SEATTLE — The running joke is that when the Seattle Mariners arrive for the first day of spring training everyone will need to wear “Hi, my name is” nametags.
It might not be a bad idea for manager Scott Servais to consider.
“I’m very excited to go to spring training, to get with this group, and hit the reset button a little bit on our clubhouse and what we’ve got going,” Servais said.
Seattle begins spring training in a full rebuild mode — although “step-back” or “reset” have been the favored terms inside the front office. Instead of being a club contending for a wild-card berth and likely hovering in the 85- to 90-win range, the Mariners embraced the need to get younger, to relieve themselves of some hefty contracts, and to provide financial flexibility for the time when their crop of prospects are regular contributors.
Seattle should not be a terrible team. They aren’t tanking. But they begin spring with a roster they hope won’t be the same by midseason. In Seattle’s perfect scenario, the handful of established veterans in the lineup will play well enough early in the season that they can be moved for more prospects.
The hope remains that the prospects they’ve acquired will be ready to contribute by the second half of the 2020 season, with some likely making their debuts this year. Much of spring training will involve seeing how a handful of them stack up already.
“We have a chance to grow into something special and we’re gonna watch that happen. While we couldn’t tell you definitively we’re gonna win 100 games, I can tell you we’re gonna try to win every single one that we play,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We’re not going out there with the intention to lose. I think that was one of the things that got lost in the weeds. So far back as two years ago when people started talking about rebuilding and restructuring and ripping it down. You don’t have to rip it down to put yourself in a better position.”
Other things to watch as the Mariners start reporting next Monday, ahead of the early season opener in Japan on March 20 against Oakland:
Gone are Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Jean Segura, Mike Zunino, Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, and with them a lot of the offensive production from recent seasons. The Mariners’ offseason trades and roster decisions saw them bid farewell to the heart of their batting order in Segura, Cano and Cruz. Yet the drop-off shouldn’t be significant at the plate. Seattle added speed in outfielder Mallex Smith and shortstop J.P. Crawford. They got a potential big bat in outfielder Domingo Santana and likely improved offensively behind the plate with Omar Narvaez.
One to watch in spring will be third baseman Kyle Seager. If he can rebound from a terrible 2018, Seattle will be similar offensively to what it was a year ago.
The rotation could be good enough to keep the Mariners competitive. Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and newcomer Yusei Kikuchi will be the headliners, although Seattle will limit Kikuchi’s innings during spring and through the regular season. Wade LeBlanc will have a spot after a solid 2018, which begs a question about Felix Hernandez. The former All-Star had the worst season of his career in 2018 with a 5.55 ERA and 27 home runs allowed, but Seattle insists he’ll be in the rotation entering the final season of his current contract.
The bullpen is the biggest question mark. There are no jobs predetermined outside of perhaps Hunter Strickland having the inside track on the closer spot. Seattle is likely to have a fairly regular shuffle between Triple-A and the majors this season to help keep arms in the bullpen, especially on days where Kikuchi makes his short starts and it essentially turns into a bullpen day.
Rookies to watch
Pitcher Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, infielders Shed Long and Evan White, and 18-year-old top prospect Julio Rodriguez all will get long looks during the spring. They will be key to Seattle’s hopes of remaining competitive over the next few years.
Seattle’s spring training will be abbreviated. The Mariners will open in Tokyo with two games against Oakland. They will take an expanded roster to Japan that is expected to include 45-year-old Ichiro Suzuki. After returning to the U.S., the Mariners will need to trim three players from their roster before the home opener on March 28 against Boston.