Need a break from the suffocating overcast skies and the record-setting rainfall we’ve received this winter in the Pacific Northwest? Then grab your sunscreen and shades and head to Peoria, Arizona, where the Seattle Mariners are about to begin preparations for the 2020 season.
But when you arrive, bear in mind that the players to keep close watch on at Mariners spring training this year are the ones who won’t be on the roster when the season begins on March 26.
Seattle’s pitchers and catchers report to Peoria on Thursday, signalling the start of spring training, and this year I recommend directing your attention not toward the players who will grace T-Mobile Park this season, but rather toward those who the Mariners hope are mainstays a decade from now.
It’s not going to be a good season for the Mariners. Seattle went 68-94 in 2019, finishing last in the American League West, and the current 40-man roster is lacking in players with any history of sustained success at the major-league level. The Mariners all but admitted the organization’s 18-year playoff drought won’t be ending in 2020.
But just as the sunlight will breach the northwest gloom eventually, there are rays of hope on the Mariners’ horizon. While those rays haven’t penetrated through the clouds just yet, spring training will give us our first chance to see how close they are to burning away the gray and starting a baseball summer in Seattle.
There are three names in particular, the type of names who in the past would have warranted little more than a glance as non-roster invitees making their first ever trips to a major-league training camp. But Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert are the players who every Mariners fans should have their focus glued upon this spring.
“This is about these young guys,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said during the Mariners’ pre-spring training media event. “Get comfortable with them, we want to create an awesome roster of iconic players who should be here over a course of time.”
Dipoto has good reason for optimism. In Rodriguez, Kelenic and Gilbert the Mariners have a trio of prospects who have the talent to form the nucleus of a championship-caliber team.
Rodriguez and Kelenic are the high-ticket attractions. Baseball America recently released its top-100 prospects for 2020, with Rodriguez coming in at No.8 and Kelenic at No. 11. The last time Seattle had two prospects in Baseball America’s top 11 was in 2001 with Ryan Anderson (No. 8) and Ichiro Suzuki (No. 9) — and, well, suffice it to say Ichiro wasn’t a prospect in the traditional sense.
Rodriguez, a powerful corner outfielder from the Dominican Republic, is coming off a season in which he slashed .326/.390/.540 across Mid-A West Virginia and High-A Modesto as an 18-year-old. MLB Pipeline had the following to say in its scouting report: “Rodriguez has about as much upside as any hitter in the Mariners’ organization, and perhaps all of the minors. … A leader on and off the field, Rodriguez has the tools, and the personality, to be a superstar once he reaches the big leagues.”
Kelenic, a five-tool center fielder acquired from the New York Mets last offseason, slashed .291/.364/.540/.904 across Mid-A West Virginia, High-A Modesto and Double-A Arkansas in his 19-year-old season. MLB Pipeline: “He has a very advanced approach from the left side of the plate and consistently barrels up the baseball. … A physical specimen, he’s a plus runner who knows how to steal a base, and that speed allows him to run down fly balls in center field.”
Gilbert was ranked No. 59 by Baseball America, which seems low to me. The hard-throwing right-handed pitcher, who was Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2018 draft, went 10-5 with a 2.13 ERA and a 165-33 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 135.0 innings across Mid-A West Virginia, High-A Modesto and Double-A Arkansas. MLB Pipeline: “His fastball now sits in the mid-90s and maxes out at 97 mph, and he maintains his velocity deep into starts with excellent life. … All of his stuff plays up because he can throw all four of his offerings for strikes.”
Beyond the big three, the other players worth watching at spring training are also youngsters. Will Evan White, signed to a six-year, $24 million contract during the offseason despite having never appeared in a major-league game, be ready to play every day at first base? Will outfielder Kyle Lewis demonstrate his spectacular power surge during his late-season call-up was no fluke? Will pitchers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn realize their potential and earn spots in the starting rotation?
Even Seattle’s minor-league spring training carries intrigue. Specifically, how will 18-year-old Dominican shortstop Noelvi Marte, billed as the next Rodriguez, fare in his first sojourn stateside? And will we in Everett get a the opportunity to witness it? Mariners director of player development Andy McKay said one of Marte’s possible destinations for his minor-league debut was in Everett with the AquaSox.
As for Rodriguez, Kelenic and Gilbert, as tempting as it may be, don’t expect the Mariners to rush them to the majors.
“If Julio has a good year in Modesto, awesome,” Dipoto said. “He’s 19, a good year in Modesto for a 19-year-old is a phenomenal thing — see Jarred Kelenic. We don’t anticipate any of these players having to play in the big leagues, nor do we want to force it. They usually let you know when it’s their time.”
Which means spring training may be the only time this season we get a close look at them. So take advantage of this opportunity. It’s not often we get to see the sunshine before it pierces the clouds.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.