Mariners Spring Training Preview: 5 storylines to keep your eye on
There will be baseball in the desert this week as spring training 2021 gets underway for the Mariners. Unlike this time last year, which was the original “let the kids play” step in the Mariners’ rebuilding plan, there are numerous questions to be answered with the roster not quite set, and of course a COVID situation that will have impact on nearly everything.
In preparing for a very different spring training, here are a number of items I will be keeping an eye on.
Can the Mariners stay healthy?
The Mariners were successful in keeping COVID-19 out of their clubhouse in 2020, and the baseline for having any success in 2021 will largely depend on remaining COVID free once more, this time with a schedule that includes 102 more games. If that is not daunting enough, they and every other team in baseball will be in no man’s land when it comes to managing their starting pitchers coming off a start-and-stop year where most threw around a third of the innings they did the previous season.
In an effort to avoid outbreaks, MLB and the MLBPA have instituted stricter protocols which will include for the first time wearable devices to aid with contact tracing. A new code of conduct will be in effect as well with players prohibited from high-risk activities away from the ballpark. Covered individuals and those in their households will be in a fairly strict quarantine away from the park this spring,, not allowed in indoor restaurants, bars and lounges, fitness and wellness centers, and entertainment and gaming venues.
It appears games this spring could look different, as well. With no minor league side to pull from, adjustments have been made to protect the pitchers. According to reports, managers will have the option of shortening games to as few as five innings in games played before March 13. For the duration of spring training, innings can be ended before the third out is reached if 20 pitches have been thrown. With pitcher work being the priority, some of the games in the main stadiums could look a little more like a back field game. Considering that pitcher injuries almost tripled last year, nobody should complain about the caution.
Two big additions.
No, not James Paxton and… a player to be named. The Mariners could receive a substantial boost from Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy both coming off injury.
Murphy, who missed 2020 after fouling a ball off his left foot in summer camp that fractured his metatarsal, is a full go heading into spring training. While he won’t be facing a position battle behind the plate, Murphy could be looking at split time with Luis Torrens, who the Mariners like and would like to see continue to develop. Throw Cal Raleigh, who is expected to make his MLB debut in 2021, into the mix and the situation at catcher could get interesting.
After the two years he has had, Haniger would most likely want to keep things as uninteresting as possible. His well-chronicled path from an original injury suffered June 6, 2019 has been much more arduous, requiring not one but three surgeries. While he has a clean bill of health, the Mariners plan to be careful in how they return him to play this spring.
When we last saw Mitch he was coming off back surgery and had lost nearly 20 pounds. In videos he has posted to social media in recent months, he has looked like pre-injury Haniger. Once the health questions are answered, the challenge will be facing live pitching for the first time since he was shut down after just three rehab games in August 2019. What you hope to see is Haniger comfortable and past swing adjustments by the end of spring training. If he stays healthy and returns to something close to 2018 form, Haniger could be of huge impact in the Mariners lineup and could exit the season with the Comeback Player of the Year award.
Unlike last year when the roster was largely set heading into spring training, this year we have true position battles to keep tabs on. With the addition of Paxton, two open spots in the rotation turn into just one for Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius and possibly, possibly (see below) Logan Gilbert. With four lefties locked into the rotation it would make sense that the Mariners would want another righty, but I believe they want Dunn, who struggled with command at times last year, to earn it. There could actually be intrigue in this battle.
As far as the bullpen goes, Rafael Montero, Kendall Graveman, Keynan Middleton and Anthony Misiewicz appear to be locks. After that, filling the four remaining spots gets interesting with pitchers who made appearances last year – Erik Swanson, Joey Gerber, Yohan Ramírez, Brandon Brennan and Casey Saddler – all in the mix.
Two intriguing non-roster invites with big league experience are Taylor Guerrieri, who possesses a curveball with a ridiculous spin rate, and JT Chargois, a sinker/slider guy who was up to 98 mph with the Dodgers in 2019. If all of that isn’t enough, throw in Rule 5 guy Will Vest, too.
Worth noting when watching the relievers, Montero (who is a lock anyway), Saddler, Guerrieri and Chargois are all out of minor league options.
Last but not least, the battle for the bench, which will likely be just three deep this year. One spot will go to Torrens, and the other two to some combination of Jake Fraley, Shed Long, Braden Bishop, José Marmolejos, Sam Haggerty and Donovan Walton, or perhaps a surprise. Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has talked about adding a left-handed-hitting left fielder or second baseman, and he obviously has a few in house.
The blue chips.
Last year the highlight of camp was watching the young prospects. Those players will be back this year, but they’re not where they expected to be in their careers thanks to the pandemic. Debuts have been delayed, and for some an entire year lost.
While some were fortunate enough to spend the summer in Tacoma working out as part of the 60-man alternate site pool, or in North Carolina at the alternate alternate pitching camp, or as a member of the player development/instructional league squad this fall in Arizona, every single minor league player in the Mariners organization ended 2020 with as many games under their belts as they began it. What impact this has on development moving forward remains to be seen.
Of course all eyes will be on Jarred Kelenic, who has not been shy in voicing his opinion in his readiness for the big leagues. Not as vocal but perhaps even a step closer than him to the bigs is pitcher Logan Gilbert. Can boxes that were missed last year be checked off this spring?
Here’s what I will be looking for:
In Gilbert, it’s simple. Pitches can be measured. A big league pitch is a big league pitch no matter what field it is thrown on. The question will be, how much opportunity will he get in Peoria this spring? Will he get the same opportunities that Dunn and Margevicius get or will he be brought along slowly? Having not pitched in any games last year and getting just 135 innings in 2019, his situation will be different. How do they build him up? What will his innings target be?
The Mariners under Dipoto have focused on getting young pitchers through the length of a season rather than shutting them down when they hit their limit. How will that impact how they use Gilbert in 2021? We saw him get past the butterflies last spring and have heard that he went to work in improving his stuff at the alternate site. Pair this with a reputation for studying his craft and being ultra-prepared, and we could see him make things very interesting in Peoria.
As for Kelenic, there’s little question he’s close. For all of the highlights from camps and workouts we have seen, however, the number that jumps out at me is that he has just 92 career plate appearances above High-A. While I think it is very possible, probable even, that he has taken big steps forward without actual competition for a year, I still need to see it.
While some may scream “service time manipulation,” in my mind, with just 92 plate appearances above High-A and coming off a season of no games, it’s hard for me to see where he would even be in a place where that charge could be made. And no, bringing him up because they were lacking at the big league level in a year devoted to developing youth is not a good reason. Doesn’t mean the situation couldn’t arise quickly, however. If Kelenic tears it up in spring training and then is on fire out of the gates wherever he starts, that’s a different conversation.
What I will be watching for is what he does over the length of spring training. What you see with most young hitters, Kelenic in 2020 included, is that early on they make noise and then fade as the pitching rounds into regular season form. Kelenic hit .240 last spring with a .721 OPS in 28 plate appearances, and all but one but one of his hits came in the first week. After going 2 for 2 with a single and a home run on March 2 against the Angels, he went 1 for 12 with five strikeouts the rest of the way, coming up empty against pitchers like Dylan Bundy, Alex Claudio, Luis Patiño, Ross Stripling and (since acquired by the Mariners) Andrés Muñoz.
Small sample, yes. Spring training numbers don’t matter, bigger yes. But if Kelenic wants to force the issue he’s going to have to hit regardless of the situation. Personally, I hope he puts on a show.
This one is kind of important. It’s tough to talk about goals for the 2021 season when you don’t quite know what the playing field is. If the best case scenario has the Mariners in contention for the playoffs, will they be shooting for one of five playoff spots or one of eight? As of now we are looking at a traditional 10-team field, but last year expanded playoffs were not agreed to until right before the start of the season. How many playoff spots are available could impact what the Mariners do at the trade deadline. Worth keeping an eye out for that and other potential roster/rule changes as the spring progresses.
More Shannon: How M’s got Paxton back and what it means