The Mariners believe he can contribute with his bat, and they’ve spent considerable time hitting him in the critical third spot in the batting order at spring training. For a player who has averaged 12 home runs and 73 runs batted in over his six major league seasons, it’s a bold step for a guy who’s basically been a platoon player.
Of Kotchman’s 1,681 career plate appearances, all but 417 have come against right-handed pitching. When a lefty started, Kotchman would take a seat.
Not this year.
Manager Don Wakamatsu said last week that Kotchman will be the Mariners’ everyday first baseman.
There’s no doubt the Mariners need him to produce offensively, but they’re not about to sacrifice his greatest strength — an ability to play the field as well as the best first basemen in the majors.
“Can you afford not to have that defense in there?” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said.
No need to answer. The Mariners are a team built around pitching and defense, and they seem willing to let the offense slide a little in order to guarantee they’ll catch the ball.
But at first base? A position where a big bat generally rules?
“There’s the generalization that you can put a truck driver over there if he can hit,” said Mariners bench coach Ty VanBurkleo, a former first baseman. “But how many World Series teams have you seen where there’s been a below-average first baseman? Not that many. You handle the ball more at first base than you do anywhere else besides catcher.
“I told Casey the other day that if he drives in 70 runs, it’s like driving in 100, 110 runs because of the runs he’s going to save us on defense. It’s really an important position.”
Few handle it better in the game than Kotchman.
“He reads hops well and he takes good angles,” VanBurkleo said. “The other day there was a ball down the line and instead of going straight across he dropped back to give him more range. He’s got a good feel for the ball, his footwork is good and I think he’s going to help a lot.”
In a lot of ways, Kotchman’s feel for the game was borne on summer days around the Class A ballfields of the Northwest League, including Everett Memorial Stadium.
His dad, Tom Kotchman, managed the Boise Hawks for 11 years and Casey spent summers traveling with the team and serving as the batboy.
“I was just hanging out playing cards, watching movies, going to sleep, whatever,” Casey said. “I was having a good time and I didn’t have a care in the world at seven years old.”
He watched players like Troy Percival, Garret Anderson and Jarrod Washburn begin their pro careers. At the same time, the grooming of Kotchman into a ballplayer was well underway, too, thanks to his dad.
“He worked with me then and he still does now,” Casey Kotchman said. “It just started off playing around in the yard with him and mom, throwing me a football or whatever, and I was diving around catching stuff. As I got a little older, he’d hit me fungos from third base, deep in the hole, short, second, all around the infield simulating throws. It would simulate wild throws in the dirt.
“It certainly helped a whole heck of a lot having all the repetition I had over there. You have to do that to stay fresh and crispen up your reactions. The more work you can do, the better off you are. I’ve been spoiled with him doing that for me.”
If there’s a team that fits a defensive-oriented first baseman like Kotchman, the Mariners are it.
Early in the offseason, when the Mariners signed Chone Figgins, traded for Cliff Lee, Milton Bradley and Brandon League, Kotchman couldn’t help but be impressed.
At the time he was a member of the Boston Red Sox.
“It looked like there was some excitement over here,” Kotchman said. “Then in the offseason when they started making moves, I was at home watching all these things take place and I was like, ‘Man, those guys are getting after it. Cliff Lee, Figgins ...’”
On Jan. 7, the Mariners grabbed Kotchman from the Red Sox, sending utility player Bill Hall and a player to be named later to Boston.
“January comes around and my name’s in that trade and I’m like, ‘Wow! All right! Cool!’” Kotchman said.
It not only brought him to a team that values his defense and has faith that he can contribute offensively, it reunited him with familiar faces. VanBurkleo has known Kotchman since he was 3, Wakamatsu was a minor league instructor with the Angels when he played there, and Figgins has been a longtime friend.
“There’s a comfort zone and they’re bringing an environment that’s fun and energetic,” Kotchman said. “It’s kind of like what you think baseball is. They’re letting everybody kind of be themselves. There’s Junior and Ichiro and Mike Sweeney. Then you have Wakamatsu and Ty VanBurkleo who are letting these guys do their thing. It’s a positive environment and it just trickles down.”
But will he hit? VanBurkleo believes he will.
“I’ve asked a lot of veteran players how long it took before they felt really comfortable, and it’s a couple of years for that to happen,” VanBurkleo said. “Being here in this environment should be good for Casey. I think he’s going to finally feel like he can relax, be comfortable and not feel under the gun.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog
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