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Infusion of young talent makes the late innings of Cactus League games a must watch for the Mariners

UPDATED: Wed., March 6, 2019

Seattle’s Kyle Lewis  is waved home by umpire Ryan Blakney after the Mariners’ Shed Long (39) was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded during the second inning  against the Cleveland Indians on  Feb. 27  in Goodyear, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin / AP)
Seattle’s Kyle Lewis is waved home by umpire Ryan Blakney after the Mariners’ Shed Long (39) was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded during the second inning against the Cleveland Indians on Feb. 27 in Goodyear, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – Over the past few springs, it had become a running joke among scouts and media as to just how weak the Mariners’ farm system had become.

In the early part of Cactus League play, when the players projected for the 25-man roster weren’t playing every day or playing just a handful of innings, there was no reason to watch the innings filled by other players.

“Why watch a bunch of veteran Quad-A guys on minor league deals that are roster fillers and a bunch of ‘prospects’ that wouldn’t make our top 30?” one scout asked.

While somewhat hyperbolic, it was still true. Those were the type of players filling out those innings in Cactus League games. They were not part of the present or the future.

But it’s changed this spring with general manager Jerry Dipoto’s step-back plan. The trades of Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Edwin Diaz, James Paxton and Mike Zunino netted a slew of young prospects who are hoped to be big-league players in the near future, including Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Jake Fraley, Gerson Bautista, Dom Thompson-Williams and J.P. Crawford.

If you add the invitations of in-house prospects Evan White and Kyle Lewis to their first big-league camp and the cameo appearances of Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, the late innings of these spring games might actually be more interesting than the early innings.

But these appearances in big-league camp and Cactus League games aren’t for fans or scouts. It’s about evaluating and developing these young players to make them ready to contribute in a year or two.

“It’s not so much the competition, it’s the environment,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “They’re in the dugout, and the talk in the major league dugout is a little different than what you get in a minor league dugout – guys talking approach at the plate or what they are seeing out on the field. It’s an educational process.”

But it goes beyond the games. It’s the daily work with proven MLB players.

“They do feel like they are more a part of the major league team and our immediate future,” Servais said. “It helps grow their confidence, whether you hit a few home runs in these games, or play good defense. So when their season gets going, they can say, ‘Hey, I’ve done it at that level. Now I can go earn my opportunity.’ I couldn’t be any happier with how are young guys have progressed. Every one has had bright spots that makes you say, ‘Yeah, this is why our organization liked these players or acquired them.’ ”

The players understand it’s a big opportunity.

“It’s a confidence booster,” right-hander Dunn said. “It shows that I’m getting closer to where I need to be. I’m not on the level of Marco (Gonzales) or Mike Leake or Felix (Hernandez), but it gives you the confidence to go out and say, ‘I can compete out here.’ ”

Braden Bishop enters his second big-league camp and understands how important it is to his development. It doesn’t lessen with time.

“The biggest thing is interacting with guys in the clubhouse and seeing how a guy like Jay Bruce or a guy like Mitch (Haniger) or Ichiro (does it),” he said. “It helps you put together and script your own routine. You’re always trying new things to get better and learning.”

Bishop can feel the difference late in games when he’s surrounded by players his age and younger, all with projections to be big-leaguers for the Mariners.

“The new guys that they’ve brought in, you get a glimpse of what it’s going to look like and how good they are,” Bishop said. “Being here since 2015 and seeing this transition and the new guys they are bringing in on top of Kyle Lewis and Evan White … it’s really impressive to see how they all works.”

Athletics 7, Mariners 4: Cliff Pennington drove in two runs on two hits and Oakland used an early offensive surge to top Seattle in Peoria, Arizona, on Wednesday.

Mariners starting pitcher Wade LeBlanc allowed four earned runs in 3 2/3 innings, while Bishop hit a three-run home run in the fourth inning.

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