By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Nothing is set, of course; evaluations are ongoing and the season opener is more than six weeks away. But the Mariners’ outfield puzzle already seems to be sorting itself out.
Manager Lloyd McClendon makes it increasingly clear that newcomer Corey Hart, if his knees hold up, will be the right fielder, and Dustin Ackley seems ticketed for duty as the primary left fielder.
Ackley ended last season as the club’s center fielder but is unlikely to draw that duty again.
“I doubt it,” McClendon said. “He’ll probably be in left field for the majority of the time.”
“Because,” McClendon said, “that’s where I want him.”
And center field?
“We’ll see how it plays out,” McClendon said. “Ideally, you’d like to have an everyday guy out there.”
The leading candidates are Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte. Both could make the roster because each has the ability to play all three outfield positions.
McClendon cites rookie Stefen Romero as “a guy who can move all over, too.”
Romero was primarily a second baseman until last year, when he became primarily an outfielder at Class AAA Tacoma.
Two offseason additions, Logan Morrison and Willie Bloomquist, provide depth. Both also offer offensive balance — Morrison is a left-handed hitter and Bloomquist is a right-handed hitter.
Morrison is viewed primarily as a first baseman/designated hitter, in part because he, too, has a history of knee problems, though he played 240 games in left field for Miami from 2010-12.
Interestingly, McClendon said Morrison will probably get some time “in left field and right field.” Morrison has never played right field in eight professional seasons.
Bloomquist’s resume shows 329 career outfield appearances over 12 big-league seasons — and it’s a fairly even split: 101 in left field, 124 in center and 119 in right. Most of those, however, came early in his career. He played just nine games in the outfield over the past two seasons, all in left field except for one two-inning appearance in right field in 2012.
“That’s something I need to be ready for,” Bloomquist acknowledged. “I could find myself spending a lot more time in the outfield than I expected.”
Much depends on Hart’s ability to play regularly in right field after missing all of last season while recovering from surgeries on both knees.
“I feel good,” he said. “As the spring goes along, I’ll be able to see how much I can do.”
The Mariners continue to take a go-slow approach; Hart isn’t yet participating fully in all drills.
“He’s doing exactly what we want him to do,” McClendon said. “So I don’t consider him limited. We’ve got to be smart about what we do with him. He’s coming off two surgeries.
“He’s moving great. He can sprint well. Being a big guy, he’s a little tender moving side to side. But as we progress, he’ll get better as well.”
And if that happens?
“He’s the right fielder,” McClendon said. “Ideally, we’d like to have Hart in right and keep him there.”
Ackley blossomed last season as an outfielder after losing his starting job at second base. He batted .285 with a .354 on-base percentage in 68 games after returning in late June from a month-long tutorial at Tacoma. Advanced defensive metrics suggest Ackley will be a better fit in left, where his speed and range will be an asset and his suspect arm will be less of a factor.