How big of a factor will the World Baseball Classic play on the Mariners during spring training? Are Mitch Haniger and Dan Vogelbach ready to step into their roles? What will the windfall be of the newly-acquired speed in Seattle’s lineup?
It finally begins.
On Tuesday, the Mariners’ pitchers and catchers officially report to the spring training complex in Peoria, Arizona.
After finishing with an 86-76 record a year ago and barely missing out on the postseason, the Mariners go into 2017 hoping to break the longest postseason drought in baseball.
Here are things to watch this spring.
How will the World Baseball Classic impact the M’s?
The Mariners have 11 players listed on WBC rosters, including three of their top stars — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez — along with their opening-day closer Edwin Diaz and No. 5 starter Yovani Gallardo.
General manager Jerry Dipoto wouldn’t publicly disparage the WBC.
Tuesday: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz.
Feb. 19: First full-squad workout.
Feb. 25: Mariners’ spring-training opener, vs. San Diego, 12:10 p.m.
April 3: Mariners’ season opener, at Houston
April 10: Mariners’ home opener, vs. Houston
“I will say this as a general manager and I may be in the minority — I love it,” he said. “I had the opportunity to go to the 2006 WBC to go worldwide and watch the first event from more of a scouting perspective, and it’s an unbelievable event, particularly in the Latin American countries and how the fans respond to it.”
Players like Cano, Cruz and Hernandez have the cache to demand to play in the event, but Dipoto didn’t forbid any players from competing. A few like James Paxton (Canada) and Dan Altavilla (Italy) chose to not play to prepare for the regular season.
“We encouraged all of them to go to a degree,” Dipoto said.
His enthusiastic feelings might change if Cano or Cruz were to take a fastball off the hand in the international competition or if Hernandez or Gallardo develop arm issues from the early, intense innings.
The biggest concern might be Diaz. The young closer desperately wanted to represent Puerto Rico in the WBC. As a child, Diaz’s father took him to WBC games to watch Puerto Rico play in preliminary round games. He and his close friend and youth league teammate, Carlos Correa, talked about the day they would have a chance to play in it.
The Mariners want Puerto Rico manager Alex Cora to be careful in Diaz’s usage. He’s still developing as a pitcher and the Mariners don’t want him overused in high-leverage situations before the season starts.
“Edwin is very excited about it,” Dipoto said. “He wanted to throw in winter ball. We put the kibosh on it, we didn’t want him to extend the innings to include winter ball because his role will be as a closer. He’s there to pitch short innings.”
Are Haniger and Vogelbach ready for their roles?
The Mariners go into the season expecting a pair of largely untested rookies to play significant roles. Mitch Haniger will be the starting right fielder and Dan Vogelbach is penciled in to play in a platoon at first base with veteran Danny Valencia.
With Vogelbach being the left-handed hitting portion of the platoon, he is likely to see a large amount of playing time.
“Last year we had the oldest position-player club in baseball and that’s an irrefutable fact,” Dipoto said. “Effectively what we’ve done is we’ve tried to incorporate a couple of younger players and fold them in without burdening them too much with having to be the centerpiece to what we’re doing.”
With the Mariners in win-now mode, relying on not one, but two inexperienced players at premium positions left some fans skeptical. The preferences would’ve been more established and known players.
Haniger (34) and Vogelbach (8) have played in a combined 42 MLB games — all coming late last season.
But Dipoto and manager Scott Servais are adamant that the two players are ready to make the next step. They’ve certainly had a track record in the minor leagues. The Mariners wanted Haniger included in the trade that netted shortstop Jean Segura from the Diamondbacks. In 129 games combined between Class AA Mobile and Class AAA Reno, he hit .321 (147 for 458) with a .999 on-base plus slugging percentage, 34 doubles, five triples, 25 home runs, 94 RBI and 12 stolen bases in 129 games.
Vogelbach was acquired last season to be a first baseman of the future with no real candidates in the organization. In 89 games with Class AAA Iowa, he hit .318 (97 for 305) with 18 doubles, two triples, 16 home runs, 64 RBI, a .425 OBP and a .548 slugging percentage. After the trade, he played in 44 games with Tacoma, hitting .240 with seven doubles, seven homers, 32 RBI, a .404 OBP and .422 slugging percentage.
Servais is aware that it’s a unique situation.
“Patience is probably the secret, and the fact that they’re going to make some mistakes, it’s going to happen,” he said. “There are going to be hot streaks and it will be fun to watch and times when they struggle. But we gotta be patient with it.”
How different will the M’s play with increased speed?
The offseason additions of Segura, Haniger and outfielder Jarrod Dyson to the Mariners’ everyday lineup bring elements to the roster that have been lacking in many years — speed and athleticism.
It should factor in multiple aspects.
The outfield defense should be significantly improved with Dyson in left field, Leonys Martin in center, Haniger in right with either Ben Gamel or Guillermo Heredia serving as the fourth outfielder. By advanced analytics and by eyesight, the Mariners’ outfield defense in 2016 was well below average.
That should change this season.
A year ago, the Mariners stole 56 bases — the fourth lowest total in the American League. The combination of Segura (33) and Dyson (30) eclipsed that by themselves. They will join Leonys Martin (24) to give Seattle base-stealing threats that haven’t existed in past years. The plan going into the season will have Dyson batting leadoff and Segura at the No. 2 spot. Martin would bat ninth, giving Servais three speed players in a row with the ability to manufacture runs on the bases and put pressure on the opposing defense.
“Yeah, we’ve talked since Jerry and I got here about getting more athletic,” Servais said. “Last year, we thought we had made some strides to do that. Didn’t work out maybe the way we originally planned it would. We were taking another shot at it with Jarrod Dyson and then Haniger and Segura. We’ve still got obviously Leonys Martin so we’ve got guys that can do more things.”
A year ago, the Mariners were highly reliant on the home run for offense. They hit 223 homers — second most in the AL. But in games when the ball wasn’t carrying out of the park, it became an ordeal to score runs. And it loomed large with a 30-30 record in one-run games.
The increased speed should give the Mariners a more diverse way of scoring while also being better at preventing runs.
“The big thing we taught, what’s the value of being athletic?” Servais said. “It’s just a lot of winning games in different ways, not so reliant on the home run or the big doubles to get you over it. It helps in run prevention, it helps creating more havoc on the bases and being less comfortable to play against and I want us to be uncomfortable to other teams. That’s the goal here.”