Scott Servais began his Zoom session Friday by saying, “This is unprecedented times” — and the fact he was meeting the media via Zoom and not in person was just one indication.
Like coaches wearing masks. Like players working out in shifts — with some of the pitchers even heading over to CenturyLink Field for their throwing sessions, the better to social distance. Like the grounds crew carefully wiping down the batting cages between groups. Like the team meeting Servais conducted with his players sitting spaced apart in the stands.
But once you get past all the surreal trappings of 2020 baseball, Volume 2, it’s clear that one thing hasn’t changed at all: For the Mariners, this long delayed and severely truncated season is still all about the kids.
Oh, Servais talked about how the sprint of a 60-game season will open up a chance for a surprise team or two to make the playoffs — “and why not us?” he posed.
But the Mariners looked to be a 95-plus-loss team over 162 games back in the innocent days of March. They didn’t magically morph into contenders over the 112 days since the team last convened in Arizona. Yes, anything can happen in two months, and the long layoff could be a great equalizer, but the holes and weaknesses of this team are still manifest.
However, the Mariners can and will still use this major-league season for the same primary purpose it always intended: To get an evaluation of the emerging young players on the verge of breaking into the big leagues, and find out if they can be core pieces for the future.
In particular, I’m talking first baseman Evan White and second baseman Shed Long in the infield, Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis in the outfield, and Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn in the rotation.
Those guys will still have a chance to play virtually every day (or start every six days, in the case of the pitchers). Even though that now means 100 fewer games, their performance will still speak multitudes. None have had a full season in the majors, and White will be making his big-league debut on (re-) opening day.
“I think we can get the feel on that,’’ Servais said of evaluating those young players. “Again, it’s a shortened season. It’s kind of like a college season — 60 games, and we’re not going to have a lot of off days, but these guys are going to get a ton of opportunity to play. We’re going to find out a lot about them, how quickly they can make adjustments.”
Servais said his scenario for Mariners contention in 2020 hinges on staying healthy, foremost, and then, “Can our young guys step forward a little bit quicker than we were expecting? Why not? … It will be different. But the focus here is, we’re going to give a lot of young people opportunities. They’re going to get it in this camp.”
He was alluding, in part, to the second wave of Mariners prospects who are a huge part of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s grand plan to fashion a contender. Unlike the aforementioned players, these ones are not yet ready for the major leagues but are nevertheless part of the 60-man camp roster in Seattle. They will help comprise the Mariners’ “taxi squad” when the season starts.
The intent with this group — which is led by top prospects Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert — is not to have them available to pivot to the major-league roster in case of an injury or other need. That almost certainly won’t happen, if for no other reason than the Mariners don’t want to start their service-time clocks or use up an option. Nor do they want to mess with their psyche by pushing them too fast, as has happened with previous blue-chippers in the organization.
But it was vital to get these players work in a formal setting under the in-person tutelage of their own coaches, which hasn’t happened for three months. It will now, for these three weeks of training in Seattle leading up to the late-July opener, and then for two months after that in Tacoma at Cheney Stadium. That’s where the taxi-squadders will move when the season starts to work out and play intrasquad games.
Granted, it’s not the same as a minor-league season, but it’s all they’ve got. And Servais believes it will still be a valuable experience not only for that trio, but also the four 2020 draftees and four 2019 draftees who are in camp and earmarked for the taxi squad.
“I think a huge advantage is getting all those guys in this facility, in the ballpark,’’ Servais said. “I know there’s not going to be 30,000 screaming fans here when we play intrasquad games, or any games at all, but getting them comfortable around Seattle, in the ballpark, is huge. This is what the clubhouse looks like, this is what the field feels like, this is what the mound feels like.
“That will be a big advantage when these guys do show up at the big-league level. … A number of the real young minor-league players that are here, they will be built up very slowly. Obviously, they’re destined to go to the taxi squad. It allows us to not lose a whole year of development with them. That’s really important for where we’re at organizationally. We’ve got to keep our young players moving. They’re a big part of our future here.’’
At this stage of the Mariners’ rebuild, in fact, the future trumps the present. It’s still possible to envision a time when all the young talent — that which is about to break in, and that which is on its way — converges in the major leagues.
All the unforeseen and unprecedented disruption of 2020 no doubt altered the timetable for that occurrence. But as baseball moves surreally toward a season unlike any other — one they hope won’t be obliterated one more time by COVID-19 — the Mariners’ long-term blueprint remains unchanged.
Ultimately, the kids will be their salvation — or their undoing.