One of the perks of being on the 40-man roster is a guaranteed invite to big-league camp, which itself brings more perks: in addition to playing in the big league club’s games, they get a locker alongside current MLB players and a chance to rub elbows with some of the game’s best; easy access to the resources of the big-league club, both material and human; and, of most immediate interest for minor-league grinders, a significantly more generous per diem for food and incidentals. In addition to the 40 players guaranteed invites, every year another dozen and a half or so players are also issued invites to big-league camp. These invites are usually reserved for players with MLB experience who signed minor-league deals on the condition of being extended an invite to big-league camp; top prospects who are MLB-adjacent; and in the case of the Mariners, the winners of the club’s “Control the Zone” awards for the minor league pitcher and hitter with the best K-BB numbers. This year the Mariners extended 21 invitations to Spring Training for their minor leaguers. Let’s break them down by position.
This group is led by RHP Logan Gilbert, the Mariners’ top pitching prospect, who will likely be in Seattle sometime this season. What a change it will be from Gilbert’s first spring experience—which was also his first time pitching as a professional—when he got shelled by a starter-quality Cleveland Indians roster. I’ve spoken to Gilbert about that experience and while he’s disappointed he didn’t pitch better, he also is pragmatic about the situation and grateful to have had the experience, which he funneled into a strong 2019 where he leaped from A ball to Double-A and saw success at every level. It will be fun to watch him this spring and see just how far he’s progressed. Other starting pitchers who got the invite include:
- LHP Anthony Misiewicz, who posted strong K-BB numbers for Triple-A but got victimized by the rabbit ball (15.2% HR/FB rate) and is a dark horse for a lefty bullpen role with the big club;
- LHP Ian McKinney, who was released by the Cardinals organization but revived his career under Modesto’s pitching coach Rob Marcello Jr., winning California League Pitcher of the Year;
- RHP Ljay Newsome, who led all of the minor leagues in strikeouts for much of last year after a trip to the Mariners’ Gas Camp added a couple ticks to his fastball;
- RHP Darren McCaughan, who dominated in Double-A but struggled especially hard with the Triple-A ball, losing his signature command and posting a ridiculous 18.6% HR/FB rate;
- RHP Penn Murfee, winner of the club’s “60 FT 6 IN” award, but who would have earned an invite to big-league camp anyway after a coming-out party in the Arizona Fall League in which he won Pitcher of the Week and put himself on the national radar enough to earn an invite to Team USA, where he pitched in the Tokyo Dome in front of 20,000+ fans.
The Mariners also invited a handful of relievers to big-league camp: Murfee’s Team USA teammate Wyatt Mills, a sidearm slinger who throws with velocity and deception; Joey Gerber, favorite of both Joe and John for his funky fastball; Strikeout King Sam Delaplane; Jack “The Creature” Anderson, a true submariner; and recent trade addition LHP Aaron Fletcher, who dazzled this fall in the AFL with the league’s nastiest slider.
This group is headlined by top prospect Cal Raleigh, who tore up the California League before slowing down at Double-A, both offensively and defensively. The remaining three catchers will likely outlast Cal, ticketed for a return to Double-A, in big-league camp as the team tries to establish a hierarchy for Triple-A catching and possibly look for a backup catcher in case Evan White doesn’t break camp with the club, leaving Austin Nola to do backup catching duties and man first base. Joe Odom has the most experience with the organization, entering his third year with the Mariners, and is an excellent defensive catcher who can also take a walk, although has shown a tendency to strike out too much in the upper minors. Joe Hudson, signed to an MiLB deal this off-season, has been in baseball since 2013 and worked his way up to a cup of coffee with the Angels in 2018 and one (1) PA with the Cardinals last year. Hudson has some concerning strikeout numbers of his own but is excellent at controlling the running game. Also good at controlling the running game is Mariners Rule 5 (minor league phase) selection Brian O’Keefe, formerly with St. Louis, but O’Keefe is more of the beefy slugger/bat-first type of catcher.
This is a trim group, consisting of just long-tenured Mariners MiLB vet Jordan Cowan, off-season sign Jose Marmolejos, and Connor Hoover, who hasn’t played above High-A but won the Control the Zone award that carries with it a camp invite (Jordan Cowan was also the winner of this award, two years ago). Finally healthy after battling a difficult shoulder injury, Cowan came out of the gates strong for Arkansas last year. He slowed down some in June and significantly more in July with the wear-and-tear of his first full season in a while, but bounced back strong down the stretch to be one of the Travs’ most reliable bats in their playoff run while playing strong defense at second. Marmolejos has posted strong numbers throughout the minors and shows some pop with the bat, but defensively is limited to a corner outfield spot or first. Marmolejos has a long-standing relationship from the DR with Mariners coach Manny Acta. Speaking of which, a key snub here is Eric Filia, who is currently tearing up the LIDOM championships for the Tigres del Licey and is one step away from being granted full Dominican citizenship by a Filia-crazed fanbase. It’s especially cutting because Filia, who left his four small children to go to the DR for the winter at the behest of Acta, has taken every opportunity when interviewed to reiterate that he is playing for the fans and his family, but also to represent the Mariners well. Here’s hoping Filia brings that red-hot bat with him back from the DR and spends March clubbing everyone over the head with it.
This right here is the good stuff. It will be fun to watch defensive specialist Luis Liberato patrolling center field, but the real draw here is the Mariners’ top two prospects in Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. Unlike last year, with most of the team gone to Japan midway through Spring Training, it won’t be a free-for-all for at-bats for Seattle’s young prospects, so look for Kelenic and Julio each to give it their all every time their names are called in a bid for more playing time—and for each to try to outdo the other as the discussions about who the Mariners’ top prospect is continue over the off-season.
With the Mariners not planning to compete in 2020, and the youth movement fully underway, many of the non-roster invites should see significant playing time. It will be exciting to see who steps forward to show they’re ready for a big-league audition, especially among the relievers, whose paths to MLB are a little shorter than some of the other names on this list. We’re now just a few weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting, and with games starting earlier than ever before, Spring Training—and baseball itself—will be here before you know it.