For the first time in one year, seven months and 26 days, or 14,496 hours, the Arkansas Travelers – the last Mariners’ minor-league affiliate to play an official baseball game, will finally return to the field to play in real games.
Back on Sept. 8, 2019, the Travelers, featuring a lineup that included Evan White at first base, Jarred Kelenic in right field, Cal Raleigh at catcher and Kyle Lewis in center field, were eliminated in the Texas League playoffs, losing to the Tulsa Drillers, 5-1, in the five-game series finale.
After a hiatus of more than 600 days due to COVID-19, which included the cancellation of the 2020 season, Minor League Baseball will return to action Tuesday with the 2021 season opening.
Ballparks relegated to an unwanted hibernation for months will once again be alive with players on the field and fans – at a reduced capacity – in the stands.
Three of the Mariners’ four affiliates – Class AA Arkansas, High-A Everett and Low-A Modesto – will play their first games of the season Tuesday evening, weather permitting. Class AAA Tacoma, which had the start of its season delayed for a month by Major League Baseball will play its first game Thursday night at Cheney Stadium.
For the Mariners, a team with the No. 2-rated farm system in MLB per Baseball America, getting that talent back on the field and playing games is vital to their current rebuild.
“I think everybody’s thrilled,” said Andy McKay, the Mariners’ director of player development. “You have to go back to the end of 2019, and think about where we were, and everything has been on pause since then not only for our players, but we have a lot of new staff members that are going to be coaching their first games. We’ve evolved our process a lot over that time. Everybody’s thrilled. I can’t wait to get out there and watch these kids compete.”
One of the biggest obstacles that couldn’t be overcome to make a 2020 minor-league season happen was player safety. But with greater understanding of what works to keep players safe, easier access to testing, including rapid tests, a proven set of protocols used by MLB in 2020 and widespread availability of the COVID vaccine, minor-league teams should be able to make it through a full season without entire leagues being shut down.
“It’s a similar process to what you’re seeing at the major-league level,” McKay said. “There’s ongoing testing and wellness checks. We also have a large number of players and staff that are vaccinated and still following the mask wearing. Most of what you see around the big-league teams on TV is in place.”
Obviously, some of the dugouts and clubhouses are smaller than in MLB stadiums, but the teams will try and make it work as best as possible.
As with MLB teams, there are reduced protocols if minor-league teams reach a threshold of full vaccinations for players and staff. The Mariners’ system hasn’t quite reached those benchmarks but could soon.
“We’ll keep following the protocols and being really careful,” McKay said. “Our guys just went through a 10-week spring training for the most part, and they have been great. They follow the instructions, and they have huge motivation because they understand what an outbreak would do in terms of shutting down an affiliate. They’ve been great.”
The Mariners released their opening-day rosters for each affiliate Friday with their collection of players ranked in their top 30 prospects sprinkled throughout the rosters.
The most loaded of those four affiliates is the Everett AquaSox who feature top outfield prospect Julio Rodriguez and a slew of their best pitching prospects, including recent first-round draft choices George Kirby and Emerson Hancock along with Isaiah Campbell and Brandon Williamson.
“We’re excited about all of our affiliates for different reasons but for that one specifically, the amount of pitching depth that has found themselves at that level is exciting,” McKay said. “It’s still on paper, they have to do it on the field, but it’s just kind of luck of the timing of where those players all fell at the same point. We have very high expectations as to how they’re going to dominate the zone in Everett.”
There were some people who expected Rodriguez to possibly start the season at the Class AA level. And while he played winter ball in the Dominican Republic and participated in big-league spring training, Rodriguez had only 17 games at the High-A level in 2019.
“Julio fit right into major-league games at spring training,” McKay said. “Since we’ve been here, we’ve tried to establish to the best of our ability that if we’re not sure, then we’re going to put them at the level that they have to play their way out of. In Julio’s case, the day that we feel like that league is not challenging him, he will go to Arkansas. That might be soon. It might be later in the year. I have no idea. Julio will tell us. I feel very confident in his ability, and I think he’s at the right level for him to prove it on the field that it’s time for us to move him.”
But the two prospects who most fans want to see move up – outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert – will start the season in Tacoma. Kelenic is expected to be in the starting lineup in the outfield Thursday night while Gilbert will likely make his first start Friday.
McKay said he believes the challenge of competing against veterans with MLB experience on a nightly basis will be good for both of Kelenic and Gilbert – a last step in their development.
“There are just certain things that you have to experience, and Triple-A baseball offers things that you don’t see in Double-A,” McKay said. “One of them is just that older veteran pitcher who has really learned how to pitch and they’ve learned how to throw a pitch, identify a swing. identify a hole, and then just go at that hole, all day long. And that’s how hitters learn. Once that hole gets exposed. You know those veteran pitchers are really good at just exposing it over and over and over again.”
While the velocity isn’t overpowering, most AAA pitchers are willing to throw and can execute offspeed pitches in any count.
“I’m looking forward to Jarred getting that challenge,” McKay said. “If he gets a 3-1 count, well, guess what, it might be a changeup or maybe a curveball. That doesn’t happen a whole lot at the lower levels. I’m excited for him to face more left-handed pitching. I’m excited just for him to go out and do his thing, which he didn’t get to do all last year. He’ll get to go out and work the way he works and bring that competitive fire in each at-bat, and he’ll be doing it at a level he’s never done it at.”
Gilbert will be facing hitters with established approaches, an experienced understanding of the strike zone and not intimidated by velocity or stuff.
“You’re trying to put guys into positions where the game is going to do most of the teaching for you,” McKay said. “You’re facing advanced hitters who know how to put together an at-bat, how to X-out part of strike zone that they’re not going to pay attention to, how to eliminate pitches and they make you pay when you make mistakes. And that’s one of the harder things for your top prospects at the lower levels, they get away with so many mistakes.”
Where the Mariners top prospects are playing in 2021:
(rankings from MLB Pipeline’s Mariners Top 30)
- Jarred Kelenic, OF (No. 1)
- Logan Gilbert, RHP (No. 4)
- Cal Raleigh, C (No. 8)
- Aaron Fletcher, LHP (No. 18)
- Julio Rodriguez, OF (No. 2)
- Emerson Hancock, RHP (No. 3)
- George Kirby, RHP (No. 5)
- Juan Then, RHP (No. 9)
- Brandon Williamson, LHP (No. 10)
- Isaiah Campbell, RHP (No. 12)
- Zach DeLoach, OF (No. 12)
- Levi Stoudt, RHP (No. 13)
- Austin Shenton, 3B (No. 19)
- Kaden Polcovich, SS/2B (No. 26)
- Tim Elliott, RHP (No. 27)
- Tyler Keenan, 3B (No. 29)
- Matt Brash, RHP (No. 30)
- Noelvi Marte, SS (No. 7)
- Connor Phillips, RHP (No. 11)
- Adam Macko, LHP (No.15)
- Alberto Rodriguez, OF (No. 17)
- Sam Carlson, RHP (No. 25)