While Seattle is alternating between snow and sun, the Mariners are already a few weeks into spring training in Peoria, Arizona. Talking to people and reading different thoughts about this year’s team, it seems there are two predominant reactions. For those who are fans but don’t necessarily get deep into following the team, there’s a lack of knowledge and sometimes interest. And who can really blame them? If you don’t care that much about the offseason stuff, the onfield play has given no reason for hope. These people also tend to blame almost everything on Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln, but that’s a different issue.
The second reaction is that even the people who know this team well aren’t sure what to expect. Part of that is natural, as the Mariners have a lot of guys who could rebound significantly, as well as a plethora of young players who could improve dramatically. None of that is certain, though, so outside of Felix, this is a tough team to predict. I think another factor in the uncertainty is that this is a team unlike any Mariners fans have seen in some time. It’s legitimately build on solid young talent. There are some veterans, but they’re either young, like Felix, or will not likely be here long, like Ichiro and Miguel Olivo. The core of this team is young. The last time I remember that being the case is probably back in the early and mid 90’s. They’ve had quality prospects since then, although many haven’t panned out, but those kids were joining veteran-dominated teams.
Now the focus is squarely on the Ackleys and Smoaks and Monteros, and it’s a little hard to know what to expect. This year should start to indicate who will be part of the team longterm and who won’t cut it, but until then, there is plenty of room for knowledgeable fans to disagree on what to expect in 2012. Young teams are unpredictable, and most of us haven’t watched one on a daily basis in a long time.
Just for fun and as a general catchup for those who haven’t been paying a lot of attention to spring training, here’s a little fake Q & A post. If you have real questions, put them in the comments and we’ll give you any thoughts we have. People’s real questions would be more fun to answer than these ones I’m making up!
Any big stories so far?
The biggest has probably been Franklin Gutierrez. This was good at first, as he reported in great shape and seemingly fully recovered from his GI issues of last season. All anyone could talk about was how great he looked, and then he went and hit a homer off Felix in an early intrasquad game. Unfortunately, a couple of days later he tore a pectoral muscle, which sounds terrible, and he will be out at least 4 weeks before he does anything baseball related. Don’t expect him back before May. In fact, if you want to be safe, don’t expect him back at all. He should come back at some point, but given his recent struggles, it seems smarter to just keep the hopes as low as possible and then get excited if he suddenly does return and play well.
Who plays center while he’s out?
What seemed to be a pretty set line-up now has a clear hole, with a genuine battle to fill it. Casper Wells and Michael Saunders have to be considered the front runners right now. Chone Figgins has been getting some innings there as well, and there are a couple of guys with outside shots, like Trayvon Robinson and Darren Ford.
So you’re saying center is going to be the worst spot in the lineup again?
Well, that could well be true, but there’s reason for optimism. Casper, freed from his struggles against vertigo, could quite easily be a better than average bat in center. Honestly, I feel better about his bat than Guti’s, although it’s still no sure thing. His glove is a bit of a question, but he should at least be passable defensively. Saunders is probably the best defensive option. He’s also retooled his swing again, but this time it sounds like it might actually help. Reports from Arizona are positive, and he’s had decent results thus far, not that that means a lot. All of the centerfield options could fail, but I think there’s a little more to be hopeful about than just the names would indicate. If I had to guess, I’m betting we see a platoon of Wells and Saunders, with Figgins getting occasional starts if he’s getting on base at all.
Speaking of Figgins, he’s now batting leadoff with Ichiro at third? What’s the deal?
If you’re thinking this is a last ditch effort to get Figgins to do anything, you’re probably right. And really, there’s nothing wrong with that. Hearing his comments this spring, he certainly sounds more focused and excited to be playing baseball. He’s put his attention back on getting on base, which means lots of walks. My question is whether he can hit enough to keep pitchers from just throwing fastballs down the middle. Ichiro to third is even more interesting, compounded by the fact that he retooled his swing significantly. Seattle Sports Insider had a really good series of posts on him. I’m hopeful about the whole thing, moreso about Ichi, but like seemingly everything about this team, it could fail completely.
Who are all these young guys I’m reading about?
As I said above, the focus is on the young guys, and none more so than the future starting rotation of death. Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are possibly the best trio of starting pitching prospects for any team in baseball. Hultzen and Paxton, both lefties, should probably see Seattle this year, with the outside chance one of them is in the opening day rotation. Neither seems to be blowing people away and forcing the issue the way Pineda did last year, but there’s still time. Walker is a righty and even more highly regarded, but he’s also a little further away. Expect him to start the year in double-A, but if he continues to progress, he has the kind of nuclear stuff that could get him to the bigs in a hurry. He probably sees Seattle in 2013; don’t be surprised if he’s the top pitching prospect in baseball this time next year.
What about hitters? We need hitters!
Vinnie Catricala is turning some heads. The third baseman/outfielder ripped through the minors last year and hasn’t stopped in spring training. The Cat has the best bat in the system, but defense is a question. He’s been a third baseman, but not a good one. It sounded like they’d stick him in left this spring, but then they decided to get a better look at him at third. Who knows what will happen, but I’d bet he’s playing somewhere in Seattle before the year’s over. There’s also that Jesus Montero guy. It’s easy to forget that he’s still a rookie with all the talk he’s generated over the past few years. He’s done nothing this spring to make people think his bat is overrated.
Can he catch?
I don’t think we have any new information here. Reports from the pitchers he’s catching are favorable, but that could mean anything. Popular consensus is he’ll catch 30-50 games and DH the rest this year, and then the team will decide where to go with him after that, when Miguel Olivo’s not around. I’d say don’t worry about the catching thing and just enjoy the bat.
Who’s in the rotation?
Not sure, except for Felix and Vargas. Hector Noesi is looking good. He threw mid-90’s in his last start. If he has any control, expect him to be in there. The quick rundown on the other candidates: Iwakuma has looked mediocre; I can’t remember reading anything about Millwood; Blake Beavan threw well today considering he is Blake Beavan; Charlie Furbush is still Charlie Furbush. I don’t know what’s going to happen here. At least there are plenty of options, and Anthony Vazquez isn’t one of them.
Anyone else making a mark or worth paying attention to?
Uh, Kyle Seager is killing the ball. Carlos Guillen just retired, which probably puts Seager on the roster. Smoak is in great shape and hopefully in for a happier year, at least. Rookie local boy Forrest Snow looks like he might make a surprise jump into the bullpen. Munenori Kawasaki is apparently Brendan Ryan’s Japanese twin. They’re both good-fielding shortstops who can’t hit and never stop talking. I heard one player say that he never understands Kawasaki because he alternates between Japanese, English and the Spanish he’s learning. Adam Moore (remember him?) has actually looked decent. He’s not likely to make the club, but it would be nice if he could come back, both for him and for the team’s catching depth.
What are you doing at 3:10 AM on Wednesday, March 28th?
Watching the Mariners! If you missed it, the Mariners start the season in Japan against Oakland for two games. Then they return home for a few more spring training games before playing their USA opener in Oakland on April 6th. The home opener is against Oakland on April 13th. We don’t play anyone except Oakland this year. It’s a new thing they’re trying.
I have to go bed, so hopefully that keeps you reading for a while. Again, I’d love to hear your questions in the comments. It should be a fun season. The playoffs are a long shot, but they should get close to .500 and there are a lot of interesting players on this team. Believe Big!