No bats or balls, M’s coaching staff works on players’ brains

PEORIA, Ariz. — More than two weeks before the Seattle Mariners begin spring training, their facility at the Peoria Sports Complex was teeming with baseball players Monday.

Forty-one of the Mariners’ top minor league prospects and nearly two-dozen coaches began a month-long mini-camp, a tightly structured program that is the most tangible evidence of the organization’s emphasis on player development under general manager Jack Zduriencik.

Typically at this time of the year, players would work out on their own with some input from coaches, but nothing this formal until the minor league training camp begins in March.

“If we’re going to be a really, really good organization, our best players should come through our system,” Zduriencik said. “The core of our team should be guys we’re building, developing and training ourselves. This is a step in that direction.”

Mini-camps and organized offseason workouts are hardly rare in baseball. This program is unique because it focuses on individual plans for improvement with considerable one-on-one instruction.

How unique?

On Day 1, not a ball was thrown or a bat swung.

Instead, the first several days will be devoted to meetings between players and coaches, plus physical testing to establish a baseline for performance that, everyone hopes, will improve as the camp progresses.

“Some of these guys may think they’re coming just to hit and throw, and it’s not that at all,” said Pedro Grifol, the Mariners’ minor league director. “They’re not going to get onto the field for a while.”

Players and coaches — among them Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair — spent Monday morning getting an overview of the program from Grifol and Dr. Marcus Elliott, a highly regarded performance enhancement expert who is introducing a new strength-and-conditioning program.

Monday afternoon, about half of the players met individually with coaches to formulate a personal “plan of improvement” that includes workouts, drills and goals to meet. Today, the remaining players will meet with coaches.

The coaches have prepared multi-page folders filled with information on each player’s strengths, weaknesses and needs. Much of the material is based on evaluations from their performances last season, plus in-home visits of the players this winter by members of the Mariners’ scouting department.

“The players need to be aware of what they’re going to be working on,” Grifol said. “Each player has their own needs, and that’s what the coaches have been working on for a while now.”

Each player will leave his meeting with a folder outlining the plan that will guide his workouts through spring training. Another plan will be developed for the start of the regular season, yet another during the middle of the season and a final plan at the end of the season.

“They’re always going to know what they’re working on,” Grifol said. “That way, the accountability is on them and on our staff.”

Among players taking part in the mini-camp are highly regarded prospects Joe Dunigan, Josh Fields, Nick Franklin, Alex Liddi, Richard Poythress, Travis Scott, Kyle Seager and Carlos Triunfel.

The Peoria camp is for players who the Mariners believe have the best opportunity to break spring training with a full-season team. The Mariners also are conducting similar mini-camps for players in Venezuela and the Dominican Republic. Mariners catching coordinator Roger Hansen, who lives in Stanwood, is working at the Dominican camp, and Grifol is flying there today.

Andy Bottin, a Stanwood resident who managed the rookie-level Peoria Mariners to the Arizona League championship last summer, is among the instructors at the Peoria camp. He works with the outfielders.

“This gives the players subjective goals so they understand the reason to the madness,” Bottin said. “There’s a rationale why you’re doing certain things. In the (previous) winter programs, most of the time players would play catch on their own. It was monitored but there really wasn’t an emphasis on, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ With this, they’re going to adhere to the program and gradually there will be a slow progression to the field activities.”

Such a program comes at a cost — coaches and players must be housed, fed and paid for their time — and Grifol is thankful that Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong support it at a time when other organizations are cutting back.

“Our view is that scouting and player development are the backbone of any strong organization,” Armstrong said. “We’ve seen that when we try to do it via free agents it doesn’t work out. In order to really be strong and competitive year-in and year-out, you’ve got to have a strong farm system and a pipeline of players coming along. We kind of lost that pipeline.”

Zduriencik, Grifol and their staff are trying to rebuild it, and they see the mini-camp as important tool.

“I don’t see any downside to it,” Zduriencik said. “There are so many positives to the whole thing. The players should relish it and I know the staff relishes it.”

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at\marinersblog

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