Logan Gilbert throws regularly from a mound in his Florida backyard, aiming at a posted target rather than a catcher’s glove. He lifts weights at home diligently, and consumes the Mariners’ myriad of virtual training, from mental skills to the intricacies of mobility and stretching.
But what the Mariners’ top pitching prospect can’t do — just like every other prospect in their loaded farm system, and all of their touted young players who were knocking at the door of the major leagues this spring — is play baseball.
At age 23, almost precisely two years removed from being the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft, Gilbert seemed on a rocket-charged path to the major leagues. After a brilliant 2019 season, the common wisdom was that Gilbert would start in the minors but be ready for a spot the Mariners’ rotation, oh, right about now.
“I was recently thinking, this could be the month — around the time I would be trying to break into the big leagues,’’ Gilbert said. “I know that will be there when I get back, but it was a big goal of mine and kind of got turned upside down.”
The entire world, of course, was turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic, baseball right along with it. The season screeched to a halt in mid-March, a few scant weeks before opening day, and players have been shut down ever since.
It’s a dilemma equally shared by all 30 clubs. But for the Mariners, the question is unique, and profound: What happens to a carefully crafted rebuilding plan predicated on the growth and development of young players, when the season, out of necessity, is stripped of the playing time so vital to that outcome?
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto realizes that the mechanics of the rebuild and perhaps the timing of young players’ advancement will be inevitably altered by the industry-wide shutdown. But in the bigger picture, he says, “It certainly doesn’t change our plan.”
Added Dipoto: “Our hope is and always has been that in 2021 we were going to be in a very competitive position with a group of players who had just effectively gotten their first taste of the big leagues and now were moving into season two where they could just sink their teeth in and feel like they had a real chance to go out and compete. And with the right ingredients added around them, contend.
“We don’t think that’s out of the question, but again we’re going to have to be a little more wait-and-see for the obvious reason, which is that most of those players will have played no more than a two- or three-month season. And in lot of cases, much less than that. So it’s tough to put expectations on them in terms of where we might stack up with the league.”
Dipoto adds, “I don’t think it really changes the way we’re forecasting ourselves for 2021 and beyond. If anything, we’re just as, or more, excited based on some of the things we’ve learned through this shutdown, and the ongoing efforts of our player acquisition, which takes another big step forward (this) week in what we think is a rich draft.”
So much about the near future of baseball remains murky, most notably whether the much-anticipated re-launch of the major leagues will be scuttled by the current negotiating impasse. Also, if they do start the season, what sort of “taxi squad” would be allowed, perhaps providing an avenue to get some prospects needed training and reps. Beyond that, there’s the vital question of what form, if any, the minor-league season will consist of this year.
Yet the Mariners believe they have a few things going for them that will help them get through to the other side — the eventual return of baseball — with their master plan intact, no matter what transpires.
For one thing, they feel their youth is their ally, even though it has been painful not to watch their young players flower (or inevitably wilt, in some cases) on the playing field. While other teams are dealing with older, high-priced players withering on the vine with lost time they can never recover, the Mariners were shaped up, and still are, to be the youngest team in the American League.
“While our players are getting a year older and arguably are no further along because they didn’t get the kind of exposure they would normally get in a major-league season, we feel like we are in a really good position by virtue of our age and athleticism and general health, and the flexibility and controlability of our roster,’’ Dipoto said. “It’s still a fun and young and exciting team moving forward.”
The Mariners also believe strongly in the plan they put together at the outset of the shutdown to ensure player development occurred even without games. Their staff’s contact with players, via Zoom and Microsoft Teams, has been extensive, and intensive. Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development, says they’ve focused on not just baseball skills but also helping players cope with both the COVID-19 pandemic and the current social unrest.
“I think we’ve gone at it with a very healthy perspective,’’ McKay said. “They’re professional athletes and they have to work, but they’re also dealing with an unending number of stresses outside of baseball right now.”
Addressing the shutdown’s impact on the Mariners’ plan, McKay said, “I don’t think it’s hurt the rebuild process; it’s certainly changed it. How could it not, right? You have to look at it player by player, and case by case. We’re fortunate in that many, if not all, of our top guys are really self-sufficient and driven type of people. But you can’t replace the live reps in games they’re missing out on.”
The uncertainty of the future makes it hard for the Mariners to make definitive plans, an industry-wide dilemma. If there is indeed a large taxi squad, as has been proposed, Dipoto sees it as a golden opportunity to give developmental time to more advanced prospects. But he doesn’t want to rush players, especially pitchers, who aren’t ready for that step.
“Our preference would be to make sure we gain as much experience for our young players, what we consider to be the future of the Mariners, as possible,’’ Dipoto said. “But we also don’t want to put young players in a precarious position.”
Citing Gilbert and outfielder Jarred Kelenic, arguably the top pitching and position prospects in the organization, as well as their core of young relievers, Dipoto said, “Those are guys we have to be a little more cognizant of where they are in their development. We weren’t planning on starting the season in April with those players, so the likelihood is, if we restart in June or July, we would still make the decision to start them in developmental mode. But that becomes a little more challenging when there may not be a league for them to go play in.
“We are very committed to the idea that their development is more important to us than virtually anything else we’re going to do this year. We’re still committed to that idea, and this will just be a delicate balance for not trying to rush them, but make sure they get the competition reps to the best of our ability.”
The Mariners, like the rest of the industry, are losing hope of any semblance of a traditional minor-league season, which just complicates things further.
“As we keep moving on in time here, and looking at what it takes to play in the major leagues, I would say most of us are getting highly doubtful we’re going to get our (minor-league) teams back out there,’’ said McKay.
Dipoto, however, says he’s keeping his fingers crossed there may be a truncated minor-league season at various affiliates around the country, or at least what he terms “glorified instructional league” at their spring complex in Peoria as well as the Dominican Republic through the fall and winter months. The latter could also be an outlet to break in the draft class that joins the organization this week.
“If we’re allowed to do that, even in small groups, as we get into the late summer and fall months, we would consider that a huge win if there’s no minor-league season,’’ Dipoto said. “Right now, we’re optimistic that’s possible.”
But the Mariners simply don’t know how this shutdown will affect the young players upon whom so much of their future rests. They hope that some players will come back even better physically because of the time they’ve had to focus on weight training. But as McKay says, “It’s going to be revealed to all of us at the same time.”
McKay and Dipoto both bubble with excitement as they recount the dedication they’ve seen from players over these daunting 2½ months. But they are also realistic.
“There’s no question there’s going to be some players that are going to have their careers really impacted because they lost a season,’’ McKay said. “And they lost a really crucial season. That’s just the reality of a worldwide health crisis. I think there’s probably going to be some players that benefit from this because they’re going to come back with a very different perspective of just the game, and who they are, and what really matters to them.”
Gilbert is doing all he can to ensure that he’s in the latter camp. He credits the Mariners for the scope and depth of their virtual teachings, but admits he’s “champing at the bit” to get back on a real mound with live hitters in game action.
“This was supposed to be a big year, but at this point, I’ll cut my losses and just try to get some innings in somehow,’’ he said. “I want to keep getting better and make the most of it. I’ll be ready whenever that time is.”