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Mariners OF Kyle Lewis
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Mariners manager Servais on Lewis and Kelenic impressing, handling 2020 season

Mariners OF Kyle Lewis has three home runs in intrasquad action. (Getty)

The Mariners fly to Houston next week to take on the Astros in their first regular season action of the shortened 2020 season and the build up to getting there has been strange to say the least.

Mariners notebook: Kelenic turning heads but M’s still stressing patience

Spring training was cut short and players were sent home due to COVID-19 and then there was a lengthy public battle between owners and players in returning to play. With all that in the rear view, navigating through the rest of the 2020 season will not be like anything we’ve seen before.

“It’s different, no question about it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Brock and Salk Podcast of the team returning to practice amid new guidelines due to COVID-19. “I’m enjoying it, quite frankly. It’s great to get back and do something you love to do and (when you) have been doing it your whole life and it was taken away, you realize how much you miss it. And it’s not just me – the coaching staff and the players feel the same way.”

Servais, who said he was “not a happy camper” being stuck at his home in Colorado when typically he’d be with the team he’s managed since 2016, told Brock Huard and Mike Salk that even with stranger practices and new restrictions, he feels the team has been productive since the start of Summer Camp earlier this month,

“We have a focal point here of we’re trying to get ready to be in Houston here on July 24 and we’re getting a lot of experience for our young players,” he said. “It’s been fun.”

Young guys turning heads

The Mariners weren’t expected to compete for the AL West in 2020 due to a mix of the teams in the division as well as a youth movement in Seattle. The team has been rebuilding since the end of 2019 and now has one of the top farm systems in the league. Many of the team’s top prospects are on the 60-man roster for 2020 and while many of those prospects will spend the year on the taxi squad in Tacoma, we’ll see a few with the big league team.

So far so good from those prospects, especially on the hitting side, where outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic made waves with multi-home run games in intrasquad action.

“Certainly we’ve got some young players who are really talented guys and they’ve jumped on some mistakes in these games and driven them out of the park and we saw what Kyle Lewis could do last year when he burst onto the scene here – he was awesome to see,” Servais said. ” … Obviously Kelenic had a good day (Monday). We have a very talented group here and getting them experience is important to salvage something out of this season.”

With Lewis, who was the first pick Jerry Dipoto made as general manager of the Mariners in 2016, health has been an issue due to multiple knee injuries and surgeries. That all seems to be in the past, and Servais has been impressed with the young outfielder from the beginning of camp.

“The big thing that stood out to me right when we got back here in Seattle was Kyle was just moving different, much freer,” Servais said. “I know he spent a lot of time during the down time working with a strength coach, with a speed coach, and I think it’s the first time we’ve all seen him completely healthy and not worrying about the knee and all the things he went through there … He’s letting his ability come out and play and it’s been great to see.”

Lewis has also been seeing time in center field, which is where he played in college but even before his knee injuries, it was thought that he would have to move to corner outfield. So far so good in the skipper’s eyes.

“That was his position in college and I think everybody kind of profiled him as just a corner outfielder, but he’s more than adequate,” Servais said. “The jumps on the ball have been really good, he goes back on balls well, he throws pretty well. He looks comfortable there and he understands the position … He will get some time in center field and he’s looked great out there, so no concerns on my end at all.”

Lewis has drawn big-time praise with his power so far in camp and he will almost certainly be starting on Opening Day in Houston, but all eyes from the start have been on Kelenic, the team’s No. 1 prospect.

Kelenic ended 2019 in Double-A and had less than 100 plate appearances for Arkansas, but he’s shown off his skillset in camp to the point where many Mariners fans want the team to have Kelenic on the roster for Game 1 next week. Servais said Kelenic “needs at bats” on the taxi squad against many of the organization’s top pitching prospects, but that the left-handed hitter is impressing him so far.

“He’s a good player and he does work extremely hard,” he said. ” … He’s a super intense young individual who is really talented and he’s going to be fun to watch for Mariners fans for many years to come. It’s fun to see. He brings a different level of intensity and he loves the game and he wants to be one of the best players in the game and he’s willing to put in the time and make the sacrifices to do it.”

And even with the young guys impressing in camp, Servais said the goal is still the same for this season.

“It’s about getting experience for our young players and creating the opportunity for them and understanding that there will be struggles along the way, but there will be fun days, too that we see players do things that they’ve never had the opportunity to do before and succeeding,” he said. “And there’s nothing better than seeing a young player with a smile on his face knowing ‘wow, I just did that. I knew I could do that, but I had to actually do it.'”

And the step towards the Mariners being a team that regularly competes for playoff births and titles is well underway, Servais said.

“The first step is we had to get the talent in here and Jerry, the guys in the front office, the draft, trades, our scouting department, have done an awesome job at getting this group together and now we’ve got to take the next step,” Servais said. “We’ve got to get them experience in pro ball and certainly crack the door here at the big league level and then the final step is getting in a position where we can win and go for championships. The first step is getting them in the door, they have our uni on, it’s awesome to see and literally I couldn’t be more excited and pumped on where we’re heading.”

Handling the 2020 season

Routine is a big part of baseball and that’s been thrown out the window for 2020 with the shortened season and league-imposed restrictions on certain elements of practice and meetings. Servais said breaking from the norm and handling the season differently may end up being a good thing for coaches and players.

“Because we’ve had to be really efficient here with the amount of exposure for the players on the field and around each other, we’ve really become creative in how we’re coming up with practice plans and these intersquad games and things like that,” he said. “It’s definitely something we’ll carry forward with going into the future years. And also we’ve split things up on the coaching staff, so there’s days I’m in the dugout, days I’m sitting in the stands, which is a good perspective.”

Typically, teams have different meetings with different groups throughout the day ahead of games and many of those take place in the clubhouse. With social distancing requirements, teams can’t conduct meetings like they normally would.

“We’re going to have to do some of those meetings at a hotel and some of those meetings will be done via Zoom in the hotel,” Servais said. “Things like that will become more efficient and we’ll spend less time at the ballpark, which isn’t always a bad thing because at times, you can get burnt out.”

One element of Servais’ managerial style is camaraderie through team discussions in the hopes of breaking down walls, creating more vulnerability and hopefully building strong relationships. Many of those discussions took place in clubhouse meetings, which aren’t occurring due to COVID regulations.

“This has been a little bit different. The priority here is we’ve just got to get our work in,” Servais said. “We have to stay safe, we have to follow the protocols that MLB has in place and wearing the mask and social distancing and washing the hands and all that other stuff … We have some players in camp who had never worn a pro uniform before or they’d just got drafted. So bringing those guys in here, I love young players and getting to know them and getting them up in the group and talking with them and kind of letting the other guys in on what their background is and we haven’t been able to do that, but it’s been amazing. Players will gravitate, they’ll ask questions when I don’t set it up or create the platform for them, so I think we’re in a good spot there.”

You can listen to Servais’ full conversation with Brock and Salk, which includes how the taxi squad will operate, why the catchers have impressed him and much more at this link or in the player below.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Brock Huard and Mike Salk on Twitter.

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