General manager Jerry Dipoto announced the signing of first baseman Gaby Sanchez to a minor league contract and discussed the competition for that back-up/platoon spot on the roster during the Mariners' pre-spring training media luncheon. Trainer Rick Griffin also offered medical updates on Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma.
Though most of the Mariners’ 25-man roster has been determined with more than three weeks before pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19, there will be some competition for a few of the final spots.
Perhaps the most intriguing will be the role of backup first baseman/right-handed hitter off the bench.
You can officially add a few more names to the competition.
On Thursday at the Mariners’ annual pre-spring training media luncheon, general manager Jerry Dipoto announced they had finalized a deal with veteran first baseman Gaby Sanchez with an invitation to spring training. Reports of the signing broke a few days earlier.
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“We look forward to watching him compete for that spot,” Dipoto said. “He was a 2011 All-Star in the National League.”
Sanchez, 32, spent last season playing in Japan for the Rakuten Eagles. He appeared in 66 games, hitting .226 with a .720 on-base plus slugging percentage, including 12 doubles, seven home runs and 18 RBI.
He played in the big leagues in 2014 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Sanchez appeared in 123 games and hit .229 with a .679 OPS, 18 doubles, seven homers and 33 RBI. In seven big-league seasons, Sanchez has played in 700 games and is a career .229 hitter with a .744 OPS. His best year came in 2011, when he hit .269 that season with a .779 OPS, including 35 doubles, 19 homers and 78 RBI.
Perhaps the more important numbers for Sanchez would be how he fares against left-handed pitching, because he would be in a platoon role with left-handed hitting Adam Lind, who will get the bulk of the at-bats. Sanchez is a career .291 hitter with an .863 OPS against lefties.
“It starts with Jesus Montero and now includes Gaby Sanchez, and we’ve talked about Stefen Romero as an internal candidate for a role on our club that could include some first base to take the load off Adam and benefit us from having a sixth outfielder,” Dipoto said.
The Mariners would love for Montero to harness his potential and be that right-handed bat with power. He also could serve as a designated hitter on occasion. Because he’s out of minor-league options, Montero would have to be on the opening-day roster or be designated for assignment, opening him up to waiver claims.
“I hope he comes in and tears it up and really wins the job,” manager Scott Servais said of Montero. “Somebody is going to win it. Why not him?”
Montero still has to prove he can be a legitimate big-league hitter and can capably handle playing first base.
“It’s open competition,” Servais said. “For Jesus, it’s having consistent at-bats. It’s a tough spot. You are talking about maybe 150-200 at-bats out of that right-handed platoon spot. But there’s going to be tough at-bats late in the game against tough left-handed pitchers with guys in scoring in position. You have to have a tough at-bat, and to do that you have to minimize the holes that pitchers can attack on you. “
Many scouts have pointed to holes in Montero’s swing — particularly with high-velocity inside fastballs. It’s why he’s able to hit Class AAA pitching so well — .355 with a .966 OPS in 98 games with Class AAA Tacoma last season — and struggle in the big leagues — .223 with a .661 OPS in 38 games.
“He knows that,” Servais said. “It’s also the defense. You can’t just run someone out there with the bat. You have to catch the ball in the field. Typically those games are tight late in the game where every out is important.”
Romero’s name being mentioned by Dipoto was somewhat surprising, but it shouldn’t have been.
He fits the role. He’s a right-handed hitter that can play first base and brings the added bonus of being adept at both corner-outfield positions.
Romero, 27, spent most of last season at Class AAA Tacoma. He hit .292 with an .897 OPS, 37 doubles, four triples, 17 homers and 79 RBI in 116 games with the Rainiers. Against left-handed pitching, Romero hit .304 with an .850 OPS.
In five minor-league seasons, Romero is a .306 hitter with an .869 OPS. But that success hasn’t translated to the big leagues in his spotty playing time. He has played in 85 major-league games and has hit 192 with a .549 OPS.
But his versatility and athleticism would be a bonus.
He’s the best base runner of the bunch and has played first, second and third base in the minor leagues as well as all three outfield positions. That versatility is something the Mariners covet.
And it might not just be a three-man competition. Ed Lucas will be in camp on a minor-league free-agent deal and has big-league experience. And with Dipoto, there always could be someone else.
“There’s also the possibility between now and spring training someone else might enter the fold,” he said with a sly smile.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Mariners’ pre-spring training luncheon is when head trainer Rick Griffin takes the podium. He provides medical updates of players who had offseason surgery or battled injuries at the end of the season.
*** Catcher Jesus Sucre suffered a broken right leg and severely sprained ankle while sliding into second base in a winter-league game in Venezuela a week ago. Sucre underwent surgery on the leg, with team orthopedist Dr. Edward Khalfayan performing the procedure.
“He’s here doing therapy and rehab here, but he’s going to miss a minimum of six months,” Griffin said.
*** Second baseman Robinson Cano has fully recovered from the double-hernia surgery he underwent a week after the season.
“He’s down in the Dominican Republic working out, running and throwing and didn’t have any issues,” Griffin said. “He’ll come into spring training ready, and we don’t anticipate any problems with that injury. “
Cano suffered the tear in his right abdominal wall July 28.
“The left tear was already there,” Griffin said. “He missed two or three games and then played the rest of the year.”
Over those final 58 games, Cano hit .328 with an .877 OPS, 10 doubles, 10 homers and 37 RBI.
Cano will compete in the Caribbean Series’ home-run derby Feb. 3.
*** Charlie Furbush has begun his offseason throwing program after missing the final 78 games of the season because of a minor rotator cuff tear and tendinitis in his left shoulder. He’s the Mariners’ best left-handed specialist in a reworked bullpen.
“He’s throwing from out to 90 feet for nine minutes,” Griffin said. “He has not thrown off the mound yet. We like our pitchers to throw a couple of bullpens before they get to spring training. Charlie probably will not throw a bullpen till we get down there. We want to be cautious to make sure everything is OK.”
Furbush lives in Seattle in the offseason and reported to Safeco Field for workouts on a daily basis.
*** When Andy Van Slyke went on his radio interview rant about Robinson Cano being the worst everyday player he’d ever seen in his career, he also mentioned that Felix Hernandez was pitching with a 25 percent tear of his ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow.
It led to panic for some Mariners’ fans.
“I don’t know the exact percent or if what he said was true,” Griffin said. “All pitchers, especially those who have thrown 2,000 innings, have some damage in their ligament. He has not missed a start because of his elbow in the entire time he’s been here with us. We do everything we can to keep him on the field. I don’t where that percent came from.”
*** If you are talking injuries, James Paxton’s name is almost always going to be brought up. The 6-foot-4 left-hander suffered a wrist injury falling during a workout in spring training last year and missed three months of the season because of a strained tendon in the middle finger on his pitching hand. He dealt with a torn nail on the same finger at the end of the season.
“I wish I would have taken a picture of it when he did it last year because he tore the nail off and it was almost down by the cuticle,” Griffin said. “Now there’s one small little white piece up by the tip. It’s completely grown out now. It hasn’t been an issue.”
Paxton, who lives in the area during the offseason, has been working out and throwing at Safeco. He was listed at 235 pounds last season but likely was closer to 250.
“He’s lost 20 pounds.,” Griffin said. “He’s moving much better and is much more athletic. His finger is fine, and his strained lat from two years ago is fine. He’s in a really good place and a good position to go into spring training and compete.”
*** Hisashi Iwakuma is back with the Mariners after a brief flirtation with the Dodgers. Iwakuma had agreed to three-year, $45 million contract with Los Angeles. But then issues with his physical arose, and the offer was rescinded.
Iwakuma had an exit physical following the 2015 season. The results were satisfactory to Griffin and the medical staff. He believes Iwakuma is healthy enough to compete.
“I’m 100 percent,” he said. “I don’t have any concerns, and neither does our orthopedist or our physician or we wouldn’t have brought him back. I don’t know what happened there. I don’t want to speculate, but I’m glad that he’s back here. We know his body … and we know what we need to do to keep him on the field.
Besides Sanchez, the Mariners announced that 14 others players not on the 40-man roster were invited to big-league spring training.
- RH Casey Coleman
- RH Blake Parker
- RH Donn Roach
- RH Adrian Sampson
- LH Paul Fry
- LH Danny Hultzen
- LH Brad Mills
- Marcus Littlewood
- Benji Gonzalez
- Ed Lucas
- Tyler Smith
- Gaby Sanchez
- Mike Baxter
- Dan Robertson
- Dario Pizzano
Of the group, only Hultzen, Fry, Sampson, Littlewood, Smith and Pizzano were with the Mariners last season.
Hultzen comes into spring training with a different role as a reliever. But based on his healthy history, the Mariners will be cautious moving forward.
Fry was the Mariners’ Minor League Reliever of the Year last season. A 17th-round pick in the 2013 draft out of St. Clair Community College, he made the jump up to Class A Bakersfield to start the season and pitched his way to Class AA Jackson. In 50 total appearances, Fry went 4-5 with a 2.03 ERA and nine saves. In 80 innings, he struck out 113 and walked 24.
“He kind of came out of nowhere last year,” assistant general manager Jeff Kingston said. “He has huge strikeout numbers. I was comparing his numbers the other day to Carter Capps, Steven Pryor and Carson Smith, who were about as dominant as you could be coming up here. His numbers were actually better than all of those guys.”
Sampson, a Redmond native, was acquired last season from the Pirates for pitcher J.A. Happ.
“He pounds the zone,” Kingston said. “His walk rate is one of the lowest ones we had in the minor leagues. He’s been durable and posted 28 games started the last couple of years in the minor leagues. He’s continuing to develop his changeup, and he has three pitches that he throws for strikes.”
Smith and Pizzano earned the invites thanks to their approach at the plate.
“Since we are keeping the camp smaller, some of these young hitters that we invited are ingrained in how they control the strike zone,” Kingston said. “It’s one of their biggest strengths. Tyler Smith has a career .370-plus on-base percentage. Pizzano has more career walks than strikeouts. He’s another .370 plus on-base percentage guy and a tough out. You are going to see us reward and emphasize the players that control the strike zone.”
Here’s the updated Cactus League schedule. Root Sports will televise 16 games live, and ESPN 710 will carry the live radio broadcast of 20 games and tape delay for 10 others. Mariners.com will have radio broadcasts of every Mariners Cactus League game.