Walking into the press box at the Peoria Sports Complex minutes before the start of Tuesday’s Cubs-Mariners spring training game felt comforting. This is my first time in Arizona since the spring of 2019 – my 2020 trip was cancelled due to Covid, and in 2021 the camps were closed. It’s good to be back in Mariners camp, and I’ll be here for the next two days, and will pass along any Rainiers-related news I can gather.
The very first conversation I found myself in was about Julio Rodriguez. The Mariners top outfield prospect was hitting second in the lineup, facing a good major league starter. Before the game even started, someone told me, “I don’t think you guys are going to see Julio this year.”
Normally I wouldn’t give a statement like that any credence. Rodriguez has only 206 plate appearances above the Class-A level, all at Double-A Arkansas in the last two months of the 2021 season, and has never played in a Triple-A game. Jumping him straight to the majors is ridiculous, from a player development perspective.
But the person who said it to me is wise in the ways of baseball. Much wiser than me, to be sure. It was the opinion of Seattle Times columnist Larry Stone, currently president of the Baseball Writers Association of America, and someone who has covered thousands of big league games, not to mention multiple All-Star Games and World Series.
“He looks like he belongs,” said Larry.
Even though he didn’t really crush anything on Tuesday, Rodriguez did look like he belonged.
Facing major league stalwart Kyle Hendricks – a purveyor of perfectly-located offspeed pitches – Julio hung in there and was able to make contact. In the first inning he chopped a bounding ball past the third baseman for a double, and his second time he hit a similar high bouncer but directly to shortstop.
In his third and final at-bat, Rodriguez struck out looking on a full-count, 85-mph slider from Cubs reliever Michael Rucker. Rucker – a product of Lake Tapps and Auburn-Riverside High School – reached the majors for his first time last year, appearing in 20 games.
The main developmental reason to send Julio to Triple-A is to get him comfortable facing veteran pitchers who can command their breaking stuff. That’s something you rarely see in the lower minors. Rodriguez would also get a chance to gain more experience in center field, with the tricky angles at Cheney Stadium and the extremely large pastures of the high-elevation road ballparks.
Rodriguez left the game after five innings, getting replaced by likely Rainiers outfielder Forrest Wall. Wall was part of a wave of potential Tacoma Rainiers players who entered midway through Tuesday’s game. Donovan Walton, Kevin Padlo, Chance Sisco, Marcus Wilson, and Mike Ford all appeared in the late innings.
The game ended in a 5-5 tie – the teams decided not to play extra innings. Spring training!
Here are some notes from the game:
Top offseason acquisition Robbie Ray made his Cactus League debut, lasting four innings and giving up one hit. But the hit…
Reno Aces legend Ildemaro Vargas signed a minor league deal with the Cubs this year, and he started the game. Vargas connected against Ray, lining a two-run homer to left field for the only hit and runs allowed by the 2021 Cy Young Award winner.
Cal Raleigh started at catcher and hit cleanup, going 0-for-2 with a walk. I’m very curious to see what the organization decides to do with him this season. It looks like MLB rosters will be expanded from 26 to 28 for the month of April, due to the short spring training, so I suppose the Mariners could carry three catchers for a while and sort it out later.
Taylor Trammell started in left field and went 0-for-3. Trammell faces tough competition to make the Mariners opening day roster, especially with Julio Rodriguez and veteran Steven Souza Jr in the mix. We’ll happily take him in Tacoma, if that’s the case.
Evan White is another player who started for the Mariners yesterday, but could end up in Tacoma. The development of Ty France and recent trade for Eugenio Suarez could lead to White getting at-bats in Triple-A.
Donovan Walton looked like his usual self, grinding out a long at-bat culminating with a hit, and also reaching on an error. He was instrumental to the Rainiers success last year, and he’ll probably shuttle back-and-forth between Tacoma and Seattle again this year.
Recently signed minor league free agent 1B/DH Mike Ford launched a long two-run homer in the eighth inning. He’s built like a power hitter, and could put up some serious numbers in the PCL after spending all of his previous Triple-A time in the pitcher-friendly International League. He’s a left-handed hitter, and his bomb yesterday came off left-handed Iowa Cubs pitcher Ben Holmes (who played in college for the Oregon State Beavers).
Outfielder Marcus Wilson is back. He was outrighted off the 40-man roster at the end of last season, and usually those players sign elsewhere, but Wilson is here. The lanky right-handed hitter went 0-for-2 yesterday. I’m curious to see what he can do in a full PCL season; he has the appearance of a possible late bloomer.
The M’s were down 5-4 in the bottom of the ninth, but Walton led off with a base hit, and then Forrest Wall walked, and up came Kevin Padlo. After being acquired last August, Padlo hit eight HRs and had 21 RBI in 26 games for Tacoma, while hitting .298. The Cubs had a Triple-A reliever on the mound, and I thought to myself, “This game is over. The question is, will he hit one in the gap, or over the fence?” He had a good at-bat, but ultimately got slightly under a pitch and flied out to left field. If Padlo starts the season in Tacoma, he’ll hit in the middle of the lineup.
The Mariners used major league pitchers for the entire game, with one possible exception: lefty Danny Young pitched a scoreless eighth inning. He’s new to the organization, having pitched for Triple-A Columbus last year before signing as a minor league free agent. Young worked around 90 mph with his fastball, but his out pitch is his slider. He can really spin it and gets a lot of break. Walks were an issue for him last year, so that will be something to keep an eye on.
The game ended in a tie when Spencer Packard – whom I must confess I had never heard of – came through with a pinch-hit, two-out game-tying RBI single in the bottom of the ninth. Turns out Packard was the Mariners 9th round pick last year out of Campbell University (the “Camels”), and he made his pro debut with a handful of games at Low-A Modesto. This was probably the highlight of his professional career so far – brief as it has been.
Today (Wednesday) was scheduled as a minor league camp day, which is always very useful for me because I get to see so many players in one day of intersquad games, but the organization decided instead to give everyone a day off. Which, annoying as it might be for me, is probably good for literally everyone else. Tomorrow should be a full day on the backfields, with morning workouts and games in the afternoon.
- The Mariners have been adding bullpen arms, especially since Casey Sadler is out for the season. They signed Ryan Buchter, Sal Romano, and Andrew Albers to minor league deals, and now they are signing Sergio Romo to a major league contract.
- Robbie Ray’s first start as a Mariners was intense, Larry Stone writes.
- Baseball America has an article on how the Mariners farm system went from worst to first.