SEATTLE -- Even before COVID-19 shut down the season for 3 1/2 months, the Mariners were looking at 2020 through a different lens. This season, for general manager Jerry Dipoto and his crew, was primarily about the growth and development of a number of youngsters both on the Major and Minor League side in order to set the stage for the future.
That plan hasn’t changed, but the amount of time to grow and develop certainly has as the Mariners open an abbreviated 60-game schedule on Friday in Houston. Instead of letting their young players grind through a normal six-month slate and learn from all the ups and downs that come with the 162-game marathon, they’ll have a two-month sprint for those fortunate to be on the Major League club.
The remainder of the top prospects invited to be part of the 60-player pool will garner what experience they can from workouts in Tacoma for those two months, while the majority of Minor Leaguers are left at home on their own in a lost year.
So what is the goal this year for the Mariners? While they aren’t expected to compete in the American League West with a club with just two position players with more than 600 Major League at-bats on their resume, they can still begin the learning curve for rookies Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Jake Fraley, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn and learn more about youngsters Shed Long Jr. and J.P. Crawford. They can even get a better feel for whether players like Mallex Smith, Tom Murphy and Daniel Vogelbach appear to fit in with the future plans.
What needs to go right?
The kids need to stay healthy and show they can play. In such a brief time frame, any injury or illness could wipe out much of the shortened window. The club already lost outfielder Julio Rodriguez to a fractured wrist. And while the 19-year-old was destined to serve strictly as one of the Tacoma practice players, his case serves as a reminder of the condensed season’s impact. A year ago, Rodriguez missed two months with a similar fracture in his left hand, but he returned for three months and continued his impressive Minor League progression. This year, a similar injury figures to wipe out his entire two months with the club. The Mariners need their young core to stay on the field and get the most out of a shortened season.
Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi was the one significant free-agent signing the club made in the past two years, with the belief he could be part of the pitching nucleus going forward. But while the 29-year-old showed a few impressive flashes, his overall rookie results were disappointing as he went 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA. Some of those struggles were attributed to all the change Kikuchi was dealing with in his first year in the U.S., so he’ll need to show progress now that he’s settled in. The Mariners will decide after the 2021 season if they want to exercise the series of options that convert a four-year, $56 million guaranteed contract into a seven-year, $109 million deal, which means these two months and the ’21 season are Kikuchi’s time to prove he’s worth a longer investment.
Prospect to watch
Though he spent last year at Double-A Arkansas and has never had a big league at-bat, the Mariners invested big in first baseman White last winter with a six-year, $24 million deal that could extend to nine years and $55.5 million if he lives up to expectations. The long-term aspects of that contract take some of the pressure off White, but the 24-year-old defensive standout will ease a lot of minds if he adapts quickly at the plate and puts up some decent offensive numbers this season.
On the schedule
Nothing appears easy for this young Mariners group as they open with 20 games in 20 days, starting with a four-day series in Houston, where they went 0-10 last year against the AL West champs. But if you’re looking for a particularly rough patch, check out the seven-game stretch from Aug. 14-20 when they play three games on the road against the Astros, two on the road against the Dodgers and then two back in Seattle against the Dodgers. That’s seven straight days against two teams many think could wind up playing each other in the World Series.
Team MVP will be: Kyle Lewis
Lewis, the 25-year-old rookie outfielder, appears poised for a breakout campaign. And if that comes to fruition, it will be a very good sign indeed for the rebuilding project.
Team Cy Young will be: Kendall Graveman
It would be easy to go with Marco Gonzales, the No. 1 starter and surest thing among Seattle’s pitchers. But if you’re looking for someone different, keep an eye on 29-year-old right-hander Graveman, a two-time A’s Opening Day starter who looked very good in camp as he returns from nearly a two-year recovery from Tommy John surgery.
Lewis will win AL Rookie of the Year honors. This is bold indeed, as there are plenty of more-hyped rookie candidates, led by outfielders Luis Robert with the White Sox and Jo Adell with the Angels, right-hander Jesús Luzardo of the A’s and two-way player Brendan McKay of the Rays. Though Lewis was a 2016 first-round Draft pick, he is flying under the radar due to a knee injury that dropped him down the prospect rankings as he patiently worked his way back. But the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder showed considerable power potential with six homers in 18 games as a September callup last year and he appears locked and loaded for his first full year in the Majors, even if that year is just 60 games.