The Mariners go into the season missing the element that drives most American League teams — bona-fide power. There’s not a 30-home run hitter in the bunch.
But, while the Mariners would love a masher in the middle of the lineup, they believe there’s scoring potential in what they do have. They’ll field a lineup based on speed, quality at-bats and on-base percentage.
That’s the idea, at least. It didn’t manifest itself at spring training, where the Mariners ranked among the bottom of the 30 major league teams in runs. But the Mariners have faith that the tandem of Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins at the top of the lineup will set up opportunities for the gap-hitting potential in the middle with newcomers Casey Kotchman and Milton Bradley, plus returning hitters Ken Griffey Jr., Jose Lopez and Franklin Gutierrez.
“When they’re on base, they apply pressure,” hitting coach Alan Cockrell said. “That fits best for our ballpark, it really does. It’s a ballpark that’s not conducive to a whole lot of balls leaving and if we can keep guys on the bases and keep putting pressure on the basepaths, that’s good for us.”
1. Ichiro Suzuki
There’s no reason to think Suzuki will produce anything less than another 200-hit season. And, if spring training is an indication, he’ll have more opportunities to run with Chone Figgins working long at-bats behind him.
Suzuki’s game hasn’t changed since he came to the Mariners in 2001. Batting from the left side, he’ll slap the ball to all fields, use his speed to beat out infield hits and turn on a pitch with home-run power when it’s needed.
2. Chone Figgins
The Mariners say they essentially have two leadoff hitters with Suzuki and Figgins at the top of the order. But more important, they finally have a No. 2 hitter who will work a count and provide opportunities for Suzuki to steal bases or for the M’s to apply pressure with the hit-and-run. Nobody looked at more pitches at spring training than Figgins, a switch hitter, and the Mariners believe his high on-base percentage will have a positive effect on other players. Then there is Figgins’ speed on the bases, which should force opposing teams into mistakes.
The Mariners acquired Kotchman for his Gold Glove-quality defense, but they believe he’ll be much more than an all-field, light-hitting first baseman. They’re confident enough in Kotchcman’s left-handed bat that he’ll hit third in the lineup against right-handed pitching and probably drop to seventh against left-handers (with Franklin Gutierrez moving up to third). Kotchman has averaged 12 homers and 73 RBI in his six big-league seasons, and all but a quarter of his at-bats have come against right-handed pitching. The Mariners have no plans for a platoon, believing his smooth glove may save as many runs as he’ll produce with his bat.
He’s controversial and mercurial but, as Mariners bench coach Ty VanBurkleo said of the player he knows well from their time together with the A’s, “Milton can flat hit.” Bradley is a career .277 hitter with a .371 on-base percentage and a .450 slugging percentage and, while he has never hit more than 22 home runs in a season, the Mariners believe the switch hitter can be a run-producer in the middle of the lineup with Suzuki and Figgins on base ahead of him. The key for Bradley is to remain healthy; he hasn’t played more than 126 games since 2004.
Ken Griffey Jr.
He’s 40 years old and coming off a season that made a lot of people wonder why he didn’t retire at 39. But Griffey’s positive impact in the clubhouse last year was immeasurable and he comes back with a chance to do more — namely, hit. Griffey’s left knee bothered him most of last season, when he batted .214 with 19 home runs and 57 RBI, but he came to spring training with much greater mobility after having a bone spur removed early in the offseason. It didn’t translate into a good spring average (.157) and there were concerns early when he showed little power. In the final 10 days of camp, however, Griffey did drive the ball, including a grand slam against Reds veteran Kip Wells to win a game. Griffey, a left-handed hitter, likely will play in a DH platoon with right-handed-hitting Mike Sweeney.
Lopez has home run and RBI potential, but he soured the Mariners last year with his low on-base percentage (.303) on a team that values that as much as anything in a hitter. This year, the Mariners have surrounded Lopez with high on-base men and they believe those hitters will have a positive effect on his at-bats. If not, the Mariners will be able to live with it better this year, knowing his right-handed bat is capable of 25 HRs and 100 RBI.
Gutierrez emerged not only as a center fielder capable of handling the defensive challenges of Safeco Field, he had a breakout season as a hitter with a career-best .283 average, 18 home runs, 70 RBI and a .339 on-base percentage. He struck out 122 times, a concern especially if the Mariners stick with their plan to flip him in the order with Casey Kotchman and bat the right-handed-hitting Gutierrez third against left-handed starters.
Johnson was one of the most-watched Mariners at spring training because of offseason surgery on both hips. The Mariners brought him through spring training carefully to make sure he’s ready for the rigors of catching by the season opener. Despite some soreness, Johnson recovered well, not only behind the plate but as a hitter. The freedom in his hips allowed him to get through the ball better than at any time last year, and he not only was more comfortable as a hitter, he ran the bases well. Johnson, a right-handed hitter, and Adam Moore go into the season sharing the catching duties, and Moore probably will bat eighth as well.
The Mariners never saw the best of Wilson after they acquired him from the Pirates last July. Hamstring problems and then a bruised heel nullified what he could do both defensively and offensively. At his best, Wilson, a right-handed hitter, can hit for reasonable average and on-base percentage, although he may be challenged with the adjustment to American League pitching after spending eight years in the NL before the trade.