TACOMA — With real games scheduled to be played, featuring umpires, opponents that aren’t your teammates or coaches and fans expected to be in the stands, Cheney Stadium won’t feel like the hopeless purgatory of last summer when it was the Mariners’ alternate-training site for the shortened 2020 season.
And when the Tacoma Rainiers jog on to the field on Thursday night in Tacoma to take on the El Paso Chihuahuas in their first game of the 2021 season, the focus will return to the competitive aspect of at-bats, innings pitched and being prepared for that hopeful call to make the 35-mile drive north to T-Mobile Park.
Regardless of Puget Sound traffic, that distance between a life in Triple-A and playing in the big leagues — every baseball player’s dream — can feel light years apart.
The long-held baseball mantra is that no player is happy to be at Triple-A — either they’ve been sent down from the big leagues and are angry or they are impatiently waiting for their chance to show that they deserve to be there.
For Kristopher Negron, his first year managing a baseball team of any sort in his career will come with the Rainiers. And while every player on the team believes they should be with the Mariners, Negron also had three of the organization’s top prospects — outfielder Jarred Kelenic, catcher Cal Raleigh and right-handed pitcher Logan Gilbert — who many fans and baseball analysts believe should be in the big leagues now.
It’s not as if the Mariners couldn’t use their help. The offense is one of the worst in baseball, including the catching position where Luis Torrens and Tom Murphy have provided little production. Seattle also has three starting pitchers on the injured list and was forced to make a bullpen start on Monday.
“That’s definitely a real thing in Triple-A and I’ve lived that life,” Negron said of that mindset. “And I think my ability to relate to the players, having gone through that situation a lot of my career, will help. It’s easy to start playing GM, playing manager in your head, watching the games and telling yourself, ‘I should be there,’ but at the end of the day, you can’t control any of that. You control what you do when you get on the field, your preparation and that’s all you can worry about. The more you start worrying about things you can’t control that’s when your play is going to start to suffer.”
How close is it? They watched Aaron Fletcher get the call to join the Mariners at Tuesday’s workout.
“It can happen at any time,” Gilbert said.
But don’t expect it to happen soon. The Mariners are steadfast about the development plan with all three players.
Kelenic’s timetable to the big leagues has been a point of consternation for him, his agent and many fans. The remarks made to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club by former CEO Kevin Mather, which basically confirmed a plan to manipulate the young outfielder’s service time to delay his free agency for two seasons made the situation worse.
But general manager Jerry Dipoto and Andy McKay, the director of player development, have maintained throughout spring training that Kelenic needed more time in the minor leagues to amass at-bats against more experienced pitchers.
To his credit, Kelenic has been very subdued since leg injury in spring training cost him about 10 games, killing the minimal odds he had of making the team. He’s begrudgingly accepted his un-wanting situation and plans to play his way out of it and to the big leagues.
“I mean it’s definitely there, it’s definitely a thought,” he said of being so close to the big leagues. “If anything, I will just try to use it as motivation and get out of here as soon as possible.”
His plan is to not get caught up on what the Mariners are doing or not doing each night and focus on himself and his progress.
“I mean it’s hard,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it. I’m human. So, I think if anybody was in my shoes, they’d be doing the same thing. But for me, I just try to take it one day at a time. It’s how I was raised. Today I just came in, got my work and got my swing where I want it to be and tomorrow I’ll come and do it again.”
The games will help. Most nights he’ll be facing pitchers with big-league experience, who won’t be afraid to throw feed him a steady diet of off-speed pitches instead of delicious fastballs.
“Just to be back and focusing on the pitcher for that night, it’s something that I think will kind of distract me a little bit,” he said. “I can only imagine that what it’s gonna be like. Down in Arizona, they spun a lot of them on me. I’m assuming it’s probably gonna be the same thing here. But I’m just going to go and have the same approach, make adjustments along the way. I’m gonna fail, and also succeed. It’ll be an up and down roller coaster, but as long as I can stay consistent throughout, I’ll be good.”
After throwing in several intrasquad scrimmages at Cheney Stadium last summer, Gilbert will make his Triple-A debut on Friday night.
When he makes his MLB debut will likely be dependent on this first month of starts with Tacoma. The Mariners have said they won’t overwork him this season in terms of total innings thrown and want him to pitch at the MLB level late in the season. It’s why he wasn’t part of the competition for a spot in the opening day rotation. And it’s why he never thought he’d get called up when James Paxton, Nick Margevicius and Marco Gonzales were placed on the IL in the first month of the season.
“Just because of where my pitch count was,” he said. “I think the biggest thing is just getting built up to that point. In a different situation, I think that could have been an opening, but not when I’m at two or three innings. I’ve talked to them about the plan for building me up and I have a pretty good feel for knowing that it was going to be a little later in the year.”
Like Kelenic, the Mariners want Gilbert to face experienced competition that comes in Triple-A. So many of the hitters he will face will have MLB experience and won’t be overwhelmed by his velocity or stuff.
“It’s going to be fun just to compete and see guys with really mature approaches that have seen guys with really good stuff,” Gilbert said. “They know how to put together a good at-bat. I think it’s gonna be challenging for me and you figure out more about yourself as you face guys that can make you work a little bit more.”