PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners pitchers and catchers took to the field for the first time on Thursday, the first step in the six-week process of preparation for the regular-season opener on March 26 against the Rangers in Seattle.
Here are four predictions on how things will play out in Mariners camp:
1. Julio will look like a rising star
He’s already on a first-name basis, young Julio Rodriguez, the 19-year-old phenom from the Dominican Republic who looms as a prominent figure in the Mariners’ future.
No, Rodriguez won’t make the Opening Day roster. No matter how well he plays this spring, the Mariners aren’t going to jump J-Rod from Class A Advanced Modesto to the Majors. Even when Ken Griffey Jr. forced his way onto the Mariners’ Opening Day roster as a 19-year-old rookie in 1989, he’d played the final 17 games of the previous year in Double-A.
But the 6-foot-4, 225-pound Rodriguez will capture everyone’s attention with his youthful exuberance and obvious physical talent. And while he might not duplicate Griffey’s feat of making his MLB debut as a teenager, he will draw comparisons to "The Kid" with his big smile and unbridled joy for the game, as well as his alluring combination of power, size and speed.
Between Rodriguez and fellow top prospect Jarred Kelenic, the Mariners' outfield will give fans reason to smile as well, not to mention watch games even in the late innings this spring as the two promising youngsters soak up as much experience as possible in their first big-league camps.
2. Three rookies make the Opening Day lineup
A year ago, when the Mariners started their rebuilding process, they had four rookies -- Dylan Moore, Braden Bishop, Yusei Kikuchi and Brandon Brennan -- on their Opening Day roster in Japan. But none of those four were in the Opening Day lineup and only Kikuchi played a significant role in the 2019 campaign.
But the youth movement will truly be in full bloom this spring. Three rookies -- first baseman Evan White and outfielders Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley -- are strong contenders to be in the Opening Day lineup. Another rookie, Justus Sheffield, will be in the season-opening rotation and fellow prospect Justin Dunn is another contender.
And that’s not even counting second baseman Shed Long, who exceeded the rookie limit by 22 at-bats last year. Long, shortstop J.P. Crawford and catcher Tom Murphy will be full-time starters for the first time in their careers. Designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach has one full year of MLB experience under his belt.
For good measure, several promising rookie relievers have a shot to crack the Opening Day roster and more rookies are certain to be promoted as the season progresses.
3. Kikuchi looks like a different guy
The lefty from Japan struggled as a rookie last year, particularly in the second half. The 27-year-old went 3-10 with a 6.66 ERA in his final 21 starts, allowing a .332 batting average and 28 home runs in 101 1/3 innings.
Those kind of results aren’t going to cut it and Yusei Kikuchi knew that, so he listened closely to the Mariners’ suggestions and simplified his approach over the offseason in an effort to get back to his natural throwing motion.
There’s much room for improvement, but early throwing sessions have looked promising and the Mariners are eager to see how Kikuchi handles things this spring and beyond.
While this season will be focused on the youth movement, Dipoto doesn’t want to leave his youngsters without life jackets. González can help mentor the flock of outfield prospects. Walker alleviates the need to push Dunn if he's not quite ready. Another recent addition, 35-year-old Yoshihisa Hirano, brings leadership to a very inexperienced bullpen.
Don’t be surprised if Dipoto adds another veteran reliever, brings in another catcher with some experience to improve depth behind Murphy and Austin Nola, or adds elsewhere if injuries crop up. On the flip side, veteran Dee Gordon could still be traded if another team suddenly needs a second baseman, given the desire to give Long the bulk of playing time at that position.