SEATTLE — Position players stretched together on the outfield grass. Pitchers threw in the bullpen. Infielders and outfielders split up for their daily fielding work. The ballpark roof rolled opened midway through the morning workout.
The batting cage was set up behind home plate, and Kyle Seager was the first to clear the fence as the Seattle Mariners opened summer camp.
In some ways, it looked like the usual pregame routine Friday at T-Mobile Park.
In others, it didn’t.
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais, the coaching staff, and, at times, players, wore facial coverings. Workouts were split into separate sessions — one in the morning, one in the afternoon — to separate players into smaller groups. The section beyond the first base dugout was roped off and marked for socially distant team meetings. Without the usual buffet-style food service in the clubhouse, coaches took pre-bagged lunches to the concourse to eat between sessions.
And, of course, there was no crowd — apart from the limited number of media members permitted to attend daily workouts — in the empty stadium to watch.
The Mariners are back, and three weeks away from opening a 2020 season shortened to just 60 games by the COVID-19 pandemic, but much is different, Servais noted.
“I think it’s been 112 days since we were together in Arizona,” he said ahead of Friday’s first set of team workouts. “As we all know, the world has changed a ton, with the virus and everything else that’s going on. I’m looking forward to getting around our players, getting them in the right mindset, getting them in shape, getting ready to go, but it’ll be a different tone to this camp.
“I think the focus for me, the goal, No. 1 is stay healthy. No. 2, we’ve got 21 days to get ready to play 60 games, and it’s not a lot of time. We’ve got to be very efficient in how we’re using our time, making sure our players are getting the reps in they need, the amount of live at-bats, getting their arms in shape. All of that stuff plays into it.”
Much of the Mariners’ big-league club participated in the morning workout, with starters like Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi throwing bullpen sessions, Seager taking reps at third base, Evan White at first and Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis in the outfield.
The afternoon session featured many of Seattle’s up-and-comers, like top prospect Jarred Kelenic and this year’s first-round draft pick Emerson Hancock.
Servais said the club has a “pretty good feel” for where the players in their 60-man player pool are at in terms of readiness for the season. Players started arriving in Seattle last weekend to begin mandatory testing, and many worked out individually in the days leading up to the start of camp.
“We’ve had voluntary workouts over the last couple of days,” Servais said. “When the guys have cleared testing they’ve been able to come into the ballpark, get their throwing in. We’ve seen a number of pitchers get on the mound, throw bullpens.
“I’m very encouraged by what I’ve seen.”
Servais said there have been “a few players” who have tested positive, and others who have not yet been cleared — the results process can take up to two days — to enter the facility, which left the Mariners about 15-20 players light Friday.
According to a joint release from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association on Friday, the total number of positive tests across all 30 clubs prior to workouts beginning was 38, or 1.2% of the 3,185 samples collected. Players accounted for 31 of the positive tests and staff members for seven. Nineteen clubs had at least one positive test.
With baseball finally resuming, Servais said the predominant message to players will be how seriously the Mariners will take health and safety protocols.
“We do not want to be the team that goes down, or you don’t want to be the player or coach that has brought something in, so not just adhering to the protocols here when you get into the ballpark, but what goes on away from the ballpark,” Servais said. “A number of our players will stay at a local hotel. Some guys have apartments here. We’ve got to pay really close attention to it and take it seriously, and it’s going to be uncomfortable.
“That’s another thing I’m going to talk about, is you have to be OK with the new norm. You’ve got to accept it. You’ve got to own it going in. It gives you a chance, gives you a better mindset to be able to handle it.”
Even with these changes, the Mariners remain focused on getting looks at several young players, including White, Fraley, Lewis, second baseman Shed Long, and others, even in a shortened season.
“That was the goal coming in, and I think we can get the feel on that,” Servais said. “It’s a shortened season — it’s kind of like a college season, it’s 60 games — we’re not going to have a lot of off days, but these guys are going to get a ton of opportunity to play.
“We’re going to find out a lot about them, how quickly they can make adjustments. And I will say to our team, there’s 10 teams that are going to the playoffs. I feel very strongly there’s probably two or three teams that are going to make it to the playoffs that nobody’s expecting right now. … Anything can happen.”
Much of that will hinge on health, Servais said, but beyond that, the Mariners will get a chance to see if their young up-and-comers can make a step forward a bit quicker than expected.
The Mariners have also invited many of their top 30 prospects and four of their 2020 draft picks to participate in camp and continue developing.
“I think a huge advantage is getting all those guys in this facility, in the ballpark,” Servais said. “I know there’s not going be 30,000 screaming fans here when we play intrasquad games, or any games at all, but getting them comfortable around in Seattle in the ballpark — this is what the clubhouse looks like, this what the field feels like, this is what the mound feels like — (is a) big advantage when these guys eventually do show up at the big league level.
“So a number of the the real young minor-league players that are here, they will be built up very slowly, obviously. … It allows us to not lose a whole year of development with them. Really important for where we’re at organizationally. We’ve got to keep our young players moving, they’re a big part of our future here, but you’ll see these guys in intrasquad games, going out and competing against some of our more veteran guys, which will be fun to watch. …
“The reason these guys are here is they’re all going to be big-leaguers. And the key for us is, how quickly can we make them winning big-leaguers? So they are going to learn a ton. It’s going to be a great experience for them.”
But, the primary focus, Servais said, remains in getting Seattle’s 30-man roster ready for the season, which begins in late July.
“This is unprecedented times, but I’m really, really happy we’re getting a chance to get back together,” he said. “We’ll give it a shot at playing a season, even a 60-game season. We’re looking forward to it.”