Of all of baseball’s many colorful expressions, I think my favorite is referring to the first game of the season as a “lid-lifter,” evocative as it is of standing over the stove with a pot of something that’s been simmering all day, lifting the lid and getting that rush of complex aromas that have been mingling and marinating and making something new. As the Mariners prepare for their 2020 lid-lifter, the particular combination of ingredients has been announced and it is...not the same as the groceries we’ve been seeing in training camp.
First of all, even as we were led to expect this, it’s pretty wild to see just two names listed under “outfielders” and the rest “INF/OF.” Our long regional left field nightmare will continue, it seems. Secondly, there are two prominent names missing from that outfielder group: Braden Bishop and Jake Fraley. The omission of Bishop is a surprise; the most gifted center fielder on the roster, Bishop figured to make the team as a defensive replacement or fourth outfielder, and while always a light hitter, was beginning to make more contact as camp wore on. Perhaps he is a victim of the extra-innings rule, where speedy baserunners are less of a commodity with a gift runner starting at second. Certainly he suffers from the Mariners’ push towards positional flexibility, where seemingly being a jack of all trades is more desirable than being a master of one. Fraley is less of a surprise; his scuffles in summer camp were notable, as his swing timing has looked off and even his outfield routes less crisp. A pre-camp illness also seemingly sapped some of his strength as Fraley looked noticeably smaller—I often mixed him up with Sam Haggerty or Donnie Walton from the Mariners’ press box-level camera angle.
Speaking of Walton, he’s also not here, perhaps another victim of limited positional flexibility, despite being the team’s second-best defensive shortstop behind J.P. Crawford. Walton might not be flashy in the box but he consistently put up good at-bats in camp, wearing pitchers down with his pesky ability to foul off tough pitches and discipline not to chase ones outside the zone.
Positionally, the other big surprise is Joseph Odom being on the taxi squad after he wasn’t even invited to camp. Odom’s omission from camp is something that was a head-scratcher for many both within the organization and outside of it. As Arkansas’ primary catcher last year, Odom is familiar with both Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn as well as various members of the Travelers’ “bullpen hawgs.” He’s a strong org guy as well who practices what the Mariners preach and is well-respected by his teammates and beloved by the pitchers who say he makes them look good. As the taxi squad catcher, Odom will be eligible to be activated in an emergency but will likely primarily serve as a bullpen catcher. Still, it sure is a big ask for a guy who was grilling in his backyard in Birmingham yesterday.
On the pitching side, there are fewer surprises, unless you count remembering that the Mariners signed Bryan Shaw as a surprise, which I do. (My trick for remembering how to spell his name vs. the well-known straw man is the baseball reliever is with a “y,” as in “y would the Mariners sign Bryan Shaw.”) Zac Grotz making the team is a good surprise as I was prepared to be outraged on his behalf after he got limited looks in summer camp. Art Warren not making the team is a bad surprise, and Taylor Guilbeau, who got several long looks in camp, only making the taxi squad is a surprise. Meanwhile, Nick Margevicius, who had some...mixed results in camp, makes the team, as does Anthony Misiewicz. Misiewicz over Guilbeau is maybe the biggest surprise; both are lefties, and Misiewicz has the nasty curve but Guilbeau the nasty slider and big-league experience. However, both Misiewicz and Margevicius are starters who offer the bullpen length, something that will be at a premium this shortened season, while Guilbeau and Warren are more traditional one-inning relievers—even Grotz has been used primarily in a multi-inning capacity—so the thinking here seems to be priding IP over K/9.
This roster is optimized in many ways for the weird 2020 season, chock full of players who can man multiple positions and relievers who can go multiple innings. While it’s surprising to see young mainstays of last year’s August roster like Bishop, Fraley, Walton and Warren not even make the taxi squad, it’s clear the Mariners want them all getting regular reps in Tacoma with an eye towards 2021.
And that’s not to say this roster will be the same the Mariners finish 2020 with. Three players will open the season on the injured list: Austin Adams, Tom Murphy, and Mitch Haniger. While it seems highly unlikely we’ll see Haniger in any capacity, and Murphy’s 2020 season is in doubt after news of a break in his metatarsal, Adams should be back to join the team early in the season. Other injuries will happen, as they do, and more roster shuffling will take place, in addition to the in-season cut-downs. However, because of roster rules made to discourage the kind of Seattle-to-Tacoma shuttle we’d see in a typical year, the Mariners have largely protected young players who might have had to be demoted for performance reasons by sending them to Tacoma right off the bat. While this is probably a tough pill for those players to swallow at the time, losing a Sam Haggerty is long-term less painful than losing a Jake Fraley. We’ll see how close this Opening Day roster looks to what the Mariners roll out for Game 60...all while keeping a close eye on those 2021 draft prospects.