Maybe it’s the past month’s unrelenting rain and daily gray that allows optimism of brighter, warmer, dryer days — even for a season where expectations are minimal for the Mariners. Their playoff drought — now at 18 seasons — will extend for another year, but the hope is that 2020 yields enough development from young prospects to change the outlook for the years ahead.
Here are five questions for the Mariners going into spring training:
How much will youth be served?
It’s all about the kids and their development. The Mariners will have 17 of their top 30 prospects (per MLB Pipeline) in major league camp.
Players such as outfielder Kyle Lewis (No. 10), first baseman Evan White (No. 4), second baseman Shed Long, pitcher Justus Sheffield (No. 9) were already locks to be on the opening-day roster, while outfielders Jake Fraley (No. 8) and Braden Bishop (No. 14) could join them because of Mitch Haniger’s abdominal injury.
Beyond the opening-day roster projection, the Mariners’ top three prospects, outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez and right-hander Logan Gilbert, will also get extended looks from the big league staff, helping to establish a potential timetable for their MLB debuts.
While spring-training performances are far from telling of future success, this will offer a chance for fans to see young players the Mariners believe will be foundational to their “step-back” rebuild.
“They are hungry,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It’s fun to coach young guys. They’re gonna listen, they’re gonna work and you get feedback from them — ‘I don’t like that. I want to try this.’ That’s what it’s all about.”
Rodriguez and Kelenic won’t be on the opening-day roster, but they are expected to get 50-plus plate appearances this spring, while Gilbert will make regular appearances.
The Mariners will likely have the youngest team in the American League when the season opens, and it will only get younger by the end.
“It’s everybody understanding where they’re at,” Servais said. “They’re all trying to prove themselves. They are very hungry and anxious to get on with their careers. This is what they’ve been waiting for their whole life, to get an opportunity at the major league level, where somebody’s going to let me play and see how good I can really be against the best in the world.”
Who will fill the No. 5 spot?
Barring an injury, there are four starters projected for the rotation. Left-hander Marco Gonzales, who just signed a four-year contract extension, will lead the young group. Left-handers Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield will also be slotted into the rotation after uneven 2019 seasons. Right-hander Kendall Graveman, who missed most of last season while recovering from Tommy John surgery, signed a one-year contract and will take another spot.
“Those are four that you can just write down,” Dipoto said. “They will be in our rotation barring injury or something unexpected.”
And that fifth spot?
“We would like to sign at least one more major league free agent to buoy that group, so to speak,” Dipoto said in January. “We want it to be the right person and the right fit for us.”
The Mariners have a standing offer to right-hander Taijuan Walker for a one-year deal and the fifth spot. The former Mariners prospect has offers from a handful of teams with differing price points. He’s still determining what is his best opportunity.
Walker pitched 13 innings in 2018 for the Diamondbacks before undergoing elbow surgery. His return last season was sidetracked by shoulder issues. He’s thrown two bullpen sessions in front of scouts, and the Mariners feel he’s a bounce-back candidate similar to Graveman — a low financial investment with potential for a high return.
If Walker doesn’t take the deal, the Mariners will continue to look at the dwindling free-agent market for a solution while giving an opportunity to prospect Justin Dunn to compete for that fifth spot along with right-hander Phillips Valdez and veteran lefty Wei-Yin Chen, who signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.
How will Dee Gordon handle his new limited role?
With the focus on young players’ development, Gordon will no longer be the team’s everyday second baseman. Long will take on that role after bouncing around last season during his MLB call-ups.
The Mariners want to establish Long at one position and allow him to gain a comfort level on defense while playing next to shortstop Crawford on a daily basis.
“Our priorities going into the season are making sure that Shed gets that experience,” Dipoto said. “Making sure that J.P. gets that experience. We don’t want to drown them, but we do want to give them the bulk of the reps to prepare them for what comes next.”
Long, 24, finished 2019 with a strong September, posting a .289/.337/.518 slash line with five doubles, a triple, four homers and 10 RBI in 23 games.
So what does that mean for Gordon?
A backup role.
“There will still be some opportunity for Dee,” Dipoto said. “Dee has shown that he can play shortstop as well as second base. I think Dee is willing to go out in the outfield if it means that he gets some extra at-bats there.”
Gordon’s mercurial personality often hinges on his playing time and success. In the final year of his contract, seeing his playing time dwindle won’t be easy to accept. Ideally, the Mariners would find a trade partner to take Gordon — the preferred outcome for both parties. But injuries the past two seasons have hurt his production and value while his $14 million salary is a hindrance. Perhaps some success in the utility role might make him more attractive to a National League team.
How will Servais handle it?
“Be very transparent,” Servais said. “We’ll do everything we can to let him know where things are at on a daily basis, what it looks like playing-time wise. I think we have to be open and make sure he’s in a good spot because he carries a lot of voice in our clubhouse as a veteran player.”
Can Daniel Vogelbach be a consistent producer at DH?
Is Daniel Vogelbach the slugger who posted a .244/.379/.519 slash line with 11 doubles, 20 homers, 48 RBI, 56 walks and 71 strikeouts in the first 79 games of the season? That made him an All-Star, a cult hero in Seattle and a legitimate threat in the middle of the Mariners lineup.
Or is he the overwhelmed hitter who limped to the end of the 2019 season, slogging his way to a .162/.290/.338 line with six doubles, 10 homers, 28 RBI, 36 walks and 78 strikeouts in 65 games?
Servais visited Vogelbach in Florida this offseason.
“He looks good,” Servais said. “He’s made a couple adjustments with his set up at the plate. But he has made one really big adjustment that stood out to me.”
“He realized as things started to spiral down for him and how you handle that,” Servais said. “Vogey got down on himself. He got very negative, and it doesn’t get any better when it goes that way.”
The Mariners won’t expose him against tough left-handed starting pitchers, using a right-handed hitter at DH. Last season, he slashed .161/.288/.315 with four doubles, five homers, 17 RBI, 20 walks and 40 strikeouts in 146 plate appearances vs. left-handed pitching.
“He’s got power,” Servais said. “He’s a good hitter. He knows the strike zone. He’s very competitive. He’s got a good voice in our clubhouse. He does bring energy every day. We certainly want to see the first half Vogey back cause it’s pretty good.”
What can people expect from Yusei Kikuchi in his second season in MLB?
Nobody was quite sure what to expect from Kikuchi from start to start in 2019. That includes Servais and his coaching staff, who watched as the left-hander would tinker with his mechanics, his arm slot, his release point and his game plan from start to start, from warm-up to first pitch, even inning to inning.
That’s a tough way to find consistency, and it was reflected in his results. For every strong outing — a shutout in Toronto and nice showing in Yankee Stadium — there were at least one if not two clunkers where he wouldn’t make it past the fourth inning.
In all, he produced a 6-11 record with a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts.
“Yusei learned a ton last year,” Servais said. “He was learning, learning, learning every step of the way. After the season was over and he got a chance to step back, ‘OK, where do I need to focus? Where do I need to get better and maybe simplify some things?’ He’s got to remember you can’t strike them out till you get two strikes on him. How are you going to get the two strikes and then put them away? I just have a pretty good feeling he’s going to be much more adapted to do that this year with where he’s at and what he learned last year.”