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SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer on Mariners: What we know and what will be answered in spring

Feb 2, 2023, 12:24 PM

Mariners Scott Servais Jarred Kelenic...

Mariners manager Scott Servais celebrates with Jarred Kelenic after a win over Texas on Sept. 29, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

They ended the drought, now what? When the Mariners report to Arizona for spring training in less than two weeks, they will do so having earned expectations set higher than any time in the last two decades.

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Of the 26 players who were members of the Mariners playoff roster last October, 19 of them will report to Peoria in the next two weeks. They will walk through the clubhouse door having gained the invaluable experience of breaking through to the postseason, and carrying the expectations in all forms – outside, inside, personal – for what comes next.

They will be joined by the players that were added this winter, additions that while not splashy do fit the puzzle of a team that president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto believes can take the next step in competing for the division title.

“That will be the goal every year,” Dipoto said Wednesday at the Mariners’ annual pre-spring training media day. “Win the division, get into the postseason and do some damage. We’ve never been more convinced of this team’s ability to do those things than we were at the end of last season.”

There is work to be done, however. Just as the team on the field in October was not the same team that was on the field in May, and the experience gained cannot be taken away, this is a new team and new season.

“The start of the season isn’t game 162, it’s game 1,” said Dipoto. “We will take it from there.”

Though the team seems to have taken the biggest step forward since embarking upon their “step back” and rebuild following the 2018 season, there are questions to be answered in spring training.

“You kind of have to start all over again,” manager Scott Servais said. “You can’t assume anything. We’ve got start going over the same things on day 1 that we always have. Don’t leave any boxes unchecked.”

While it might not seem hard to fill out a 26-man roster on Feb. 2, Servais cautioned that it is never as set as it seems at the beginning. He pointed out that there are decisions to be made with the final pitcher in the rotation, bench spots and in the bullpen.

The most important question in the pen will be whether Andrés Muñoz and Paul Sewald ready to go after offseason surgeries. Dipoto gave encouraging reports on both – Muñoz is out of a walking boot and started a throwing program two weeks ago, while Sewald has had multiple throwing sessions. He anticipates both “being ready to throw in games in Arizona.”

Also ready will be Casey Sadler, who stayed with the organization on a minor league deal with an invite to spring training after missing last year due to shoulder surgery. The right-hander allowed just three runs earned runs over 40 1/3 innings for Seattle in 2021 for a 0.67 ERA, and Sadler is a player Dipoto is excited to see in Peoria.

“He was such a big part of our ’21 team,” Dipoto said. “If we get that ’21 version of Casey Sadler with the bullpen group we currently have, that just takes us to a different level. And we need something to replace the loss of Erik Swanson (who was dealt to Toronto in the Teoscar Hernández trade), who was a real contributor, and Casey has a chance to do that. He’s done it before.”

A healthy Casey could join a group of potential “locked-ins” that includes Muñoz, Sewald, Diego Castillo and Matt Brash, with Penn Murfee and Matt Festa likely in the “near to locked-in as possible” category. That leaves one spot for the Rule 5 pick Chris Clarke, whoever falls in the battle for the fifth rotation spot, a true long reliever, or perhaps a surprise. Not a ton of intrigue yet in the battle for bullpen spots.

There could perhaps be intrigue in the fifth starter battle. If everyone stays healthy and nobody is traded, it will come down to Marco Gonzales or Chris Flexen. Last season when the decision had to be made following the trade for Luis Castillo, it was determined that Flexen would be the better fit in the pen. That decision was made late in the season. Could it be different at the start?

Mariners Pitching Notebook: No WBC for Castillo; Gilbert, Kirby plans

If there is an injury, would the door to compete for a rotation spot be opened for a young player? If everyone is healthy, the path to the big leagues for prospects like Bryce Miller or Taylor Dollard would be more likely through the bullpen. Would things be different if there was an opportunity – and roster spot – made available by another starter on the injured list? Not what you want to see, but something to look for should the need arise.

As for the bench, the biggest question will be who platoons with AJ Pollock in left – Jarred Kelenic or Taylor Trammell? Both players drew high praise Wednesday from Dipoto and general manager Justin Hollander for their offseason work, with Kelenic working with a coach in California and Trammell at Driveline here in the Seattle area.

“Jarred Kelenic’s always worked really hard,” Hollander said.”That’s one of the things that always has given us belief that there’s a corner to turn and he’ll turn it, that his work ethic, his desire to be great is second to none. We are really seeing the fruition of that this offseason. We really think he’s in a good spot. His offseason couldn’t have gone better in our eyes.”

M’s GM Hollander: Why ‘runway’ for growing players is key for Seattle

The Mariners are particularly excited by recent biometric evaluations of Kelenic’s mechanicsm saying he tested “through the roof” in Arizona. They are also happy with the work Trammell has put in at Driveline, with Dipoto noting that of the Mariners players who went there this winter, Trammell was the most consistent. Both are seen as a good fit for the platoon.

“AJ Pollock is a great additive to both of their skill sets,” said Dipoto. “Taylor has already proven very capable of hitting right-handed pitching in this league and he can play all three of the outfield spots. A pretty good baserunner. Jarred we think is an excellent baserunner, does a great job defensively especially on the corner, can handle center field as well and does damage against right-handed pitching. AJ brings the opposite. He has a ton of experience especially in center and left, really bangs the left-handed pitchers and kind of balances out the young bats from the left side. Together they form what we think should be a pretty formidable matchup and there should be opportunities for one, two or all three to get some DH days along the way.”

This spring will be anything but ordinary with a long list of players leaving for the World Baseball Classic, plus the task of getting adjusted to several rule changes. It is a good year to not have a lot of turnover, but as it is in any spring, there could be surprises along the way. Injuries and trades happen. Under the radar players can make decisions tougher. Whether or not the chips fall where they should when the season starts remains to be seen but for now, but Dipoto believes they have taken steps forward since their final out of 2022.

“We do feel like we got meaningfully better this offseason,” he said. “We are a deeper, more complete team than we were at the end of last season.”

Salk: Patient Mariners are doing things the right way with Jarred Kelenic

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