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Mariners Season Preview: Mix of youth and vets in harmony and on a mission

Young Mariners players like Evan White have taken to learning from veteran Kyle Seager. (Getty)

So, Mariners, what have we got?

Mariners’ opening day roster: Lewis to IL, Kikuchi gets Game 2

Fourteen pitchers – six in the starting rotation, eight in the pen, eight right-handers, six southpaws.

Twelve position players – two catchers, five infielders, 3 outfielders, 2 a little bit of both.

Oldest Mariner: Kyle Seager, at age 33. Youngest: Taylor Trammell, 23. Average age: 27.26 years old.

Eleven players from the US – 12 from west of the Mississippi, nine east of the Mississippi. Two from the Dominican Republic, one Venezuela, one Japan, and one from our neighbors to the north.

And yet so much is unknown about this 2021 Mariners team. We might think we know them, but then again there are so many young players coming off such a short season. It was a good first look, right? Throw in the return of Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy, the additions of James Paxton and a couple of established vets, and the mix is better, right?

It would appear so, and for all the excitement the young prospects bring and headlines they grab, the veteran group is invaluable to the process. In the end, a perfect marriage of the two might turn out to be the X-factor for the 2021 team.

Time to take a closer look.

The youth

Just what did 60 games of the 2020 season get the Mariners’ younger group? For one thing, a better understanding of the environment they will spend the next six months in.

“It’s a lot of fun,” starting pitcher Justin Dunn said of walking into the clubhouse each day. “It’s almost like you have a couple of answers to the test, but you still don’t have all the answers that Marco (Gonzales) and Paxton have. But understanding how to get ready and what it takes, it’s a lot easier now.”

First baseman Evan White, who as a rookie last season didn’t feel comfortable sometimes expressing his preferences in meetings, found his confidence behind the scenes rise to another level this spring.

“It’s awesome. The guys have been great the entire time but it’s also great to have Hanny (Haniger) back and talk to him about hitting. Seager’s been great the entire time. I like to give a lot of crap back to him now. I took a lot of crap from him and now I’ve built a relationship where I can give it back to him,” he said with a wicked laugh. “It’s fantastic, it’s awesome. We’re definitely building and moving in the right direction.”

Kyle Lewis had the benefit of an extra month in the big leagues with his 2019 September call-up, so he came into 2020 a little bit ahead of the game.

“2019 was about a lot of nerves,” he said. “Over time it starts to simplify a little bit. Last year I got a little more experience and ultimately it was about confidence. Being in a different environment, facing different pitchers I hadn’t seen before, getting different information. And also just getting a year older in life as a whole, so those things combined I think just help with the confidence and self-assurance that goes into the day-to-day being around a team.”

Lewis saw his younger teammates last year go through a lot of the things he went through in 2019, and with that experience he saw them come back this spring with a different expectation.

“That unique semi-turning point is something that is exciting and something that definitely, when you go in there every day, you can feel it,” he said. “There’s a lot of urgency with guys getting better, guys working as hard as they can, trying to enhance the camaraderie we already have. When I came in this year and felt the energy, it’s hard not to feel as though there is something stirring up.”

The vets

A favorite sight last year when covering games from the broadcast booth high above the all-but-empty stadium was watching Kyle Seager on the railing when the Mariners were at bat. From up top, it looked like he simply didn’t have enough sides as younger players seemed to vie to stand next to him and get the opportunity to glean knowledge.

More often than not, it was the other Kyle – Lewis – who locked down one shoulder.

“He was teaching me about ways to handle failure, ways to think about success,” said Lewis. “Ways to interact with people. These were things that you have to kind of get some help from older guys, guys who have been there. He has always been open and willing to share, so that’s something I want to soak up.”

Ten years ago it was a 23-year-old Seager on the railing at Safeco Field getting shoulder time with shortstop Jack Wilson, trying to learn as much about the game and day-to-day big league life as he could. Today, he passes along that knowledge he learned from Wilson and other veteran mentors including Raúl Ibañez and Willie Bloomquist, as well as his own valuable experience.

Seager enjoys his current role and has his eyes open for the younger Mariners.

“It’s kind of always been a thing where you can bank on, you are going to have two big slumps throughout the season,” said Seager. “How do you handle those? How you get out of those? In a 60-game season, it’s so quick and short you don’t get the full sense of how you are going to handle the failure. How do you handle the success? How do you extend the success, limit the failure? There’s definitely a lot there you didn’t quite experience.”

Seager knows the ups and downs of a season, and he also understands the importance of overcoming the downs early on and coming out on the other side.

“When you have not only had the failure but had the success – and you have had to work for that success – there is an accomplishment to that and there is a confidence that goes with that,” he said. “People will internalize it and talk about it in different ways, but once you have earned it there is a level of ‘just compete’ there where I know I can do this, I know I have done this. I have earned it, I am going to go out and do my job and beat the other team. It’s a confidence level.”

Kendall Graveman has watched Seager with the younger players and sees the selflessness he brings as the key factor of leadership.

“I think there is something to be said about when we can have confidence in our own ability to go out and help someone in our same situation,” Graveman said. “Seager does a great job of it year in and year out, investing in people. He’s invested so much in Ty (France) this year and Dylan Moore, guys that ultimately could take his position someday. We’ve had that conversation, that the confidence we have in our ability to go out and compete helps with that.”

Graveman has brought his own leadership to the pitching staff, first as a starter in 2020 and now as a member of the bullpen. As such, he believes he has a useful perspective and has shared with both groups how they can benefit the other while noting they both get a huge boost from the position players.

“Our defense is going to play phenomenal defense,” he said excitedly. “We’ve already proven we’ve got Gold Gloves scattered around everywhere. We’ve got All-Stars everywhere. We’ve got the Rookie of the Year (Lewis). We’ve got Hanny coming back and Murph is going to do a great job behind the plate. Whitey with gold on his glove and J.P. (Crawford) and Seager – man, you look around and we are going to play great defense. And as long as we stay ahead in the count as starters, get early contact and early outs, I believe that the trickle down effect is (that) in September, when meaningful games are happening, we will be more fresh than the other team. Just trying to express to those guys how much we need them just as much as they need us.”

Marco Gonzales, who will do his part in tallying up those innings, has led as well, to the point where perhaps the team has taken on a bit of his personality with a chip on the shoulder and daring others to tell them no.

In leading the pitching staff, Gonzales has promoted conversations and encouraged the starters to watch all bullpens and sim innings this spring, both in support of their fellow pitchers and to possibly learn something. He’s also allowed the younger starters to sit in on his pre-start meetings. For all of the recognition he has received for his leadership, he feels it is important to point out the backbone of the pitching staff.

“It’s one of the things that I think is overlooked with this club is the addition of Tom Murphy behind the plate,” Gonzales said. “If you haven’t seen him, you’ve heard him. He’s very vocal and he’s really invested into our pitching staff. Throwing a bullpen to him is an experience because he’ll fix anything that you have got going on that’s wrong. He will be in your ear all day helping you to get better, and then I don’t think anyone works harder in the gym. I hope he just tears it up. I hope he has an incredible year.”

It is hard to imagine anybody in the Mariners clubhouse who wouldn’t wish the same. Murphy’s leadership has reached every corner of the clubhouse, with a special focus – away from the pitchers – aimed at the younger players.

“I want everybody who comes into the clubhouse to feel as comfortable and to be themselves as soon as they hit the big leagues,” Murphy said, “because I understand the anxiety (I had) that went along with coming to the big leagues the first time and having to walk on eggshells in the clubhouse. It’s not a comfortable feeling and not what helps the team, in my opinion. When you get a new guy in the clubhouse and he feels like he’s part of the team as soon as possible, that’s going to raise his game, that’s going to raise my game and everybody’s game around me.”

The Mariners’ mission

A recurring theme in conversations with players this spring in Peoria, Ariz. – both young and not so young – was the amount of work that was being put in by teammates. There was talk of teammates getting after it, teammates not having the odd off day and just taking it easy, teammates not looking for excuses not to work. If this was a problem with individuals in the past, by all accounts there was no trace of it this spring.

“Our standards have been raised here,” manager Scott Servais said. “If you don’t work, if you don’t get after it at a certain level, you are looked down upon, like, ‘We don’t do that here.’ That is an tribute to our core group of players. We have certainly the veterans guys who lead the charge with that and holding each other accountable. Often times you really don’t have to say anything to anybody – you can just look around and you can kind of tell, ‘OK, I’ve got to pick it up here, these guys mean business.’

“There will be nights where we don’t execute perfectly and guys hold each other accountable, so it’s not just me or the coaches, it’s the players. And it usually means more when it comes from a player anyway.”

Regardless of what the expectations put on this team by the organization or fans are, this group has ideas of their own. Despite the inexperience, despite losing four months of what was to be the “get the young guys experience at the big league level” year,” this group isn’t looking to ease into the season or hoping for a good second half once they get more games under their belts.

Gonzales summed it up beautifully: “I’ve never been a fan of being told when it’s OK to win.”

His catcher hasn’t worked his way back from missing the entire abbreviated 2020 season with a broken bone in his foot just to take the field each night in hopes of getting good experience for the younger players, either.

“I couldn’t be more excited for us to go out there and compete,” Murphy said. “I think that’s what everybody wants. That’s what we thrive on as athletes – we thrive on competition. When you get out there for the season, that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters is winning, and it’s a beautiful thing.”

Graveman, who three years ago this week was making his second opening day start for the A’s, now finds himself in the bullpen due to a benign bone tumor in his neck that prevents him from making longer outings. Yet there is no sense of bittersweet or dwelling on what could have been. There are other things to focus on.

“I put the ego aside. There’s no ego from me,” Graveman said. “I told skip (Servais), ‘I will do whatever you ask me to do, whatever role you need to help this team win,’ and I believe that. If we can have all of our guys do that, then I think we will be a successful team.”

Weeks ago, Graveman told Seager it would be his honor to try and help him get to his first postseason with the Mariners. For Kyle, that would be the icing on the cake of a 10-year career with the team.

“It would be incredible,” Seager said. “Just from the Seattle perspective. I remember when (Kitsap County native Willie) Bloomquist signed (before the 2014 season), he called me and he talked about wanting to be in Seattle and said, ‘I’m telling you, that town, that city wants to win so bad, and if you are part of that team that wins there, you are going to be immortal.’ He still talks about it.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the youngest Mariner has had his eyes open and counts himself as a believer.

“We want to win,” Trammell said. “It’s easy to say that but the way that these guys work, the way that our mindsets are, it’s really to the point where I believe we can. I know that in the past it hasn’t really happened, but the guys that are here, the guys that are in our clubhouse, the personalities that we have, it really seems like it is one mindset and it is winning.

“I plan on contributing to that every single day I am out there. I’m looking forward to doing that because we have a lot of good leaders, a lot of guys that have good experience in this league, so it’s going to be very exciting to see what this team can be.”

Follow Mariners insider Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

More Mariners 2021 season previews from 710Sports.com

• Mariners Table Setter: Three X-factors for this season
• Which Mariners player is most likely to have a bounce back season?
• Drayer: Gonzales vows Mariners are ‘prepared to make a statement’
• Groz: Why this is the most important Mariners season of the last decade
• M’s haul from Padres, led by Trammell and France, may speed up rebuild
• Kelenic won’t make roster but focused on getting call ‘as soon as possible’
• Mitch Haniger is back in form, and he’s leading not just by example
• Unafraid to speak his mind, Kelenic makes no apologies for who he is

Wed, Apr 21 @ 4:10 pm
Starting Pitcher

Justin Dunn