PEORIA, Ariz. – The job of any player development staff is to help players maximize their potential. But there’s no question the mindset is different when there’s a good chance those players will do so in the organization that develops them.
That’s the different vantage point in Mariners camp this year. After a long stretch of general manager Jerry Dipoto using the farm system to bring in big league talent (he made more than 70 such trades over a three-year period), the switch was flipped to rebuild and restock. Veterans were dealt in return for prospects, as opposed to the other way around. It’s a new world order in Peoria these days.
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“The fundamental job doesn’t change: trying to help guys get better,” Mariners farm director Andy McKay said. “In the past three years, you’re trying to get them better but in the back of your mind you know there’s a good chance, if we can move this player for a big league player, we’re probably going to end up doing it.
“It does change the mood in player development a little bit. We’re actually doing the exact same job, but we’re going to see more of these guys in T-Mobile Park.”
McKay has seen this before, during his time with the Rockies as their “peak performance director,” where he worked on the mental side of the game with players at all levels. He remembers the buzz when the big league team was struggling but the farm system was about to send players like Charlie Blackmon, DJ LeMahieu (who had been acquired via trade) and Nolan Arenado to help turn things around in Colorado. He’s feeling the same vibe now.
“That’s real,” McKay said. “Scott Servais and Jerry have done a wonderful job of communicating with our players, even our lower-level players, and it mirrors a little bit of what we were doing in Colorado. You knew that group was going to get there. It was exciting. I think we’re in a similar mode here right now. We’re in an acquiring Minor League players mode, as opposed to acquiring present value to help us win in the big leagues.”
And some of them are going to help soon, starting with some of the players acquired during this rebuilding mode. Top prospect Justus Sheffield just got sent down from big league camp (along with fellow trade pickups Justin Dunn, Erik Swanson and Shed Long, all of whom are among the team’s top 12 prospects). The lefty acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton deal certainly made a good first impression and will be called upon to help the rotation sooner rather than later.
“When you trade away the players we traded, the expectations are pretty high of what you’re getting back in return,” McKay said. For the most part, you’re seeing that. When you’re watching Sheffield out there, you can’t deny what you’re seeing. He’s showing you that he’s a Major League pitcher.”
Homegrown players making an impact
With all of the talent brought in via trade, including the top three in the system in Sheffield, outfielder Jarred Kelenic and Dunn, it’s easy to forget about players actually drafted, signed and developed by the Mariners. Both Evan White, the club’s first-round pick in 2017, and Kyle Lewis, the top pick in 2016, are making enough noise this spring to ensure they aren’t overlooked.
Both were in big league camp and recently sent down, but both were impressive on the Major League side. White swung the bat well and continued to wow with his defense at first base. Lewis is appearing healthy for the first time in a very long time and gave a hint of what he actually can do when not compromised by his knee.
“Internally, the Kyle Lewis-Evan White story is still thriving,” McKay said. “Kyle Lewis obviously had the injuries, this is his first Spring Training. If you look at what he’s did, and he’s did it in the big league games, we know what we have. We felt he was the best player in the Draft and we still have him and he’s finally getting healthy. So we have that going.
“With Evan, industry-wise, it flies under the radar a little bit, but internally we feel we have a person, if there’s 80 makeup and character, Evan White has it. He’s a really good player. He’ll win a Gold Glove playing first base in the big leagues. It’s a very unique skillset as a right-handed hitting first baseman who is a 65 runner.”
White hit 11 homers during his first full season as a hit-over-power type at a spot that values pop and run-production. He’s never going to abandon his overall approach, but there’s more over-the-fence ability to come for sure as he approaches the upper levels.
“The exit velocity is so present, it’s just a matter of him getting a little more loft in his swing, which he’s doing gradually,” McKay said. “The launch angle has improved. I think it will continue to evolve in the next few years because he hits the ball extremely hard. He just hits a lot of low line drives right now. When you have an athlete like that and the intelligence to go with it, he’s going to figure it out.”
It’s hard not to get excited about outfielder Julio Rodriguez, and he has yet to play his first official game in the United States. The organization’s No. 5 prospect, he has been turning heads since arriving in Peoria for Spring Training, even getting a handful of Cactus League at-bats (going 2-for-4 with a double in his first three games). The 6-foot-3 teenager showed up in ridiculously good shape with his outstanding tools on display right from the get-go.
“Julio Rodriguez has impressed beyond whatever we thought he was going to walk into camp with,” McKay said. “Where does he start? He hasn’t played a game in the United States. Does he go right to West Virginia? That’s a conversation.”
His feel for the game and physicality are impressive enough, but in some ways it’s been his demeanor that has Mariners brass thinking he could be pushed a bit more aggressively through the system. Rodriguez has been spotted regularly going to watch big league games and cheer on teammates, even when he’s not slated to be in uniform.
“You’re dealing with this young kid who has such a charismatic personality; you love being around him,” McKay said. “He’s always smiling, he loves the game, he loves his teammates. I’ve never seen a player so genuinely happy for his teammates’ success in my life. It’s so refreshing to be around.
“When you talk about a Julio Rodriguez, at his age, and you’re thinking we have a couple of years, can we maintain the idealism of his youth? Can we maintain this? Can you imagine if that type of player can maintain that type of personality what it can do to a Major League clubhouse? Young players have a hard time understanding the importance of all of the other skills. They think they just have to hit. Which is true, but if you look at his defense, if you look at his baserunning, if you look at his English skills, you look at his cultural awareness of coming over to the United States for the first time, you look at being a teammate, he’s excelling in all of those areas.”
Jonathan Mayo is a reporter for MLBPipeline.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanMayo and Facebook, and listen to him on the weekly Pipeline Podcast.