NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — What came first, the winning or the team chemistry? In the stories romanticizing a winning team’s camaraderie in the clubhouse, that debate is rarely mentioned.
Do teams win because they have great chemistry? Or is chemistry a product of winning? Are they mutually necessary?
Since general manager Jerry Dipoto was hired, the Mariners have pushed more to the analytical side. They don’t sentimentalize long-standing narratives or “this is how it’s always been” thinking. They’ve tried to think creatively about building from within, whether it’s biomechanics, mental skills training, leadership techniques or technological advancement. And they aren’t afraid to tell you about it.
Yet, in the sauna that is Dickey-Stephens Park in the summer, the Mariners’ Class AA affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers, find themselves part of a hopeful experiment for future success. The experiment is an amalgam of the new concepts the Mariners want to become the norm and an emphasis that building team chemistry isn’t some antiquated premise but is vital to eventually ending the longest current postseason drought in sports. And maybe, just maybe, winning a World Series title.
“I’ve always believed in this,” Dipoto said as he watched the Travelers work out before Wednesday’s Texas League opening playoff game. “It is the idea that we want to take a core group of players — and it’s a new group every year — and start them together.
“To the extent that you can, keep a group of them moving as a mass, because they learn to trust each other, they play as a team, they really care about other human beings. Most rosters that come to fruition, at the center of it are homegrown players that came through your system and understand the way Mariners do it.
“That’s what we see this group being.”
It was evident in the early days of Mariners spring training. Veteran players in the clubhouse in Peoria, Arizona, are near the front entrance, where it’s wider and more spacious. Invited players with little to no service time are pushed farther to the back, where it narrows. In that more confined space, pitchers Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and Ricardo Sanchez had lockers next to each other, with outfielders Jake Fraley, Dom Thompson-Williams and Kyle Lewis and first baseman Evan White directly across from them. This wasn’t by coincidence.
With the exception of Sheffield, who was slotted for Class AAA Tacoma but would end up joining the others eventually, this group was ticketed for Arkansas to start the season. The process of becoming teammates for the season and the future had already started. The Mariners wanted that core of players, who are key to this “step-back” plan, to play, win, lose, succeed, fail, grow and bond together.
“You want the group, but you also can’t force the group,” said Andy McKay, Mariners director of player development. “This was a situation where we wanted the group and we felt like we really did a good job of honoring where the player needed to be as well. It wasn’t completely manipulated.”
This isn’t a new concept. The Royals are often cited for nurturing the group of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez into a World Series champion. Who hasn’t heard the breathless mentions of the Yankees’ “core four” of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte? The Twins’ current success is a product of a similar plan.
“You see very talented players that don’t turn into winning players,” McKay said. “You see talented teams that don’t win. It takes more than talent to win. It’s proven every year. You do have to win in your clubhouse first. And that’s hard to do. The only way to do it is start trying to do it and put guys in a position to do it. ”
It may sound like esoteric psychobabble, or an overemphasis on something that should be inherent in players. But the Mariners and many other teams believe this plan will lead to ultimate success.
“There’s a partnership that begins to form,” McKay said. “The more games you play together. The more bus rides you take together. The more slumps you work through together. You are just developing a camaraderie that really does impact wins and losses.”
While McKay preaches team chemistry, talent is still vital to make this plan work. And ultimately, big-league success from that talent is key to continued employment for everyone involved.
Working toward big-league success, the Mariners have made the Travelers the destination or stopping point for the best talent in a farm system that was ranked 30th in all of MLB before last season and has risen to 11th this season.
By ranking of Mariners prospects from MLB Pipeline’s Top 30, here’s a list who is either playing or has played for this Travelers this season:
- Jarred Kelenic, OF (No. 1)
- Logan Gilbert, RHP (No. 2)
- Evan White, 1B (No. 4)
- Justin Dunn, RHP (No. 5)
- Cal Raleigh, C (No. 7)
- Jake Fraley, OF (No. 8)
- Justus Sheffield, LHP (No. 9)
- Kyle Lewis, OF (No. 10)
- Joey Gerber, RHP (No. 19)
- Wyatt Mills, RHP (No. 21)
- Ricardo Sanchez, LHP (No. 24)
- Dom Thompson-Williams, OF (No. 25)
- Art Warren, RHP (No. 26)
- Aaron Fletcher, LHP (No. 27)
- Donnie Walton, IF (No. No. 28)
- LJay Newsome, RHP (No. 29)
That’s 16 players from the organization’s Top 30.
“It’s just so amazing to see,” Lewis said. “It’s different now. We just have so much talent on this team. And we just keep adding to it.”
Always optimistic, Dipoto gushed about the list of players. Though fans hope every prospect becomes an All-Star, there is value in any player just making it to the big leagues and even contributing on an average level.
“If you ask me, I think of the 16 that are top 30, there’s going to be 16 that play in the big leagues,” he said. “Some might be role players, some might be everyday guys. I would be wildly disappointed if among the players who have touched this team this season … if we don’t come away with three or four everyday guys and couple of every-fifth-day starting pitchers, that will have been disappointing.”
The success rate for minor-league players to reach MLB is pretty low, but this group was set up to offset that percentage.
“History tells you that it’s about 10% of the guys in your system will make it to the big leagues,” he said. “We went out and loaded the deck a little bit, we acquired players who weren’t at the onset of their career, we acquired players who were closer to the front gate, so to speak. They were intentionally mixed to try to create this group that could rush the gates.”
It’s easy to wonder if this whole concept isn’t born out of some coaching book or leadership seminar. It does have the feel of a baseball Ted Talk.
But when you talk to the players, they believe in it. They think it will help them and the organization in the immediate and long-term future. And maybe that’s all that matters.
“I think winning comes from a strong bond,” Dunn said. “It comes from wanting to play for each other and knowing what each other wants to do. It’s easy to play for someone when you know what they are going through at their lowest and what they are going through at their highest. If you can build that community, build that family, build that brotherhood, every time we step between those lines, we are all playing for each other. There’s not selfishness there.”
Warren, Walton and Lewis were on the High A Modesto team that won the Cal League championship in 2017. There was already a bond formed. White and Lewis became roommates a year ago and still are. The forced grouping in spring training also had an effect.
“We were all new to that experience,” Lewis said. “And to be around them every day and be around as much as possible helped with that process.”
When they do get free time or have a rare day off, they all end up spending time together.
“It’s a very close group,” Walton said. “We had a pool day on the off day and the entire team showed up. I don’t know how often this happens with every other team. It’s pretty special.”
When Gilbert, Kelenic and Newsome were called up late in the season, Warren and a few others pulled a page out of Mariners manager Scott Servais’ spring training book to offset the quiet nature of the newcomers. They had each new player stand up in front of the team and answer questions about themselves.
“It wasn’t too bad,” Gilbert said. “Somebody asked me what my spirit animal is and asked me to demonstrate.”
Why do this?
“We thought it would be a good idea to break the new guys in,” Warren said. “We put them in front of the room, I did a funny introduction and we started firing questions. It opens them and breaks them out of the shell.”
“Ever since then, you’ve seen Gilbert, he’s really shy and a really quiet person, he’s opened up and is cracking jokes,” Dunn said.
With someone like Kelenic, a prospect darling among a portion of Mariners fans, there’s no resentment or jealousy of a such a self-confident player who’s moved up so quickly and with so much hype. Not in that clubhouse.
“We don’t see it that way,” Warren said. “We are really genuinely pulling for each other. There’s not fake chemistry here. I think these guys when they come up here and see that, it allows them to get comfortable and loose.”
In his first full season of pro baseball and his first season with the Mariners, Kelenic has embraced this thinking.
“The best part about it is to experience failure with each other,” he said. “We know how everyone in there handles it. Some people handle it differently than others. But the biggest thing is that we are with each other when we are all at our highs and our lows, and that’s only going to help us.”
A former general manager offered his input to Dipoto.
“Woody Woodward maybe put it best after he spent his week with the Travelers,” Dipoto recalled. “He messaged and said, ‘That is the best clubhouse that I’ve ever been in all my years of baseball, just how much these players care about each other and the organization around them.’ ”
The timeline to reach the big leagues will vary. Sheffield and Fraley have been called up. The expectation is that Lewis, Dunn, Walton and possibly Warren will be called up when the Travelers postseason runs ends to get a taste of big-league life.
Kelenic and Gilbert have accelerated their timelines with stellar showings this season. The bulk of this group will be invited to MLB spring training next season along with 18-year-old Julio Rodriguez, the No. 3 prospect in the system. Some of them will return to Arkansas to start next season, a large portion will be with Class AAA Tacoma.
The geography can’t change this experience or what was built from it.
“It’s all about selflessness and getting absorbed into the moment and trying to win the game for your team,” Lewis said. “That’s created a unique experience and it’s something we have to strive to continue.”
By the end of next season, the core group that was in MLB spring training along with Gilbert and others could be on the big-league roster experiencing baseball’s most difficult level together.
“Everyone of us believes we can play in the big leagues and play for the Mariners,” Walton said. “The idea of bringing us close together, it’s only going to help.”
They’ve allowed themselves to think about being the core of a team that brings playoff baseball back to Seattle. Bus rides are long in the Texas League, and you can’t just talk about that day’s game.
“Based on the situation we’ve been put in, you can’t help but think about it and talk about it,” Lewis said. “Over time, it will kind of form and shape itself. Nobody knows what that picture is going to look like. Right now it’s just interesting thinking about.”
You can’t always focus on the moment and forget the ultimate goal.
“It’s a balance,” McKay said. “I want them to see themselves winning a World Series in Seattle. See yourself in that uniform because that helps get you through how hard this is. We have a group of guys that actually sees themselves winning in Seattle and not just winning but being parts of the community. They want to win together in Seattle. They see what the Seahawks are doing. They see how it changes things.”
If that ever happens, and the emphasis should be on ‘if,’ perhaps they’ll refer to this season and the plan to group them together as a reason for success.
“When you get to the big leagues, you are on a bigger stage, and you aren’t just playing for the guys in that clubhouse, you’re playing for that city,” Kelenic said.
“Seattle hasn’t been to the playoffs in I don’t know how many years it’s been, but it’s been a while. Everybody in this clubhouse believes they are going to be the big leagues someday and we are going to be in the playoffs at some point.
“Once we get to the big leagues and get to the playoffs, we can look deep down inside and remember what it was like when we were here in Arkansas.”