Minor leaguers take center stage at Mariners complex in Arizona as negotiations between MLB and MLBPA drag on

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PEORIA, Arizona – Those familiar sounds ingrained in your mind, the ones that spark memories of warm spring sunshine and hope for summer success, echoed through the vast expanse of chain-link fence, grass Well maintained and with red dirt staining the shoes this is the Mariners complex.

Near the indoor batting cages, the crackles of baseballs hitting head-on by the barrels of wooden bats echoed with rapidity.

The whistle of a baseball thrown at more than 145 km/h followed by this dull sound of the hit in the glove of a catcher.

The unmistakable clack of metal baseball cleats on concrete as players moved from court to court for their next drill.

Eyes closed, this cacophony made Thursday morning look like a normal spring training day.

But a sobering reality check returned with eyes open. It wasn’t spring training. It didn’t look like that. It didn’t feel like it. The absence of major league players was palpable. And the unspoken anguish of not knowing when the situation might be resolved loomed like a dark cloud trying to interrupt the sunny day.

“All we can do is wait,” a Mariners employee said.

As the more than 60 minor leaguers invited to this first minicamp were halfway through the day’s practice, representatives from Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association arrived for their fourth consecutive day of negotiations at Jupiter, Florida. The February 28 deadline set by MLB for an agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement to be reached without losing regular season games is now in a series of weekends.

Can the two sides, seemingly miles apart on so many fundamental issues, come closer to common ground over the next four days to salvage a normal regular season after this interrupted offseason and this spring training?

The bursts of optimism gleaned from the daily meeting reports are usually overwhelmed by a discouraging cynicism in the face of stubborn bickering and minimal progress in those same reports.

But at the training grounds at the Mariners complex and other complexes in Arizona and Florida where non-union players are allowed to practice, the focus remains on the field, especially for an organization that owns the one of the best farming systems in baseball by multiple outlets.

Although minor league spring training doesn’t officially begin until March 4, this traditional minicamp served as a season opener for the organization’s top prospects. In a typical year, minicamp workouts take place in the afternoon after MLB spring training morning workouts. Now it’s the focal point of the day with MLB staff watching and interacting with players they might barely see in normal spring training.

A day after rain swept across the valley, limiting activity on Wednesday, the Mariners minor leaguers were back in full force with manager Scott Servais stoically observing the variety of drills. He oversaw a receiving group, including last year’s first-round pick Harry Ford, hitting a high-speed pitcher and working on pitches to various bases. He stood quietly nearby as lanky southpaw Brandon Williamson, the organization’s No. 5 prospect and Baseball America’s No. 83 baseball prospect, threw a bullpen session, posting ugly breaking balls.

Fresh out of a workout in the weight room, Mariners top pitcher George Kirby watched his teammate work.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the “six-pack” (a covered bullpen area with six mounds), right-hander Connor Phillips, ranked No. 8 in the system by MLB Pipeline, pitched with focused intensity , displaying a power fastball.

On the outfields, the familiar voice of Perry Hill echoed as he offered instruction and encouragement to the collection of infielders, including young third baseman Starlin Aguilar, as Coaches Carson Vitale, now beardless with a mustache, Andy Bissell and Manny Acta peppered ground balls.

Opposite, Ichiro and Mike Cameron performed a series of drills, including throws to various bases, with outfielders as only they can. Both look like they can still play.

After their defensive work, groups of position players switched to hitting compound pitchers with breaking pitches. As Noelvi Marte, the Mariners man-child of a shortstop prospect, who still appears to be growing, cut an imposing figure in the batter’s box and hit lasers all over the field, the group of hitters in Jake Scheiner, Joe Rizzo and Gabe Gonzalez proved the most impressive, throwing deep explosions over the fence as GM Jerry Dipoto looked on from nearby.

The day ended with live batting practices — the closest form of game-like competition — to these practices, drawing a collection of players, coaches and baseball operations personnel to pitch 2 of the complex to see the individual matchups between the pitcher and the batter. .

With Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth watching from the field and assistant general manager Justin Hollander in the stands behind the plate, young right-hander Michael Morales, Seattle’s 2021 third-round pick and No. 15 prospect by Pipeline, looked strong and polished beyond his listed age of 19.

The live sessions included a household name for Mariners fans. Right-hander Matt Festa, who made 28 MLB appearances between 2018 and 2019 before having Tommy John surgery on March 2, 2020, looked completely healthy during his live batting practice. He commanded a fastball that hit the mid-90s, elevating it as needed. The highlight came on his last pitch, when he threw a nasty two-hit slider that sawed Marte’s bat in half, sending the bathead into foul territory by third base.

Since fans aren’t allowed in the facility, there were no cheers at the accomplishment, just oohs and good-natured chatter from the players watching.

In the distance, pre-game musical notes emanating from Peoria Stadium could be heard as practice ended.

The only baseball game played in Peoria was later that afternoon when Washington State opened a four-game series against Long Island University at Peoria Stadium. The scheduled Cactus League opener against the Padres on Saturday was canceled a week ago.

Baseball is still being played. It sounds the same. It’s kind of the same thing. But it’s not the same.

Also

*** Fans will not be permitted to enter the Mariners complex to watch minicamp practices. There has been no official decision whether that will change when minor league spring training officially opens. A year ago, COVID-19 guidelines forced teams to close the complex to fans due to close proximity to players as they strolled through the backfields. These safety guidelines are regulated by MLB.

*** The Mariners have hired Dave Cameron as a consultant for their front office and analysis department. As co-creator of the USS Mariner blog and editor-in-chief of FanGraphs, Cameron has gained notoriety for his sabermetric and data-based analysis of the Mariners and MLB. This sparked the interest of several MLB teams.

In January 2018, he was hired by the Padres as an analyst and later promoted to special assistant to general manager AJ Preller.

Cameron resigned from his position with the Padres last offseason and was a “free agent”. Mariners assistant general manager Justin Hollander reached out to Cameron during the offseason to gauge his interest in working for the organization in some capacity.

Seattle signed Cameron to a one-year contract in hopes that he will stay well beyond that commitment.

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