Last season, Brad Miller committed 18 errors at shortstop in 107 games — tied for second most in the American League.
PEORIA, Ariz. – They weren’t supposed to be on the field for team workouts for at least another hour and a half.
But in the afternoon heat, Brad Miller and Robinson Cano practiced taking ground balls with Mariners infield coach Chris Woodward. They worked on a multitude of drills — Woodward teaching, Cano setting the example and Miller listening, learning and trying to replicate what he had heard and saw.
With less than two weeks before opening day, Miller has won the opening day shortstop job. The closely-contested competition came to an end on March 13 against the Brewers when a wayward fastball thrown by reliever Jim Henderson struck Chris Taylor in the right wrist, breaking his triquetral bone.
Mariners 3, Cubs 2
at Peoria Stadium
Notable: Mike Zunino belted his fourth homer of the spring, crushing a pitch from lefty Travis Wood deep over the wall in right-center in a two-run fifth inning. Robinson Cano later doubled home Austin Jackson to provide the difference in the game. Fernando Rodney, Tyler Olson and Carson Smith combined for two innings of scoreless relief work. Dominic Leone gave up two runs in the ninth inning, but stranded the tying run at first with a fly ball out and a strikeout.
Player of the game: Taijuan Walker can’t do much more to win the final spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation. The hard-throwing right-hander was brilliant once again, tossing six more shutout innings, giving up two hits and striking out six with one walk to pick up the win. Nine of his outs came via ground balls. In five starts this spring, Walker has pitched 18 scoreless innings and struck out 19 batters. After the game, manager Lloyd McClendon was asked if the fifth spot in the starting rotation had been locked won, he replied: “No.” McClendon said last week that he plans to wait until the final week of spring training to announce the winner of that battle.
Quotable: “I felt good. I feel like each start I get better. My fastball location gets better with each start and my off-speed does too. I’m just trying to go out and attack.” — Taijuan Walker.
On tap: The Mariners will be a split squad on Thursday with games in two different places. Felix Hernandez will get the start at Peoria Stadium against the Royals, while Roenis Elias will get the start in Maryvale against the Brewers. First pitch for both games will be at 1:05 p.m. The game against the Royals will be televised on ROOT Sports.
A day later, Taylor was in a splint with a timetable of four to six weeks before he can return to baseball activities. Miller was the starter.
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“He’s working every day,” Woodward said. “Me and Robby have him out here every day. Robby has taken the initiative to help him with some things — to help him calm down and just feel some things.”
Said Cano: “I told him you gotta go out there when you have time now because you won’t in the season. He’s been doing really good. He’s listening and he’s working. He can see the difference.”
Having Cano there helps Woodward to teach.
“Brad is a feel guy,” he said. “Sometimes you can verbalize things to him but he doesn’t get it unless he feels it and does it.”
The reason for the interest from Cano and the extra work with Woodward is the need and hope for continued improvement from Miller from a defensive standpoint. Last season, he committed 18 errors at shortstop in 107 games — tied for second most in the American League. He’s never been a classically smooth-fielding shortstop. He’s big and athletic, with a strong arm, but footwork issues often lead to miscues.
“He knows his flaws,” Woodward said. “I think that’s the most important thing for any fielder is to understand and attack their flaws and not shy away from them. It doesn’t work in the big leagues. You get exposed.”
Woodward has worked hard with Miller’s footwork — taking shorter steps and being in position to throw the ball to first base. Because of a different throwing motion, there are times when he reverts and takes longer steps that can put his feet in an awkward fielding/throwing position where his body opens up as he throws, causing the ball to tail away from the target.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Woodward said. “When he’s in-line and in the right direction, he’s fine. When he’s not, that’s when he gets a little erratic.”
When Miller rushes the bad habits appear.
“I’m yelling, ‘You’ve got to time, you’ve got time!’” Cano said. “I’ve been telling him — nobody is faster than the ball.”
“He’s got plenty of arm strength so he can make up for it,” Woodward said. “Even if he doesn’t make the play and is a tad late, the ball isn’t ending up in the seventh row of the stands.”
It’s a process that Miller has embraced and now must executed.
“He’s open to everything,” Woodward said. “He’s not one to shy away from the criticism. He knows that there are certain things he needs to work on. In my opinion, he’s doing everything he needs to do. Now it’s just about taking it to the next level.”
Weeks at leadoff?
The Mariners’ batting order vs. the Cubs on Wednesday night was a little different than usual. Manager Lloyd McClendon had Rickie Weeks slotted in the leadoff spot and usual leadoff hitter Austin Jackson batting second.
It was the second time it happened this spring. The first time was a few weeks ago, but McClendon said at the time that the reason was a dental appointment and making sure Weeks got his at-bats in before having to leave.
Weeks’ obviously didn’t have a need for more dental work again. So is this switch something McClendon would consider during the regular season?
“I might,” he said.
McClendon has been adamant since the team acquired Jackson how much he likes him as a leadoff hitter. So this is a bit of a change.
“I like Rickie as a leadoff hitter, too,” he said. “We are just playing things. That’s all.”
But it’s a possibility this season?
“Sure,” McClendon said.
Weeks certainly isn’t a stranger to the leadoff spot. He’s started 623 games there in his career and has over 2,800 plate appearances. The batting average isn’t great (.256) in his time at leadoff, but the .353 on-base percentage is much better than what the Mariners had last season. Seattle got a combined .244 batting average and .287 on-base percentage from a multitude of people manning the leadoff spot.
McClendon also said that Jackson’s ability to get doubles and as a situational hitter make him suitable in the No. 2 spot.