PEORIA, Ariz. — The restrictions of COVID-19 eliminated my annual trip to spring training in Arizona last year, breaking a 35-year streak. And the MLB lockout this winter threatened to extend that new drought even longer.

But a CBA settlement was reached, plane tickets were obtained, and there was joy in Stoneville once again. After more than a week in the desert, here are my annual spring-training observations as I head to the airport:

The sounds of spring

The sights of spring training are glorious. But one thing I appreciate more than ever are the sounds of spring — the crack of Julio Rodriguez’s bat, an octave unto itself, as he takes swings in the cage; Robbie Ray’s grunts that echo through the complex as he goes max effort on every single pitch, even during a batting-practice session on a back field; Mike Cameron giving hilarious running commentary during a clubhouse ping pong game; infield coach Perry Hill (who last week turned 70, going on 25) enthusiastically barking out instruction and praise as he runs the team through fielding drills.

It took newly acquired third baseman Eugenio Suarez a while to understand that Hill’s trademark phrase, “Stop it!” is an affirmation of a task performed correctly and not a rebuke of one done wrong.

Hill seems to have a new player each year who turns into his prime project — J.P. Crawford, Ty France and Shed Long among them in past years. This year it’s the equally upbeat Suarez, who didn’t take long to warm up to Hill’s hands-on style of teaching.

“I love that guy,” he said on his first day with the Mariners. “I love the way he works.”

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Julio hype

Nothing energizes a camp like a rookie phenom, and Rodriguez is doing exactly that for the Mariners. I haven’t seen this kind of hype and fevered anticipation in Peoria since the early days of Felix Hernandez.

It would probably be prudent to tamp down the expectations. Jarred Kelenic, another touted outfielder, showed last year that it’s not a fait accompli to immediately rake in the big leagues when you’re 21 and have barely played above Class A. But it’s virtually impossible to watch Rodriguez without dreaming about what kind of player he could be — and quickly. Rodriguez seems to do something every day that reveals his vast potential as a true five-tool player.

I came into spring training thinking Julio was a longshot to make the team. But I leave thinking it would be an upset if he doesn’t. Rodriguez’s tape-measure home run in his first at-bat of Cactus League ranks as one of the top five electrifying moments I’ve seen in spring training. Yes, I know it was off a single-A pitcher; yet it embodied all the promise that Rodriguez brings to the organization and crystallized it into something tangible.

M’s lack true center fielder

Outfield defense is a big concern for the Mariners, especially without a true center fielder. If Rodriguez makes the team, it will be interesting to see whether he or Kelenic would get the bulk of time in center. So far Rodriguez looks fluid and natural out there, but both would be better in a corner spot — a luxury the Mariners don’t have.

One area the Mariners aren’t lacking in outfield defense is with their spring instructors. Ichiro, Mike Cameron and Franklin Gutierrez have a combined 14 Gold Gloves — and increase that number to 24 if and when No. 24, Ken Griffey Jr., arrives in camp.

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I was especially happy to see Alvin Davis, in camp as an instructor, still going strong at age 61. I met Davis at my first Mariners spring training in 1986, when he was a little more than a year removed from his breakout rookie season (27 homers, 116 RBIs, 6 WAR). In the ensuing 30-plus years I haven’t met anyone as genuinely kind and accommodating as Mr. Mariner.

Lewis remains a mystery

Speaking of the outfield, Kyle Lewis remains a huge wild card. Though manager Scott Servais keeps talking positively about his progress in returning from the recurrence of a chronic knee injury that limited Lewis to 36 games last year, the outfielder still isn’t doing baseball activities such as running the bases and participating in drills. Lewis will almost certainly start the season on the injured list.

At this point, it seems unlikely that Lewis will be a consideration in center field this season, the position he played with distinction when he was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2020. Perhaps he can eventually get playing time at a corner spot or provide at-bats at DH. At this point, Lewis’ contribution in 2022 is still a mystery looming over this team.

Clubhouse camaraderie

Immediately after the trade for Suarez and outfielder Jesse Winker, I heard from many friends and acquaintances around the Reds who raved that the Mariners were getting two of the best clubhouse guys in the league.

I like the mix of personalities the Mariners have, even without the strong veteran presence of Kyle Seager. Holdovers such as Mitch Haniger, Crawford, Marco Gonzales and Paul Sewald provide plenty of leadership, and newcomers Winker, Suarez, Ray and Adam Frazier appear to fit in well.

Of course, everyone is happy and getting along in spring training. The test will come when the team hits its first rough patch — or trades a popular player in the middle of a playoff chase.

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Playoff pursuit

The million-dollar question (or $106 million, their current payroll estimate): Are the Mariners good enough to finally put the playoff drought to rest?

They went down to the last day in 2021, winning 90 games and finishing two games out of the final wild-card spot. Now a third wild-card team has been added, meaning 40 percent of each league will make the postseason, up from 33 percent.

You can certainly see a path for the Mariners to be one of them, a scenario that’s much more viable than it’s been in a while. They boosted their rotation considerably with Ray, deepened their lineup with Winker and Frazier; also Suarez if he regains his All-Star form. If the youngsters such as Rodriguez, Kelenic, Logan Gilbert and Cal Raleigh take the next step (or first step, in Julio’s case), this could easily be a 90-plus win team. And when was the last time that was uttered about the Mariners in spring training?

But the Mariners weren’t as aggressive on the free-agent market as a team that has scrimped on payroll for three years would be expected to be. And that leaves them with holes and vulnerabilities that could consign them once again to the outside looking in.

Much more on that later; for now, I’ll leave Arizona with two words that epitomize my experience:

“Stop it!”