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GM Meetings: Mariners Trying To Keep Path Clear For Prospects In 2022; Notes On Moreno, Lewis & More

Julio Rodriguez Mikejanesfourseam
Julio Rodriguez (Mike Janes/Four Seam)

CARLSBAD, Calif.—Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto made clear at the general manager meetings on Tuesday that his club intends to be aggressive in free agency after it won 90 games last year and remained in playoff contention until the season’s final day.

Dipoto also noted, however, the organization will take care to not block the paths of the top prospects from its No. 1-ranked farm system, namely outfielder Julio Rodriguez and righthanded pitcher George Kirby.

“We’re going to stay disciplined to the things that we discussed when we started this (rebuilding) process,” Dipoto said. “We’re proud of our player development group and what they’ve been able to accomplish. We’ve had a lot of positive development with our prospects, we’ve developed some young core at the major leagues and we feel like more is on the way. We’re on the doorstep and we’re going to stay committed to that group. Otherwise the last three years was not worth going through the last three years.”

Rodriguez and Kirby, the Nos. 3 and 12 prospects on the BA Top 100, respectively, both finished last season at Double-A Arkansas. They are tentatively slated to begin 2022 at Triple-A Tacoma and will be in position to make their major league debuts during the year.

Dipoto also highlighted starting pitchers Matt Brash, Brandon Williamson and Levi Stoudt as prospects the organization would be cognizant of when making decisions in free agency. Williamson and Stoudt both finished last year in Double-A and Brash received a callup to the majors for the final week of the season, although he did not make an appearance.

“As we’ve gone over the course of the last couple of years, we don’t want to stand in their way as players when it’s their time,” Dipoto said. “But we want to be true to where we finished the season. We won 90 games, we did see an improvement in on-field performance and we want to add to that and make sure we are doing what we can to help the team perform even better as we move forward. We lost a couple players, but I don’t see why that group should go into next season with anything other than being a contender on their minds, and we’re going to help.”

The Mariners primary free agent losses are third baseman Kyle Seager and lefthanded pitcher Yusei Kikuchi. Their current estimated 2022 payroll is just $59 million, according to Fangraphs, giving the club roughly $25 million to spend in free agency if they maintain last year’s payroll. Dipoto has previously said the club would increase payroll for 2022.

In light of the departures of Seager and Kikuchi, Dipoto specifically mentioned the infield and the starting rotation as areas the Mariners will target in free agency.

Given Rodriguez is an outfielder and teams can never have too much starting pitching, those moves can be accomplished while simultaneously keeping a clear path for the organization’s best prospects.

“We do intend to build around our young group, but we want to augment it with real talent,” Dipoto said. “We feel like we have the payroll flexibility and frankly, the obvious needs.”

ROYCE LEWIS UPDATE

Shortstop Royce Lewis is on track to be ready for 2022 spring training, Twins president of baseball operations Derek Falvey said.

Lewis, 22, missed all of last season after tearing his ACL in his right knee during spring training. He had surgery in late February and has progressed on schedule with his rehab.

“He’s healthy,” Falvey said. “He had a great end of the season going into the offseason. He’s now going to have a normal spring training. That’s our hope.”

The No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 draft, Lewis reached Double-A as a 20-year-old in 2019 and won the Arizona Fall League’s Most Valuable Player Award after the season, but he has not played in an official game since. He spent all of 2020 at the Twins alternate training site after the minor league season was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic before missing 2021 with his knee injury.

Given Lewis has not faced live pitching in two years, Falvey acknowledged the Twins will need to sign a “bridge” free agent to play shortstop until Lewis gets up to speed, however long that may take.

“Obviously losing the pandemic year and not having minor league baseball and then losing the entirety of this year because of the ACL injury, that’s disappointing,” Falvey said. “But Royce is one of those, for those who have been around him, he’s one of the more optimistic kids there is. He’s put himself in a great spot physically. We just now need to get him some at-bats. We need to get him back on the field as much as possible.”

OLYMPICS IMPACT ON TRISTON CASAS

Red Sox first base prospect Triston Casas had one of the most accomplished seasons of any minor leaguer in 2021. Casas, the No. 15 prospect on the BA Top 100, hit .279/.394/.484 while rising from Double-A to Triple-A as a 21-year-old and has continued to impress with a .333/.457/.424 slash line in the Arizona Fall League.

His performance for Team USA, however, is what will be most remembered. Casas hit .400 as Team USA’s starting first baseman during Olympic qualifying to help the U.S. clinch a spot in the Tokyo Olympics. At the Summer Games, Casas tied for the tournament lead with three home runs and led all players with eight RBIs to help Team USA win a silver medal, leading manager Mike Scioscia to identify him as the prospect with the most upside on the team.

From the Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom’s perspective, it was Casas’ poise in the Olympics that impressed as much as his performance.

“There are so many things we can do for players in the minor leagues and so many ways that we can, on their journeys, help develop them into what we hope they can be at the big league level,” Bloom said. “But there are some things in terms of pressure, in terms of the stakes, that we just can’t simulate, and that to me is one of the values of that experience: playing for something that most people never even come close to getting, including most of your very talented peers.”

Casas’ performance stood out particularly in the context of his age. He was the youngest member of Team USA’s starting lineup during both qualifying and the Summer Olympics. The two players who tied him for the Olympic lead in home runs, South Korea’s Hyun-Soo Kim and Israel’s Danny Valencia, are 33 and 37, respectively, and had multiple years of major league experience.

“You don’t want to read too much into any small sample other than he certainly wasn’t afraid of the moment,” Bloom said. “He wasn’t afraid of that competition. When you are Triston Casas, people look at you and they expect you to be a force. They expect you to hit in the middle of a lineup and produce. That’s a lot of pressure to put on anybody, and he was in front of the most eyeballs he’s ever been in front of and he more than rose to the occasion.”

Grayson Rodriguez Photo By Cliff Welch Icon Sportswire Via Getty Images

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BUZZ GROWS AROUND GABRIEL MORENO

Blue Jays catcher Gabriel Moreno’s breakout season at Double-A caught the attention of nearly the entire industry this season, something general manager Ross Atkins said has been driven home in recent days.

Atkins said Moreno has been a popular topic of discussion from every corner of the industry leading up to the general manager’s meetings, from opposing GMs to agents to media members.

“It’s been very interesting here over the last few days because it seems like I get asked about him three or four times a day by other teams, by other agents,” Atkins said. “It reminds me of like the really elite caliber players that get that level of discussion and dialogue. He’s earned it.”

Moreno, 21, hit .367/.434/.626 while rising to Triple-A, but his season was limited to 37 games by a fractured thumb. He returned at the end of the season and is making up for lost time in the Arizona Fall League, batting .339/.431/.542 with nine doubles, a home run and 13 RBIs in 15 games.

He went from unranked before the season to No. 8 on the most recent BA Top 100 Prospects list.

“I get asked … a lot about exceeding expectation,” Atkins said. “I don’t know. I have pretty high expectations. He hasn’t exceeded them per se based on his potential. There’s still room for him to continue to get better and he thinks that way as well.”

RANGERS SHUT DOWN SAM HUFF

The Rangers have shut down Sam Huff after the catcher sustained another knee injury, general manager Chris Young said.

Huff, the Rangers No. 9 prospect, had surgery to remove a loose body in his right knee in April and was limited to 61 games this season, all at first base or DH. He played six games in the Arizona Fall League, again all at first base or DH, but has not appeared since Oct. 25.

“Sam had a little tweak in his knee in the Fall League about a week ago,” Young said. “We’ve shut him down. It’s nothing major. We think he’ll make a full recovery, be ready for 2022. We’ll build out his catching program through the winter, make sure he’s strong and ready to go.”

Despite the fact Huff has not caught in over a year, Young said the organization “100%” plans to continue developing Huff as a catcher.

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