Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales pitches against the Astros at T-Mobile Park. Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — As part of the many changes that have been implemented since general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have taken over the Mariners, the use of "player plans" has become a common reference.

They are written out individual plans to continually develop every player in the system. They are structured and monitored with a series of meetings throughout the course of the year, the two most notable being in spring training to prepare for the season and an exit meeting following the season to set up the offseason.

And while they don't share specific plans, Servais and players often give an idea of the gist and focus moving forward.

This series starts with a player who probably didn't need the structured plan provided by the Mariners: Marco Gonzales. Of all the players in the organization, there isn't a player more driven to refine his craft and evolve as a player. There may be equals to Gonzales' commitment, but it would be impossible to find anyone more dedicated to constant improvement. He'd already developed and implemented his own player plan before it was introduced to him.

And even though he's been the Mariners' most consistent performer over the past two seasons, he'll be the first to admit there is more work to do for 2021 and beyond, particularly if he wants to lead this young Mariners team into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

"You should never be satisfied," he said.

That's why Dipoto signed him to a four-year, $30 million contract extension and Servais named him the opening-day starter before the 2019 season at age 27. Both believed he is the type of player and leader key to the current rebuild's success.

Looking back at 2020

Gonzales was unanimously named the Mariners' most valuable pitcher by the Seattle chapter of the BBWAA for obvious reasons. In the 60-game season and with the Mariners using a six-man rotation, he posted a 7-2 record with a 3.10 ERA in 11 starts. He pitched a total of 69 2/3 innings, striking out 64 batters and issuing just seven walks. He led American League starters in walks per nine innings (0.90) and strikeout-to-walk ratio (9.14). He tied for the second-most wins (seven) and finished third in WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched, at 0.95).

He was one of four pitchers to rank in the top 10 in the AL in wins, innings pitched (seventh) and ERA (eighth), joining Shane Bieber, Gerrit Cole and Lance Lynn.

"Marco's been a solid above-average performer since playing his first full season here in 2018," Dipoto said. "He got better in 2019, and this year, he took it to a whole new level and became something more than just a solid above-average performer. I think he took it personally that people (national writers) were looking at him not as an ace and as the Mariners' No. 1, and how many references were made, especially at the trade deadline, about how we could move Marco Gonzales but he's just the back of the rotation guy for a championship team, which, I'll be honest, I think that's laughable. If that's what pitches at the back of championship rotations, I'm surprised. I've seen every World Series for the last 50 years."

It may not seem possible, but Gonzales did just as much off the field for Seattle's young starting staff that featured rookies Justus Sheffield (age 24) and Justin Dunn (25) and second-year pitcher Nick Margevicius (24).

"You know what you're going to get from Marco every time out," Servais said. "His ability to make adjustments based on who we're playing, what the game plan looks like, is as good as anyone we've got."

That's something the Mariners wanted the young pitchers to grasp, to the point where each of them took turns sitting in on Gonzales' game-preparation meetings on days he started.

"He's as legit as they come," Sheffield said. "It's no surprise. Honestly, the work that he puts in on the field, off the field and scouting guys, his intellect of pitching and being able to get guys out and pitch to guys, it's incredible. It's something that in the future I want to strive to be able to do because it's special. The way he game-plans and the way he knows the game and knows how to pitch those guys — you can tell that he does his work and he's continuing to get better, game by game and year by year. Marco has been a great leader for the staff and for this team."

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