By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
A year ago it didn’t seem as though Michael Saunders was going to make the Seattle Mariners roster coming out of spring training. This season, Saunders might be the only outfielder that reports to spring training with a guaranteed spot in the lineup.
Yes, the Mariners have nine outfielders invited to spring training. And there’s a decent idea as to which four or five they may keep. But how it will all play out is far from certain.
There are legitimate questions:
Can the Mariners truly expect Franklin Gutierrez to be their everyday center fielder based on his recent injury history?
Can Michael Morse play left field at decent of enough level to not to be a complete burden defensively?
Will Jason Bay resurrect his career now that he’s out of New York?
How much will Raul Ibanez play?
What’s to become of Casper Wells?
But Mariners manager Eric Wedge knows those kinds of questions have a way of answering themselves throughout spring training.
“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, the guy seemingly without a spot in spring, starting the most at 133 games.
It was a minor breakthrough season for him. After serious swing adjustments, he hit .247 with 19 homers and 57 RBI. They are far from monster numbers, but they represent success that Saunders simply hadn’t had at the big-league level.
He started games at every outfield position. Defensively, he is above average at all of them.
The main reason why Saunders made the team and played so much last season was Gutierrez’s seemingly annual stint on the disabled list. The talented center fielder suffered a torn pectoral muscle during spring training and started the season on the disabled list. He missed the first 63 games of the season with the injury.
Upon his return, Gutierrez played just 13 games before he was hit in the helmet on a pickoff throw and suffered a concussion.
He would miss 50 more games because of the effects of the concussion.
Gutierrez did return and played 27 games to end the season, but really it was a loss.
“It was frustrating,” he said.
In the past two seasons, he’s played in 132 of the Mariners’ 324 games.
After the trade of right fielder Ichiro Suzuki at midseason, Seattle started an array of young outfielders hoping to find an everyday player, but none really distinguished themselves.
Wells, who is accomplished defensively, started 67 games, but never could hit with the consistency that Wedge expected, striking out 80 times in 285 at-bats doesn’t help you.
Trayvon Robinson, who was traded to the Orioles, started 39 games, but his lack of a throwing arm and his propensity for strikeouts limited his playing time.
Eric Thames, who was acquired at midseason, started 32 games and showed some power with the bat, but still had several shortcomings defensively.
Heading into this season, the Mariners simply couldn’t go with the outfielders returning from last season. They tried to sign free agent Josh Hamilton and came up short. They traded for the Diamondbacks’ Justin Upton and he vetoed the deal with his no-trade clause. So instead of going with top-shelf talent, the Mariners had to go in a different direction.
“It’s always disappointing when things don’t work out like you hoped,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “But you have to go in with your eyes wide open.
They traded for Morse, who was a man without a starting position in Washington.
Morse can hit. That’s never been a question. Morse hit .291 (118-for-406) with 17 doubles, 18 home runs and 62 RBI in 102 games for the Washington Nationals last season. But the question is whether he will be the everyday left fielder for the Mariners.
“I can handle it defensively,” he said. “It’s not a problem.”
At 6-5, 250 pounds, Morse isn’t a gazelle in the outfield. He won’t always look like a natural out there. 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 in left field if Morse can hit up to his capabilities.
The Mariners also signed a pair of veterans to one-year contracts in Bay and Ibanez.
Bay is coming off of an awful, unproductive and injury-riddled three-year run with the New York Mets. In three seasons, he played in 288 games for the club. He had 1,125 plate appearances, and hit .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, who signed Bay to a $66 million deal in 2010, released the outfielder after reaching an agreement to terminate his contract two years early.
Bay signed a one-year, $1 million deal this season with Seattle, trying to find a second life to his career. It seems unlikely that he will ever regain the 2009 form — a .267 batting average, 36 home runs, 119 RBI — that got him the big contract with the Mets. But the Mariners are willing to give him a chance to try in spring training. It’s a low-risk, possibly decent reward.
“It will be interesting to see what happens,” 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.”
Ibanez was brought in for who he is as teammate as much as what he could do on the field. Citing a need for leadership, the Mariners brought back Ibanez to be a presence in the clubhouse and a left-handed bat off the bench.
“You can make an argument that Raul Ibanez 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,” Wedge said. “But then beyond that, the intangibles he brings as a guy who has been part of championship clubs and really done everything in the game. It just looks to me as this guy has as much value in that role as anybody.
Wedge has said that Ibanez may see a few games in left field. Last season, Ibanez hit .240 with 19 homers and 62 RBI playing in 130 games for the Yankees. Because of injuries, Ibanez played in 72 games in left field. He was never known as an outstanding defensive player, and at age 40, he’s regressed even more. But Wedge believes he can play a game a week there if needed.
Morse, Bay and Ibanez will vie for time in left field, with Gutierrez penciled in as the starter in center field 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.
Thames has a Class AAA option left and will likely head back to the Tacoma Rainiers. That leaves Wells, who has plenty of value defensively. He can play all three outfield spots at an above-average level. He would be a perfect fourth outfielder to serve as a late-inning defensive replacement. But could a bloated roster with Ibanez and Bay leave Wells on the outside looking in? He doesn’t have any Class AAA options remaining. So the team would have to risk losing him on waivers if they designate him for assignment if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training.
The Mariners aren’t exactly bustling 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 play some left field. 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 also start some games in left field after spending most of last year at second base. Beyond that, the Mariners aren’t blessed with any young players that could come in and contribute over the next few seasons.