PEORIA, Ariz. - With Gold Glove winners in center and right fields, the line to join Seattle Mariners outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Ichiro Suzuki starts on the left - and it's a crowded field, indeed.
This spring the team has used Milton Bradley, Ryan Langerhans, Greg Halman, Michael Saunders, Johermyn Chavez and Carlos Peguero in the outfield and a seventh candidate, Jody Gerut, retired.
For the Mariners, the who’s-in-left question may come down to offense and whether any of their candidates can produce it.
Saunders is the incumbent, a 24-year-old left-handed hitter who played 100 games in 2010 and batted .211
Bradley is a combustible 32-year-old switch-hitter coming back from knee surgery, anger-management counseling and a .205 average in 2010.
Langerhans is the perfect fourth outfielder, a left-handed hitter who can play anywhere, but isn’t considered a serious candidate to start.
Which leaves rookies Halman, Peguero and Chavez.
“All three can swing the bat,” hitting coach Chris Chambliss said. “They’re aggressive hitters, and like most guys with power, they swing and miss a lot. We’re working with them (at) making more contact.”
A short look at the three begins with their hitting, and an international feel:
• Halman, 23, was born in the Netherlands. A right-handed hitter who had 33 home runs in Tacoma last season, he also struck out 169 times in 112 games.
• Peguero, 24, is a physical specimen – 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds – and a left-handed hitter from the Dominican Republic who had 23 home runs in 130 Double-A games. He struck out 178 times.
• Chavez, 22, is a right-handed hitting Venezuelan who came to the Mariners from Toronto as part of the Brandon Morrow deal. In 136 Single-A games, he batted .315 with 32 home runs, 96 RBI and 131 strikeouts. He had 23- and 26-game hitting streaks in 2010.
It’s unlikely any of the three will be on Seattle’s opening day roster this year, but all three are close – and if the Mariners’ offense remains as big an issue as it was in 2010, any one of them could get a call.
Saunders knows it.
“I’ve been in their position, and in the past I put too much pressure on myself, tried to do too much – especially in the big leagues,” Saunders said. “I disappeared last year. I tried to hit for power so much I started pulling off the ball, getting away from what I do best, and just nose-dived.
“I look at the other outfielders in camp, I can see their talent. I love the competition. All of us do.”
Manager Eric Wedge has said taking a long look at Saunders will likely extend beyond spring training, that the Mariners need to know if he can harness the potential they’ve seen in him.
He’s also seen Peguero and Chavez hit long spring home runs.
Neither likes to talk about himself, but each sees something to like in the other.
“We can both run, we both have speed,” Chavez said. “He probably has more power, I’m becoming more of a contact hitter with some power. Carlos is so strong, it’s fun to watch him hit.”
Peguero’s scouting report on Chavez?
“He’s a good player, I see him improve since last spring, I see him get better every day here,” he said. “His swing is better, his play in the outfield is better.
“We talk about the game all the time. We talk about how pitchers throw to us, because some pitch us the same way. We talk about what counts are best to hit in, what pitch you might see in a certain count.”
Chavez said the two are supportive of one another and competitive at the same time.
“He’s like family,” Chavez said. “If he made it to the big leagues before me, I’d be happy for him. He hustles, he plays hard, and I do too. That’s important, showing energy on every play.”
The irony for Saunders and Halman is that their toughest competition isn’t from a grizzled veteran ahead of them – but from players coming up from behind.
Defensively, Halman may trail the other three by a bit, although he can and has played center field and is far from a defensive liability. Chavez and Peguero each have great throwing arms, and Saunders, at 6-4, covers left with long, lanky strides.
With only one power bat in the infield and neither Ichiro nor Gutierrez considered a home run hitter, the battle for left has to take that into account.
Saunders will likely open the season in left field, perhaps in a platoon with Bradley. But hitting like he did last year won’t keep him in the Mariners’ plans for long.
The Mariners now have options, and if Wedge and his staff have to go through Saunders, Chavez, Peguero and Halman to find what they’re looking for, they are willing to do it.
In fact, it’s a big part of what this spring is about.