It’s hard to get a definitive read from 10 days in Arizona, where everything is sunshine and rainbows. But I do have some observations from my near-fortnight in the desert.
If last spring for the Mariners was all about observing the (latest) new regime to see what exactly they were all about, this year has a more practical bent. The focus is fully on gauging how good the re-tooled Mariners can be, and whether the excruciating playoff drought finally will end.
It’s hard to get a definitive read from 10 days in Arizona, where everything is sunshine and rainbows — even in years that eventually turn putrid. But I do have some observations from my near-fortnight in the desert, where beat reporter Ryan Divish and I continued our eternal quest for the perfect sandwich.
The next Diaz?
Every few years, a relatively unknown player emerges who is so compelling you have to take a second, and third, look. This year, it’s 24-year-old reliever Thyago Vieira from that baseball hotbed, Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Vieira is an imposing sight at 6 feet 2 and 235 pounds, but you don’t get the whole visual effect until you see him on the mound, throwing absolute smoke. My first look was during a live batting-practice session early in camp. Kyle Seager and Robby Cano were in the hitting group, but they clearly wanted no part of Vieira and quietly made an exit. But I was mesmerized watching Vieira’s easy velocity that immediately had everyone in the vicinity watching in rapt attention.
Then he got in his first game against the Indians and showed a lot of poise in a scoreless inning. Vieira hit 101 mph on the radar gun (and reached 103 during the Arizona Fall League) but doesn’t look like he’s straining to do so. His slider also is nasty. The comp that immediately came to my mind, purely on the basis of similar styles and body types, is former closer Armando Benitez, who threw 100 mph in his heyday and had three 40-save seasons.
Though there will be temptation to keep Vieira on the roster that starts the season, I think the Mariners wisely will resist. After all, he hasn’t pitched above Class A ball. But I think it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that Vieira will replicate the 2016 path of Edwin Diaz, who started out in Class AA, converted to the bullpen after six starts and was up with the Mariners by June.
General manager Jerry Dipoto covets a bullpen of power arms, and the prospect of Diaz teamed with Vieira at the end of games is tantalizing. Keeping in mind that Vieira is still raw and could stumble along the way, it’s a nice best-case-scenario to tuck away.
Strong and confident
Sticking with the theme of prospects for the near future, outfielder Tyler O’Neill continues to impress. First of all, this guy is a physical specimen who clearly spends much of his spare time in the weight room — even more so than Divish.
But beyond the muscles, you notice quickly that O’Neill carries himself with the self-assurance of someone who knows he belongs. Manager Scott Servais made that point several times, and the person that came to my mind was Bret Boone.
“Tyler is a very confident young man, and sometimes it can come off the wrong way,” Servais said. “He’s been great. He’s handled everything that we’ve thrown at him in the morning meetings. He’s obviously a very good and talented player. It’s only a matter of time before he gets to impact us in Seattle. It could be sooner rather than later. The future is certainly bright for him.”
The reference to the “morning meetings” is a tradition Servais started last year and continued this spring, where every workout is preceded by a bonding session that allows players to learn about the background of their teammates.
For instance, when O’Neill was asked by Servais during one meeting to reveal a hidden talent, he said he played the piano.
So Servais arranged for a keyboard to be delivered to the clubhouse and challenged O’Neill to perform for the team. After a few days of practice, O’Neill gave his rendition of the theme to “Lord of the Rings,’’ with Vieira beat-boxing along with him. They received a standing ovation from teammates.
It all sounded a bit corny last year, and it still does, but it’s the sort of against-the-grain thinking that Cubs manager Joe Maddon has been lauded for. The important thing is that the players, particularly veterans such as Cano and Nelson Cruz, have bought in.
The result is a clubhouse that is as loose and cohesive as you could hope for. That could change when adversity hits, but Servais is convinced it’s actually the opposite, that their camaraderie will better allow them to withstand hard times, which are inevitable.
Boog’s rise and fall
In last year’s camp, outfielder Boog Powell was surrounded by a lot of buzz. Acquired from Tampa Bay in the trade that sent Brad Miller to the Rays, Powell seemed to have the skill set the Mariners were seeking — athleticism in the outfield and a high on-base percentage.
But his fate shows how quickly one’s star can rise, and then fall. Powell was busted last June for a banned substance, testing positive and suspended 80 games — a second offense. Though Powell is allowed to play in spring training, he still has five games to go in his suspension. His future with the Mariners is not nearly as rosy as it used to be, as Servais bluntly pointed out.
“Over the course of the year, things change,’’ he said. “We’ve certainly got more guys that are capable of doing the types of things that he can do. He’s a little bit behind the 8-ball so to speak on that. He’ll get a chance to play in camp. We still certainly like the player and what he brings. But we’ve got other guys that have the same skill set now, so there is much bigger competition for him to earn playing time and go from there.
“It’s unfortunate, but things happen in the game, decisions made or whatever happened on the whole deal, we’ve got to play with what we got. Our roster is a lot different than what it was a year ago.”
There aren’t many battles in this camp, but I’ll make an educated guess on the two primary ones.
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Guillermo Heredia looks like he has made huge strides on offense and should beat out Ben Gamel for the extra outfield spot, and I’ll pick Shawn O’Malley to prevail over Taylor Motter as the utility man.
My biggest concern coming into camp is the same one I left with: the starting rotation. It’s possible to squint and see it all coming together.
But it’s just as easy to envision a scenario where a few of these things happen: Felix Hernandez isn’t successful in his remake, Hisashi Iwakuma pitches like a 36-year-old with a lot of wear and tear, James Paxton continues his inconsistency, and Yovani Gallardo and/or Drew Smyly show why they had ERAs of 5.42 and 4.88, respectively, last year.
Whether it turns out to be Scenario A or B remains the key to the Mariner season, in my mind.
A backup plan
Speaking of which: If someone asked me, which they won’t, my recommendation would be to keep Ariel Miranda in Tacoma’s rotation rather than succumb to the temptation of keeping him up as a left-handed reliever in the bullpen.
The Mariners need an option ready to go if one of those five starters falters or gets hurt, and Miranda is the obvious candidate after impressing in 10 starts last year.
The longer he pitches in relief, the less he’ll be stretched out for a stint in the rotation. Other options are Chris Heston, who won 12 games and pitched a no-hitter in 2015 but was stymied by an oblique injury last year, and Andrew Moore, a rising star in the organization who still needs seasoning.
The final shot
Behind the scenes, the Mariners are in for some significant changes.
Ron Spellecy, their capable traveling secretary for the past 20 years, retired at the end of February.
And Kevin Cremin, the venerable “executive producer/engineer” on the radio broadcasts for 35 years, has announced this will be his final season.
Both will be greatly missed, but Cremin will get one final chance to see if there finally will be a World Series broadcast on his watch.