PEORIA, Ariz. — Those familiar sounds embedded into your mind, the ones that elicit memories of warm spring sunshine and the hope of summer success, reverberated through the vast expanse of chain-link fence, manicured patches of grass and shoe-staining red dirt that is the Mariners’ complex.
Near the indoor batting cages, the cracks of baseballs being struck squarely by the barrels of wooden bats resonated.
The hiss of a baseball being thrown at more than 90 mph followed by that thuddish report of it smacking in a catcher’s mitt.
The unmistakable clacking of metal baseball cleats on concrete as players shuffled from one field to another for their next drill.
With eyes closed, that cacophony made Thursday morning sound like a regular day at spring training.
But a sobering reminder of reality returned with eyes open. This wasn’t spring training. It didn’t look like it. It didn’t feel like it. The absence of major league players was palpable. And the unspoken angst of not knowing when the situation might be resolved loomed like a dark cloud trying to interrupt the sun-soaked day.
“All we can do is wait,” said a Mariners employee.
As the 60-plus minor leaguers invited to this early minicamp were midway into the day’s workout, the representatives from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association were arriving for their fourth consecutive day of negotiations in Jupiter, Florida. The Feb. 28 deadline set by MLB for an agreement on a new collective-bargaining agreement to be reached without losing regular season games is now a weekend series away.
Can the two sides, seemingly miles apart on so many core issues, move toward middle ground in the next four days to salvage a normal regular season after this interrupted offseason and spring training?
The slivers of optimism gleaned from daily reporting on the meetings are usually overwhelmed by disheartening cynicism at the stubborn bickering and minimal progress in those same reports.
But on the practice fields of the Mariners complex, and other complexes in Arizona and Florida where nonunion players are allowed to work out, the focus remains on the field, particularly for an organization that boasts one of baseball’s best farm systems per multiple outlets.
Though minor league spring training does not officially begin until March 4, this traditional minicamp has served as a head start to the season for the organization’s top prospects. In a typical year, the minicamp workouts take place in the afternoons after the morning MLB spring training workouts. Now it is the focal point of the day with the MLB staff watching and interacting with players that they might barely see in a normal spring training.
A day after rain washed through the valley, limiting activity Wednesday, the Mariners minor leaguers were back in full force with manager Scott Servais stoically watching the variety of drills. He monitored a catching group, featuring last year’s first-round pick Harry Ford, hitting off a high-velocity pitching machine and working on throws to various bases. He stood quietly nearby as lanky left-hander Brandon Williamson, the No. 5 prospect in the organization and No. 83 prospect in baseball per Baseball America, threw a bullpen session, displaying nasty breaking balls.
Fresh off a workout in the weight room, George Kirby, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect, watched his teammate work.
At the same time, on the far side of the “six-pack” (a covered bullpen area with six mounds), right-hander Connor Phillips, ranked No. 8 in the system by MLB Pipeline, threw with focused intensity, displaying a power fastball.
On the far backfields, the familiar voice of Perry Hill echoed as he offered instruction and encouragement to the collection of infielders, including young third baseman Starlin Aguilar, as coaches Carson Vitale, now beardless with a mustache, Andy Bissell and Manny Acta peppered ground balls.
Across the way, Ichiro and Mike Cameron ran through a series of drills, including throws to various bases, with the outfielders as only they can do. Both look like they could still be playing.
After their defensive work, the position player groups moved to hitting off pitching machines dialed into breaking pitches. While Noelvi Marte, the Mariners’ man-child of a shortstop prospect, who seems to be still growing, cut an imposing figure in the batter’s box and hit lasers all over the field, the hitting group of Jake Scheiner, Joe Rizzo and Gabe Gonzalez proved most impressive, launching some deep blasts over the fence with general manager Jerry Dipoto watching nearby.
The day concluded with live batting practice sessions — the closest form of gamelike competition — at these workouts, drawing a collection of players, coaches and baseball operations staff to Field 2 of the complex to see the one-on-one matchups between pitcher and hitter.
With Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth watching from the field and assistant GM Justin Hollander in the stands behind the plate, young right-hander Michael Morales, Seattle’s third-round pick in 2021 and the No. 15 prospect per Pipeline, looked strong and polished beyond his listed age of 19.
The live sessions included a familiar name to Mariners fans. Right-hander Matt Festa, who made 28 MLB appearances between 2018-19 before having Tommy John surgery March 2, 2020, looked completely healthy in his live batting practice session. He commanded a fastball that touched the mid-90s, elevating it when needed. The highlight came in his final pitch, when he delivered a nasty two-strike slider that sawed Marte’s bat in half, sending the bat head into the foul territory by third base.
Since fans are not allowed at the facility, there were no cheers at the accomplishment just oohs and good-natured trash-talk from the players watching.
In the distance, notes of pregame music emanating from Peoria Stadium could be heard as the workouts ended.
The only baseball game being played in Peoria was later that afternoon when Washington State opened a four-game series vs. Long Island University at Peoria Stadium. The scheduled Cactus League opener vs. the Padres on Saturday had been canceled a week ago.
Baseball is still being played. It sounds the same. It sort of looks the same. But it isn’t the same.
*** Fans will not be allowed into the Mariners complex to watch the minicamp workouts. There hasn’t been an official determination if that will change when minor league spring training officially opens. A year ago, COVID-19 guidelines forced teams to close the complex to fans because of the proximity to the players as they walked around the backfields. Those safety guidelines are regulated by MLB.
*** The Mariners have hired Dave Cameron as a consultant for their front office and analytics department. As a co-creator for the USS Mariner blog and managing editor for FanGraphs, Cameron gained fame for his sabermetric and data-based analysis of the Mariners and MLB. It piqued the interest of multiple MLB teams.
In January 2018, he was hired by the Padres as an analyst and later promoted to special assistant to general manager A.J. Preller.
Cameron resigned from his position with the Padres this past offseason and was a “free agent.” Mariners assistant general manager Justin Hollander contacted Cameron this offseason to gauge his interest in working for the organization in some capacity.
Seattle signed Cameron to a one-year contract with the hope of him remaining well beyond that commitment.