From a shaky bullpen to a promising Ketel Marte, our columnist reviews what he has seen so far in Arizona.
The first thing people invariably ask me when I return from a stint watching the Mariners in spring training is, “How did they look?”
That’s a tricky question to answer, because what you see (or think you see) is not always what you get. Just think back to last spring, when the Cactus League takeaway was that Mike Zunino (.352, seven homers) and Taijuan Walker (4-0, 0.67 earned-run average, .114 opponents average) were ready to bust out.
Well, Zunino hit .174 with 132 strikeouts in 350 at-bats, while Walker had an 8.13 earned-run average after six starts – and that’s not an isolated story. Every spring, we’re tantalized into making judgments – both positive and negative – that prove to be premature or flat-out wrong.
Nevertheless, as I head home Monday after 10 days in the desert, here are a few observations, with the proviso that objects viewed in Arizona may not be as close to reality as they appear.
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1. The Mariners’ biggest concern, by far, is their bullpen. It was a mess last year, and Jerry Dipoto spent considerable effort revamping it over the offseason. But already, two of the new acquisitions – Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook – are sidelined with injuries. Scribner, in particular, was prominent in their plans but is likely to start the season on the DL with a lat injury.
Now comes word that left-hander Charlie Furbush’s readiness for the season is very much in question as he struggles to come back from the shoulder issues that sidelined him in the second half of last season. Furbush hasn’t been able to bounce back from his live bullpen session, which is ominous.
The Mariners are moving lefty starter Mike Montgomery to the bullpen as a hedge against Furbush missing the start of the season, but their reliever options are thinning. And the Mariners are already relying on a lot of not-so-sure things, like a closer in Steve Cishek who lost his job last year (and has had some biceps stiffness this spring), a setup man in Tony Zych who has all of 18 career innings in the majors, and another in Justin De Fratus who had a 5.51 ERA and allowed opponents a .291 average last season.
Veteran Joel Peralta is making a bid to earn a spot, but he turns 40 in two weeks. Joaquin Benoit looks like the Mariners’ surest bet in the bullpen, but he turns 39 in July.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Dipoto is scanning the waiver wires late in camp as teams cut down their rosters. Dipoto showed in 2014 he could be deft in restructuring a bullpen on the fly when he acquired Huston Street and Jason Grilli in midseason to boost a struggling Angels’ unit.
2, Excluding the bullpen, just three spots are in open competition during spring, barring injury. Here’s how I read them:
• I sense 33-year-old Korean Dae-Ho Lee is in the process of winning the backup first-base job. As the right-handed-hitting alternative to Adam Lind, Lee has a history of crushing lefty pitching in Korea and Japan. The big concern was his defense, but he shed a lot of weight and has looked more than adequate patrolling the bag.
Better, in fact, than Jesus Montero, who may be reaching the end of the line in Seattle. Montero has gotten plenty of playing time and has just one extra-base hit – and zero walks. He’s out of options and could become a trade chip in acquiring bullpen help, though his value may not be high.
Stefen Romero has been extremely impressive at the plate, but he’s in a tough spot. There’s no room in the Mariners’ outfield, and Romero has minimal experience at first base. Most important, Romero has an option remaining, and that tends to have huge weight in decisions like this.
• Luis Sardinas is going to be hard to beat for the utility infield spot. He’s hitting .423 (10 for 23) in the spring and can play shortstop, second base and third. Chris Taylor is a better glove man at short but has minimal experience at third, while Shawn O’Malley, despite having an outstanding all-around spring (9 for 18, nine runs, four stolen bases, .571 on-base percentage, .667 slugging), isn’t a good option at shortstop.
• The battle for the fifth starter between Nathan Karns and James Paxton appears too close to call, though Karns didn’t help his cause on Sunday by giving up back-to-back homers to the Reds in a rocky third. New manager Scott Servais gave lip service to Taijuan Walker being part of the competition, but barring injury, Walker is safely ensconced in the Seattle rotation.
If someone were to insist upon a prediction, I’d go with Paxton for the fifth spot.
3, I like the vibe in Mariners camp, but my experience says that it won’t (necessarily) mean much. I’m firmly in the camp that believes winning begets happy clubhouses, not the other way around.
That said, I like what Servais is doing to forge bonding on the squad, which is loaded with new faces. The pool table he assigned Zych to buy (with Robinson Cano’s checkbook), has been the hub of the clubhouse, and the morning team meetings, designed to reveal players’ personalities, seem to have been well-received.
Most encouragingly, the veterans around whom the Mariners revolve – Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager – have bought in, it appears. But let’s check back in June. Mike Tyson famously said that every boxer has a plan until he’s punched in the face. Every baseball team has good chemistry until their first seven-game losing streak.
4, The saddest development of the spring is the setback for Danny Hultzen, a great kid who has worked so hard to overcome major shoulder surgery. But the torn rotator cuff wins almost every time, and Hultzen’s future is very much in doubt after experiencing pain and weakness following a throwing session last week.
The shame is that Hultzen was on the fast track to the majors and seemed primed for early success after being chosen second overall in the 2011 draft. Now you have to wonder if he’ll ever get there. The odds are growing stronger against it.
5, Every spring, one player comes out of nowhere to rage against Cactus League pitching. For the Mariners, it’s outfielder Daniel Robertson out of Oregon State. He doesn’t appear to have any route to making the roster, but after a single on Sunday, Robertson is 7 for 12 with two doubles, two triples and five walks. His slash line: .583/.706/1.083.
Coming in early Cactus League play, those numbers have to be taken with a grain of salt, or at least a grain of sand. But Robertson has definitely opened eyes.
6, Another rite of spring is the minor-leaguer who gives a tantalizing glimpse of future potential. And this year, it’s 20-year-old Tyler O’Neill, who not only has prodigious power – 32 homers last year for Bakersfield – but a bit of a live personality. His welcome-to-Cactus League moment – besides the homer off Felix Hernandez in a simulated game – was a three-run blast to right-center field Saturday night against the Reds in a split-squad game in Goodyear.
“I heard he really killed it last night,’’ said Servais, who was with the Mariners in Peoria on Saturday – and who heard right. “But to hit a ball that far to the opposite field is special. He’s got special talents. There is no doubt.”
7. Zunino remains a work very much in progress. It’s poignant to see a player who has been so prominent in the Mariners’ plans for several seasons move so deeply into the shadows. Zunino stands no chance of making the roster; any dream of blowing them away with his progress has evaporated with an 0-for-11 start to spring.
And after endless attempts to doctor Zunino’s swing, the Mariners just have to wait and see if it begins to pay off in Tacoma. The early signs aren’t particularly encouraging.
“I don’t look at this as an entire developmental year for Mike Zunino,’’ Servais insisted. “I look at this as giving him a breather, get his confidence back and get him going. I would love to have him a part of this team at some point this year. I think at the end of the day, very, very seldom do you get through a year with just two catchers.”
8, I wrote an entire column about it, but Leonys Martin’s arm will leave a lasting impression on me as I head home. I think it’s stronger and more accurate than Ichiro’s.
9, I think Ketel Marte is a huge key to this team – a 22-year-old in his first full major-league season playing the vital position of shortstop. And I’ve been impressed with what I’ve seen. Marte looks like he belongs – self-assured and playing like an established veteran. If that carries into the season, it’s a huge plus for the Mariners.
10, The statistic most likely to be jumped upon in the coming days, and yet turn out to be totally meaningless: Nelson Cruz’s 0-for-13 start this spring. I was around in spring of 2008, when Ichiro caused much consternation (particularly among the Japanese media) by going hitless in his first 21 at-bats. He batted .310 that year with 213 hits.
So I’ll toss Cruz’s stats into the trash as I head to the airport.