Mariners have bought into Scott Servais’ plan, but will it work?

Apr 4, 2016, 5:14 AM | Updated: 10:30 am
Scott Servais’ unorthodox approach was embraced by the Mariners’ veterans in spring tra...
Scott Servais' unorthodox approach was embraced by the Mariners' veterans in spring training. (AP)
(AP)

ARLINGTON, Texas – Forty days ago, Scott Servais made his inaugural address to the 59 players invited to the Mariners’ big-league camp in Peoria. After a month and a half of spring training, there are now 25 that will put on a regular-season Mariners uniform – 13 doing so for the first time – for the opener against the Rangers.

This is a much different club than the one that closed out a 76-86 season last October at Safeco Field.

We have seen plenty, both on and off the field, in spring training. There are some things we know but still much to be learned about this team. So what do we have? What are they? What will come north for the home opener after three games in Texas?

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After 15 years of covering spring training, I know better than to give a direct answer on this one. I do feel comfortable answering one important question, however. This team bought what its first-time manager was selling.

When the announcement was made that Servais would become the 20th manager in Mariners history and bring with him absolutely no managerial experience at any level, there was much hand-wringing by a number of fans I heard from. The one thing I wouldn’t buy into was that he would not be able to earn the respect of the veterans or that they would walk all over him. This isn’t a substitute teacher in a middle-school classroom. The vets wouldn’t challenge him, as some feared. That’s movie baseball.

He would need to get their attention, however, and avoid missteps. It appears he did that, and he did so in part by pulling the veteran core members in on the first day – actually before the first day with some. Servais said from Day 1 that he would do things differently, and we saw that. While veterans tend to be more creatures of habit, his hook was simple: Do you want to win? How’s that been going so far? It is time for change.

The get-to-know sessions and chalk talks that we heard of and perhaps viewed with skepticism in the offseason worked beautifully. This team has come together in the clubhouse. Group outings, superhero batting practice, pool tournaments, daily news reports from teammates, Korean, Japanese and Louisianan words of the day, and a raucus 40th birthday celebration for reliever Joel Peralta have helped bring this team together. The No. 1 answer to just about any question in spring training has been, “We’re having fun.”

In addition to the fun, new ideas, the team introduced numbers and tools in the correct way. As Kyle Seager told me early in camp, “We’re baseball players. You are just trying to hit the ball and run to the right base. There’s different stuff that we need to improve on, and the numbers come into it. But if you are talking to us and you are talking over our heads, you are not going to get most of us. They have done a really good job of speaking more in our language.”

Much has been taught. In early May last season, I came to a troubling realization. After watching over a month of not very good baseball with errors in the field and on the bases, it hit me: This team blew it in spring training.

For all of the talk from the outside of what the 2015 team could do on the field, in hindsight, fundamentals were missed or not stressed enough in Peoria. During that spring training, the Mariners had the look of a veteran team going about the business of getting ready for the regular season. This spring was different. It does not appear work was missed or fundamentals overlooked. How that translates to the field, we shall see.

The 2016 Mariners will take the field looking to do something they haven’t done the last two seasons – put up a winning record at home. To that end, the club has been built to do so. The outfield defense isn’t going to land on any top whatever lists, but it is improved. My favorite sight this spring? Outfielders in the outfield. Some of the doubles that dropped in the gaps and perhaps scored runs from first base last season will be caught.

Offensively, they should have speed at the top and the bottom of the lineup and thump in the middle. Hitters who can take a walk or at least put the ball in play will replace swing-and-miss guys. On paper, they have a lineup that has decent left/right balance and should produce runs. It looked that way as it was being put together during the offseason, and there was nothing of alarm to be seen during the majority of the spring.

On the pitching front, they have impressive starter depth. Most years, promise and potential would be enough to land James Paxton on the roster. Instead, he will work out his inconsistencies in the minors. It’s hard to find a reason beyond the fact that there are only 12 spots for pitchers on the roster to leave off a player like Donn Roach, who led all of spring training with 18 2/3 innings pitched in relief while allowing just two earned runs and striking out 19. But he will be in Tacoma waiting, ready to fill in as a starter or reliever.

That brings us to the bullpen, the single biggest question mark heading into the season. This is not a group of household names, nor is it a group of fireballers. You aren’t going to see 98 mph from anyone other than Tony Zych, and you will see very little 95-96 either. You will see a good left/right balance, you will see lefties that can get righties out and righties that can get lefties out. There will be arm angles and stuff, but this group is not going to blow anything by anyone.

Can Mike Montgomery make the transition to reliever? When will Charlie Furbush return and return to form, for that matter? Can Zych replicate what we saw in 13 outings from him last year? What does Peralta have at age 40? And, of course, the biggest question of all, can Steve Cishek bounce back to pre-2015 form?

On the plus side, unlike in 2014, the Mariners have the next guy in line. Should Cishek falter, need a break from closing, or even just a day off, general manager Jerry Dipoto invested in that guy by bringing Joaquin Benoit in to fill that important role. Benoit has the track record – a long track record – and won’t blink should he need to take the hill in the ninth. One little bit of very important insurance in a bullpen that very much is otherwise unknown.

We do know that this team will utilize analytics and data to its advantage. The Mariners very well may have broken the shift record for spring training, if such data were kept. Statcast data was used to show base-runners how they can be more efficient with their leads and turns. Pitchers learned about percentages in counts. All of this will be reinforced as a video advance scout who will assist players and staff with data will now travel with the team.

There was plenty of good to be seen this spring. There is and should be concern about the bullpen. Questions will begin to be answered starting opening day, and fears could be calmed – or create more concern – for any area of the club. You simply don’t know what you truly have until they start playing games.

One thing is certain, however – a foundation has been set, and that perhaps was the most important thing that was accomplished in Peoria.

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Mariners have bought into Scott Servais’ plan, but will it work?