It’s year two of extended spring training for the Mariners, who have only 60 developmental games, yet have to manage two national scourges while doing it. Fun.
Much has been said about the pending weirdness of a Major League Baseball season missing 102 games and devoid of spectators, yet filled with nearly as many hygiene rules as a hospital surgery unit.
All true. But in the before days (pre-pandemic), does anyone remember 2019?
The Seattle Mariners started 13-2 and finished in a sub-basement of last place. The Washington Nationals started 19-31 and became a wild-card World Series champion by winning all five of their elimination games and all four road games in the Series.
That’s retire-the-trophy weirdness. So don’t get too breathless with the never-before-seen storylines.
Yes, empty Dodger Stadium Wednesday night looked strange on TV, with life-size photos of fans mounted on otherwise empty seats behind home plate. But their opening game with the San Francisco Giants looked familiar, except for all the masks, except for some who didn’t bother. Just like America.
As for the Mariners, they begin their season at 6:10 p.m. PT Friday in Houston, a place everyone hates to go right now, to play against the Astros, a team everyone loves to hate. Lots of hating for an Opening Day.
But it is baseball. Against all odds, it is baseball.
Speaking of odds, the Mariners are 250-1 to win the World Series, according to BetOnLine.ag. That’s not as bad as the Orioles and Pirates, both 300-1. But it is in line with standard expectations for a franchise that understands losing the way Homer Simpson understands beer (“Homer no function beer well without”).
It is year two of the step-back program of general manager Jerry Dipoto, a season dedicated to discovering whether the kids are all right. Since it is again essentially extended spring training with no expectations of team success, the pressure is lessened compared to teams that think they are built to win a 60-game sprint.
That doesn’t mean things aren’t already stacking up against the Mariners.
Based on 2019 records, the Mariners have the fifth-most difficult schedule, as well as the third-most travel miles, even with the regionalized schedule. The Mariners start with their most distant trip of the year. After four in Houston, they play three in Anaheim before returning July 31 for the home opener.
Bad health (non-covid-19 division) has crept in. Starting catcher Tom Murphy is out several weeks after a foul ball broke a metatarsal bone in his right foot. Perhaps their best relief pitcher, Austin Adams, is on the injured list recovering from ACL surgery. OF Mitch Haniger (back and testicle surgery) may be out for the season.
The team’s brightest prospect, OF Julio Rodriguez, 19, cracked a bone in his left wrist in summer camp. He wasn’t destined to play this season, but was giving indications that that club decision might have been harder than it seemed.
As a partial result of these developments, rookies will start in left field (Tim Lopes), right field (Kyle Lewis) and first base (Evan White). New starting catcher Austin Nola, 2B Shed Long, SS J.P. Crawford and DH Daniel Vogelbach are second-year players by service time. The veterans are 3B Kyle Seager (eight years) and CF Mallex Smith (three years).
Among starting pitchers, Marco Gonzales, 28, Taijuan Walker, 27, Yusei Kikuchi, 27 and Kendall Graveman, 29, are senior eminences. Justin Dunn, 24, and Justis Sheffield, 23, are rookies.
This young lineup desperately needs a full season of development. They have to make do with 60. Dipoto thinks it will work OK.
“If we were a team that had several players that were moving toward free agency or who were effectively starting to get deeper into their 30s, that would have been more concerning to us,” Dipoto told the Seattle Times. “We didn’t feel like it was going to be a lost season. And we did feel like our age, athleticism and general focus was going to allow us to do something positive here.”
Amid these typical baseball developments, all players and staff have to be virus-vigilant for the sake of all involved. If that weren’t enough added pressure, the racial cleft in U.S. culture grows as a presidential election draws near. President Trump has freshly castigated athletes who kneel during anthems. Which is exactly what all of the Yankees and Nationals did in their opener Wednesday. It’s on.
What does a manager do to keep any clubhouse tension to a minimum?
“I’m going certainly to allow everybody to express themselves in a way they feel comfortable, not imposing anything on anybody,” manager Scott Servais said. “There’s a movement going on this country and there is need for change. So we’ve talked about it quite a bit with our group.
“If we don’t do it now, when is it going to get done? We have a lot of really strong-willed young people (in the country). A lot of them are ballplayers.”
The times are as intense as they are perilous. But somehow baseball is trying to work in 60 games, and maybe a postseason. Best of luck. Weirdness is about to turn pro.