PEORIA, Ariz. – If you are trying to figure out the Mariners’ day-to-day starting lineup for the 2014 season, you can write Justin Smoak’s name in at first base … in pen.
Monday morning, manager Lloyd McClendon was discussing the ongoing competition for a number of spots open on his 25-man roster. With so many up for grabs, McClendon was asked, “Who does have a spot locked up?”
The first few names on McClendon’s short list were predictable. Everyone knows that Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager have nothing to worry about. Mike Zunino is the catcher of the future, but the next name might have caught a few people by surprise.
“The No. 3 hitter, Cano, and the No. 1 starter, Felix,” he said. “Our third baseman is Seager. My catcher is Zunino, and my first baseman is Smoak.”
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That’s it. That’s the list.
It wasn’t that long ago at the winter meetings that McClendon said Smoak was the team’s starting first baseman. But the team signed free agent Corey Hart and traded for outfielder Logan Morrison after that statement. So it was assumed there would be some competition at the position. Apparently not.
“I said this winter that Smoak was my first baseman,” he reminded people. “Will other guys play first? Yeah. But Smoak is my first baseman.”
Smoak didn’t seem surprised by the vote of confidence. Earlier this spring, he said it was his job to lose and he had no intentions of losing it. It was similar to what he said last spring when the team brought in Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales.
“It’s almost the same thing,” he said.
As he did last year, he won the job.
“I had a couple of talks with (McClendon) over the winter,” Smoak said. “I knew that if I just came out here and do what I’m capable of doing and work hard, then I had no worries.”
Still, Smoak knows he’s capable of more, particularly at the plate. Last season, he hit .238 with 19 doubles, 20 homers and 50 runs batted in, while posting a .334 on-base percentage and a .412 slugging percentage. Admittedly, there is room for improvement.
“I know I’m capable of doing it,” he said.
McClendon said he believes it can happen with a change of approach. Gone are the day of envisioning Smoak as someone who hits 35 homers.
“We’re just trying to get him to be a good hitter, not a power hitter,” McClendon said.
“For me, Smoak is a guy who should hit 40-45 doubles and 20-25 home runs. Not the other way around. He can still be productive. He’s tried to put the cart before the horse.”
Smoak has embraced what McClendon has preached.
“I feel I have a different mentality at the plate than I had in the past,” he said. “I’m just trying not to do too much. That’s his whole point. You can’t go up there and try to hit home runs. You have to hit it where it’s pitched.”
Pryor, Walker progressing
Two pitchers who could really help the Mariners this season are making steady progress in their recoveries from injuries.
Reliever Stephen Pryor threw a 35-pitch live batting practice session Monday.
“He looked great,” pitching coach Rick Waits said. “He was pretty encouraged. But he’s going to have to do this a few times to get his stuff right.”
Pryor is recovering from surgery to repair a torn latissmus dorsi. It’s been a long process coming back with the team being very careful because of the rarity of the injury. Pryor and Jake Peavy are the only baseball players to have had the surgery. But all signs indicate he’s progressing.
“I don’t think it’s going to take long for him to feel good and possibly get him back into (spring training) games,” Waits said. “But it’s a matter of getting his stuff back to major league level stuff.”
Taijuan Walker played long toss from over 120 feet Sunday. It was another step for the young fireballer’s recovery from bursitis in his shoulder.
“He threw the ball extremely well — no pain whatsoever — and he’s got a smile on his face, so that’s a good thing,” McClendon said. “I feel real good about where he is.”
Waits said Walker won’t throw a bullpen session for another week or so.
“He needs to get distance, maybe 180 to 200 feet or more and just fastballs,” Waits said. “I don’t want to say it’s going to take a long time, but I don’t think anyone should expect to think he’ll be pitching in a game in the next few weeks. Maybe toward the end of this month or next month.”
• The Mariners were a split squad Monday with a day-night doubleheader. In Peoria, they were drubbed 8-2 by the Royals. Besides Robinson Cano’s 3-for-3 day, the Mariners did little against Royals’ ace James Shields. Brandon Maurer didn’t make it out of the third inning in his second start of the spring. Maurer admitted he was fatigued by the end. He gave up four runs on four hits with a strikeout.
• After a game earlier in the day, there was no way McClendon was having his team play extra innings at night. The Mariners’ nightcap against the Diamondbacks ended in a 3-3 tie after nine innings. James Paxton pitched four innings, giving up one run on five hits with two strikeouts. Stefen Romero and Brad Miller had two hits each for the Mariners.
Ryan Divish: 206-464-2373 or email@example.com.