And after spending about 10 days in the desert, Larry Stone came away with some observations. Continuing a March tradition, here are a few Arizona impressions:
My recent stint in Peoria, Ariz., was dominated by two related phenomena: the alarming rash of injuries hitting the Mariners (which has grown to almost surreal proportions since I returned to Seattle), and the return of 44-year-old Ichiro (speaking of surreal occurrences).
On March 5, an off day for the ballclub, Times reporter Ryan Divish and I were preparing to climb Camelback Mountain, when the phone rang with news that outfielder Ben Gamel was out four to six weeks because of an oblique strain. We promptly canceled our hike and began brainstorming replacement possibilities, initially dismissing Ichiro as untenable for a variety of reasons.
The Mariners disagreed, obviously, and now we are facing the improbable prospect of baseball’s second-oldest player (Bartolo Colon is Ichiro’s elder by 151 days) in Seattle’s opening-day lineup March 29 when they face Corey Kluber and the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field. It’s an abrupt change from what we were expecting from the Mariners as camp opened. And after spending about 10 days in the desert, I came away with some other observations that either defied or reinforced preconceived notions. Continuing a March tradition, here are a few Arizona impressions:
• Because I’ve mentioned the elephant in the room (probably with a partially strained trunk), let’s discuss those injuries. I would urge a little bit of restraint from demanding that the entire medical staff be fired (as I’ve seen suggested on Twitter and in emails). First, the Mariners already have a new head trainer, with Rick Griffin settling into an “emeritus” role after 35 years with the team. And they have a new team physician, having replaced Dr. Mitch Storey, who had held that position since 1985.
Most dramatically, they have Dr. Lorena Martin as “Director of High Performance,” a newly created position designed precisely to curb the injury devastation that beset the team last year. General manager Jerry Dipoto told me in October, when she was hired, that his goal is to cut time on the disabled list by 25 percent. The ballclub lost 1,477 days to injuries last year.
It doesn’t look good so far, of course, with a steady succession of players sidelined by various strains and ailments (not to mention two pitchers attacked by line drives up the middle, for which no doctor has developed a preventive remedy). When coupled with last year’s injury parade, it’s easy to cry, “Same old Mariners.”
But many of those injuries appear to be minor and an example of erring on the side of caution, a wise course of action in March. Let’s allow this to play out before deeming the experiment a failure. A large part of Martin’s responsibility is coordinating the various areas of medical care and training in an effort to not only help reduce injuries, but get players back on the field sooner. She is not a miracle woman who will keep the Mariners 100 percent healthy. Let’s at least wait until the season gets going before judging the efficacy of the high-performance model. But if the injuries don’t let up or linger, the Mariners — a team with little, if any, margin for error, have a big problem. Again.
• It’s still ominous to have 60 percent of your rotation — Felix Hernandez, Marco Gonzales and Erasmo Ramirez — still on the sideline with opening day two weeks away. Yet there was no apparent movement by Seattle to take another look at the available free-agent pitchers on the market, two of whom were signed last week (Jake Arrieta by the Phillies and Lance Lynn by the Twins) and one of whom, Alex Cobb, remains unsigned.
It’s a big gamble by the Mariners that they can forge a winning staff with what they have on hand. And a large part of that estimation is the faith they have in Gonzales to take a major step forward in his second season after Tommy John elbow surgery. There was a time when Gonzales was a highly regarded prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals’ system, one who reached the majors at age 22, and I saw glimpses of that pitcher in Peoria. The big change is the addition to his repertoire of a cut fastball, a pitch Gonzales had to shelf last year because of the strain on his elbow.
The line drive that bruised his non-throwing hand was a bit of a setback, but Gonzales is a huge key for the Mariners to justify their inaction on the free-agent starter market this offseason. The spring signs have been encouraging.
• No player I saw this spring made a more dramatic positive transformation than Daniel Vogelbach. I had more or less come to the conclusion that Vogelbach, acquired from the Cubs for Mike Montgomery in July 2016, was destined to be a bust. Though his minor-league numbers were decent, he looked lost in his brief stints in the big leagues and appeared a defensive liability at first base.
Now Vogelbach is swinging with ever-increasing confidence, and in the week or so of games I saw seemed to hit the ball hard every time (unless he was drawing a walk). And his defense appeared more agile as well — certainly not Gold Glove caliber, but playable. In fact, he was so impressive that I worked on conjuring up a scenario to keep Vogelbach on the roster even if Ryon Healy, who has yet to play in a game this spring, is recovered from his hand surgery by opening day.
My hunch is that Vogelbach’s strong showing will allow them to be extra cautious with Healy. Of course, spring success is no guarantee that it will carry over into the season (and vice versa) — we have innumerable cautionary tales that prove that maxim beyond a shadow of a doubt. But Vogelbach, at the still-young age of 25, has the look of someone ready to contribute.
• On the pitching side, another breakout player has been Rob Whalen, who in 13 innings has 19 strikeouts and a 1.38 ERA. Whalen, acquired from Atlanta with Max Povse in the trade before last season that sent former first-round draft pick Alex Jackson to the Braves, is still just 23. He was among the multitudes to get a start for the Mariners last year, but ended up in Tacoma on the restricted list from July 5 through the end of the season.
Therein lies an inspiring story: Whalen was suffering from depression and anxiety, for which he received counseling. Now he’s in camp in a good frame of mind and looking like someone who can contribute this season.
• The Mariners’ farm system is ranked dead last in MLB, and the lack of upper-level prospects manifested itself when they had no one in the system to be a short-term replacement for Gamel. But the one minor-leaguer who jumped out at me in Peoria was right-handed pitcher Art Warren, who turns 25 next week. Warren throws hard, has competent secondary pitches and a good mound presence. He hasn’t pitched above Class A, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he makes a rapid rise through the minor leagues.
• There was a report this week that the Mariners’ first effort to fill center field this winter was an offer to free agent Jon Jay, who turned it down. That might turn out to be fortuitous, because the person they got for the job — Dee Gordon, in a trade with the Marlins that cost them three minor-leaguers — has looked great this spring.
The biggest revelation has been Gordon’s seamless adjustment to a brand-new position after switching from second base. He takes flawless routes and has displayed a strong arm. Gordon has exceeded 200 hits in two of the past three seasons and stole 60 bases last year. He has a chance to be a real catalyst for this team.