By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer
PEORIA, Ariz. — A year ago when the Seattle Mariners began spring training after a winter of roster changes that still didn’t cleanse the bad taste of a 101-loss season, general manager Jack Zduriencik had a bold proclamation.
“We’re not conceding anything,” said Zduriencik, who wasn’t about to consider the 2009 season a lost cause before it even started.
It wasn’t. The Mariners won 85 games to become one of 13 teams in major league history to have a winning season after losing at least 100 games.
Since then, Zduriencik has made the Mariners the talk of baseball this offseason and, in some people’s minds, serious contenders to unseat the L.A. Angels in the American League West Division. He acquired former Cy Young-winning pitcher Cliff Lee, All-Star third baseman Chone Figgins, promising young relief pitcher Brandon League, controversial outfielder Milton Bradley and first baseman Casey Kotchman.
But, with the Mariners’ 2010 spring training camp beginning Wednesday when pitchers and catchers report, Zduriencik downplays all the high hopes.
“At this moment, we haven’t proven anything,” he said.
The Mariners haven’t.
But they’re in a much better position to compete in the division after improvements to the pitching staff and defense, plus a few tweaks to the offense.
“It’s nice to have had a successful winter, if you will, but as I look at it, we are still the third-best club in our division and it will be very, very competitive,” Zduriencik said.
That explains his busy offseason.
Since October, Zduriencik has traded away six players and let five others leave to free agency, replacing them with six free-agent signings and four acquired by trade.
“Clubs have done things to make themselves better,” Zduriencik said. “We were challenged in some areas of our game last year and I think we have improved ourselves in some of those areas.”
But there are questions in other areas that six weeks of spring training may help answer.
Besides Felix Hernandez and Lee, who are considered baseball’s best 1-2 combination of starting pitchers, who’s behind them in the rotation that the Mariners can count on?
Left-hander Erik Bedard, who had labrum shoulder surgery in August, won’t pitch again until May at the earliest. And, while Bedard would give the Mariners a dangerous 1-2-3 grouping later in the season, there’s no guarantee because many pitchers have never recovered from labrum surgery.
That puts left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith in line for a key spot in the middle of the rotation, even though he has only 27 career starts in the big leagues.
The Mariners believe right-hander Ian Snell has a promising future even though he struggled through personal problems and a falling-out with the Pirates. After the Mariners acquired Snell in a midseason trade last year, he went 5-2 in 12 starts that were marked with stellar pitching but also inconsistency.
“He continued to make progress in August and September and he has done a lot this offseason,” pitching coach Rick Adair said. “We have talked probably eight or 10 times, if not more. He’s excited. He’s prepared. One thing he has gotten better at is his preparation, the routine and structure that goes into his preparation.”
The fifth spot could be determined by a spring training competition involving right-hander Doug Fister and left-handers Jason Vargas, Garrett Olson and Luke French.
There’s also no certainty in the catching.
Rob Johnson, who started most of the games last year, is coming back from surgery to both hips. He says he feels better now than he has in years, although the Mariners will be careful with his spring training workload.
Adam Moore played six games last September and is the most impressive of the Mariners’ catching prospects, but he’ll have competition for the backup spot from veterans Josh Bard and Eliezer Alfonzo, both non-roster invitees to spring training.
When position players join the workouts on Feb. 23, the Mariners will start addressing another set of questions. Will Figgins’ speed and Bradley’s on-base percentage be enough to revive an offense that finished last in the AL in runs? Will Bradley, whose career has been marked with controversy and conflict, remain a good citizen and a productive player? Can Ken Griffey Jr., who batted .214 last year, become as important to the offense as he is to clubhouse chemistry?
The good thing is that no team in the AL West goes into spring training without concerns. Not that the Mariners are concerned with what the rest of the West has done.
“Not to be old hat, but we have to worry about what we can do,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “That’s going to be our MO in spring training. I don’t have control over the Anaheim Angels. They’re going to be a good club. Oakland is going to be strong and maturing. Texas has made some good moves to bolster their bullpen and they got a big bat.
“That’s not what our focus is going to be. It’s going to be every player on our team trying to have a career year. The critical thing is we are continuing down the right path. Are we getting better every day? I’m not going to look at the end of the rainbow until we get there.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog
Long before he walks into the Peoria Sports Complex to meet his new teammates, Bradley’s reputation as a confrontational hot-head will precede him. Unfair? Perhaps. But if there’s a player who’ll be watched more closely than Ichiro by the Japanese media, it’ll be Bradley by everyone else just to see if he’ll snap. Chances are they’ll be watching a long time, because Bradley typically hasn’t had problems with teams and teammates that played hard with a mission to win. That’s a pretty good description of the 2010 Mariners.
Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey returns for what likely will be his final season (didn’t a lot of people think that last year?). There’s no question about Griffey’s positive influence in the clubhouse and in the hearts of fans, but his impact to the Mariners’ offense will be one of the team’s big uncertainties. Knee problems hampered him last year, but Griffey had surgery to remove bone spurs and promised trainers he would arrive at spring training lighter and leaner. They would love to see that, along with consistent pop in his bat.
Johnson is determined to prove he is ready for fulltime catching duty when camp begins despite surgery early in the offseason to repair cartilage damage in both hips, plus his left wrist. Johnson says he feels great now, but the Mariners will monitor his aches and pains throughout spring training to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy when they need him most _ for the start of the season.
Fans will watch Lee closely because he comprises the second half of what’s being described as baseball’s best 1-2 pitching tandem with Felix Hernandez. But nobody should dwell on Lee’s spring training statistics, whether good or bad, because they rarely indicate the type of season he’ll have. Lee, for example, went 0-3 with a 12.46 ERA in six exhibition starts last year before going 14-13, 3.22 and leading the Phillies to the World Series.
The Mariners continue to have high hopes for the 23-year-old left fielder, even though he looked overmatched in 122 big-league at-bats last year and goes into spring training competing for a backup job in the outfield. Hitting coach Alan Cockrell worked with Saunders after last season, and his numbers improved in 85 at-bats for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League, where he batted .353 with a .421 on-base percentage and two home runs. Unless Saunders has such a great spring that he’ll steal the left-field starting job from Milton Bradley, he’ll probably start the season at Class AAA Tacoma where he’ll benefit from regular at-bats.