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Drayer: How the Mariners’ notable starting pitchers looked this spring

Marco Gonzales was one of many Mariners starting pitchers who impressed in camp. (Getty)

Today would have been the second of two off days in Mariners spring training, so what better time to start wrapping up what we saw in over 30 days in Peoria?

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It was a very young and a very large camp. What struck me first and foremost when I walked into the clubhouse for the first time was the reversal of the “sections” of the room.

In years past, you would look towards the end of the clubhouse and see the young players section, mostly guys who would be in camp only up until first or second cuts. The rest of the room was occupied by veterans with the vast majority of them already with spots on the team or a good chance of making it.

This spring, there was a young end of the Mariners’ clubhouse, but it extended well into the middle of the room, pushing the few veterans to the very end. The veterans’ corner, a corner that housed Robinson Cano’s retro egg chair and a sofa, making it these the most coveted lockers in the clubhouse, housed Kyle Seager and Daniel Vogelbach, who normally would be years away from such an esteemed spot.

Another big change in the clubhouse? The pool table had been converted to a ping pong table and this seemed to get a little more action, and certainly livelier action. The sight of 6’6 Logan Gilbert, whose wingspan seemed to almost cover the horizontal distance of the room, and 6’4 Joey Gerber going all out in competition was something that was hard to not get drawn into.

Neither were the doubles games with Seager and Vogelbach making a hilarious duo, each having something to say about absolutely everything. Those two could talk a good game, but the clear ping pong virtuoso in the clubhouse was shortstop Donovan Walton, the No. 1 seed in the clubhouse field of 64.

Gone of course was Felix Hernandez, his two-locker spot at the entrance of the clubhouse taken over by Dee Gordon and Carlos Gonzalez. Turns out the two are pretty good buddies as they work out together in the offseason, which of course they do as Gordon seems to workout with absolutely everybody in the game in the winter.

It was of course very odd to not see Felix in the clubhouse or on the couch in the equipment manager’s office where he spent a lot of his time in the past. Funny enough, his good friend and former Mariners teammate Franklin Gutierrez who was in camp as a guest instructor took over that spot.

On the field, the biggest surprise on the good side was the starting pitching. I have found that in the spring it is easier to separate what could be real with the pitchers than it is with the hitters heading into a season. The emphasis there on “could” be.

Along those line,s we saw so many good things. A quick rundown of the rotation.

Marco Gonzales

Marco Gonzales looked like Marco Gonzales ready and raring to go. No big changes because they weren’t necessary.

It was great to see him further embrace the leadership role and interesting to hear about how he was viewed from outside the organization by a couple of new players.

“I like him man, a lot,” said Taijuan Walker. “He’s a good dude, but he’s just so fiery. This is my first time meeting him but he’s a leader already. He speaks up at meetings, people kind of gravitate to him. It’s crazy, he’s not a big dude, he’s not overpowering but his personality is big. He’s going to be huge for this rotation. He’s there for the young guys too.”

Kendall Graveman had some observations from across the field as well.

“He’s kind of the under the radar guy but guys were talking about him. You could see what he was doing, the consistency,” he said.

Yusei Kikuchi

The changes that Kikuchi made were perhaps the biggest development in Mariners camp. We won’t know until we see him in regular season games but he appears to be comfortable with the changes he made to his delivery and from that delivery he found velocity we did not see consistently in 2019.

He credited the mechanics 100 percent for the uptick on the radar gun. He made changes with every pitch he threw. The slider and curve both more firm, although the slider looked like it still needed work as it better resembled a cutter in his final 2 games than an actual slider, which he insisted it be called.

From conversations with Kikuchi, it appeared that he went into the offseason with a plan of not just focusing on his pitches but with the intention of finding a way to utilize the knowledge he gained in 2019 of MLB hitters. He didn’t like how they reacted to his curveball so he added a bit. He worked on pitches to both sides of the plate but we also saw him go upstairs more with the fastball which if he can set it up will put that pitch to good use.

With the fastball 94-96 and the slider 90-91 in his later games there is little question that the velocity we saw was real. Kikuchi mentioned seeing an increase in spin rate in camp and I think that was more him getting back to what he had been in the past with better mechanics and a better grip on the baseball. Regardless, the stuff looked better than what we saw in 2019.

The most important thing that we saw from Kikuchi was conviction in what he was doing. Last year was a year of firsts and a year of endless adjustments. He seems to have found where he needs to be mechanically. It will be very interesting to see how this translates over a season.

Kendall Graveman

Graveman is the pitcher I saw the least of, but I know there was optimism around his spring showing.

He appeared to have no issues coming off Tommy John surgery and actually raised some eyebrows when he hit 96 mph several times in a game against the Cubs in Mesa. He got a chuckle when we brought that up postgame and said that no, that didn’t surprise him, his velocity has been ticking up for some time, but he’s not that guy. His 96 is hittable. He’s a sinkerballer that needs to live more in the lower 90s.

Graveman had the look of a younger veteran ready to do what the Mariners what they acquired him to do, give them innings. Off the field he couldn’t have been better addressing the coronavirus issue and shutdowns from the players’ standpoint very thoughtfully not once, but twice.

Justus Sheffield

When baseball resumes, Sheffield will have a big season in front of him. It is his time to show what he can do and hopefully slam the door on the whispers that have been around him for a couple of years that he perhaps is better suited for a relief role.

Sheffield has a great energy about him that needs to be tempered on the mound and I think we saw that in the spring. We learned he is also one of the better athletes in Mariners camp, something we really didn’t have time to judge in his short call up last year. On the mound, he was having a rather low key spring, nothing stood out good or bad.

In the final start, he blew the doors off what had been usual for him, ditching the four-seam fastball and going exclusively with two-seamers. The result in one game pitched against the Giants in Scottsdale, very encouraging.

If you missed it, here’s the recap of the changes.

Taijuan Walker

It was good to see Walker back in the Mariners clubhouse. A little older, a little wiser, a lot trimmer from the last time we saw him in Arizona.

The Mariners brought him along slowly coming off Tommy John surgery and a sprained shoulder capsule that followed. To lessen the load on the shoulder Walker made a change in his delivery shortening up his armstroke which in also him get out in front and stay on top of his new spiked curve.

While he threw a number of sim games and live BPs, we only got to see Walker in one Cactus League game, but he made the most of his three innings, allowing just one run on a lead off home run off the bat of Lorenzo Cain. He gave up four hits, did not issue a walk and struck out four, including Christian Yelich on the curve.

The elbow and shoulder did not appear to be on his mind as he hit 94 on his first pitch and topped out at 96. And yes, the grunt that he picked up from Zack Greinke in Arizona was audible at times in the press box. A really different look and sound from Walker, far from the kid we saw the first time around.

On that note …

When I did a search to find something I had written about Walker in the past, a video preview from Kaufman Stadium before his third  career start popped up. It’s kind of entertaining to take a look back at what was going on in September 2013.

What the heck, most of us are cooped up at home I would imagine, why not share.

Justin Dunn

Barring injury or needing more time coming off surgery, the starting five was set heading into spring. I’m not sure anyone told Dunn that.

He had a strong spring capped off by three strong innings following Walker in the game against the Brewers. After a shaky start at the big league level last September, he goes into the stoppage having gotten some good work against a good lineup of mostly big leaguers.

How he was going to be worked into the rotation remained to be seen, but if the season restarts, coming off just a two-three week redo of spring training, chances are good that teams would be allowed to carry a couple of extra pitchers as starters won’t be able to fully build up. I would think Dunn has shown enough to nail down a spot.

Logan Gilbert

Gilbert was must-watch baseball.

We saw pretty quickly why Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said on numerous occasions over the winter that it was almost certain Gilbert would debut in 2020 and not as a September call up.

He has just one year of pro ball under his belt but four solid pitches. When you see him in person you get a little bit of an understanding on why he was so tough on hitters in the minors. He may not have upper 90s velocity, but he gets so far down the mound with his extension the ball gets on the hitter quicker than expected.

Like Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, Gilbert falls into that “crazy about baseball” category that Dipoto has talked about. He’s into the analytics and technology available to him, loves watching baseball, loves reading about baseball, loves talking the game but doesn’t seem to be paralyzed by the information.

There are always adjustments to be made and he seems to be smart about them. There’s not too much tinkering going on as he uses his resources wisely. It does not appear he will be down too much longer.

Next we will get to the Mariners’ bullpen and position players, the two places where actual battles exist.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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