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Dave Nichols: Keep an eye on Mariners kids during truncated, bizarre season

I have to admit, I feel uneasy about the return of baseball – and even writing about it – while positive COVID-19 cases across the country are rising at an exponential rate.

On one hand, yay baseball!

On the other is the concern for everyone’s health, the elaborate testing procedures available to multimillion-dollar athletes while health care professionals struggle to keep people out of hospitals, and the potential for professional sports to be a distraction from the serious work that still needs to be done to flatten the curve to allow a semblance of normalcy to return to our daily lives.

But if Dr. Anthony Fauci can throw out the first pitch at Thursday’s season opener between the World Series champion Washington Nationals and the New York Yankees, then I can find the courage and strength to write a few hundred words about the Seattle Mariners’ crop of youngsters and take a glance at how things might shake up in the American League West this year.

Heck, with MLB deciding mere hours before the season opener that the playoffs would expand to 16 teams, if the M’s can get off to a hot start like they did two years ago, maybe – just maybe – they’ll break the longest current playoff drought in American pro sports.

It’s not likely, but at least there’s starting to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

The kids are all right

Mariners fans have been patient. The past several GMs have preached the ideal, promising better days ahead as crop after crop of draft picks have mostly fizzled, trying to find a path from Everett to remote outposts in the South and Midwest back to the Pacific Northwest to Tacoma and, eventually for the rare few, a consistent spot in the home lineup or rotation at Safeco (now T-Mobile) Field.

Since Jerry Dipoto took over six years ago, though, things have felt a little different. And we’re now starting to see the real fruits of his labor.

Eight players on the active roster were born after 1995 (which hurts my fingers to type), and the roster is lettered with players Dipoto has drafted in his tenure, including mashing 2016 first-round pick Kyle Lewis and slick-fielding 2017 first-rounder Evan White.

And the following three first-rounders – right-handed pitchers Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Emerson Hancock – won’t be far behind. All three were college picks and will hang out the “taxi squad” of reserve players working out at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma this summer.

The two youngsters fans really wanted to see break camp with the big club were left behind, but in both cases M’s fans patience should be rewarded – and handsomely.

Jarred Kelenic, who turned 21 last week, was acquired in what will be viewed by future generations of New York Mets fans as one of the worst deals they ever made. He had arguably one of the best summer camps of anyone wearing a Mariners uniform. The sweet slugger was left off the active roster to protect his service time and add an extra year of arbitration, but he’s ready to start punishing MLB pitching. Kelenic hit .291/.364/.540 with 23 homers and was promoted twice last season, finishing at Double-A Arkansas.

The other youngster, 19-year-old Julio Rodriguez, possesses all the talent in the world but suffered a hairline fracture of his left wrist during a fielding drill and will be out for a while. Rodriguez was going to be on Seattle’s taxi squad for the upcoming season, is considered one of the top prospects in the organization and has been rated among the top 20 in all of baseball heading into the season.

Rodriguez hit .326 with 12 home runs and 69 RBIs in a pair of stops in Single-A last season.

J.P. Crawford, Mallex Smith, Shed Long and Justus Sheffield are all former high prospects from other teams and young enough to figure it out and make an impact.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

So, what chance do the Mariners have of reaching the postseason?

FanGraphs has the M’s at a 5.5% chance to reach the postseason, with a predicted 23-37 record. Not shiny. But in the hundreds of simulations they run to accumulate those odds, they did have the M’s with a 0.1% chance to win the division. So, keep hope alive.

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