SHANNON DRAYER

Drayer: Why 2 young Mariners prospects are of particular interest

Mar 16, 2024, 10:06 AM | Updated: 12:18 pm

Seattle Mariners Lazaro Montes...

Lazaro Montes of the Seattle Mariners bats during a minor league spring training game on March 23, 2023. (Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

(Chris Bernacchi/Diamond Images via Getty Images)

A highlight of spring training games many years is the quick glimpse you might get at a top Seattle Mariners prospect.

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A handful are often in big league camp, coming in to sub for starters for a few weeks before being sent back to minor league camp. Those further from the big leagues, if they are lucky, will often get called up for a game here or there as potential late-game replacements and get one or two at-bats to get their first look at something that resembles big league pitching, or in the case of the pitchers, one inning to show their stuff.

On Friday, this group was scheduled to take center stage with their “Spring Breakout” game against the Padres young stars. The game was to be televised both on ROOT Sports and MLB Network, but unfortunately Mother Nature had other ideas and the game was cancelled due to rain in the valley.

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What was missed? A matchup between the two teams that Baseball America ranked to have the best (Padres) and third-best (Mariners) prospect lineups of the series that was to feature all 30 teams. Director of player development Justin Toole was looking forward to the introduction to the group of young Mariners fans would have received with the broadcast.

“We’ve got such a fun group in the backfield, in the minor leagues, that it’s an awesome opportunity to showcase that group,” he said earlier this week. “For those guys to get recognition and be able to play on MLB Network, it’s super exciting for them, but also exciting for the fans to be able to put a name with the face and and get to watch some of those guys play. Some of those guys are going to be in places far away from from Seattle, whether it’s Modesto, whether it’s Arkansas. So just being able to bring the fan base that that group of players is definitely really exciting.”

Two players of particular interest are outfielder Lazaro Montes, who played for Low-A Modesto last season, and switch-hitting shortstop Felnin Celesten, who has yet to play for one of the affiliates due to injuries.

Montes has been impossible to miss at the complex in Peoria.

A giant of a 19 year old with a personality even bigger than his size, if you encounter him by chance in one of the complex hallways in Peoria, even if it is for the first time, there’s a good chance he says hello to you first.

“He’s been a lot of fun both on and off the field,” said Toole.

The on the field fun? Some have compared the left-handed hitter to a young Yordan Alvarez (he worked with the same trainer in Cuba) and the power is certainly there. After giving a string of thoughtful answers to reporters earlier this week through interpreter Freddy Llanos, Montes, when asked how he described himself as a hitter, drew his breath in sharply, held it for a moment, then confidently answered with a smile,

“An animal, some people say.”

There appears to be more than just power, however. In his first full season stateside, Montes hit .303/.440/.560 (.1.001 OPS) and dropped his strikeout rate from 33.2 % last year in the Dominican Summer League to 25% last year in Modesto.

“The power definitely sticks out in terms of what he can do at the plate,” said Toole. “You see him swing and just the strides he made from last year, it was awesome to watch and it’s definitely a credit to him and all of his hard work. But he’s a guy that can hit the ball a long way. Not only just that, he’s able to control the bat. And I think the swing and miss was something that he’s improved a ton.”

Off the field fun? Again, it’s hard to miss.

“Just as exciting as his on the field skillset is his personality,” said Toole. “You’ll see a a big smile on his face the whole time. He’s probably going to have more fun than anybody, and the group kind of feeds off that.”

In one of the first games he was called over from the minor league side to be available on the big league bench this spring, Montes drew a walk late in the game. He clapped his hands and looked at the dugout with a big smile. Later, he told a coach he was happy because he helped the team.

“Playing for the team,” is something that has been heard from Montes before, and it stirred the memory of the same being said of Julio Rodríguez when he was in the minor leagues.

“You look for that in players,” said Toole. “And I think obviously when you got a guy like Julio in the organization, that kind of sets the tone.”

Montes has had his eyes open.

“I’ve learned a lot from him,” said Montes of Rodríguez through an interpreter. “How to be patient at the plate, also how to get in the minds of pitchers a little, but also what he is doing in the outfield, I envision myself when he is out there looking at the movement he makes and some of the throws he does and just envision myself being out there.”

For much of last year, Celesten was limited to envisioning himself on the field. The 18-year-old five-tool player who was the No. 2 prospect in the 2023 international free agent class is, in a word, hungry.

“This is a moment that I’ve been waiting for quite a bit,” Celesten said through Llanos. “Last year, I wasn’t able to play due to a lot of different situations, but this year, I’m hoping to play a lot more. I’m eager to get on that field.”

“It’s been so fun to see him and see him healthy and in a good spot. I’m definitely excited to see him play as well,” said Toole. “He’s such a young guy and came in with such high expectations and I think just to have him here in Arizona and mix in with the group has been awesome. His defensive ability has been noted. Same with his offense. Young, strong, switch hitter, athletic and it’s fun to watch him field the baseball defensively.”

Celesten has been in Peoria since early-January working with the high-performance staff to build up and further put the injury behind him.

“He should be good to go,” said Toole. “He’s been working with our group out here, making sure he’s built up whether it’s high-speed running, whether it’s swing volume. We feel like he’s in a really good spot and we’re excited to watch him hopefully take off this summer.”

As for those closer to the big leagues, Toole is thrilled a large number of minor league players had the opportunity to spend time in big league camp this spring. Harry Ford, Tyler Locklear, Cole Young, Jonatan Clase and Ryan Bliss (who is still in camp) are among those who have gained invaluable experience.

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“They all feed off each other,” said Toole. “They’re all really competitive. They all really work hard to get better and you put them all in the same field and it’s almost like they’re all trying to outdo each other, which is a lot of fun.”

While they didn’t get their time in the spotlight Friday afternoon, there is another breakout game between the Mariners and Padres next Saturday, That is currently not scheduled to be televised, but there is a chance that could change.

Regardless, the work goes on with all the minor leaguers who are in Peoria. It is a sight to be seen – really, you should be here – the entire organization in one place. Perhaps later this summer some of the players scheduled to play in the Breakout Game will be seen closer to home in Everett, Tacoma or maybe even Seattle.

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