While the Puget Sound recovers from Snowmageddon 2021, the sun will be shining and temperatures are expected to be in the mid-70s as Mariners pitchers and catchers report to the team’s facility in Peoria, Arizona, on Wednesday for mandatory physicals.
Position players will report four days later on Feb. 21 with the first full-team workout scheduled for the next day.
And while the spread of COVID-19 is still highly prevalent in Arizona and Florida and vaccinations for players are not imminent, Major League Baseball will proceed as planned, relying on amended protocols and guidelines that allowed a shortened 60-game regular season and an expanded playoffs to take place.
A minor outbreak on a team, a workout being scuttled due to contact tracing or a spring training game canceled “out of an abundance of caution” should be expected.
Turning the focus to the Mariners’ preparation for the 2021 season, there are several questions that need to be answered before they host the Giants to open the regular season April 1 at T-Mobile Park.
Will the Mariners add more players to their list of invitees?
Under normal circumstances for general manager Jerry Dipoto, this wouldn’t be a question but a given. Given the sheer number of unsigned free agents on the market, the Mariners will almost certainly add players in the days leading up to the report dates or even during spring training.
MLB reportedly set a limit of 75 players invited to spring training. The Mariners have 68 players invited to camp so far. They still could use another experienced starting pitcher and another left-handed hitter capable of playing left field or second base. Bullpen depth is needed for every team.
Players who fit each need are still available, though the pool has diminished in the last week with a bevy of signings.
Yet it’s the type of free agents the Mariners might add which provides curiosity. Two or three players signed to minor-league or split contracts with invitations to spring training should be expected.
Until news of the agreement to sign former Blue Jays closer Ken Giles to a two-year deal broke Thursday, Seattle hadn’t signed any free agents to MLB contracts since Chris Flexen (2 years, $4.75 million) and Keynan Middleton (1 year, $800,000) inked deals early in the offseason.
MLB sources have said Dipoto is working with a more stringent payroll budget than he initially expected, and the remaining players on the free-agent market like starting pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton or Jake Odorizzi or relievers Trevor Rosenthal, Justin Wilson or Shane Greene might be forced to accept lesser money to sign deals.
Are there any position battles to monitor?
Despite featuring a roster of largely inexperienced players, most with minor-league options, the Mariners’ main competition is for roster spots — bench players and middle relievers — instead of set positions.
Manager Scott Servais has said the second-base job is an open competition between Dylan Moore and Shed Long Jr.
A year ago, the Mariners handed Long the starting second-base job over incumbent Dee Strange-Gordon as part of their rebuild plan. After a stellar finish to the 2019 season where Long posted a .289/.337/.518 slash line* with five doubles, a triple, four home runs and 10 runs batted in in his final 20 games while playing a variety of positions, the Mariners wanted to see him play on an everyday basis at one position for an entire season.
Bothered by an unknown shin injury suffered in spring training, Long struggled his way out of the starting job in about 20 games, posting a .200/.282/.300 slash line with four doubles, a homer, eight walks and 20 strikeouts.
Meanwhile, Moore, who spent the 2019 season as the team’s utility player, took advantage of a weird roster setup to earn everyday at-bats, playing mostly in the outfield. Buoyed by some offseason swing changes, he didn’t just hit the ball more often — he was driving it with power. Moore finished with a .255/.358/.496 slash line, nine doubles, eight homers, 17 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 38 games.
Listening to comments from Servais and Dipoto, it would take an abysmal performance from Moore this spring to not win the starting job.
*batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage
Who will play left field until Jarred Kelenic gets called up?
There are a handful of candidates to fill the spot until the club deems their prized prospect ready for his MLB debut. Given his talent and potential, Jake Fraley should be the easy choice for the spot. But his struggles during his brief call-up in 2019, a disappointing 2020 and past injury concerns put him into a competition with Braden Bishop and Jose Marmolejos.
Bishop has yet to show he can hit MLB pitching, while Marmolejos is more of a first baseman playing left field. It’s likely Seattle will use some sort of platoon at the spot, capitalizing on Sam Haggerty’s switch-hitting, speed and versatility or Long’s ability to play left field at an adequate level.
Given his competitive nature and sheer talent, it wouldn’t be surprising for Kelenic to have an impressive and productive spring training to force the continued debate about whether he should be on the opening-day roster for the Mariners or the Tacoma Rainiers.
What will the Mariners’ bullpen look like?
The biggest indicator for expected improvement over the unqualified disaster that was the 2020 bullpen will be the health and progression of Rafael Montero, Keynan Middleton and Kendall Graveman, the three most experienced relievers on the 40-man roster.
Montero, who is the early favorite to handle the closing duties, was 8 for 8 in save opportunities for the Rangers last season. More importantly, he is now three years removed from Tommy John surgery. His average fastball velocity sat at 96 mph over the past two seasons, and he’s embraced the role of a reliever after being a starter most of his career.
Middleton also underwent Tommy John surgery in 2018. His four-seam fastball averaged 97.1 mph in 2020 and topped out at 99 mph. Admittedly, he felt it was a hindrance, causing him to blow fastballs by hitters instead of focusing on making the best possible pitch. He vowed to have a different plan of attack in 2021.
Graveman was forced into a relief role last season after revealing that he had a nonmalignant bone tumor in his neck. He showed impressive stuff and velocity in a handful of relief appearances in 2020. But he has never pitched an entire season as a reliever, and the tumor will always be a lingering concern.
If those three are healthy and pitching as expected, it allows the rest of the pitchers on staff to work in lower leverage roles. Because so many relievers have minor-league options, Seattle will have the flexibility to shuffle fresh arms back and forth with Class AAA Tacoma. Don’t be surprised if at least one of the experienced nonroster invitees like Roenis Elias, J.T. Chargois or Taylor Guerrieri pitches their way onto the opening-day roster.
“On paper and even emotionally, it’s just a better group,” Dipoto said. “There’s more major-league experience. There’s more major-league performance history with this group than there was a year ago, so naturally the expectation is that we’re in better shape than we were to start the 2020 season.”
What is Mitch Haniger’s process to return to game action?
Haniger last played in a game of any sort June 6, 2019, at T-Mobile Park. A 94 mph fastball from Justin Verlander bore in on the hands of Haniger as he swung. It resulted in a foul tip that rocketed straight into his own groin area. Beyond the awful immediate pain, the consequences — three surgeries — all related in some way to that one incident would be felt for months.
After sitting out the 2020 season, Haniger is now back to something better than full health.
“I feel like I’m moving better than I ever had before,” he said. “I feel just as strong and stronger in most of the subtle places because my training has been different.”
But can he get back the rhythm, timing and needed execution level that comes with playing against the best players in the world?
“A lot of rust can be eliminated through training hard and working hard in the cage and making your training environment very challenging,” he said. “That’s exactly what I’ve done all offseason. Hitting off the guy throwing batting practice, hitting off the machine is not quite like facing a live pitcher. But there’s some things in spring training that I’ll do differently this year that I haven’t done in the past. I think it will prepare me well.”
What may be more instructive is how Haniger’s body handles the rigors of daily activity of spring training and Cactus League games.
Servais said they will “take it slow” with Haniger, who in turn said he doesn’t need any special treatment.
It would be prudent for the Mariners to carefully monitor Haniger’s usage and how his body recovers from an extended day of activity. Spring training games aren’t meaningless for someone like him. But they can’t come at the cost of health maintenance. Haniger is a maniacal worker and frighteningly intense during workouts. The Mariners don’t want to remove that from his mentality. They just want him to be conscientious of the bigger picture beyond extra work in the cage or weight room.