With the Mariners' plan of a stepback in 2019 and a focus on building a young core of players for 2020 and 2021, the former UW standout has become a factor in that plan. “This is a different spring for him," manager Scott Servais said.
PEORIA, Ariz. — A year ago, Braden Bishop arrived at his first major-league spring training with the typical wide eyes and nerves of any player entering a world in which childhood dreams are on the verge of becoming real.
His locker was relegated to the far reaches of the big league clubhouse of the Mariners’ spring training facility. He was just feet away from having his locker in the hallway leading out to the practice fields.
It’s an area where minor-leaguers with little to no experience or non-roster invites are placed. There aren’t signs that say: “Stay in your area” or “Be seen and not heard,” but it seems that way. They were unwritten rules the respectful Bishop obeyed.
This year, Bishop finds himself moving up in the world. After being placed on the 40-man roster this offseason to protect him from the Rule 5 draft, he is near the front of the clubhouse in a cluster of players with big-league experience, including J.P. Crawford, Mallex Smith, Domingo Santana and Jay Bruce.
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It’s a location and treatment that he earned. But Bishop and the Mariners know he has higher goals this season than clubhouse real estate.
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With the organization’s plan of a stepback in 2019 and a focus on building a young core of players for 2020 and 2021, the former University of Washington standout has become a factor in that plan.
“This is a different spring for him,” manager Scott Servais said. “I know he’s been in our camp before. He’s really got an opportunity to get on the map here. If he doesn’t break with us, then there’s a good chance he’ll go to Triple A (Tacoma) and hopefully at some point you will probably see him in the big leagues. We are in a situation where we have a lot of opportunity for these young guys.”
That opportunity became more pronounced when fellow outfielder Smith arrived at camp with an elbow strain, shelving him from Cactus League games in the near future. With Smith out, Bishop is expected to play heavily in spring games. He started Thursday’s Cactus League opener in center field. Smith seems unlikely to be ready to go to Japan for the two exhibition games and two regular-season games in mid-March. The Mariners could put Bishop on the expanded active roster as an extra outfielder. It’s tantalizing to think about.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to getting ready for Game 1 of the season,” he said. “Obviously, there is pressure. I think even if Mallex was healthy, there’d still be pressure. For the most part, I’m just going to try and do the same things I did last year. Try to get on base. I don’t think I need to be trying to hit a home run in every at-bat. It’s important that I know my game and what I can do and not try to get outside of that. I think over the last five years, I’ve learned — ‘this is who I am and to just stick with that.’”
The Mariners love who Bishop is and who he has become as a player.
They knew they got an outstanding human being when they selected him in the third round of the 2015 draft. Bishop grew into an All-Pac-12 performer at UW while also becoming a tireless advocate and fundraiser in the fight against early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which his mother Suzy is battling after being diagnosed almost five years ago.
Time hasn’t healed the pain. He tries to prioritize baseball as a job when it’s time to work.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” he said. “The biggest thing is realizing what happens on the field has to stay on the field. I’ve done a fairly good job because we all have real lives and our own problems that we go through. Consciously, I’m able to detach from her sickness and all that goes with it. The hardest part for me is when other guys have their moms there and they are hugging their moms after games or seeing their moms names on the pass list. I don’t get that. Subconsciously that affects me more. Sometimes it creeps into the games but not enough to affect me negatively.”
His off-the-field energy is channeled into his “4Mom” campaign that has grown into a full charitable foundation. Bishop was honored with the Dan Wilson Community Service Award for his efforts in 2018.
“It’s a non-stop thing,” he said of the charity work. “I’m constantly brain-storming on how to get out in the community more and more and get the word out about Alzheimers because I don’t think it’s talked about enough. I can list off a thousand numbers to prove it. It’s importantly to constantly do that. It does bring some perspective to remind us that baseball isn’t as important as we make it out to be.”
Bishop’s latest fundraiser is a charity golf tournament on March 3rd at the Top Golf in Glendale. He’s invited players from the Mariners and other teams to participate.
“We’ll see how it goes,” he said “I don’t know what to expect from it. I think most of the team will be there. Hopefully we can raise some good money and some more awareness and have some fun in the process.”
And yet, his job is still baseball. And his ultimate goal is within reach. It might have loomed even closer if not for an injury that derailed his 2018 with Class AA Arkansas.
On July 19, Bishop suffered a broken right forearm that ended his season. Bishop needed surgery, and a metal plate and six screws were inserted into his wrist.
“It was the second pitch of the at-bat,” he said. “I knew he was a sinkerball guy and liked to come in under your hands. But the pitch didn’t sink as much. It kind of ran in and I remember just trying to turn and realizing it was a ball. I got my body out of the way. But it got me on the palm side of my right forearm, shattering it. It felt like glass breaking. I knew that it was broken pretty bad the second it hit me. It was definitely painful.”
At the time, he was hitting. 284 with a .361 on-base percentage, 20 doubles, eight homers and 33 RBIs. The Mariners were on the verge of promoting him to Tacoma, putting him in line for a possible September call-up to the big leagues. He wouldn’t allow himself to dwell on it.
“I knew that and everybody told me that, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “I was being a realist and I knew that my season was over and the thing I could control was getting healthy and coming back stronger. Because at the end of the day, availability is better than anything else, especially with this opportunity.”
Bishop returned to weight lifting in October and started to easy his way back into baseball activities. Anything that affects the hands or wrist area is a complex situation for position players.
“The big thing was the contact oft the ball hitting the bat and the recoil on the wrist,” he said. “ I didn’t have any setbacks luckily.”
The broken bone wasn’t the only baseball issue that Bishop endured. He started the 2018 season in a miserable slump. After hitting .336 with an .865 OPS in 31 games with Arkansas to end the 2017 season, Bishop figured he’d put up similar numbers in his return in 2018. Instead, he hit .154 in his first 23 games.
“It just comes down process, honestly,” he said. “I think the word gets thrown around a lot. I had a defined process that I was following every day. I felt like I was putting together good at-bats. I felt like I was hitting balls hard and balls just weren’t falling. You mix that in with a few bad at-bats and you are going to have a bad start.”
Bishop believed in his process, and yet, it wasn’t an enjoyable time.
“It was draining,” he said. “I’d go to the field and know that no matter what I do things weren’t just going my way. But I’m a firm believer that things in this game will happen to you and if you don’t let it define you, it will make you stronger and a better baseball player and a better person. I tried to take my focus off of my struggle and put it into other guys successes. It didn’t fee quite as bad.”
He kept grinding in the batting cage, trusting that his preparation and approach would find success. It came with a torrid run, hitting. 331 with an .861 OPS in his next 61 games until the injury stopped his season.
“It was just showing up every day and being in this relentless pursuit of where I wanted to be,” he said. “Eventually it started to turn around. The balls I started to hit hard started to fall or they’d be shifted. It evened itself out. But it was tough mentally to go to the dumpster from the penthouse of spring training in two and a half weeks. I definitely don’t recommend starting a season hitting .154 again and try to climb from there.”
With his speed and defensive ability, Bishop profiles as a fourth outfielder. But his growth as a hitter from a singles hitter at Washington to a player that drive the ball from gap to gap could push that projection.
“UW does a great job of having guys buy into a culture, and that’s exactly what I did,” he said. “And when I became a professional, it allowed me to be my own best coach and connect with a lot of good hitting people. I think the biggest thing is being open-minded and learning. I’m trying to piece this philosophy together to make it my own. There have been some good times and some bad times. I’ve fallen on my face plenty.”
But Bishop has gotten back up every time and moved ahead of where he was before the stumble. It could push him to the big leagues this season.
“I haven’t made it to the big leagues, so I don’t have it figured out,” he said. “And even I do make it, I still don’t have it figured out.”