6 Mariners spring training observations | HeraldNet.com (2023)

This year, spring training wasn’t a time to soak in the sunshine. It was easily the coldest stretch of weather in three-plus decades in the desert — although I understand the temperatures started rising practically the moment I got through security at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix.

It was, however, a time to soak in the baseball, which is the whole point anyway. Returning with a tan is just an extravagance. Returning with new insights into the Seattle Mariners and MLB is what makes the Cactus League such a kick.

So, here are my annual observations after a 10-day stint at Mariners camp in Peoria, Arizona:

Kelenic’s play encouraging

I’ve already written about it, but far and away the biggest development of early camp has been the transformation of Jarred Kelenic.

You are absolutely within rights to be skeptical, or downright dismissive. The baseball landscape is littered with players who stand out in February and March and fizzle when it counts.

But at the risk of looking foolish, this feels different with Kelenic. He looks much more balanced and comfortable at the plate after working on swing changes all winter. But even more important is the mental aspect. Kelenic has a tendency to get inside his head too much, and you can see the tension building when he gets immersed in a slump. The contrast with Julio Rodriguez when both started slowly last year was stark. Rodriguez remained confident and stuck to his plan, while Kelenic spiraled and was unable to recover. It has been the story of his major-league career.

We’ll see if it’s different. Early signs are encouraging. It would help if Kelenic gets off to a fast start in the regular season before any doubts have a chance to creep in. But the hope is that he now has the tools — mentally and physically — to fight through the inevitable slumps.

As manager Scott Servais said after a spring game in which Kelenic launched a long home run: “Just the approach is very good. He’s very calm. It doesn’t look like he’s getting ticked off every time he gets his pitch and fouls it back or maybe he gets a bad call against him or things like that. He just doesn’t let it get in the way of finishing off the bat or turning the next at-bat into a positive.”

If Kelenic — who it should not be forgotten is just 23 — can carry that approach and mindset into the season, with the accompanying results, it doesn’t need to be said what a game-changer that would be for the Mariners.

Julio at No. 2 spot?

Servais hates lineup questions, especially in spring training. But I don’t think he’s ruled out dropping Rodriguez to the No. 2 spot in the batting order. The leading (only?) candidate to lead off would be Kolten Wong, who has a career .334 on-base percentage, and more than 1,000 plate appearances at leadoff.

I would lean toward making that move. Whatever benefit you get from the increased at-bats for Rodriguez at leadoff (and the chance for an explosive start to the game) to me are more than negated by the 150 or so at-bats a season that are guaranteed to be with the bases empty. Seems like too much potential damage by Rodriguez to forgo.

Pitch-clock talk

I haven’t changed my opinion that the pitch clock will be good for baseball. People overreacted to the early violations, especially the one at the end of a game in Florida. The whole purpose of breaking out the rules in spring training was so players had time to adjust, which is what happened in the minor leagues last year. After a month, violations were minimal, and I expect that by early in the season the pitch clock will be second nature to everyone — pitchers, hitters and fans. That certainly seemed to be the case with the Mariners — although Servais thought it might need to be tweaked slightly.

“My early take on the pitch clock, it’s a little too fast,” he said after a week of games.

Servais suggested that adding even three seconds per pitch would take away the sense that players are being rushed. If the average game has 250 pitches, using the maximum extra time would add about 12 minutes per game. I don’t think MLB is going to yield that much time without at least seeing how it works out in the regular season.

Shift strategy

It has been overshadowed by the pitch clock, but the shift ban — requiring two players on either side of second base — will be quite impactful as well. The left-handed hitters I talked to are excited by the absence of the third fielder on the right side to suck up potential base hits. Pitchers were less enthused, but a surprising number prefer the standard alignment, tending to remember the few hits they gave up because of the shift rather than the far higher number that were taken away.

I’ll be most interested to see how many teams do what the Red Sox did: bring an outfielder in to play essentially a third infield spot on the right side (which is legal) to replicate the shift. The Red Sox used the center fielder in that spot and moved their left fielder to center. The downside, of course, is that it leaves left field completely open.

Raul Ibanez, who has worked on the rule changes for MLB, thinks the potential cost of an opposite-field drive to the outfield will dissuade teams from going that route. He said it’s easier as a hitter to go the other way in the air. But I suspect more teams than you think will try that alignment. The reason teams shifted in the first place was because the hitters in question were so pull-heavy. I think they’re going to dare them to go the other way and make them prove they can.

Prospects to watch

The Mariners’ farm system ranking, which was No. 1 in Baseball America last year, has dropped considerably. That happens when you graduate players such as Rodriguez to the majors and trade players such as Noelvi Marte. But I was impressed by at least three rookies who have a chance to make a real impact this year.

* Prelander Berroa, RHP: Ryan Divish eloquently covered how impressive this young right-hander has been, but one day I just stood by the practice mounds and watched Berroa’s bullpen session. Electric. How in the world the Giants gave him up for Donovan Walton is one of the mysteries of the ages. Barring injury, I have little doubt he’ll be pitching for the M’s before the year is out.

* Bryce Miller, RHP. Now the organization’s No. 1 pitching prospect, having surpassed Emerson Hancock, Miller flashed overpowering stuff and didn’t seem overwhelmed by the moment. If there’s a rotation injury, Miller could top the list of replacements — especially if Chris Flexen is traded.

* Cade Marlowe, OF. As Mariners’ PR man Alex Mayer points out, Marlowe is the only minor-leaguer over the past 30 years to produce 100-plus RBI and 20-plus stolen bases in multiple seasons. Both his speed and power were impressively on display in spring. Marlowe nearly made the Mariners’ postseason roster last year; I would be surprised if he doesn’t make his major-league debut this season.

Other standouts

* Evan White: Another potential game-changer. After two years battling a core injury, White looks healthy. In one spring game he made two spectacular diving stops at first base — one to his left, one to his right. White has always been an elite defensive player. He hasn’t hit in the majors, but the sample size is small — disrupted by an injury that stunted his progress. If White stays healthy and goes down to Tacoma and hits, it’s easy to envision the Mariners bringing him up. That would allow Ty France more DH time while improving the defense.

* Tom Murphy: After missing most of last year because of a shoulder injury, Murphy had a perpetual smile on his face. No one was happier to be in camp and playing baseball.

* Robbie Ray: Ray might be the catalyst for a truly great season if he reverts to his Cy Young form of 2021. It’s a stretch to call last year a disappointment, because Ray was their best starter for a stretch. The disappointments against Houston, especially in the postseason, stand out. Their hope is that Ray’s new split-finger fastball will expand his repertoire enough to befuddle hitters.

Final thought

I have made an official judgment that “working on a new pitch in spring training” has surpassed “best shape of my life” as the preeminent cliché of spring training. Please alert the proper authorities.

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