Nelson Cruz arrived at Mariners spring training, disappointed in the rare Arizona rainfall but excited about the upcoming season — with high expectations.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Like many of his fellow position players, Nelson Cruz was disappointed that incessant rain and wet conditions ruined Sunday’s first full workout. Cruz and the rest of the position players stretched and loosened up in the covered workout area, hit in the cages and played catch on the soggy outfield grass. But it wasn’t quite the same as getting out on the field for a full workout on their first official day back.
“I cannot wait to go out there and swing the bat,” he said. “I guess tomorrow.”
Instead, Cruz met with the assembled media — something teammate Robinson Cano did the previous day and Felix Hernandez did on his first day of spring training. Kyle Seager, the fourth member of the team’s leadership group from a year ago, will likely have his turn next.
Always willing to talk, but measured in what he says, specifically when it comes to anything resembling self-praise, Cruz said on the record what other teammates or people in the organization may expect or think, but might not quite be willing to say.
“There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind that we are ready to go and win the division,” he said. “That’s the mentality. That’s the goal.”
It wasn’t just making the postseason or having another winning season, it was the expectation of winning an ultra tough American League West, featuring two strong teams in the Astros and Rangers. The Mariners went 15-23 against them last season.
Cruz isn’t afraid to place those expectations on this team. He knows others may do the same. There is no reason to try and act as if they aren’t there.
“Expectations are everything,” he said. “Even when you don’t want to think about it, it’s there. It’s always something you have to embrace and you live with it. I think the whole team has high expectations. We know we came two games short last year, so I know every game matters, even in April. We have to make sure we stay focused the whole season.”
Two years ago, the Mariners had even loftier expectations in Cruz’s first year with the team. That 2015 squad fell flat on its face. Cruz believes this group is better equipped to handle any pressure.
“I think we’re more ready,” he said. “If you go from Kyle to all the young guys that were here, guys that haven’t been in the playoffs. The last week and a half last year was very exciting. Every at-bat was important, every pitch was important. It was fun. I know the fans liked it and I was loving it. But we came up short. So we need to make sure this year we’re on top and clinch early.”
Part of the reason Cruz speaks with such optimism stems from the numerous additions and changes to the team made by general manager Jerry Dipoto in the offseason.
“It was hard to keep up,” he said. “But I think overall — great deals. We have what he was looking for. He knew what he we needed after last year. He went and did it. Something you have to know about him is that he’s not afraid to make a move. Whatever he thinks we need as a team, he’ll go and get it.”
But to Cruz, a healthy Felix Hernandez is just as important as any acquisition.
“He was out for like a month,” Cruz said. “Definitely we missed him for that period of time.”
Cruz took great amusement in Hernandez’s offseason spent working out with trainer “Iron Glenn” Freeman.
Cruz has worked with Freeman for the last few offseason and is a believer in his techniques and the results they produce. But to see the Instagram videos of Hernandez, who he often jaws with in the clubhouse, enduring the workouts in agony made Cruz smile.
“Oh yes, it was nice,” he said chuckling. “Very impressed. He definitely looks bigger. He looks better. His body physically looks better.”
Of course, Cruz wouldn’t say that to Hernandez in quite the same way.
“I was joking with him yesterday that he looked like a real man now,” he said. “He’s big and he has some muscles. Hopefully that can translate into wins. That’s what we are looking for is wins for him. Like anybody else, he just has to stay healthy.”
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As for himself, Cruz came into camp about five pounds lighter than a year ago. It’s a product of pushing himself in those offseason workouts, trimming a few excess pounds off his chiseled frame. It helped he wasn’t battling any nagging physical issues in the offseason.
“Hopefully I will be a little faster so I can help the outfielders,” he said. “I don’t know. I think it will help. You don’t have to carry five pounds extra. I guess when you play that many games it can help.”
With the additions for Jarrod Dyson and Mitch Haniger and the focus on defense in the outfield, Cruz knows that his time in right field will be even more diminished. Last season, he started 107 games at designated hitter. That number could increase.
“You guys know, I like to play in the outfield,” he said. “But I understand the process and I understand my job. I’ll be ready if they call me to play in the outfield, if not I’ll be DHing like I am.”
That realization going into last season helped him find a better routine in games between at-bats to produce optimal results.
“I think last year in spring training I put my mindset, ‘You know what, I’m going to be the DH so stop complaining and just leave it out of your mind,’” he said. “I think that helped and I’ll take the same mindset this year also.”
Cruz’s spring training will be slightly different form last year with the World Baseball Classic. He’s part of the defending champion Dominican Republic team along with Cano. It’s something that he’s been looking forward to and preparing for all offseason.
“I think you dream two things: one is to play in the big leagues and the other is to go represent your country,” he said. “For all the guys that go represent our countries, we take a lot of pride in that. We are really looking for the challenge. I think it’s going to be hard to do better than we did last time. We can probably do the same, but we understand it’s going to be difficult because we play against good teams. Not only us as players, the whole country is excited. Everywhere we go, from kids to adults, everybody is excited and looking for the moment. Hopefully we can provide the joy we did last time.”