MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

For Mariners, bonding a big part of camp

Dipoto's offseason makeover has plenty of fresh faces in Peoria

For Mariners, bonding a big part of camp

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Seattle Mariners begin their mornings with a team meeting. Only it's not a team meeting in the way we normally think of them. Players are ordered to stand up, to speak up and to say something about themselves -- who they are, where they came from. Not everyone is comfortable doing this kind of thing. So be it.

"At times, you have to get them a little uncomfortable to get comfortable," new manager Scott Servais said.

There's laughter, insults, more laughter as players speak, as others offer commentary. And that's how the organized part of the Mariners' work day begins.

"I think it has been phenomenal," third baseman Kyle Seager said. "We know why it's being done, and it's been a blast."

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What it's about is building a team. No club in baseball has changed more than the Mariners the past five months.

First, they hired a new general manager, Jerry Dipoto, who inherited a team finishing up a disappointing 76-86 season. Seattle's offense, bullpen and defense were among the American League's worst.

Rather than do a complete dismantling of the roster, Dipoto believed he could keep the core together and upgrade around it.

"This is different than taking three years to do it with the farm system," said first baseman Adam Lind, acquired from the Brewers. "They just tried to go at it at the big league level right away."

At last count, Dipoto had made 13 trades and signed five Major League free agents in addition to a string of Minor League contracts and waiver claims. On Opening Day, depending on how it all plays out, the Mariners likely will have turned over more than half their 25-man roster.

The core is in place: Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager. But Dipoto made wholesale changes at center field (Leonys Martin), catcher (Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger), left field (Nori Aoki), first base (Lind), the rotation (Nathan Karns and Wade Miley) and bullpen (Joaquin Benoit and Steve Cishek).

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Dipoto hired Servais, with whom he'd had a long working relationship with the Angels, and together, they brought in an array of new coaches, too.

Servais, 48, has never managed at any level, but he has done just about everything else in the game. He played 11 seasons for four teams and then spent 12 years in scouting and player development for the Rockies, Cubs, Rangers and Angels. What he has that appealed to Dipoto are smarts, people skills and energy.

"I think I've learned a lot over the last 10-12 years working with Minor League players," Servais said. "I was close enough to the big leagues. You're touching it. You get the vibe from it. Being able to run multiple departments, you're managing people, and that's what it's about. The game is important, the strategy. I get it. It's part of the game. But more importantly, it's creating a culture and managing people."

Is Seattle better? Absolutely. Are the Mariners good enough to compete for a postseason berth? Probably.

The defending World Series champion Royals say one of their strengths is that so many of them played in the Minor Leagues together and have an unbreakable bond that helps in tough times. Servais is hoping to get some of that bonding in a different way.

"The mornings have been entertaining, fun," Iannetta said. "We take a step away from baseball for a second. When it's time to work, we work. We've worked with energy and purpose, and it's exciting to see."

How do you build a team?

"It can be a great individual defensive play or a clutch hit," said Ianetta. "Those are all team-building things, and they change the vibe in the clubhouse. But what we're doing right now is getting to know one another and to talk about things other than baseball. The baseball stuff will happen. That's why we're here. It'll grow during the time we're here, and hopefully, it'll keep growing through the season.

"We'll hit bumps in the road and have some adversity. Those are the things that kind of bring you together. They may be a little bit of a negative at the time, but they end up showing the character of a team."

As Servais said, "The feedback I've gotten from our veteran players is very positive. They enjoy getting to know the younger players. A couple of them said to me they'd been in big league camps before and didn't even know the young players. How would they? All of a sudden, you're sitting next to a young player on the bench. 'Where'd you play last year? Where are you from?' That stuff doesn't happen as much as you think it does. Everybody assumes everyone knows everyone else. Not everyone goes home at night and reads the media guide. It just doesn't work that way. We're creating those opportunities."

Servais on Mariners' culture

In the AL West, in which all five clubs believe they're good enough to play postseason baseball, the Mariners have inserted themselves into the conversation. If Martin plays center the way he did with the Rangers, he'll bring an important dynamic.

But the margin for error is thin. The Mariners need their stars to play at a high level, they need 22-year-old shortstop Ketel Marte to be as good as advertised. And like every team, they need good health.

"I'm very optimistic," Servais said. "I think we've got a really good nucleus of players returning. We've added. We've talked about more athletic players, players that control the strike zone. Our pitching staff has gotten better. There are still question marks. Every team in the West has question marks. We're no different. We need to get some of those answered, and we need to get some guys to bounce back from subpar years."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.