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Mariners mindful of development as return nears

@gregjohnsmlb
June 26, 2020

SEATTLE -- As the Mariners embarked on their 2020 Spring Training, back in the good ol’ days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, their goals were clear. This was a developmental season, a year to discover and to grow the youthful nucleus gathered by general manager Jerry Dipoto. So

SEATTLE -- As the Mariners embarked on their 2020 Spring Training, back in the good ol’ days before the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down, their goals were clear. This was a developmental season, a year to discover and to grow the youthful nucleus gathered by general manager Jerry Dipoto.

So what happens to a developmental season when there’s little time to develop?

Without a doubt, that is the biggest question hanging over the Mariners as they prepare to regroup next week for what now might best be referred to as “Summer Camp,” with players reporting by Wednesday and expected to take the field at T-Mobile Park for the first time together on Friday in preparation for a July 23 or July 24 start to a 60-game season.

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While a shortened schedule opens the possibility of any team catching fire early and putting itself in line for a playoff push, the Mariners aren’t losing sight of their overriding goal.

“We want to be as competitive as we can be for these 60 games,” Dipoto said, “but we remain fixated on the idea that this roster rebuild is at a really sensitive stage. We need to make sure that those young players are getting their reps.”

How much is lost?
With just 37 percent of a normal schedule, the Mariners can’t afford to allocate playing time to players who aren’t part of the future.

Instead of six months to evaluate whether Shed Long Jr. and J.P. Crawford can be the middle infield of the future, they now have two months.

Instead of 500-plus at bats for rookies Evan White and Kyle Lewis to grow and learn, they’ll get about 200 at-bats each.

Rather than a potential 30-plus starts for rookie hurlers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, they might get 10 starts each.

And that’s on the Major League side of things. Nearly completely lost is the Minor League development of such top prospects as Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert and dozens of others who were counting on moving up the ladder and -- in the case of Kelenic and Gilbert -- could have been knocking on the Major League door by now.

Plenty of prospects
The Mariners will be extremely generous when it comes to handing out spots to prospects when they submit their 60-man Player Pool list on Sunday. Many MLB teams will supplement their 40-man rosters by inviting other players ready to help immediately in case of injury or illness over the 60-game season. The Mariners certainly will do some of that, but Dipoto figures to carry far more developmental players than most.

That group is expected to include the likes of Kelenic, Rodriguez and Gilbert but also 18-year-old shortstop Noelvi Marte -- ranked by MLB Pipeline as the club’s No. 6 prospect but who hasn’t played above the Dominican Rookie League yet -- as well as this year’s first-round selection, Emerson Hancock, and some of the other 2020 Draft picks.

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While the strategy could leave the Mariners exposed if their Major League roster suffers a rash of injuries or illness, Dipoto believes his club covers itself in that regard with a surplus of versatile backups on the 40-man roster.

“We have enough utility players who play all over the field that we feel confident that we don't need a breadth of bodies,” Dipoto said. “With players like Sam Haggerty and Dylan Moore and even the versatility of a Dee Gordon, guys like Tim Lopes, even Patrick Wisdom and José Marmolejos, they play so many different positions that they give us great advantage. And that allows us to carry more of those young players who aren't likely to see the Major Leagues this year.”

Dipoto isn’t ruling out the quick rise of a Gilbert or Kelenic to help the big league club, but that remains a long shot in the shortened format.

“We do still have to be cognizant of the fact that Jarred Kelenic still hasn’t had 100 plate appearances above Class A ball,” Dipoto said. “And with Logan Gilbert, the intent was that he would have pitched a half season by now at the Double-A/Triple-A level to prepare himself.”

The bottom line
So just how much does it hurt Mariners prospects to lose much of this developmental season and, for some, delay their Major League debuts? That remains to be seen in the coming years. But one plus is Seattle didn’t miss out on one of the prime seasons of most of their players’ careers, since the majority haven’t yet reached that point or even started their Major League clocks.

“While we might not be able to make up for the developmental time that we're losing, as there's just no way to go back and replicate 500 plate appearances or 150 innings, what we can plan on is that while everybody else is getting a year older or a year closer to the backside of their career, our guys are still young and part of what we're doing moving forward,” Dipoto said.

“If that slows us down by three or six months, it slows us down a little, but we don't think it inhibits our growth. Eventually, our players are still going to hit the ground running and achieve whatever ceiling they were able to achieve. It just might take a little bit longer. … I guess in the grand scheme of things, that puts us in a slightly better position than many other teams that were going through this.”

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.