PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Spring Training opened last month for the Mariners, manager Scott Servais soaked in the sight of dozens of new players and prospects occupying his team’s clubhouse and dubbed it the “camp of opportunity.”
Indeed, the look and feel of the Mariners changed dramatically with general manager Jerry Dipoto’s offseason makeover, and that experiment is now beginning to take shape. The focus this spring has clearly shifted to the future, with so many familiar and proven veterans now replaced by intriguing – though still largely unknown – newcomers and prospects.
It’s been a long time since a Mariners camp featured such promising youngsters as Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Kyle Lewis, Evan White and Shed Long. And while those prospects will likely open this season in the Minor Leagues, they represent an anticipated wave of talent lining up behind a group of younger players early in their Major League careers that Dipoto brought in to begin the transition phase.
As Servais notes, the opportunity is there for all those youngsters -- and many more -- to step up and be a part of the Mariners’ future. There also is ample room for veterans, particularly in the bullpen, to grab hold of opportunities to help this year’s team as well as their own careers.
WHAT’S THE GOAL?
This season is all about setting the stage with that younger nucleus. To that point, the Mariners made the Japanese word “kaizen” their team slogan this spring. Kaizen means “continuous improvement,” which is what the club hopes to see from its flock of young newcomers as well as several key holdovers like Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager.
Dipoto has made it clear that while the Mariners will be trying to win every game this season, the big-picture goal is to start putting the pieces together now that will get a boost from the influx of new prospects who should start making their mark next year and propel the team into legitimate playoff contention for the long run.
WHAT’S THE PLAN?
Dipoto acquired several Major League-ready youngsters in center fielder Mallex Smith, catcher Omar Narvaez, left fielder Domingo Santana and Japanese free-agent pitcher Yusei Kikuchi to join holdovers like right fielder Mitch Haniger and starter Marco Gonzales as a young nucleus that can start growing together immediately.
He also traded for top pitching prospect Sheffield and shortstop J.P. Crawford, who figure to get a couple months of further seasoning at Triple-A Tacoma before being promoted. Then there’s another wave of prospect talent that should start arriving at some point next year, led by Dunn, Lewis and White. Those five are all recent first-round Draft picks. And behind them are talented young teenage outfielders Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez, who are already drawing rave reviews.
It’s the kind of young prospect talent the Mariners haven’t seen in quite some time. And by dealing away veterans on long-term deals like Robinson Cano and Jean Segura, the Mariners will have plenty of payroll flexibility to pursue free-agent help to plug holes beginning next year when Felix Hernandez’s contract also expires.
WHAT COULD GO WRONG?
A lot has to go right for the plan to work, starting with the emergence of some or most of the top prospects, which has been a difficult proposition for many years for the Mariners. Dipoto also took a chance in bringing in Narvaez, a good-hitting catcher who needs work behind the plate, to replace underrated defensive stalwart Mike Zunino. They’ll need Narvaez to step up sufficiently to help bring along those young pitchers.
Kikuchi is making the transition from Japan, which is never a sure thing, while Gonzales and Haniger will need to deal with the pressure of being lead dogs for a rebuilding squad after performing so well in conjunction with last year’s veteran group.
WHO MIGHT SURPRISE?
Lots of candidates here, given the sheer volume of new faces in new places. Sheffield appears the closest of the prospects to being ready to make an impact. And the Mariners need several pitchers to step up in a bullpen that has undergone a total makeover. Returnees Dan Altavilla and Shawn Armstrong could flourish in larger roles, and Gerson Bautista is a power arm with closer potential if he can add some deception to his heat.
Santana, a 26-year-old acquired from the Brewers, offers an intriguing blend of size and athleticism as a 6-foot-5, 220-pound left fielder who runs pretty well. And returnees Seager and Gordon might be pleasant surprises as both are highly motivated to rebound from injury-plagued 2018 seasons.
If enough things go right, the Mariners could be a far more interesting squad than many expected after Dipoto’s housecleaning, as new young talent can be exciting to watch. But there’s also the likelihood that there will be considerable growing pains at times in the wake of the departure of Nelson Cruz, James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, Cano, Segura, Zunino and so many others, which will require patience to stay the course and enough signs of progress to make that palatable to a fanbase now on 17 years without a postseason sniff.