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Drayer: Impressions and observations 10 days into Mariners Summer Camp

The Mariners are conducting drills after each inning in intrasquad games. (Getty)

It’s hard to believe that 10 days of Mariners Summer Camp are already in the books, so here are some not-so-early impressions and observations.

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The first, which isn’t a huge surprise, is that the Mariners seem to have adapted to their new rules and routines very well. So much is different for the players, starting with everything they have to do just to get into the ballpark and ending with having to be out of the building in a timely manner to keep the number of players on-site low. In the time in between, they no longer have the freedom they had in the clubhouse to roam, maybe look at some extra video in the video room, make a smoothie in the lunch room, perhaps trot down to the cages for extra swings or hang out in the training room with teammates.

“You are so used to being around your teammates interacting, the hangout and socializing. That’s so fun for me playing baseball, I think that is a huge part for everybody,” said Mariners first baseman/designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach. “You have to have to watch where you are, who you are around, how close you are, and that’s just really been a challenge for me. You want to be around your teammates as much as possible. You have a time to get in, you have a time to get out and you don’t really have a choice in that sense.”

The clubhouse is no longer a place to relax nor a place to have conversations with your teammates, many of whom are not even in the room as only 15 are allowed in at one time. Clubhouse time has always been a big part of the game – and an enjoyable part at that – but this year, under these conditions, it is different. It has to be.

So why is it surprising that the players have adapted so quickly? Because that’s what they do. Their routines have been disrupted so they form new routines. They are doing what they need to do to play ball, and according to starting pitcher Kendall Graveman, they are doing it without complaining.

“I know we have done a good job in this clubhouse understanding that, hey, it’s going to look different,” Graveman said. “When you are a great teammate like we have a lot of in this clubhouse, you really respect everyone else, which has been encouraging to see. The complaining can take a toll on us and I think we have done a very good job of not doing that.”

In short, they are all in this together. From the conversations that we have been able to have with a number of players, and knowing what it takes to get out on the field, it is clear that they want to play. Really want to play. In talking to players during the shutdown and hearing about what they were doing to stay ready, it seemed obvious that they wanted to play. Staying ready for three months with no guarantee of having games speaks to commitment. Seeing what we are seeing now out on the field now is even more impressive.

Better than expected

In the early days of the shutdown there was concern in the organization for what players would be able to do, what they would have access to in order to stay in shape. I think the assumption was many of them were going to lose a lot of what they had built up in the offseason and spring training. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto sounded downright glum at times when he talked about it at that time. They would work to get creative with the players in formulating routines but they could only do so much.

Three months later, Dipoto and manager Scott Servais couldn’t be happier with what they have seen.

“I think the pitching has been awesome in the early going, much better than we could have hoped after such a long layoff,” said Dipoto. “Clearly everybody took care of their bodies and stayed on top of it and seemed to be ready to go. I haven’t found the downside yet.”

To be clear, the players aren’t picking up where they left off in spring training. Innings still need to be built up and pitches fine-tuned. Hitters, with the exception of Kyle Lewis apparently, still need to be given the opportunity to get their timing. Everyone needs reps and they do need to get their “game legs” under them. What we are not seeing is experimenting with pitches or hitters tinkering with swings. In that regard this does look more like a restart rather than the beginning of spring training.

As a team, most fundamentals and “chalk talks” were handled in Peoria. Reinforcing the latter are a bit of a challenge under the current circumstances as meetings are outside and Servais prefers to keep them short and schedule-driven. The fundamentals, however, are being covered daily by running situational drills after each half inning of instrasquad games. The inning ends and you might see relays or bunt defense drills complete with runners on base if necessary. If you blink it’s over, but it seems like an effective way to get these drills in.

Prospects getting opportunities

We have seen a number of the Mariners organization’s young players in these games, even though the big leaguers are the priority. It is an unbelievable opportunity to be on a big league field for these players, some who have yet to play a minor league game, playing alongside and facing major leaguers. What do you think was going through the mind of Emerson Hancock, the Mariners’ 2020 first-round draft pick, earlier this week?

We will get into this a little further down the road but it will be very interesting to see how this experience, which goes beyond the opportunity to face and spend time around big leaguers, impacts development.

“When you have so many talented guys you are raising the bar,” Servais said of the Mariners’ future taxi squad members. “The competitive edge that you have, you see a lot of our guys watching in the stands on the days they are not pitching. They are trying to see what the other guys are doing. Even though they are on the same team they are all competing against each other for those spots down the road, so a lot of good things going on.”

Adjustment period

For the veterans, facing 21 year olds in July isn’t the only unfamiliar aspect of these intrasquad games. In addition to getting their pitches and locking in their swings, the players will have much to get adjusted to when it comes to 2020 baseball. There’s social distancing in the dugout with players assigned to where they can sit and other areas taped off to ensure proper spacing. At the end of an inning they cannot have a teammate bring them their glove and cap; they have to go back to the dugout for it themselves. While someone will be assigned in the regular season to retrieve bats, it will be a staff member. In the early games, many players have taken their bats back to the dugout themselves.

Another big adjustment: no fans in the stands. Recorded stadium noise does little to provide the feel or atmosphere of a game and that will take some getting used to for those who feed off that energy.

“It’s a good challenge to be able to kind of self-motivate, get yourself fired up, stay in the moment and really kind of bring up the intensity,” said Marco Gonzales, who is set to be the Mariners’ opening day starter. “It will be a good challenge for us but something we obviously need to get used to.”

Add it to the list. So much to get adjusted to in under two weeks, but it is part of the price they have to pay to play this year. On a positive note, in watching all of this the last 10 days, this hasn’t looked like the picture that national writers painted during the week with player opt-outs and testing snafus, and it certainly hasn’t looked like the what we saw this weekend at Minute Maid Park, where the Astros’ workout had to be canceled and Sunday’s workout was missing the pitching staff. Nobody is taking the situation lightly at T-Mobile Park, as the Mariners are set to open the season in Houston in 11 days and players have concern and questions about the continued safety of everybody involved. As they should for as long as they attempt to play ball.

During the shutdown, a few players – not Mariners – expressed wanting daily testing believing that would create a safe environment within the ballparks and they could then go about business as usual, e.g. no social distancing, spitting allowed, no masks. It’s clear that was a false presumption. Everyone involved needs to be diligent with the health and safety protocols for there to be a chance at a season, and from the press box we see the players wearing masks on the field. We see the reminders to separate when they get too close. Players talk about spending time off in their hotel rooms playing video games. Most importantly we hear of players reinforcing the on- and off-field protocols and practices with teammates, the message clear.

“It’s going to be a sprint,” said Vogelbach. “A 60-game sprint. Do the right thing, put your head down. For me, I don’t have a wife or kids, it’s not necessarily as much for me, it’s for your teammates that have a pregnant wife or have little ones that this can really, really affect. You need to be not selfish, you need to look out for those guys and your decisions, your choices are reflecting on that.”

Vogelbach wants his 60 games and so do his teammates. The young players want their opportunity to continue to work out together as well. There is a lot that can be learned, even in a shortened season, and the time for the developmental players is invaluable. Ten days of watching this group and interacting with them on video calls has provided an enticing preview of what we could see from the Mariners if baseball can manage to keep everyone safe and on the field.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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