Drayer: All eyes now on Mariners OF — and Julio Rodríguez’s role in it

Mar 11, 2022, 5:39 PM

Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Mariners prospect Julio Rodríguez looks on before a game against the Angels on Oct. 2, 2021. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

A personal favorite moment from last Mariners season came after a late September interview with Julio Rodríguez.

Dipoto Show Takeaways: M’s post-lockout priorities, Rodríguez, pitching plans

According to the daily reports and box scores, he had been playing center field quite a bit with Double-A Arkansas since returning from the Olympics. While we were chatting after the interview, I asked him about this.

“You are hearing it from me first,” Rodríguez said as he looked me straight in the eye, huge smile on his face, words slowing down for emphasis. “It’s going to be a-ma-zing.”

I did my best to suppress a laugh, fully appreciating the confidence of the then-20 year old. I suspect Jerry Dipoto had a similar reaction to a text from his top prospect minutes after the MLB lockout ended Thursday.

“As we were finishing up the phone call with MLB to let us know that this deal had been ratified, the first thing I received was a short film via text of Julio playing center field to let me know how it was going,” said Dipoto, the Mariners general manager and president of baseball operations, with a laugh during a video conference with the media Friday.

Related: Don’t rule out Julio Rodríguez as Mariners CF of the future

For longtime Rodríguez watchers, this perhaps had tinges of the outfielder’s first spring training with the Mariners when he would go through his work on the minor league side in the morning then head to the main stadium to watch the major league game. Standing behind home plate, he was impossible to miss, but that might have been the intent. Hey guys, I’m here.

An opportunity to prove himself on an actual big league field could come sooner rather than later for Rodríguez. In both Dipoto’s press conference with the media and his interview earlier in the morning with Mike Salk on Seattle Sports 710 AM, he indicated that despite the 21 year old’s youth, he has a better chance to make this club than perhaps was originally thought. What would Rodríguez need to do in the shortened spring training to find himself in Minnesota for opening day?

“Light us up,” Dipoto told Salk. “And I suspect he will come ready to do that. I do know that one of his priorities was focusing on his body, improving his run tool, what he was doing defensively. He’s worked a lot over the last few months on his defense, especially his center field defense.”

Rodríguez could be part of a trio of young players Seattle can turn to in center.

“If we have Julio Rodríguez, Kyle Lewis and Jarred Kelenic ,who are all capable of being dynamic offensive players and manning center field, that gives us an incredible degree of flexibility and high impact,” Dipoto said. “That’s the thing that is the most exciting about Julio – we put challenges in front of him and he knocks them down. And my guess is over these next few weeks he’s going knock us down again. He always has.”

As it turns out, limited games to prove himself – and perhaps the new opportunity to gain draft picks for top rookie award finishers that comes with the just agreed upon collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the players association – may be a plus.

“It actually probably makes it a little better because there’s less time for us to wobble,” Dipoto said with a laugh.

Bottom line, it should make for a good storyline. If you are looking for something to watch as spring training unfolds in Peoria, well, feast your eyes on the outfield.

Mitch Haniger is inked in in right field, but then what? How about the guy who finished the season in center? Jarred Kelenic looked less than comfortable in the position last season, but 2021 was a year of adjustments for him. It’s doubtful his performance was truly representative of what he can be in center. This year he comes into spring training having had the benefit of the opportunity to attack an offseason with nearly a year of big league experience and learning behind him.

What about the guy who won Rookie of the Year while playing center? While teams were not permitted to communicate with players on the 40-man roster during the lockout, Dipoto revealed that the Mariners were able to receive reports from Kyle Lewis’ personal rehab trainer, and they were very encouraged by what they heard about his progress rehabbing after season-ending knee surgery. As of Friday afternoon they had yet to put eyes on Lewis, and it certainly remains to be seen how much he can play in the field, but Dipoto was not letting that dampen his enthusiasm for what they could have.

“He makes us such a different team, and a lot of what we are looking for to really juice our offense could come from Kyle Lewis,” he said.

Then there is the matter of outside help. Dipoto stated that he ideally would like to add two impact bats to the lineup, with at least one left-handed. If he is able to do that?

“Where I know right now we look like a team that (could) struggle to score runs, that could change in a week and that’s the goal,” he said.

Dipoto sees the Mariners with an opportunity to have a formidable outfield. There are a lot of steps to be taken forward and players to be added for this vision to come to fruition quickly, but after 99 days of not being permitted to talk about his club due to the lockout, you can afford Dipoto a little effusiveness and optimism. What he currently has available for the offense is, however, different level talent. Much of it unproven, yes, but the possibility cannot be denied.

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Drayer: All eyes now on Mariners OF — and Julio Rodríguez’s role in it