SEATTLE — The message was clear: In 2020 the Seattle Mariners are going to let the kids play.
The Mariners held their annual pre-spring training media event Thursday morning at T-Mobile Park, during which they outline their goals and expectations for the upcoming season. And for the second straight season Seattle’s focus will be the future rather than the present.
“Our goal remains to give our young players the opportunity to play,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “The only way 2020 makes sense for the Mariners is if we set ourselves up for 2021 by having given a lot of these young guys who have zero to 50 says of major-league service the opportunity to get comfortable in the big leagues and watch their skills flourish.”
The Mariners are coming off the first season of their “step-back” process. After multiple years of trying and failing to end the franchise’s playoff drought — Seattle has now gone 18 years since its last postseason appearance — the Mariners sold off many of their veterans last offseason in exchange for prospects as Seattle started rebuilding for the future. The result at the major-league level was a 68-94 record and last-place finish in the American League West.
The Mariners believe phase one of the step back, in which the major-league roster was torn down and payroll was diminished, is now complete. Now it’s on to phase two, in which the youngsters are given playing time. And the M’s acknowledge that will come with some growing pains.
“When the game starts I want to win the game,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “But I think we have to be really cognizant of what we’re doing here, and it is a long-term plan. And I am all on board, I want to be clear about that. I do love the direction we’re going.
“Young players are hungry, they bring energy, they’re coachable, and they believe in what we’re doing here.”
Therefore, the Mariners will prioritize giving experience to young players over playing win-now veterans.
One way that will manifest itself is at first base, were Dipoto said “something would have to go horribly wrong in spring training” for Evan White not to be Seattle’s opening-day starter. White spent all of 2019 at Double-A Arkansas, has never hit more than 18 home runs in a minor-league season and has yet to appear at the major-league level. Nevertheless, the 23-year-old, Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2017 draft and a defensive whiz at first base, was given a six-year, $24-million contract during the offseason in a rare deal for a minor leaguer, and he’ll be given every opportunity to play.
Another way is that Dipoto said Shed Long would be given the everyday job at second base. One of Seattle’s few proven veterans is Dee Gordon, whose primary position is second base. Yet the Mariners are going to give the 24-year-old Long, who split time between Triple-A Tacoma and the majors last season, the nod at second. Long had five homers and a .787 OPS in 42 games with the Mariners last season. Dipoto said Gordon, who hits for average and is a threat on the bases but struggles getting on base, will be used in a utility role.
Other young players who will be given a long leash this season include shortstop JP Crawford and outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley.
As for the pitching staff, Dipoto said veteran returners Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi, youngster Justus Sheffield and free-agent signing Kendall Graveman are locks for the starting rotation. Dipoto said he was working on adding another free agent starting pitcher.
The net results is the Mariners may have the youngest roster in the AL, but maybe not a lot of wins.
“When I’m out there I don’t think, ‘Oh, it’s OK if we lose today,’ I never think that,” Gonzales, who won a team-high 16 games last season, said. “I go out to win a ball game and I want everyone thinking that way, too.
“That’s what our culture will be in this clubhouse,” Gonzales added. “Our culture will be once the doors close and that group of players is in that room, that’s all that matters. We’re going to try and create good chemistry and hopefully find some good pieces to put together to win. I will not settle for losing.”
The Mariners may not have a choice, considering the lack of proven major-league commodities. Seattle has just three players on its 40-man roster who, according to Baseball-Reference.com, have achieved double-digit career wins above replacement. Those three are Gordon, who is losing his job, outfielder Mitch Haniger, who is set to undergo core-muscle surgery that will sideline him six-to-eight weeks, and aging third baseman Kyle Seager.
Which means the Mariners expect to muddle through phase two of the step back this season and will look more toward 2021, when mega-prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert may arrive and finally complete the rebuilding process.
“We will measure our season based on the development of our young players,” Dipoto said. “We don’t have a lot of veteran players left, I think we have three players left who are making more than $3 million, which is a wild shift from where we were just a couple years ago.
“We feel we have a combination of young talent and financial resources that are effectively saved to go out and do things to put the Mariners on the map and allow us to stay there,” Dipoto added. “We want to contend in a sustainable way, it’s been our goal since we got here, and we have crafted a roster now that I think will allow that. It’s not likely to start in 2020.”