SHANNON DRAYER

Mariners vets show they have the backs of top prospects

Mar 14, 2024, 6:23 PM | Updated: 10:19 pm

Seattle Mariners Harry Ford...

Seattle Mariners catcher Harry Ford during a 2024 spring training game. (John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

(John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

In a quiet but expected move Wednesday morning, three young Seattle Mariners were re-assigned to minor league camp.

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For first-time MLB spring training invitees Cole Young and Tyler Locklear and second-time invitee Harry Ford, time in big league camp was intended to be about learning rather than competing for a roster spot. While they were exposed to all the coaching a big leaguer receives, some of the best teaching came from those in the lockers around them, according to manager Scott Servais.

“I will say this group of veteran players on our team is probably the most open with young players as any group I have ever been around,” Servais said Thursday morning. “And so a big thank you to the players for doing that.”

That the Mariners’ veterans would do this should not be taken for granted. It is a good sign of clubhouse health and its leadership that they did. Having young players in a spring training clubhouse can be anything but comfortable. Rather than be in their spacious home clubhouse with 25 others – with larger lockers and enough empties that everyone has at least one next to them – all 74 lockers were filled in Peoria.

In the first few weeks there is more traffic in the hallways, the training room, and to and from the cages. Every seat is filled in the food room, the meeting rooms are crowded, and it makes for a jam-packed dugout. A big leaguer trying to get ready for his season has very little space early on. Some could find it aggravating that players with little to no shot to help the big league team that season are taking up space. Some could feel threatened that an extra person could eventually take their space, but by all accounts there was none of this.

“I think you saw it early in camp, even before, the position players were fully in it,” Servais said. “By the first day, taking ground balls, J.P. (Crawford) is over there talking to Cole about his feet and how to do this and that.”

According to Crawford, fellow shortstop Young and others were impressive students.

“They present themselves well,” Crawford said. “For how young they are, they carry themselves like real professionals and it’s really cool to see just from a year how much they have changed and how much they are adapting to pro ball. It’s really cool to see them already up here putting productive springs up in the big league club.”

Catcher Cal Raleigh didn’t have to look too far back to be able to put himself in the same shoes as the young prospects.

“I was just nervous,” Raleigh said of the the first time he walked into the Peoria clubhouse. “I remember seeing Félix (Hernández), (Kyle) Seager, (Mitch) Haniger, Wade LeBlanc, Marco (Gonzales), even (current Mariners first base coach) Kris Negrón was there. It was the first time I had seen guys with grey hair playing baseball. It was a cool situation. These guys had been playing for a long time and it’s cool to see that, guys who have been successful. I just tried to pick their brain as much as you could, at the same time just trying to stay out of the way and not cause any trouble as a guy who was there for the first time.”

It can be a tough proposition to try and stay out of the way but still get your questions in. That nervousness Raleigh had didn’t go away overnight. In fact, he said he didn’t feel completely comfortable in the spring clubhouse until “20… last year.”

“You remember the guys who were helpful,” he said. “The guys who would talk to you and try to help out in anyway possible and give you advice. And you also remember the players who were not so nice or colder and not willing to or wanting to share. It leaves a mark on you. I know it’s left a mark on me.”

Raleigh wants to leave a positive mark on the Mariners’ youngsters and sees helping them as giving back to the game. He understands the challenges Ford faces after coming into professional baseball as a catcher at just 18.

“He’s learning,” Raleigh said. “It’s more about things off the field, more the mental side of things than actual physical tools, because the tools are there. He’s fast, a good bat, a good defender, but it’s the other things that takes time to evolve as a kid coming up in the system.”

Cole Young is in that process. While he impressed on the field this spring, you sometimes saw the wide eyes off the field. And when running drills alongside the “1s,” there was no mistaking the player who was barely out of his teens.

Crawford felt it important that Young fit in, and early in camp he gave a big assist before a road game. While some take the bus, veterans will drive to the road stadiums. When it comes time to leave the complex, there will be a flurry of activity with uniformed players carrying large equipment bags pouring out of the clubhouse, turning either right to go for the bus or left to the players’ parking lot.

“You’re with me,” Crawford said to Young.

If Young had any question of the veteran Crawford’s availability to him, it was wiped out then. For J.P., it was an assurance that was important to provide.

“At that age, no one’s really taking me under their wing like that,” Crawford said. “So I’m going out of the way to ensure that, yeah, I got your back. If there’s anything at whatever time or anything you’ve got to ask, I’ll be here.”

It’s not only the returning Mariners that have taken young players under their wing. Staff members say offseason additions Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco have been invaluable in helping as well.

“When I was trying to establish myself in the big leagues a lot of the older guys talked to me and I could talk to them,” said Polanco, who is entering his 11th MLB season but first away from the Twins. “I had the luck to play with a lot of veteran guys who were really good. Eduardo Núñez helped a lot. I asked questions to Joe Mauer, Torii Hunter, all those guys.”

Polanco remembers fondly a 20-minute conversation that the Hall of Fame-bound Mauer had with him when he was the young guy.

“One of the best hitters in the league,” he said. “I could talk to him. For these players here, I want to do anything I possibly can to help. When they come to me to ask something, I try to establish a conversation with them so they can pick something from me or I can pick from them. Even though they are younger, we can learn from them. Sometimes the conversation can be quick, sometimes it can be longer.”

Time with the vets can be an integral part of a young player’s development – and can be rewarding for the vet as well, particularly if their work now leads to team wins in the future. It is an investment they understand, and in sending the players down, Servais wanted to make sure they understood.

“They know that the young players are good,” Servais said of the vets. “If you realize that a young player is good, he’s going to play in the big leagues, you tend to help that guy out a little bit more. So I did explain that to those players, the reason they’re talking to you and giving back to you is because they know you’re good. And the reason they give you a hard time and you get up in the meeting and they’re razzing you is because they know you’re good. I want the players to take positive out of that.”

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