A few things that will monitored: the throwing progression of Felix Hernandez, the conversion of Dee Gordon to centerfield, improving the baserunning and the few position battles.
This year’s spring training will be a little different in terms of schedule and pace compared with the excruciatingly interminable 2017 spring training. Thanks a lot, World Baseball Classic.
With March 29 slated as the opening day of the regular season for every major-league team, this spring training will be more condensed.
For the Mariners, pitchers and catchers report Feb. 14. with their first workout the following day. Position players report Feb. 19, with the first full-squad workout the next day. Cactus League play begins Feb. 23, meaning there will be a mere three full-squad workouts before games begin.
In this shorter spring training, there are plenty of things that will be monitored closely by manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Here are a few:
The throwing progression of Felix Hernandez
Dipoto made it clear in the Mariners’ pre-spring luncheon how important Hernandez’s health is to the rotation this season. Because of the time missed last season and some of the issues in the past, the Mariners have decided to change Hernandez’s throwing schedule.
“We’ll take a little different approach in spring training this year with Felix,” Servais said. “It’s funny, I just talked to Mel Stottlemyre last night and I think in the past Felix was coming off seasons where he was pitching 200-220 innings and instantly came to spring training where everybody was always a little conscious of it. He’d get started a little bit later and he really didn’t even get on the mound until you were maybe eight, 10, 12 days into spring training. That will not be the case this year.”
Hernandez has been on that delayed spring throwing plan since around 2012. But Servais was adamant that he will be on the same routine as everyone else. The Mariners think it will help Hernandez stay healthy and avoid the shoulder issues that put him on the disabled list twice last season.
“Felix isn’t coming off a 200-inning season, so he will go through more of a normal spring training and I think it will be really important for him,” Servais said. “Felix is so talented and he’s had so much success that his ability to just turn up the dial from just one to 100, he’s so talented he has the ability to do it, and he can do that within the last 10 days of spring training. But it’s not the case anymore as you get older. So he will come in (and) he’ll be on a normal schedule as far when he throws his bullpens and workouts and working through his progression in the game situations in spring training. The first time he takes the mound in the regular season, he should be ready to go throw 100 pitches, and to do that you have to work your way through the spring-training outing so he’s in a good spot. He understands that it’ll be a little different spring.”
Of course, all of this is predicated on Hernandez ramping up his throwing program earlier in the offseason and coming into camp having thrown a handful of bullpen sessions. If he hasn’t done that, then the Mariners’ plan will have to be adjusted again.
Dee Gordon’s conversion to center field
It’s not often a Gold Glove-winning, All-Star second baseman is asked to switch positions at age 29, but the Mariners acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins to do just that.
After the initial surprise and frustration, Gordon has embraced his expected role of everyday center fielder, working on it daily. He has talked with Ken Griffey Jr. about the nuance of the position and had Mariners outfield coach Chris Prieto come to his home in Florida twice to put him through drills and work with him.
“I thought it was going to take a little longer to convert over,” Gordon said. “The funny thing is that it’s not about the ball in the air or the ball on the ground or the routes, right now. I know I’m going to mess a few of them up, which is totally fine for spring training. But the big thing for me is learning how to crow hop (on his throws). I know it seems elementary, but learning how to crow hop is hard when you’ve been shuffling your feet your whole life.”
Cactus League games in Arizona are challenging for even the most seasoned outfielders because of the blinding sun, the cloudless sky, the wind and the way the ball carries. It will be a great early test for Gordon that will accelerate his game preparation. He’s certainly motivated.
“He wants to show up the first day of spring training and look just like every other outfielder out there and I give him a lot of credit for that, and his goal is to win a Gold Glove at center field,” Servais said. “Will it be easy to do? No. There’s a lot of good center fielders in the league. He’s certainly got the athletic ability, got the work ethic and he’s got a feel for the game. He just loves the game, so I think it’s going to be a great fit for us there. He’s going to stub his toe once in awhile. He’s going to misread a ball or whatever. It’s going to take a little time to get up to speed, but plenty range, plenty of arm. It’s going to be a great fit for us.”
Improved awareness in baserunning
It has become a rite of passage in spring training — a manager proclaims his team will work to improve the overall baserunning after a previous season where too many baserunners ran into outs and ran the team out of innings and scoring opportunities. John McLaren said it, as did Don Wakamatsu, Eric Wedge and Lloyd McClendon. Servais joins that list. But his isn’t without reason. The Mariners were a catastrophe on the bases last season, running them in a manner similar to drunken college kids streaking across the campus quad.
“Yeah, baserunning will be a focus for us,” he said. “It’s something we’ve not been very good at the last couple years. It was a long discussion at our early January coaches meetings in how we’re going to attack it, how we’re going to practice it and how we’re going to get it across to our players the importance and the awareness of it. It’s also been at the forefront at the meetings with all of our players, just to give them an understanding that it’s something that we will spend more time talking about and practicing in spring training.”
Servais plans to use meetings, film study, drills and basically anything he can think of to get it through to his players that it matters.
“Our guys know it’s coming, we’ve got to get better,” he said. “The 27 outs you get in a game offensively are so valuable, just to give those away as ‘Ah, it’s no big dea,.’ no. When you get doubled up on a line drive and you run yourself trying to go from second to third and that ground ball hits shortstop, you’re going to be out in the big leagues when you do that and we can’t give those outs away. We try to impress upon our guys how important it is. Our guys are still going to make mistakes on the bases. Once in awhile, it’s going to happen. But it cannot happen as regular as it has here so we will focus on it, you’ll hear a lot of talk about it. You will probably hear a few guys complaining about it. That’s OK. We’ve got to get better.”
The overall philosophy is quite simple.
“The biggest thing with baserunning is just going to be an awareness of the situation and also an awareness of your actual, physical ability,” he said. “Some of our guys think they are a little bit faster than they are, though we’ve clearly pointed out to them that you fit into this category and this is what you do in this category as a baserunner.”
Health of Heredia, Phelps
Outfielder Guillermo Heredia and reliever David Phelps are recovering from offseason surgeries and expected to have slots on the 25-man roster. Dr. Lorena Martin, the team’s director of high performance, was vague on their status going into spring training.
But sources have said Heredia, who had offseason surgery on his non-throwing shoulder, could be a little behind and might not be ready for opening day. Heredia might be limited in the first few weeks of spring training as he continues his rehab. The hope is that he’d be back at the latest by the second week of the regular season. As insurance, the team signed veteran outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis to a minor-league contract with an invite to spring training. Nieuwenhuis has played in 414 MLB games and can play all three outfield positions capably.
Phelps had season-ending surgery to remove bone spurs in his elbow. He’s already thrown a bullpen session so he appears to be tracking toward being ready for opening day. However, he’s a vital piece to the Mariners’ bullpen and late-game strategy so they won’t do anything that could lead to setback in the early days of spring training.
The minimal roster competition
Going into spring training, the Mariners have 22 or 23 of the 25 spots on their active roster locked into place. Obviously injury or massive underperformance can change that thinking. But realistically, there are two spots really up for competition: back-up catcher and final right-hander in the bullpen.
Michael Marjama, whom the Mariners acquired in August from the Tampa Bay Rays, and David Freitas, who was picked up on a waivers claim, will vie for the spot behind Mike Zunino. Marjama made his big-league debut in a September call-up last season and played sparingly. He projects as the better hitter of the two catchers. Freitas also made his MLB debut in 2017, with the Braves, after five years of playing at the Class AAA level. He’s considered the better defensive catcher, with advantages in blocking, receiving and framing over Marjama.
If Phelps is healthy and Tony Zych returns to form, the last spot in the eight-man bullpen could come down to right-handers Shawn Armstrong, Dan Altavilla, Mike Morin and Nick Rumbelow. They all have big-league experience and can throw multiple innings. It’s nice depth to have. Both Altavilla and Rumbelow, who was acquired from the New York Yankees in a trade, have minor-league options. Meanwhile Armstrong and Morin are both out of minor-league options, which could factor into the decision to put one or both on the opening-day roster.