumstances, bullpens can be scary in the spring and sometimes it’s better not to watch. One thing I have learned over the years is it is best to reserve judgment for most until the final week of spring when the relievers are on a more regular schedule.

Some may catch your eye early for reasons good or bad, but it is best to file those away for a while and let them settle in, get up to speed and then get in routine. You feel better about their health and mechanics if you see velocity at some point, and you also want to see consistent command save for the occasional “off” day. Other than that, it can be tough to tell what you will see once the bell rings.

Anthony Swarzak, a veteran right-hander acquired from the Mets, will be taking things slow coming off shoulder inflammation that landed him on the disabled list (now called the injured list) in August, and Sam Tuivailala is not expected to return from a torn Achilles until June, although he is reported to be ahead of schedule in his recovery. Both could be of impact toward the back end of a pen but will not be rushed.

Questions will be asked about roles, and it would appear that the Mariners are heading into the spring with possibilities wide open. Step up, bounce back, whatever, but one thing is certain – there are plenty of opportunities in the pen. One way or another it will all be sorted out before the team leaves for it’s opening series against the A’s in Japan.

These are just a few of the things I will be looking for this spring. It will be a very different spring training – not just because of the new faces or the re-start of sorts for the organization, but also the clock. With the trip to Japan there will be fewer games, fewer workouts and fewer starts for pitchers before it all counts. All of this adds up to what could be a whirlwind spring, with the good news being that after a long and eventful offseason, we are much closer to baseball that counts than we have been this time of year in the past.

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