Optimism reigns through drizzle

‘We will continue to get better,’ manager Wedge says at annual preview luncheon

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comJanuary 24, 2013 

SEATTLE – Looking at the disrepair of the outfield walls at Safeco Field or staring up into the gray, drizzly weather, it’s difficult to grasp that baseball season is approaching.

But it is coming. And one sign of the advancing season was the Mariners’ annual pre-spring training luncheon.

On Wednesday, a host of people — including vice president of marketing Kevin Martinez, team trainer Rick Griffin, minor league director of operations Chris Gwynn, general manager Jack Zduriencik, outfielder Michael Saunders and manager Eric Wedge — talked about the 2013 season.

The general consensus taken from the luncheon? Optimism for the upcoming season.

The general consensus taken from every previous luncheon? Optimism for the upcoming season.

Still, there seems to be belief and evidence that the 2013 Mariners will be much improved compared with the previous three losing editions. No person embodies that confidence more than Wedge, whose intensity radiated during his time on the podium, thanks to his booming voice and piercing blue-eyed stare.

“I feel as confident as ever in regard to our future here in Seattle,” Wedge said. “The only thing I can tell you is we will be better. And we will continue to get better. That’s what happened the last couple of years. And at some point, sooner rather than later, we will be a championship team.”

Why will they be better?

Well, Wedge puts a lot of faith in the veteran players added for this season. Wedge thinks first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales and outfielders Michael Morse, Jason Bay and Raul Ibañez will not only increase offensive production, but also

bring a level of leadership to the team that has been missing in recent years.

“When you look at the impact a veteran player can have on younger kids and how that can parlay itself and domino through the clubhouse, it’s something that can take on a life of its own,” Wedge said. “I’m not looking for choir boys. I’m looking for people who can help us get better and win, and that’s what these guys do.”

Of course, Wedge knows that for the Mariners to make a serious leap it will take the core group of returning players — led by Kyle Seager, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero — to make a major leap forward.

A year ago, they were still green as the spring outfield grass when it came to big league experience. That will not be the case this season.

“I’m an optimist,” Wedge said. “Because they had to sink or swim on their own, they’ll be tougher for it. Because they had to lean on each other, they’ll be stronger, that much quicker. Even though it was painful at times, they didn’t give in to the fight. They didn’t complain about it.”

Even the carefully measured Zduriencik, who seemed to temper expectations in past seasons, couldn’t help but buy into the optimism.

“What I really hope happens is this is an exciting year for us,” he said. “I think this year will become a launching pad for people to look at this organization finally and say, ‘They have good young players; they’ve added some nice pieces there.’ … With an addition here and an addition there, this club could be pretty good. I hope we’ve laid the groundwork for that to happen.”

STILL MOVES TO BE MADE

The Mariners need to bring in a catcher to back up Montero. The team is close to signing veteran Ronny Paulino. According to a Mariners source, the deal is pending a physical. It will not be a major league contract. It’s a split contract based on Paulino making the club out of spring training. He would be a non-roster invitee to spring training.

Zduriencik made it clear there will be another catcher as well. Veteran Kelly Shoppach’s name has been rumored and he would be a solid fit.

Besides a catcher, Zduriencik would like to add another veteran starting pitcher or two. He is exploring both free agency and trade offers. Ideally, one of those starters would be a left-hander.

The Mariners are talking with Joe Saunders, who wants a 3-year contract, but whose leverage is dwindling. The Mariners also could trade with the Dodgers for veteran Chris Capuano, who seems to be the odd man out with all of their recent signings.

MONTERO IS THE CATCHER

Montero is in Seattle going through workouts and meeting with Wedge one-on-one. There is little doubt that he’s the starting catcher.

“He knows he’s coming here to catch,” Wedge said. “It will ultimately be my decision in regard to how much he does catch. But we are going to ask him to catch as much as we feel like he can still go out and perform the way he is capable of performing.”

Montero has his deficiencies defensively. There are tools there, and he showed improvement. But there also were times last season when his lack of focus led to silly mistakes.

“It’s more the mental than the physical side of things,” Wedge said. “I don’t have any doubt in my mind that he can handle it from a talent perspective, that he can handle the role fundamentally.”

SMOAK SLIM, STRONG

According to Wedge and Mariners trainer Griffin, first baseman Justin Smoak is in the best shape of his career. The Mariners asked Smoak to get stronger in the offseason and apparently he has done that – adding several pounds of muscle while trimming down a little.

“The goal was for him to put on good weight,” Griffin said. “He put on nine pounds and his body fat went down. He looks bigger and stronger. He’s more agile. We ran him through a bunch of agility drills. Three years ago when he got here, he could not do the drills. The other day when we did them, he blew right through them.”

SHORT HOPS

The Mariners had two players undergo offseason surgeries. Infielders Dustin Ackley (ankle) and Brendan Ryan (elbow) both had bone spurs removed. … Zduriencik refused to talk about rumors of a contract extension for Felix Hernandez, but said, “I have every intention of keeping Felix here for the long term.” … The outfield fence at Safeco Field has been completely dismantled, and construction of the new closer fence will be completed in early March. … The Mariners will hold their annual FanFest at Safeco Field this weekend.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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