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Drayer: How Mariners plan to develop top prospects with no MiLB season

The delayed MLB season threw a wrench into plans for M's prospect Logan Gilbert. (Getty)

With no minor league season expected in 2020, one of the biggest questions surrounding the Mariners is what impact that will have on their development plan.

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While the first tier of prospects that includes Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Shed Long, Justin Dunn, Jake Fraley, J.P. Crawford and Justus Sheffield will get out on the field as part of the major league roster, what happens to those who were right behind them?

Logan Gilbert was expected to join the team sooner than later. Jarred Kelenic had a legitimate shot at arriving in September at the latest. And what about the top prospects behind them?

“We thought some would get their feet wet toward the end of 2020,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “and we do have to pump the brakes on that and see where they are in their development and what the truncated version of this major league season looks like. It will be really hard to continue to develop an organization without a minor league season but that makes us like the other 29 teams.”

Like the other 29 teams, the Mariners face a 60-game season. For once a sprint and not a marathon. Anything can happen, or so we are told. Right now many teams are going to work trying to figure out just how they can get an edge in a shortened season. Perhaps that edge can be found in the new rules or utilization of the taxi squad. Dipoto sees the edge that can be gained through the taxi squad, but he’s looking beyond 2020. The Mariners’ plan is to place as many developmental players on the taxi squad as possible.

“For us where we are in our evolution, we want to be as competitive as we can be in these 60 games but we remain fixated on the idea that this roster rebuild is at a really sensitive stage,” Dipoto said. “We need to make sure that those young players are getting their reps.”

Dipoto estimates that the Mariners will have one of the youngest taxi squads in baseball if not the youngest. They will have enough players who are ready to step in at the big league level if necessary but will place young prospects in every spot they possibly can on the 30-man taxi roster. In doing so they hope they can make up for some of the ground lost with these players who otherwise would be looking at a full years absence from the game.

“We’re not entering this looking for that turn of the screw that is going to give you a small competitive advantage,” Dipoto said. “We are entering this really viewing this as a 17-month process. How are we going to build our pitcher innings over the next 17 months, what does 2020, 2021 look like for the Mariners? We are viewing this as almost the beginning of an onboarding for the next 17 months and messaging it to the players like that. We have your best interest in mind. We are going to preserve your health and wellbeing above all other things and along the way we are going to compete our butts off and try and win as many of these 60 games as we can win. Who knows what can happen in a season like that but we are also highly focused on the big picture and will stay that way and our first and most important message is going to be about the wellbeing of the player.”

The taxi squad players will train in Tacoma under the watch of an organizational coaching staff. Goals for innings and at-bats are being set for these players who will play intrasquad games while the games that count are being played down I-5. It will be a different experience but it will be experience. The younger players will have the chance to face players who have been in the majors or are major league ready. They will do so with the full attention of the player development staff. Some prospects, mostly relievers, will have a good chance of being called up. Others will not be rushed.

“For guys who have not yet played in the big leagues that we were still hoping to finish off the developmental path, we do still have to be cognizant of the fact that Jarred Kelenic has still had just 100 plate appearances above A-ball,” said Dipoto. “That Logan Gilbert, the intent was that he would have pitched a half season by now at Double-A and Triple-A to prepare himself. The idea of taking players who haven’t had those experiences or built up appropriately and just throwing them in the deep end of the pool at a time when the threat of injury if not handled appropriately is higher, we have to manage that properly and we will. We will do the right thing. It might slow us down a little bit but we don’t think it’s going to inhibit our long-term growth.”

So just how many young players will the Mariners be able to place on their taxi squad? Quite a few thanks in large part to the flexibility they should have with the number of utility players that they had, and liked, this spring. They will start with a 30-man roster most likely carrying three if not four extra pitchers. When spring training shut down there were 43 players remaining on the camp roster and the majority of those who do not make the big league roster will be candidates with the exception perhaps being veterans Wei-Yin Chen and Carlos Gonzalez, who can opt out if they do not make the opening day roster. The six players on the 40-man roster who were cut from camp earlier most likely will be placed on the taxi squad. With Mitch Haniger starting on the injured list and the possibility of another cut or two, there should be anywhere from 13 to 17 spots that are open or can be created.

They will have to make sure they are covered at the big league level. Going with a six-man starting pitching rotation will help as will having Nestor Cortes, who showed good stuff and the ability to go long this spring. Nick Margevicius has big league experience and probably would be the first starter up should the need arise. Teams will be allowed to travel three taxi squad players, one of which must be a catcher, to help should an injury occur on the road. If the Mariners plan on doing this they will need extra catching to ensure the taxi squad can play games while the big club is away.

Even with these needs, there still should be a significant number of spots for prospects. In addition to Kelenic and Gilbert we should see Julio Rodriguez, Noelvi Marte, Cal Raleigh, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson and perhaps even a few of the Mariners’ most recent draft picks. As they have been the priority since the start of the “re-imagining,” they will remain so as the organization faces the challenges ahead.

“We will commit to a handful of players in making sure we recover as much of their developmental season as we can,” said Dipoto.

As the Mariners move forward, they are looking for more than a 60-game season. They see the opportunity in an anything-can-happen short season, but even more opportunity in three weeks of spring training and the 66 days they will have these players as the season is played.

“We are going to really focus on really making sure that this is about developing young players,” Dipoto said, “and keeping our eye on the big picture that we have been so focused on the last 20 months or so.”

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

More Mariners coverage from Shannon and 710Sports.com

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