Though the initial focus of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s video news conference Tuesday centered on his modest but realistic expectations for 2021, the Mariners’ offseason plan and the status of the rebuild, there were other notable and newsy tidbits in the 50-minute session.
Like all other Major League Baseball general managers, Dipoto is planning for spring training to start on time in Peoria, Arizona, with pitchers and catchers reporting around Feb. 17 and position players reporting four days later.
Dipoto also will wait for MLB to make determinations on next season’s rules. Until he hears otherwise, he won’t plan to have extra players on the roster, an expanded postseason field, seven-inning doubleheaders, extra innings starting with a runner on second base or the universal designated hitter in interleague games.
“As I understand it, we are going to play by what we could qualify as normal rules,” he said. “A 26-man roster and hopefully, we’re going to play a 162-game season with what would have been a normal postseason and roster scenario with expected rules like we would have played with in 2019, rather than the adjusted versions in 2020.”
The safety protocols for preventing the spread of COVID-19 will be similar in spring training and the season, but likely not as stringent.
“We believe that we learned a lot in 2020, as a league, on how best to manage it,” he said. “We’ve also been able to observe the other major sports leagues and how they’ve handled it. A lot of the protocols that we put into place will be replicated. We are prepared for what those protocols look like today for the start of spring training. It looks a lot like at the start of summer camp last year with a little bit less of a bubble format-type feeling to it. But there’s still going to be a lot of restrictions, and that’s justifiable based on where we are in terms of public health and safety.”
Dipoto said the Mariners have dealt with positive tests from people in the organization this offseason.
“It is a raging pandemic, so we’ve had it hit our doorstep and probably continues to through our major-, minor-league clubs and staff.”
But the solution for now is the current protocols. The idea of a vaccination as a fix isn’t realistic.
“We don’t anticipate, nor are we expecting, widespread access to vaccines before spring training or really any time soon,” he said.
Six-man rotation for starters
The Mariners still plan to open the season with a six-man starting rotation. They believe it will help offset the limited innings pitched in 2020, preserve health and further development.
“The six-man rotation allows for two bullpen days,” Dipoto said. “It allows for two work days in between. And when your starting pitchers are all generally aged 24 to 26 and have less than a year’s experience, those work days are really important. It allows for pitch development and pitch shaping, it allows for training on delivery refinement and command.”
Dipoto said four of those six spots will be occupied by left-handers Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield and right-hander Chris Flexen, who was signed as a free agent after pitching last season in Korea.
The other two spots are up for competition. Right-hander Justin Dunn, lefty Nick Margevicius and top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert will vie for the spots with any late acquisitions on minor-league or MLB contracts.
“We won’t go in short, and we feel confident in the group that we have today,” Dipoto said.
Haniger ‘looks terrific’
Dipoto offered injury updates on three players recovering from surgeries.
Outfielder Mitch Haniger, who has undergone three surgeries since suffering a ruptured testicle on a foul tip in 2019, is expected to have no limitations for the first spring-training workout.
“For those of you who follow Mitch on social media, you know the posts he’s made,” Dipoto said. “He looks terrific physically. Our assistant hitting coach, Jarret DeHart, went and visited Mitch live and spent a little bit of time with him and came away gushing.
“What he looks like today as opposed to what he looked like this time last year is entirely different. He looks strong. He looks physical. He’s going through full baseball activity in a high-speed way that he just wasn’t able to do at any point over the last year and a half.”
Infielder Shed Long Jr. is recovered from offseason shin surgery and will compete for a spot on the active roster.
“(DeHart) also visited with Shed, and he looks great and doing full baseball activity,” Dipoto said. “He recovered very quickly, which is a good sign. We think he’s going to come 100 percent and ready to play.”
Right-hander Andres Munoz, who was acquired from the Padres at the trade deadline, is recovering from Tommy John elbow surgery March 20. The Mariners will be careful with his recovery.
“Andres will not be ready for opening day,” Dipoto said. “He is throwing off the mound, and his progression as has been steady. He will be about a year in his recovery from Tommy John when we are down in Peoria. And if we’re being conservative, it’s usually a 12- to 15-month recovery from Tommy John. We would rather err on the side of caution. But Andres says he’s been throwing free and easy for quite some time now, and he feels great.”
Of the organization’s top prospects, Dipoto said he expects Gilbert, outfielder Jarred Kelenic, catcher Cal Raleigh and possibly outfielder Taylor Trammell to make their MLB debuts in 2021.
“Those four stand out as the next notable (group) that’s coming,” Dipoto said. “And then there’s another group behind them that we think is not terribly far off. But we do need to be aware that the development may take some time.”