Updated news and notes on the Mariners and all things baseball from the MLB winter meetings at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS — The Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish checks in with updates on the Mariners from MLB’s annual winter meetings.
Updated 7 p.m. — Mariners interested in Japanese lefty Yusei Kikuchi
Dipoto confirmed that the Mariners are interested in signing free agent lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who is the top player coming out of Japan’s Nippon Professional League. Kikuchi has chosen Scott Boras to be his agent in the process. The Mariners have made their interest know to Boras. But it’s expected that plenty of teams will be interested in signing him. The Mariners do have some excess money coming off their payroll from their trades this offseason.
Does Kikuchi fit the Mariners’ stepback timeline?
“Sure, he’s 27,” Dipoto said. “I don’t know what his interest level in playing in Seattle just yet. But we are interested. He does fit our timeline. By the time we feel like we’d get to our next window, he’d be 29 years old. He should be very capable of being a part of what we want do, but whether he wants to come here or not, I can’t tell you that.”
Kikuchi posted a 14-4 record with a 3.08 ERA for the Seibu Lions last season.
Seattle has scouted him extensively.
“He’s’ very good,” Dipoto said. “His performance speaks for itself. He’s got real stuff. He’s had a lot of success in Japan. We’ve probably scouted him as much as any player that’s been in the NPB in recent years because he’s been there for a number of years. So we’ve had a lot of volume in that.”
Dipoto hopes that the Mariners track record with Japanese players like Mac Suzuki, Kaz Sasaki, Kenji Johjima, Ichiro, Nori Aoki and Hisashi Iwakuma could be a selling point.
“We are great market for any player,” he said. “But any player specifically for a pitcher and specifically for a pitcher form Japan, we do offer a lot of comforts that I think makes us unique in MLB markets. We have great diversity in the city. The way our market has taken the star players from Japan and really maximized their potential whether it’s from a marketing perspective or within the community. Those players whether it was Kaz Sasaki, Kuma or Ichiro, those players turn into superstars. I think some of that comes from the market. We do have a great Japanese-American community. We are heavy in our influence organizationally whether it was the Nintendo years or those great players that are still connected to the organization.”
4:02 p.m. — Manny Acta interviews with Orioles for managerial opening
Manny Acta is one of six people that is a candidate for the open Orioles managing position. It’s not surprising considering Acta’s managerial experience in the past — he managed the Nationals and Indians for three seasons each — and his willingness to embrace advanced analytics and the changing relationship between field staff and the baseball operations staff.
Jon Heyman of FanCred and MLB Network first reported the news. GM Jerry Dipoto later confirmed that the Orioles have asked for permission to interview Acta.
1:30 p.m. — Edgar Martinez is at the winter meetings
Edgar Martinez had never been to a MLB winter meetings until this year. He really had no reason to come the four-day festival as a player or a coach.
But now he’s here as a hopeful Hall of Famer.
Though he was somewhat reluctant at first, the Mariners convinced Martinez to come to Las Vegas for media appearances to help promote his candidacy for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Martinez loathes talking about himself so doing multiple television and radio interviews and talking with several writers wasn’t easy for him.
“No, it’s still hard,” he said. “It’s something that is not in my nature. And I don’t think that’s ever going to change, but I’m here so I can try it and see if it helps. The team recommended this. I never thought about it. I didn’t know what the Winter Meetings was all about and everything that goes on here. But it makes sense. I appreciate that they thought about it and it’s good to be here.”
Based on the ballot tracking by the Times and the original tracker Ryan Thibodaux, Martinez is 32 for 32 in appearing on publicly shared Hall of Fame ballots. He isn’t monitoring the voting yet, but Martinez’s wife, Holli, is watching closely.
“She still does,” he said. “She’s the one that always tells me you have this many votes. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve gone through this process 10 times, but I’m not tracking it yet.”
Martinez is cautiously optimistic about his chances. He’s in the 10th and final year of his eligibility to be on the Hall of Fame ballot. If he doesn’t reach induction, he would then have to be voted on by the era committees. Last year, he was just 20 votes shy of being on the required 75 percent of the ballots cast by eligible members of the Baseball Writers Association of America.
“So far, it’s looking good,” he said. “The votes are coming in and they are very positive. Hopefully, it keeps going that way.”
Martinez has picked up six votes from voters that didn’t have him on their ballots last season, which is key for him to gain induction.
“The exciting part is that some people have changed their minds and they are now voting for me,” he said.
But Martinez won’t assume induction. It’s been a long process and he won’t allow himself to take it for granted.
“The whole time, I tell myself that I don’t have any control of it,” he said. “And that’s very helpful just being aware of that. As it gets closer, obviously, you start thinking about the possibility that it could happen or that it might not. And I feel that at this point, I’m ready for either case. I’ve had plenty of time to prepare for that. So far, I feel pretty at ease with it. It’s still early. I don’t know how it’s going to feel later. But so far, no change in how I feel. I’m looking forward to see what’s going to happen.”
Martinez was disappointed that his former manager Lou Piniella also just fell short of induction in the Today’s Era vote held on Sunday.
“That was sad to hear that he missed it by one vote,” Martinez said. “He deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. I believe he’s going to be in there.”
11:48 a.m. — Mariners claim Kaleb Cowart off waivers
The Mariners added to their organizational infield depth on Monday afternoon, claiming third baseman Kaleb Cowart off of waivers from the Angels. But did they also get some bullpen depth?
That’s a possibility that general manager Jerry Dipoto is willing to explore. The Mariners are going to experiment with Cowart as a two-player this spring. Besides being a utility infielder, Cowart will also return to the mound and pitch as reliever.
“We are going to bring him to camp as a two-way player and let him just be a super utility offensive player while also trying to cultivate what he’s doing on the mound,” Dipoto said.
Cowart, who turns 27 in June, played in 47 games for the Angels last season, he hit .134 with seven doubles, a triple, a homer and 10 RBIs. In 64 games with Class AAA Salt Lake, he batted .287 with 20 doubles, three triples, six homers and 45 RBI. He is out of minor league options.
“Our thought picking him up on a claim — he’s out of options so he would obviously have to make our team or be exposed to waivers against to run him back through to Triple A,” DIpoto said. “He didn’t have a very good Major League performance last year.”
He was the Angels’ first-round pick in the 2010 draft — 18th overall. That was prior to Dipoto taking over as general manager of the Angels in 2011. Cowart was once considered a top prospect in the organization. But an inconsistent approach at the plate and minimum power development have hindered the process of reaching his potential.
“While I was with the Angels, we had Kaleb from rookie ball up while I was there,” Dipoto said. “He’s a super talented athlete, who has obviously had a tough time time getting over the hump as a Major League player.
Could being a pitcher help his value?
Cowart was a talented high school pitcher at Cook High School in Adel, Georgia. He posted a 10-1 record with a 1.05 ERA as a senior.
“As a high school senior, he was probably on as many draft boards as a first-round talent pitcher as he was a first round talent hitter,” Dipoto said. “I was with the Diamondbacks when he was drafted and we were more in the pitcher camp than the hitter camp. He does a lot of things, he’s a switch-hitter, he’s got some power, he usually gives you a good at-bat. And he also throws mid to upper 90s off the mound which is unique. He’s got one of the best throwing arms you’ll see.”
Back in 2014, when Cowart was struggling at the plate in the minor leagues, Dipoto first thought of this possibility.
“We tried to do this with Kaleb for a bit back in 2014 and during that season we put him on the bump,” Dipoto said. “Sure enough, without having pitched since high school, it was 94-95 mph.”
Cowart told the Angels late last season that he was willing to start pitching again. And has been on a throwing program since throwing a bullpen session just after the season ended.
“He has recently started doing that again with the Angels and the results have been the same,” Dipoto said. “It’s been anywhere from 91-96 mph. He makes it awfully interesting. We’ll give him a shot to do both and see where that leads us. If nothing else, it makes for a wildly interesting 25th man on the roster that can do a lot of different things.”
There is no timeline for how long they’ll let Cowart do both.
“Really you let them do both as long as they can because the value is awesome if you can tap into that type of guy, especially with where the game is going now and you are carrying smaller benches because you need extra bullpen,” Dipoto said. “If you can find one guy that can do both, then great.”
As a teammate of Shohei Ohtani, Cowart was asked about doing both during the season.
“That is cool,” Cowart told the Orange County Register. “I personally haven’t thought about it. No one has approached me about it. I don’t know how it would play out, health-wise, but I think it’s very interesting.”
Not quite Ohtani interesting, but it will be a curious development this spring.
Here’s some video of Cowart pitching in high school
11 a.m. — Last call for “The Bartender”
Tom Wilhelmsen was one of the more eclectic individuals to ever put on a Mariners’ uniform. And now he’s stepping away from the game to be full-time dad instead of his hard-throwing reliever. Wilhelmsen made the announcement on his instagram account (below). He spent last season pitching in the Mexican League and the independent American Association.
A talented player coming out of Tucson High School, he was taken in the seventh round of 2002 draft by the Brewers and their scouting director at the time — Jack Zduriencik. But after two positive tests for marijuana and a suspension, Wilhelmsen walked away from the game.
He chose to backpack around Europe and enjoy a life without drug tests. He took a five-year hiatus from baseball, tending bar at The Hut — a tiki bar in Tucson.
During that time, he re-found a passion and desire to play baseball again. He began working out and eventually signed a minor league contract with the Mariners before the 2010. With a fastball that touched 98 mph and nasty curveball, he moved up quickly through Seattle’s minor league system. He made his MLB debut in 2011 and became an effective reliever for Mariners, even serving as the team’s closer from 2012-2013, totaling 53 saves. He was given the fitting name of “The Bartender.”
Following the 2015 season General manager Jerry Dipoto traded Wilhelmsen as part of a five-play deal that netted the Mariners centerfielder Leonys Martin. After struggling with the Rangers and eventually being designated for assignment, Wilhelmsen re-signed with the Mariners during the 2016 season.
In parts of six seasons with the Mariners, Wilhelmsen made 296 appearances, posting an 11-11 record with a 4.44 ERA and 68 saves.
9:15 a.m. — Hisashi Iwakuma could face his old team in Japan
Hisashi Iwakuma’s return to Japan to play baseball in 2018 may lead to the possibility of pitching against the Mariners in March. On his Instagram account, Iwakuma announced that he is joining the Yomiuri Giants for the upcoming season. The team announced the deal a few days ago.
The Mariners will play the Giants in two exhibition games on their trip to Japan in March before opening the 2019 season vs. the Oakland A’s with two games at the Tokyo Dome. If Iwakuma is healthy and ready, he could face his former team.