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Larry Stone: Even with a bleak Mariners outlook, there’s plenty of joy and intrigue with spring training

UPDATED: Tue., Feb. 11, 2020

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais watches a drill during spring training baseball practice Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel / AP)
Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais watches a drill during spring training baseball practice Saturday, Feb. 16, 2019, in Peoria, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel / AP)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

SEATTLE – The mere phrase “pitchers and catchers report” is always enough to thrill the senses – even if you know going in that those pitchers and catchers are not nearly good enough to compete for a title.

Not to mention the position players who surround them.

Such is the lot (again) of the Mariners, who have conceded contention in 2020, for what they hope is the final time. Yet that doesn’t mean the commencement of spring training on Wednesday will be devoid of pleasure.

It’s impossible to have a baseball spring without intrigue and intrinsic joy – no matter how bleak the outlook. I speak from experience. I will soon be making my 36th consecutive spring trip to Arizona, 26 of those covering Mariners squads of widely varying quality. Contender or pretender, every one of them had something worthwhile to cling to – if nothing else than the sweet, sweet Arizona sunshine after months of dreary gray wetness.

Alvin Davis was a rising young star when I hit my first M’s camp in 1986; now he’s a wise old hand who serves as a Mariners camp instructor. I’ve seen Ichiro come (with nearly maniacal scrutiny from the Japanese media in 2001) and go and come back again. I’ve had the privilege of watching Hall of Famers such as Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson round into shape in their prime. I’ve witnessed Griffey’s return, Robinson Cano’s arrival and the annual “State of the Felix” address when The King would saunter into camp each February.

I’ve witnessed the stars and the scrubs and literally hundreds of eager young players who, alas, would never spend a day in the major leagues. But at least they had the thrill of a major league camp. I’m here to tell you that every bit of it has been worthwhile – even the far too many hours watching pitchers covering first base and infielders learning the nuances of the rundown. In fact, the idle periods watching the mundane rituals of baseball have been some of the best parts of spring training.

There will be plenty of time for doom and gloom later, trust me. In the time-honored tradition of renaissance and new birth in the spring, here are a few things to look forward to as the Mariners spend the next seven weeks arduously preparing to finish last.

Kids on display

Getting a sneak preview of the touted kids. This is the obvious one. In a year without much obvious star power – Hernandez is gone, and Ichiro is finally retired for good (I think) – the prospects ARE the stars. The Mariners are banking everything on the progress of a group of youngsters that is getting much love from all the evaluators.

That doesn’t really mean anything, of course, but it will be instructive to see how the likes of outfielders Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic, and pitcher Logan Gilbert – all ticketed for the minor leagues at the outset of the season – conduct themselves in what figures to be significant exposure in Cactus League games.

Others I’ll look forward to seeing: Noelvi Marte, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson and Sam Carlson – even if it means wandering over to the minor league fields to do so.

Youth locked in

Gauging the progress of the young core that will learn on the job in the majors. I’m talking about Evan White at first base, Shed Long at second, J.P. Crawford at shortstop, Jake Fraley in right field (given a golden opportunity with the injury to Mitch Haniger) and Kyle Lewis in left field, along with Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn in the rotation.

The Mariners need them to take huge steps forward for this master plan to work. That process starts to reveal itself this spring. In particular, I’ll eagerly be watching White, who was signed to a six-year contract (with options for a possible three extra years) without having spent a day in the major leagues and was handed the first-base job. White is known as a defensive wizard (which we saw enticing glimpses of last spring); I’ll be watching how he handles top-flight pitching and how much he can elevate the Mariners with his glove.

Improving infield

Speaking of which, one stealth joy of this spring will be observing the Mariners’ indefatigable, perpetually enthusiastic infield coach, Perry Hill, work with special projects Long and Crawford. Hill, who turns 68 in March, is one of two elite infield coaches in the majors, the other being Atlanta’s Ron Washington.

One area the Mariners hope to be vastly improved in this year is infield defense, after leading the majors with 116 errors last season. Honing the fundamentals, and teamwork, of Long and Crawford will be a major part of that.

Seager’s appearance

The buzz of last year’s camp was Kyle Seager’s body transformation, as he spent the winter becoming leaner and more limber. The veteran third baseman felt that would translate positively on offense and defense after an extremely down year in 2018.

But we never got a fair chance to test that hypothesis, as Seager was sidelined for the first two months of the season because of a hand injury suffered in late spring. When he returned, Seager showed flashes of offensive resurgence, raising his OPS by more than 100 points from 2018. I’ll be extremely curious to see if Seager maintained the same body type over this winter, and how he’ll perform if given an entire healthy spring to galvanize.

‘Best shape’

Speaking of which … I can’t wait to see which player has completely transformed his body with a new winter workout regimen (my leader in the clubhouse: Daniel Vogelbach).

The cliché of players boasting to be “in the best shape of their lives” when they arrive in camp is surpassed in amusement only by the cliché of observers mocking that boast. But it can sometimes be the first step in a player reviving his career.

New weapons

I also await the pitcher’s version of the above, which is the unveiling of a new pitch or grip that’s going to change everything.

Also, in a year in which the Mariners’ new talent additions are underwhelming in star power – pitchers Kendall Graveman and Carl Edwards Jr. and utility man Patrick Wisdom don’t exactly move the needle – the most impactful newcomer to watch might be pitching coach Pete Woodworth. He will be the Mariners’ third pitching coach in the past three years, but Woodworth has a history in the minor leagues with many of their most touted pitchers.

The key item on Woodworth’s agenda, along with developing the young arms, is reviving the career of Yusei Kikuchi. He was a major disappointment last year yet remains a significant piece of the Mariners’ rebuild. The task of fixing Kikuchi will accelerate in spring training and will be highly instructive.

If all that doesn’t convince you that Mariners’ spring training will be riveting theater, I present this weather report for Peoria on Thursday, the date of the first pitchers and catchers workout: high of 67, followed by 70 degrees Friday. For Seattle: rain.

Works for me. Play ball!

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