Alvin Davis might be Mr. Mariner, but as farm director Andy McKay said Friday, “Dan Wilson is right there.”
Wilson, a member of the Mariners Hall of Fame, has worn numerous hats in the Seattle organization since his catching career ended in 2005 — minor-league defensive coordinator, roving catching instructor, special assistant in player development (his current title) and television broadcaster among them.
This month, because of a unique set of circumstances, Wilson found himself with a new title: manager of the Mariners’ top farm team, the Tacoma Rainiers, for one week. The Mariners were left in a bind when Tacoma manager Tim Federowicz entered COVID-19 protocol, as did hitting coach Brad Marcelino. Bench coach Zach Vincej, who initially filled in for Federowicz, left on a previously planned break.
So for six games in Reno, Nevada, McKay turned to Wilson, who had dabbled in managing with a short stint with Class A Modesto in 2021. Wilson was also in the Mariners’ dugout this year assisting interim manager Kris Negron when manager Scott Servais was out because of COVID.
“There isn’t a task that you’re not comfortable asking Dan to attack for you because he’s so competent in what he does,” McKay said.
“And he’s got so much credibility. He dug right in. I walked into the office in Reno, and there he was with all of his paperwork, figuring out lineups and scouting matchups and how he’s going to use the bullpen. It was great.”
McKay started calling Wilson “Lou” in honor of Wilson’s Seattle skipper, Lou Piniella, and it seemed apt when the Rainiers won the first three games under his watch. They dropped the final three — squandering a ninth-inning lead in the last one — but Wilson came away from the experience, if not bitten by the managerial bug, at least intrigued by the prospect.
“I was surprised it was more enjoyable and more interesting than I thought it would be,” he said.
At the minor-league level, of course, there’s more emphasis on player development than strategy (and we’ll get to Wilson’s assessment of outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Matt Brash in a moment). But Wilson said he enjoyed diving into questions such as when to play the infield up or back, and how to manipulate a pitching staff to get the best matchups.
“When you rove, you’re not as dialed in as you are when you’re manager and you have to make those decisions,” he said. “So it was a fun way to get back into that heavier concentration role. As a catcher, you did that naturally. But it’s been a long time since that was a part of it. So it was interesting to be back at it and thinking along with the game, so to speak.”
Wilson said he leaned heavily on Tacoma first-base coach Seth Mejias-Brean and pitching coach Alon Leichman. The Robo-ump used in Triple-A has taken out a lot of the arguing. (“I didn’t kick any bases,” Wilson said.) But he did have one interaction with the umpire when he felt the opposing batter hadn’t attempted to get out of the way of a pitch that hit him. Not surprisingly, Wilson didn’t sway the umpire.
Wilson, 53, did acknowledge that he savored the victories and felt the sting of the losses. And while Wilson is not ready to say he wants to pursue a full-time managerial career, McKay said the organization would be ecstatic if he did.
“Dan knows that we kind of have a standing invitation with him on that. With enough planning, anything that Dan wants, we would want him to do it, and there’s not a job that I wouldn’t be comfortable with Dan taking on, anything from an affiliate manager to working with our hitters to, obviously, the catchers, but even unique things like working with our pitchers. Dan can fool you with the humility because he’s such a nice person. But there is a supreme competitor and obviously an incredibly knowledgeable baseball person there.”
Here are the assessments of Wilson and McKay on Kelenic and Brash, both of whom were demoted to Tacoma this year (Brash to convert from starting to relieving). Both are expected to return at some point to impact the Mariners’ season.
Wilson on Kelenic: “He’s really swinging the bat. I think he’s learned a lot. And I’m really anxious to see his development over the course of the summer here. I think it’s been good. He’s been working on letting the game come to him a little bit more. And I think he’s doing that down there. That’s been good.”
McKay on Kelenic: “He has done a great job. He’s gone down. He’s played well. He’s played hard. Been a great teammate. Been very coachable, and clearly heading in a good direction here. He’s got some specific goals to work on. And he knows what those are. And there’s clarity around those things. I think he understands that we need him and we want him. And when we feel he’s ready, hopefully we make the right decision. And when we bring him up it’s the last time he’s down there. So that’s the goal. … The story is going to end very well for Jarred. I have no doubt in my mind about that.”
Wilson on Brash: “He looked good. He was down there in a little bit of a different role, more of a relieving role, so he was adjusting to that. Obviously, his stuff is incredible. He’s just learning the sort of the nuances of being in a bullpen and coming in different times in the game and whatnot. And he seemed to be adapting really well.”
McKay on Brash: “It’s gone great so far. We’ve progressed it from a somewhat scripted workload to where he went back to back the other night, two nights in a row. We’ll start being more creative with it and then ultimately get to a place where it’s just like any reliever where he goes down to the bullpen and doesn’t really know if he’s going to throw until the phone rings, and then you’ve got to get going.
“He’s throwing the ball over the plate more and more. His stuff has actually gotten better, which is hard to believe. On many nights when Matt Brash throws, he’s got the best pure stuff in the game of baseball — at any level. And he knows that, we know it, and the league knows that. As soon as he masters the ability to stay in good counts and get ahead and allow that stuff to really work, same thing as with JK: Matt Brash is going to have a monster major-league career. Zero doubt about that.”