By John Boyle Herald Columnist
SEATTLE — Mariners manager Eric Wedge has plenty of challenges to deal with this season.
He’s trying to figure out how to spark young players like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak. He’s trying to figure out a pitching rotation that can be at least manageable, if not good, all the way through the fifth spot. Most importantly, he’s trying to establish a winning culture in a franchise that is now more than a decade removed from its last playoff berth.
Few early-season challenges for Wedge are trickier, however, than the dilemma he faces with center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. In Gutierrez, Wedge has one of baseball’s best defensive outfielders, one of his team’s most productive bats, and a veteran presence who can help the youngsters on the team.
In Gutierrez, Wedge also has a player that he knows he has to manage very carefully, especially early in the season, because for all of Gutierrez’s positives, there is that one giant elephant in the room. Say it all together now — Franklin Gutierrez can really help the Mariners. … IF he stays healthy.
During the past two seasons, Gutierrez has missed large chunks of time because of: a torn pectoral muscle suffered while throwing in spring training, a concussion suffered on a pickoff throw to first base, an oblique strain from swinging and even because of irritable bowel syndrome. In all, ailment and injury limited Gutierrez to just 132 games the past two seasons. It would be easy to call Gutierrez injury-prone, but these incidents are so random, so unrelated, that it feels more like incredibly bad luck than fragility.
Either way, Wedge is going to be careful, especially early in the season, which is why you’ve seen Gutierrez get fairly regular days off up to now, and will continue to see that even with Michael Saunders, the next best option at center field, now on the 15-day disabled list.
“It’s just watching him play. It’s having conversations,” Wedge said. “I do feel like he’s moving around better, he’s getting better. I think we’re on a good path right now. I don’t want to get complacent with him. I want to make sure we take care of him. It’s evident we’re a better ballclub when he’s in the lineup, but as you guys have seen, he hasn’t done a lot in the last 21/2 years, so we just want to be smart with it.”
Gutierrez, like any player, wants to be on the field, but he also understands where his manager is coming from. Gutierrez feels good, he’s playing well, and he says, “I’m not thinking about the past at all.” Still, he also knows Wedge is looking at the big picture when it comes to both Gutierrez’s health and the future of the team, two things that are very much tied together.
“We’re on the same page,” Gutierrez said. “He knows what he’s doing and I’m fine with it. I’m feeling good, and that’s the only thing that matters right now. We’re a team, and we have other people who can do the job, too, so I’m not worried about it at all.
When people pointed to reasons for optimism for the 2013 Mariners, the most common threads of hope were the new veteran bats (Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez) and the presumed growth of the team’s young nucleus. What almost nobody brought up, because nobody wants to have their hopes dashed by another injury, is the fact that Gutierrez, IF healthy, could be one of the Mariners’ biggest additions even though he’s been here for years.
“He’s been productive for a while when he’s healthy, but he just hasn’t been able to stay healthy,” Wedge said. “We know he’s a heck of an all-around ballplayer. That’s such a big boost for us.”
So a simple plea, be it to Gutierrez, or the baseball gods: please stay healthy this season. Baseball is simply more fun with player like Gutierrez. Leadoff hitters who have some pop in their bat and speed on the bases, those are fun players to watch. And few plays in baseball are more thrilling than watching a center fielder track a line drive in the gap, then having that will-he-get-there moment answered by a diving catch like the one Gutierrez made in Monday’s home opener.
“He just gets jumps on balls like most people don’t, and he puts himself in position to make great plays like that,” Wedge said. “He doesn’t have any fear out there.”
Yet you almost want him to have some fear. This town has been spoiled by great center-field play, from Ken Griffey Jr. to Mike Cameron to Gutierrez. Yet for as thrilling as those players were and are, there is always that fear of a shattered wrist from crashing into the outfield wall, or a shoulder or wrist injury from landing awkwardly on a dive.
You hold your breath every time Gutierrez dives, or leaps into the wall like he did Thursday night, but those plays are also what make him so fun to watch, and so valuable to the Mariners. It’s the conundrum Wedge is dealing with, and one he and Mariners fans hope end with Gutierrez playing 140 or so games this season.
For his part, Gutierrez has no plans to change his play, but he also recognizes that his manager has his best interest in mind when he’s left on the bench. However things play out, Gutierrez is just happy, after two lost seasons, to be a big part of the Mariners once again.
“I’m always trying to help the team out any way I can, and that’s what I’m trying do right now,” he said. “I’m trying to be there every day. I’m really happy.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.