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Notes from Mariners Media Day 2019

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haha no we weren’t there, obviously, I just watched the feed and wrote up the salient points for you

MLB: Winter Meetings
this is from the winter meetings but the screengrab I took was all blurry
Daniel Clark-USA TODAY Sports

Another Mariners media day means another day of contending with a janky Mariners dot com stream because we are not important enough as an outlet to get invited to these things, which layers annoyance upon annoyance, but we suffer this for you, friends, so we can summarize the happenings for those of you stuck in a classroom or on a fire truck or anywhere else where you don’t have the ability to refresh a stream thirty times trying to find out which band your parents loved will be playing T-Mobile Park in August. This is super long, so here’s a little table of contents if you want to jump ahead. The order of events goes: general announcements (uniform, giveaways, field, etc.), then Director of Player Development Andy McKay to talk about the minors, then Jerry Dipoto, then Scott Servais, and then three new Mariners (Mallex Smith, J.P. Crawford, and Justus Sheffield).

Housekeeping:

The luncheon opened with Kelly Munro running down the latest news. In 2019 the Mariners will be changing their jersey color for Spring Training—no more nuclear teal! Instead the jerseys will be powder blue. The Mariners will also be changing their Spring Training cap.

Reactions among the Uniform Mavens on the LL staff have been...mixed, with powder-blue garnering some praise but the giant “M” universally disliked. I say, curses aren’t real EXCEPT THE UPSIDE-DOWN TRIDENT so I personally welcome our new “60’s era Vegas-strip sign” logo overlord.

Next up: Rebecca Hale, Director of Public Information for the Mariners (and subject of this profile) notes that the Mariners will be completely replacing the field grass after Enchant festively trampled all over it. Installation begins tomorrow. Word is no one really liked the field after the grand resurfacing project last year, so hopefully this Kentucky Bluegrass will stick.

Next, Greg Greene ran over some of the special events the Mariners are announcing ahead of the season.

  • The BECU value games are back, and there will be one more this year, at the same prices as last year.
  • This year’s giveaways are very gear-heavy, which I’m in favor of [looks at broken remains of Canó-Cruz wine bottle stoppers]. They include a Mariners Hoodie Night April 12, a Trucker Cap on May 17, the June 21 Lou-au Hawaiian shirt, and a July 4 “patriotic tank top” that...well just have a look.
  • Of course there’s still stuff! The much-ballyhooed Haniger 5-tool bobblehead is April 27, and on May 18 the Mariners will celebrate the anniversary of Griffey’s iconic Upper Deck rookie card with a bobblehead. Obviously there will be more surprises along the way.
  • This year there will be six fireworks nights. That feels like more than last year? Someone correct me if I’m wrong. Fireworks nights are the things I always think are cheesy, and then I wind up at the game anyway and am totally captured by the majesty of colorful stuff blowing up, because I am a simple creature.
  • June 1 - Sonics Championship 40th anniversary Celebration. I know this is supposed to be fun, but thinking about the Sonics bums me out. Maybe that Voldemort-looking NBA commissioner will parachute in during the seventh inning stretch and announce basketball is coming back to Seattle, though!
  • No word on Turn Ahead the Clock, but Turn Back the Clock is June 22, celebrating the 50th anniversary of Seattle Pilots, another sadly stolen team. But there’s a hat giveaway!
  • Edgar stuff: For those of you not able to attend the ceremony in Cooperstown, July 21 will be a HOF placard giveaway and a chance to watch the ceremony on MarinersVision. August 9-11 will be #EdgarHOF weekend, with giveaways of a bobblehead, HOF replica plaque, and the thing I’m most jazzed about, an Edgar Martinez Drive replica street sign. There will be 40k of each so you shouldn’t have to shiv someone in line to get one.

Andy McKay:

With that out of the way, on to the front office staff. Dipoto was supposed to go first, but he was—and this is not the first time this has happened—finalizing the details on the Strickland trade, so instead things kicked off with Director of Player Development Andy McKay, who didn’t have a statement prepared; he simply asked for questions.

Per McKay, top prospects have started arriving in Peoria already, with some of them having been there since last week. The only one not ready to report is 2017 second-rounder RHP Sam Carlson, still working his way back from TJ. “He’s still a long ways away.” McKay says he hopes the minor leaguers invited to big league camp get to start forming a relationship with Servais and the rest of the staff. He points out that a lot of the players who have been acquired are MLB-adjacent, so it’s especially important for them to start building those relationships.

Asked to compare the depth in the system today vs. his first day on the job, McKay refused to say outright that the system has improved significantly, stating again that he doesn’t put much stock in outside analysis of players. “You have the players you have and you coach them the best you can. Obviously we’re acquiring a lot of high profile players but our system does a really good job of treating every player like a prospect.” McKay does admit it’s exciting to have players with a significant industry reputation to work with.

There were a couple of different questions about Kyle Lewis, who has apparently been working intently this off-season in Peoria and also in Florida with hitting coordinator Hugh Quattlebaum. “It’s still a little bit of a wait and see, he’s missed so much time, but we do feel better than we’ve ever felt about where he is with his progress. In our mind with Kyle, nothing’s changed. It’s just time. There’s not a swing change going on. He’s arguably the best player in that draft.” McKay notes that after a catastrophic injury like Lewis had, it’s not just a process of waiting for the body to heal but also waiting for the mind to heal, knowing you can go get the ball and your body will support you. “I’ve seen him run down balls in center field, I’ve seen him out of the box, and felt, we’re good.” He calls Lewis a special type of player and person.

Then the heavy-hitter. Ryan Divish asked directly about Dr. Lorena Martin’s accusations, and if they will change anything about how McKay does his job. McKay’s answer was an unequivocal no. “It’s a difficult situation, obviously, one that requires thought and reflection. But in terms of the people I work with on a daily basis, the support has been unanimous and 100% positive. The accusations are serious but they are 100% false. I’ve never thought that. It didn’t happen. It’s not very believable.” He says that he feels good about where his name will stand after MLB does its investigation. Asked if he felt the need to mend any fences with Latin players after the accusations came out, McKay replied, “Never. I haven’t sensed a need to address it. I know who I am, I know what I believe, I know what I did not say, and I think the overwhelming number of people around me feel the same way.” He says he would have “no problem” with bringing it up and addressing it if he sensed a need to, however.

Regarding top prospect Jarred Kelenic, McKay says the buzz is rightful. He praises Kelenic’s makeup, and notes that he has multiple contacts still in Wisconsin, all of whom spoke highly of the young player. “Our scouts felt like he was the best player in that draft.” However, “we will treat him like we treat everyone else: a human being with a dream.”

On Evan White: “The glove is an overwhelming ‘duh.’” McKay says anyone who sees White play defense, whether an analytic or an “old school”-minded person, has a similar, overwhelmingly positive response. McKay praises White, who will start in Arkansas, for putting the ball in the air more, noting that he always had elite exit velocity, he was just hammering the ball into the ground too often. “There probably wasn’t a better player in MiLB the last month of the minor league season.” He also praises White as a person.

Asked about one guy that took a leap last year, McKay takes this opportunity to speak about Julio Rodriguez, calling him a “very charismatic personality” who is “always smiling” and “loves everything about baseball. Whether in the classroom or hanging out with teammates or in the dugout, he loves everything about being a baseball player, and he’s really good at it.” McKay also says that Julio exceeded the organization’s expectations in learning English, and impressed everyone with the way he handled himself in his first trip stateside at the High Performance Camp. “The whole package of Julio is something we’re really excited to watch play out.”

Jerry Dipoto:

Next up, Jerry Dipoto arrived on the stage with a prepared statement. He called 2018/2019 the most effective off-season imaginable considering the club’s goals, and noted they were able to acquire players they didn’t think they’d have an opportunity to access. “We’ve gotten younger and more sustainable,” says Dipoto, noting that the club reduced their average age by about a year and a half. He also reaffirmed 2021 as a target date, looking at the arc of the Astros specifically. In the meantime, Dipoto declares there will be an “interesting, fun, and athletic team to watch in 2019 while we watch our pitching grow,” and he expects the wave of new prospects on the farm to crest mid-season 2020.

The club is, according to Jerry, done with major moves, so apologies to those of you hoping for a Bryce Harper signing. Expect another arm to be added to the bullpen, which Dipoto calls the team’s biggest unknown, but that is probably it.

That seems to indicate we will see Edwin Encarnacion fly his parrot around T-Mobile Park at least a few times next season, but also adds to the 1B/DH logjam. Per Dipoto, Jay Bruce will play quite a bit of LF, as “we intend to have his bat in the lineup frequently.” Encarnación’s “proven productivity” will be a staple in the middle of the lineup. That leaves Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach fighting over the remaining 1B/DH chances. “It will be a challenge to how we balance the ABs, but it will be a rotation that we use,” says Dipoto, who says they’re in wait-and-see mode. He also points to some “roster flexibility that we’ll take advantage of,” which sure sounds like using one of Ryon Healy’s options. As far as Ichiro, Dipoto is fairly firm that “this season is about giving opportunity to young players. We won’t do anything to harm the long-term Mariners for short-term gain.”

Regarding the “step back,” Dipoto again reasserts that this is not a teardown. “We’re not going out there with the intention to lose. You don’t have to rip it down to put yourself in a better position. If you love baseball and you love watching athletic players run around, this is the place to be in 2019.” He points out that having so many players aged 25-27 means that there’s no need to rush any players in the minors, meaning the organization can give the low-level prospects “the opportunity to fail,” which is good for the process of becoming a better ballplayer and a better human. He points out that when the team goes to Japan, the young players will be left behind to play against other team’s A squads, which will provide many opportunities for failure but also growth, and that is how he will measure a successful 2019 Spring Training: progress among the young players.

Regarding Felix Hernandez, Dipoto says any talk of Félix for closer is “water-cooler chatter.” As far as injuries go, Sam Tuivailala is coming along quickly, although the club still anticipates he won’t be ready until June. Reliever Anthony Swarzak will also have a late start as his progress from a late-season shoulder injury has been slowed down, but the club anticipates he will be ready for Opening Day.

Corey Brock from the Athletic asked about catcher Omar Narváez’s development. While praising the backstop for his on-base abilities and strong throwing arm that helps him be above-average in controlling the running game, Dipoto is honest about Narváez’s defensive shortcomings. But he says “we can help him with pitch framing.” From just seeing him briefly in Peoria working with Servais and catching coordinator Tony Arnerich, Dipoto feels Narváez has an aptitude and a willingness to learn how to refine his defensive game.

When asked about what degree of responsibility Dipoto takes for the Dr. Martin situation, Dipoto’s response is terse: “All of it. I hired her.” He avows that he is “not a sexist and not a racist,” and that “we believe justice will prevail.” But, Dipoto acknowledges, “the responsibility for the development of the program and hiring was on me” and says he’s “embarrassed” at how poorly the situation ended. But he reasserts that he believes in the position and bringing concepts from the world of high performance training into the club, and says he’s still committed to moving forward in that area.

Scott Servais:

Asked if he was on-board with the “step back,” Servais calls himself “all in.” He points out that his roots are in player development and working with young players, which he enjoys. “Young players are hungry and bring energy. You can dream on them.” Servais says the way to measure a successful 2019 is “continued steady progress. What we look like in April is not what we should look like in September.” He speaks of the importance of teaching a young player how to go about their business in the right way, but that it’s important to “educate, not dictate.”

Specifically, Servais hammers on the “control the zone” philosophy, which he says the team got away from in 2018. “Do our players understand our language? Are they saying the right things? Can we get all of our young players to buy in?” Servais calls 2018 a “roller coaster ride,” and says they are looking for a more consistent 2019, which he believes can be brought about by going back to the foundation of CtZ. “Last year we were at the ultimate peak. What I learned is when we started sliding our foundation wasn’t strong enough to stop it. We weren’t getting on base enough. Our foundation was not strong enough with controlling the zone to create consistent offense.” He promises you will see Dee Gordon take more pitches this year, and Ryon Healy will better understand the importance of finding the pitches he can do damage on.

Unlike the WBC, the interruption of which Servais resented, he is excited for the team to travel to Japan, calling it an opportunity for the team to bond. “Spring training is probably a little too long anyway.”

Players:

Three of the newest players, Mallex Smith, Justus Sheffield, and J.P. Crawford, took the stage next. Asked about how they felt after they heard they were traded, both Crawford and Sheffield gave veteran answers (“it’s a business”). Mallex: “Initial thought: Jerry’s gonna flip me again.” Mallex (I can’t call him “Smith,” he’s too interesting for that) went on to say he’s excited about the obstacles ahead. He knows the Mariners haven’t been to the playoffs in a long time, and he’s excited to help change that.

What are they looking forward to about playing for the Mariners? Crawford and Sheffield both mentioned that Dee Gordon texted them immediately, welcoming them to the team, and Crawford is excited to learn from Dee, and also be a leader. Sheffield said Dee sold him on a young, dynamic group with an energetic locker room. “That’s who I am, I can’t be uptight.” For his part, Mallex Smith is just excited to have fans in the stands.

Mallex also said he’s excited to learn from the “T-Rexes”—Griffey and Edgar—playfully responding to a reporter who noted the age difference between this wave of Mariner talent and the previous, most well-known one. That he managed to be charming while lightly insulting two franchise icons is a testament to the power of Mallex’s infectious personality. Mallex also named Mitch Haniger as the player he’s most excited to play with. “I can’t wait to meet him, talk to him, figure out his mindset. He had a really phenomenal season and I want to figure out how he did it, so I can do it too.” Crawford picked Dee as the player he’s most excited to learn from, and Sheffield says he’s excited to meet one of his idols in Félix.

All three players were firm about not calling it a “step back.” Mallex: “I don’t think Justus or JP or I plan on taking a step back.” Crawford: “I can’t stand losing. I think we’re gonna shock a lot of people.” Sheffield: “We’re going out there to handle business.”

*

So that’s a wrap from the 2019 media luncheon, or at least from me peering at my computer screen and desperately trying to keep up with everything that was said. All misattributed quotes are due to my own ineptitude. Thank you for reading this far, if you read the entire thing. It was an especially juicy one this year with all that’s happened. What part stands out to you the most? (Please don’t say the tank top.)