A year ago, it seemed unlikely Michael Saunders would make the Seattle Mariners’ roster coming out of spring training. This season, Saunders might have the best shot to win a spot in the opening day lineup.
The Mariners have nine outfielders heading to Peoria, Ariz. There’s plenty of speculation about which four or five they may keep, but how it will play out is far from certain.
Some legitimate questions:
• Can Franklin Gutierrez truly be expected to be the everyday center fielder based on his recent injury history?
• Is Michael Morse too much of a defensive liability to play left field full time?
• Will Jason Bay resurrect his career now that he’s out of New York?
• How much will Raul Ibañez play and what’s to become of Casper Wells?
Mariners manager Eric Wedge knows the answers will be revealed during spring training, which starts Tuesday.
“I have a clear idea of how I see it playing out, but they’ll ultimately determine that,” Wedge said. “Players make decisions for you. They decide how much they’re going to play by their performance and how they act, how they handle both the good and the bad. In regard to our numbers, I look at it like it’s a
healthy thing. You’re one trade or injury away from being another injury or trade from getting thin again. We’re OK.”
The Mariners used 10 outfielders last season with Saunders starting the most – 133 games.
It was a minor breakthrough for him. After serious swing adjustments, he hit .247 with 19 homers and 57 RBI. Not monster numbers, but it was success Saunders simply hadn’t experienced at the big league level.
He started games at every outfield position. Defensively, he is above average at all of them.
The main reason Saunders made the team and played so often was Franklin Gutierrez’s seemingly annual stint on the disabled list. The talented center fielder suffered a torn pectoral muscle during spring training, started the season on the disabled list and missed the first 63 games.
Upon his return, Gutierrez played just 13 games before he was hit in the helmet by a pickoff throw and suffered a concussion which cost him 50 more games.
He played 27 games by the end of the season, but the frustration was evident. In the past two seasons combined, he’s played in 132 of 324 games.
After the trade of Ichiro Suzuki at midseason, Seattle started an array of young outfielders hoping to find an everyday player, but none really distinguished themselves.
Casper Wells, who is accomplished defensively, started 67 games, but never hit with any consistency, striking out 80 times in 285 at-bats.
Trayvon Robinson started 39 games, but a weak throwing arm and propensity for strikeouts dimmed his prospects.
Eric Thames, who was acquired at midseason, started 32 games and showed some power, but he had defensive shortcomings .
Heading into this season, the Mariners tried to upgrade their outfield by signing free agent Josh Hamilton and came up short. They traded for Justin Upton and he vetoed the deal with his no-trade clause. So instead of trying to land top-shelf talent, the Mariners went in a different direction.
“It’s always disappointing when things don’t work out like you hoped,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “But you have to go in with your eyes wide open.”
They Mariners traded for Morse, who made his major league debut in 2005 with the Mariners but was a man without a starting position in Washington.
Morse can hit; that’s never been an issue. In 102 games last season, he hit .291 (118-for-406) with 17 doubles, 18 home runs and 62 RBI for the Washington Nationals. But the question is whether he can be the Mariners’ everyday left fielder.
“I can handle it defensively,” he said. “It’s not a problem.”
At 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, Morse isn’t a gazelle. He posted a -9.7 ultimate zone rating (UZR) in the outfield last season. That’s not good. By comparison, Wells had an 8.9 UZR.
But the Mariners seem willing to sacrifice a little defense if Morse can light it up.
The Mariners also signed a pair of veterans to one-year contracts in Bay and Ibañez.
Bay is coming off an awful, unproductive and injury riddled three-year run with the New York Mets. In three seasons, he played 288 games and had 1,125 plate appearances, hitting .234 with a .318 on-base percentage and a .369 slugging percentage. He also struck out 285 times and made four trips to the disabled list. The Mets simply let him go despite owing him $21 million this season.
It seems unlikely he will ever regain his 2009 form – a .267 batting average, 36 home runs, 119 RBI – that got him a big contract with the Mets. It’s a low-risk gamble for the Mariners. “It will be interesting to see what happens,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “He’s going to try to get back on track. He had some rough years in New York. He knows it, we know it. We’ll see.”
Citing a need for leadership, the Mariners brought back Ibañez to be a presence in the clubhouse and a left-handed bat off the bench.
“You can make an argument that Raul Ibañez is as good as anybody in the game in regard to going out there and performing and playing first, because that’s why you sign him, to be a baseball player,” said Wedge, who also likes the intangibles Ibañez brings as an experienced guy who has been part of championship clubs. “It just looks to me as this guy has as much value in that role as anybody.
Last season, Ibañez hit .240 with 19 homers and 62 RBI in 130 games for the Yankees. Because of injuries, he played only 72 games in left field, although he has never been known as an outstanding defensive player. At age 40, he has regressed. But Wedge thinks he can play a game a week in the field if needed.
Those three players will vie for time with Gutierrez penciled in as the center field starter and Saunders in right field.
Gutierrez said he’s 100 percent healthy. He even participated in winter ball in Venezuela this offseason to make up for the missed at-bats and games last season.
“I feel better than I have in a long time,” he said.
The Mariners aren’t exactly brimming with top outfield prospects, unless you consider Thames and Carlos Peguero prospects. Both have their flaws. Vinnie Catricala, who did a stint at third base last season, will go back to playing left field some. But he struggled at the plate, as well in the field, for the Rainiers.
Stefen Romero, the Mariners’ minor league player of the year, will start some games in left field after spending most of last season at second base for Tacoma. Beyond that, the Mariners aren’t blessed with any young players who could contribute email@example.com 253-597-8483 blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish