With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19, here are three things to watch as the Mariners prepare for the 2016 season.
With pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring training in Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19, here are three things to watch as the Mariners prepare for the 2016 season:
1. Roster change
Change was expected when general manager Jerry Dipoto was hired Sept. 28. He had a different philosophy for building an organization than his predecessor, Jack Zduriencik.
“We talked about a plan, what we’re going to do with this offseason, how we wanted to structure this roster and some of the tenets that we most significantly believe in, in moving forward as an organization and now we’re going to do,” Dipoto said. “I feel very confident that our game plan has been executed.”
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Even though it followed the plan, what transpired in the offseason was stunning. Dipoto didn’t modify the 40-man roster; he overhauled it with more than 25 moves.
The first big move came Nov. 5 when he traded shortstop Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and reliever Danny Farquhar to the Tampa Bay Rays for starting pitcher Nate Karns, reliever C.J. Riefenhauser and outfielder Boog Powell.
Dipoto traded, released and signed myriad players over the next few months. The results: 17 new players on the 40-man roster, projected new starters in left field, center field, first base and catcher and only four remaining relievers.
He brought in players that got on base in outfielder Nori Aoki, Chris Iannetta and Adam Lind. He improved the defense with the addition of center fielder Leonys Martin. He added catching depth to take the pressure off of Mike Zunino by signing Iannetta and trading for Steve Clevenger. He traded for an innings-eating starting pitcher in Wade Miley. And Dipoto will bring 12 new relievers to spring training.
“I look back at this offseason and feel like we talked about the idea of being more athletic in the outfield, and I believe we are,” he said. “We talked about better acclimating or building a ballclub to Safeco Field, and I believe that we’ve done that. We talked about building depth on the pitching staff, and that may be numbers 1-2-and-3 in terms of what you want to do in any offseason, and I feel like we have addressed that to the best degree that we could.
2. Taking charge
The changes weren’t limited to the roster. Dipoto did not retain manager Lloyd McClendon despite a year remaining on his contract and replaced him with Scott Servais. The two men worked together in the Angels organization with Servais serving as an assistant GM to Dipoto.
Despite an accomplished career in baseball that includes 11 seasons in the big leagues as a catcher, multiple jobs in player development for the Rangers and Angels and a front-office position, Servais has not managed at any level. To help offset that, Dipoto and Servais brought on veteran minor-league manager Tim Bogar to be the bench coach and veteran big-league manager Manny Acta as the third-base coach.
“I think the time we have to spend down there is going to be very valuable, very important to put in place what we’ve talked about here since the day I got the job, and that’s our culture and the environment around our team,” Servais said.
Servais has fresh and different ideas about how a team should be managed, with hints of the football-teaching culture sprinkled in. How those changes are implemented and received will be something to watch.
“This going to be much different than what we’ve seen in other camps, and there’s a reason,” he said. “We’re trying to get a different result. I think if you want to get a different result, you’ve got to do something different. I know it’s a pet peeve of mine is when I hear somebody say, ‘Well, we don’t do that here. We’ve never done that before. We do it this way.’ You’ve got to be open to change.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise to the players.
“I’ve already had these conversations, trying to give them a heads-up,” he said. “It’s really important that our core players, our veteran players understand what’s coming, that they have to lead in their own. The game is about the players. It’s not about me, it’s not about our coaching staff. It’s about the players, and giving those guys a heads-up, letting them know what’s coming, let them be involved in the process. Why not?
3. Position battles
Despite the roster shuffle, the majority of the 25-man roster is set. It means that the annual competition for open jobs in spring training has been greatly reduced to four battles:
— No. 5 starter. The competition will come down to Karns and talented but oft-injured left-hander James Paxton with the loser heading to Class AAA Tacoma.
In his first full season in the big leagues, Karns posted a 7-5 record with 3.67 ERA in 26 starts and one relief appearance. The right-hander struck out 145 in 147 innings.
Paxton made 13 starts in 2015, going 3-4 with a 3.90 ERA and 56 strikeouts in 67 innings. He dealt with finger issues most of the season.
If Paxton is healthy, he has the potential to be elite. In preparation for this season, he lost 20 pounds.
— Backup at first base. Because starter Adam Lind has struggled against tough left-handed pitchers, the Mariners want to run a modified platoon at first base and needed a strong right-handed bat. The in-house candidates are Jesus Montero and Stefen Romero. The Mariners also signed veterans Gaby Sanchez and Dae-Ho Lee.
If the Mariners felt comfortable with Montero at first base, there wouldn’t have been the need to bring in outside candidates. There are questions about his ability to hit quality big-league pitching and concerns about his defense.
Romero is the most athletic and versatile of the bunch. He has played mostly outfield the past two seasons, but he was drafted as an infielder and has played first, second and third base.
Sanchez has plenty of the big-league experience and is a career .291 hitter with an .863 OPS against left-handers.
Lee has not played in the big leagues. He put up monster numbers in Japan last season, hitting .282 with an .892 OPS, 20 doubles, 31 homers and 98 RBI.
— Second lefty reliever. Servais and Dipoto prefer to have two left-handers in the bullpen. If he’s healthy, Charlie Furbush is the late-inning specialist. But the second lefty could come from the group of David Rollins, Vidal Nuno, Paul Fry and Mike Montgomery.
Nuno probably is the leading candidate because of his versatility.
Rollins, a Rule 5 selection last season, can be optioned to the minor leagues.
Fry started last season at Class A Bakersfield and worked his way up to Class AA Jackson.
After having some success as a starter, Montgomery struggled to close the season. The Mariners will try Montgomery, who is out of minor-league options, in a relief role
— Utility infielder. Though Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano play 150 or more games most seasons, the Mariners need a utility infielder to spell them and projected starting shortstop Ketel Marte, who will be in his first full major-league season.
Shawn O’Malley, Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas will vie for the spot. As a switch-hitter, the speedy Sardinas could have the advantage because he’s better defensively at shortstop than O’Malley, who also is a switch-hitter. The ability to play shortstop at a capable level is a priority for Servais and Dipoto.
Taylor has plenty of talent and probably the most potential. But after hitting struggles last season with the Mariners, they might choose to play him every day at Class AAA Tacoma instead of limiting him to spot duty in the big leagues.
M’s key dates
Feb. 19: Pitchers and catchers report.
Feb. 23: Full squad reports.
March 2: Annual charity game vs. Padres, 12:10 p.m.
April 4: Regular-season opener at Rangers, 1:05 p.m.
April 8: Home opener vs. A’s, 7:10 p.m.