Do you clear a week to head out to Peoria, Ariz., every March? Is spring training your favorite part of the year?
If it is, and you’re a Mariners fan, I’ve got some good news: You’re about to get spring training for six months.
No fan, player, manager or executive has ever lamented a spring-training loss. The games don’t matter — only the players’ development does. And that’s going to be the theme of this Mariners season.
Consider this advanced therapy for casual fans deluding themselves that the M’s can compete this year. They can’t. General manager Jerry Dipoto essentially admitted this with his “step-back” rhetoric throughout the offseason.
But that doesn’t mean this year has to be interest-free. You just have to know where to find that interest.
There will be times this season when a game in Class-AA Arkansas or Class-AAA Tacoma will be more compelling that what’s happening in T-Mobile Park. There will be times this year when the guys riding buses draw more intrigue than the ones on chartered planes.
The Mariners’ prospects of achieving anything significant on the major-league level in 2019 are virtually nil. But the Mariners’ actual prospects — they’re who can get you through this season.
There’s left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield, who came from the Yankees in the James Paxton deal last November. Scouts have projected the 22-year-old to be a No. 2 starter in MLB one day, and he gave up just one hit in four innings this spring while striking out six.
Sheffield likely will start in the minors but will almost surely get called up to the show barring injuries. Will he be the M’s best pitcher this year? Likely not. Should he be the one you’re most interested in? Likely yes.
There’s shortstop J.P. Crawford, who came from the Phillies in the Jean Segura trade last December. Crawford was once among the top 10 prospects in baseball but has watched his star power dip over the past couple years. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t still brimming with potential. Though optioned to Tacoma last week, Crawford will likely be the M’s starting shortstop at some point this year. He’s worth watching.
Same is true of Jarred Kelenic, the outfielder who came from the Mets in the Robinson Cano deal. At 19 years old, Kelenic probably won’t see the big leagues this year, but if Dipoto’s plan of having a competitive team by 2021 is to come to fruition, Kelenic’s growth will be vital.
Will opening-day starter Marco Gonzales be able to follow up his breakout season in 2018? Will outfielder Mitch Haniger improve upon his All-Star season last year?
Will other up-and-comers such as 18-year-old outfielder Julio Rodriguez, Mariners first-round draft pick Evan White, or 23-year-old RHP Justin Dunn make impressive leaps?
The future of this organization depends on it.
Dipoto made a necessary decision in tearing down this team this offseason, but that doesn’t mean the Mariners will be popping bottles in October anytime soon. There are plenty of examples of GMs taking a wrecking ball to the roster but never seeing the rebuild pay off.
So that’s what you’re judging this season on. Are Dipoto’s young players developing? Is the “step back” going to lead to a giant leap forward, or is it going to lead to them tripping and breaking an ankle?
These aren’t questions I’d want to pose if I were a marketing team, but it’s the Mariners’ reality right now. Wins aren’t about outscoring the opposing team so much as they are about the young guys getting better.
So yeah, it’s basically going to be six months of spring. And by the end of it, the Mariners will have to prove they’re springing forward.