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Drayer: Mariners will let the kids play in 2020, so expect a different offseason

Kyle Lewis should get a chance to win a position in Mariners spring training in 2020. (Getty)

Year 1 of the Mariners’ “step back” is in the books. It began with Ichiro’s sendoff in Japan and ended with Félix’s farewell on the home field, and a record 67 players were seen in a Mariners uniform in between. Despite a number of unforgettable moments – both good and bad – we won’t know what the 2019 season truly meant until the team is further down the road.

Félix’s finale proves nothing compares to his bond with Mariners fans

There were glimpses of the future in players like Kyle Lewis, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield as they made their late-season debuts. There were young players a bit further in their development like Shed Long and J.P. Crawford who appear ready to stick at the big league level. There were the encouraging discoveries of players that nobody had pegged as everyday players at the beginning of the season like Tom Murphy and Austin Nola. Plenty of questions were answered about individuals, but what this looks like as a team and how it performs down the road will be the ultimate validation of the “reimagined” Mariners.

So what next?

In his end-of-the-year meeting with the media Saturday morning, general manager Jerry Dipoto’s direction and intention for the 2020 Mariners was clear: Let the kids play.

“As far as the position player group, I think most of what we’re going to do has already been done,” Dipoto answered when asked about potential offseason moves. “And you know that that’s our team and we’re going to let them play and provide opportunity for the young guys and see where it takes us.”

That doesn’t mean that future moves won’t be made or that the dollars saved from the jettisoning of veterans in the winter of 2018 won’t be spent. But before that can happen, Dipoto wants to know what he has with his current group, and the only way for that to happen is to see the prospects play at the big league level. Some, like Long and Crawford, can expect to be there from day 1, with Dipoto noting that there was a good chance that Long would be Seattle’s 2020 Opening Day leadoff hitter. Others like Lewis, Evan White and Jake Fraley will be given the opportunity to win positions in spring training. Not far behind will be catcher prospect Cal Raleigh, and as outrageous as it perhaps sounds for a player who started his 2019 season in A ball, Jarred Kelenic. Dipoto would not rule out a 2020 appearance in the majors by the Mariners’ top prospect.

As for Seattle’s pitching, Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi will be in the rotation, as will Justus Sheffield barring a complete disaster in spring training. Dipoto would like Justin Dunn to grab a spot and anticipates seeing 2018 first-round pick Logan Gilbert at some point in 2020 as well.

“Generally, again, we are looking at a young group and wanting to let them run with it,” said Dipoto. “The bullpen we might tinker with a little bit. That’s an area where we have room to add and if we do anything notable in free agency, it’ll be there.”

Dipoto does not appear to be setting himself up for a very Dipoto offseason.

“I don’t know how active we are going to be in the trade market,” he said. “I would say moderate is going to be about as strong as a word I would use. And in free agency I would say… the likelihood is we’ll shop early and we’ll shop late and you won’t hear a lot from us around the holidays.”

While I would be on the alert for an early trade, something Dipoto has done in previous offseasons with the Mariners, I wouldn’t hold my breath for a big buy. The timing, according to Dipoto, is not quite right.

“We don’t want to block the rotation,” he said, referring to Dunn and Gilbert. “We also don’t think we are one pitcher away. So, surfing at the top of the rotation in the free agent market is probably a little premature for where we are in our growth. I would say any type of premium additions for us, we would see more as an opportunity buy or an opportunity trade this offseason, or something that would be more focused on say midseason next year.”

The bottom line? In 2019 there was enough progress with young players, both those we saw at the big league level and those we did not, to envision a near full group by midseason 2020 – perhaps a bit ahead of schedule. If this continues to progress forward and the team reaches the goal of contention in the following years, then what we saw in 2019 will have played a role in that success beyond just clearing roster space.

For now, the bulk of the 2020 Mariners appear to already be in-house, but as always Dipoto will remain open to other possibilities.

“By and large, the players that we have are the players that we want to grow forward with,” he said. “Could opportunity jump up and grab us? Possibly. So I don’t want to shove it off as it’s no chance at all, but very unlikely. This will be a little different offseason than you’ve seen from us, particularly than last year’s looked like. But even in the years prior, you know, we were 2016 to ’18, we were so much about making those peripheral moves that augment what we thought was a contending core.

“This is a different scenario that we’re in. We’re growing a young core and I guess by virtue of what that requires, we have to give them the opportunity to play.”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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