SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer’s Mariners Observations: Kelenic, Julio, injury concerns and more

Mar 8, 2023, 3:57 PM

Mariners Julio Rodriguez...

Julio Rodriguez of the Seattle Mariners in a spring training game against the San Diego Padres on Feb. 24, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Observations! Get your observations! With just 21 days of spring training remaining, a check in with a few quick Mariners observations from Peoria.

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Part of the buzz this year is it was the first “normal” year since COVID. No shortened spring, no restrictions and of course, no waiting for the CBA to get hammered out.

Normal, right? Not quite.

World Baseball Classic players leaving camp definitely leaves a mark both in clubhouses and games. Yes, the sight of Julio Rodríguez jogging from field to field in the morning drills is missed, as is the voice of Eugenio Suárez in the clubhouse. It will be awhile before we get treated to another Teoscar Hernández monster bomb or pay a little extra attention to the backup, backup catcher (Harry Ford) when he comes into the game.

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As for those games, I suspect with more jersey numbers in the 90s as replacements. These rules-shortened games could slow down a bit in the later innings as we have often seen. Not quite “normal” spring training yet, but no question, much, much better. We won’t even complain about the weather.

On the field, Jarred Kelenic has been the talk of camp. And as I have said every time I have been asked on air about what this all means, we won’t know until the the games count.

Kelenic has passed every test outside of big league games. He is immensely talented, ridiculously strong, baseball smart. It’s all there. He needs to make it work, and work consistently at the big league level.

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The new rules could help. It took all of two games to see how the pitch clock could benefit Kelenic by giving him less time to think about an offending call or stew about a miss on his part. You don’t like the call? No time to debate with the umpire, you have to get right back in the box and focus on the next pitch. Maybe you will hit a homer, which is exactly what he did in that situation against the Royals.

Another benefit – the shift restrictions. Mariners manager Scott Servais shared an observation late last week.

“(Kelenic) had kind of a rough start to the game, he’s 0-for-2, in the third at-bat he just kind of hits a dribbler that goes into right field,” he recalled. “We all know that’s an out last year. But what that does to the player’s mindset, he’s out of the game, he’s leaving the ballpark, he went 1-for-3 today, it was great.”

“In the last handful of years, that’s always an out and he walks home, 0-for-3 (thinking), ‘This is brutal, I suck, what do I need to change tomorrow,'” Servais added. “It’s crazy how that one little thing, that result, can really change how you feel about yourself when you leave the ballpark and when you come into the park the next day.”

And what about Julio? A popular question with a boring answer: Julio has been Julio.

No big changes are apparent, other than the huge flock of fans who follow his every move at the complex and in the stadium.

I asked Julio at the end of the season what specifically he would go to work on this offseason. He answered it would be a surprise. When he arrived in camp he said his focus was just to get get better at everything he does, which was probably spot on after his successful rookie campaign.

Last offseason, he attacked the speed aspect of his game and it showed in the first half as he stole 21 bases. In the second half, however, he attempted just six steals. There were various reasons for this, everything from the new element of speed was no longer a surprise to opponents to the risk/reward factor becoming more real after a slide into second base July 17 in Texas caused him to miss four games coming out of the All-Star Game. When asked if we could see more stolen bases this year due to the new pitch clock rules, Julio answered with a “We’ll see.”

Off the field has changed drastically for Julio, who is clearly being put forward as a face of baseball. He has by far been the most-requested player on the team when it comes to interviews. Every national outlet that visits camp wants to sit down with him. GQ was in camp for two days to do a feature. He, of course, has picked up a number of major endorsements, and fulfilling those duties takes time as well.

He does seem to manage it well, going out of the way to ensure it does not interfere with his work. And in Arizona, he has still been taking time to sign for the kids which is clearly important to him but the crush it would appear is just beginning, and good to get a handle on it early.

Another question I get asked often is what are the concerns at this point? There are indeed a few.

With three weeks left of games, it’s calendar watching time for the handful of “we are holding them back, slow-playing, and coming off injury” guys.

Most critical, Dylan Moore, whose role has expanded this year as he is expected to get plenty of at-bats at second base against lefties and provide J.P. Crawford an increased number of days off at shortstop.

Moore, who is coming off a December core surgery, has been participating in most workouts and should return to games at some point next week. That should give him enough Cactus League – and backfield – at bats to be ready. What you don’t want to see is a setback.

Tommy La Stella was acquired with the thought he could provide backup at third base, yet he has yet to appear in games because of a shoulder issue. He did step in against Andrés Muñoz in a live BP session Monday and is scheduled to DH Thursday against Team Canada, but is not yet ready to throw. The concern level of the manager?

“We’re a long ways away,” said Servais. “I think he will be OK. Everything is tracking fine. We certainly want to get him into a game. We are not looking for him to play defensively everyday, but that certainly needs to be an option when we open the season.”

The Mariners are very short in depth at shortstop and third base. And while Moore could fill in on an everyday basis if needed, he has his own important role to fill.

The Mariners are known to still be talking with other clubs and the feeling is both internally and externally they have another move in them. It’s not likely to be a major one, but perhaps something more akin to the Tom Murphy deal at the end of spring training in 2019. Regardless, it will be good to get La Stella on the field and some questions perhaps answered.

On the pitching front, Paul Sewald is up and running after his slow start. Muñoz checked out of his live BP session with no issues and is scheduled for a couple more. Knowing that Muñoz won’t need much to get ready for games, and he has looked good and shown good velocity in his bullpens, the Mariners want to be ultra careful in bringing him back after foot surgery.

One concern with Muñoz will be the pitch clock as he was one of the slowest relievers for the Mariners. Remember those long, lumbering walks around the mound? Some say he needed the extra time because of the foot/ankle situation he was dealing with. We shall see.

That will bring me to the last observation or thought from early on. In reading about the adjustment to the pitch clock in other camps it would appear on the pitching end it has been fairly seamless for the pitchers. It will be interesting however to watch the relievers and the clock once the season begins as there is simply no way to replicate in-season leverage in spring training. There will be similar moments for starters, but for leverage relievers it will be just about every time they enter a ballgame and their first leverage experience with the clock will be in games that count. I would imagine it will be more of an adjustment for them, coming in cold, than the starters. Something to keep an eye open for sure as the season starts.

Dipoto: 2 top Mariners pitching prospects are turning heads at camp

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