Seattle Mariners: 10 Breakout Candidates for Spring Training and Beyond
What goes on behind the scenes in between the last pitch of the regular season and the first batting practice in Spring Training the following year is a truly amazing phenomenon.
Players show up with new attitudes, improved swings, chiseled physiques and bolstered pitching repetoires, seemingly out of nowhere.
But any major-leaguer or major-league-wannabe (for that matter) would tell you that if you show up to Spring Training the same as you were last year, you're already falling behind the curve.
Maybe they're youngsters who have shed the wide-eyed rookie look and are ready to break into the major leagues. Maybe they're veterans looking to rejuvenate their career after a down year or two.
Regardless of what their current status is, every player shows up at spring training ready to make 2012 better than before.
Here are some Mariners players who could impress in Spring Training and beyond.
Franklin Gutierrez, CF
Guti's stomach ailments have been well documented over the past couple of seasons as a key factor in his failure to produce offensively.
Losing enough weight to make a "Biggest Loser" contestant blush, Guti also lost his power stroke, and with it any production at the plate at all.
I’d hit the ball and it wouldn’t go anywhere,I’m not talking home runs, I’m talking about line drives. I started swinging in December after working out all of October and November, and I could see a difference in the way the ball came off my bat.
Fortunately, Guti is back to full health, and reports out of Peoria are that he has put on more than a dozen pounds of muscle.
In fact, he's gained so much bulk that apparently, his suits don't fit anymore—a good thing, of course.
The former gold-glover will be back this Spring Training ready to return to '09 form, and with reports that he's in the best shape of his career, you'd better believe it.
Watch for "Death to Flying Things" to murder opposing pitchers at the plate in Spring Training en route to a bounceback 2012 season.
Jesus Montero, C/DH
With picture day today, we finally get to see Jesus Montero, the savior himself, in a Mariners uniform!
Of course, as we all know, there's huge expectations placed on Montero's shoulders by the fans and front office alike. A breakout performance in Spring Training would merely mean meeting our lofty expectations.
Montero has the polish and power you look for in a potential slugger, so he has all the tools he needs to drop jaws in Spring Training.
Another aspect to his breakout expectations are if he can play the catcher position effectively. It's something the Mariners would prefer for him to do, but his defense is a liability.
Reports out of camp are that Montero has looked great playing catcher, and has been impressive in batting practice as well (by the way, Geoff Baker's blog has great clips of Spring Training action, including Montero BP's).
One of the most significant storylines this upcoming month will be how Montero looks, both defensively as a catcher and offensively.
The Mariners will have him splitting time at DH and catcher, and M's reporters will be watching him closely.
Steve Delabar, RP
From one of the big hot-shot prospects we go to a player who just wants to stick at the big-league level.
At the age of 28, it's Delabar's first Spring Training experience this year. Every year, a guy comes out of nowhere and earns a place in the Mariners bullpen, and Delabar has "Tom Wilhelmsen" written all over him.
As most fans know, Wilhelmsen made the team out of the blue, coming back from drug-use issues in what made for a feel-good story if nothing else.
Last year, it took Delabar only a few months to transform from a substitute teacher with a blown-out arm to donning a Mariners uniform in September.
This year, he's looking to build off his six-game stint with the Mariners, during which he went 1-1 with a respectable 2.57 ERA. It's players like Delabar who want it bad enough who make impressive showings in Spring Training.
Watch for Delabar to turn heads in Spring Training and lock in a spot in the bullpen.
Blake Beavan, SP
Spring Training is often the time when talented youngsters make the transition to major league veterans, and part of it involves losing the baby fat and earning your "man strength."
Contrast Michael Pineda, who reportedly showed up to Yankees camp at 280 lbs, with Blake Beavan, whose winter workouts consisted of diet changes, weight training and long-distance cycling sessions this offseason.
It didn't hurt that his wife was a competitive distance cyclist.
Beavan, who looked to shed 15-20 lbs by Spring Training, is fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the starting rotation this season. And with that offseason workout regimen, he has the look of a player ready to carve out a permanent spot for himself on the ballclub at age 23.
Follow Beavan's Spring Training outings closely this next month, as I predict he will impress and earn the final spot in the rotation.
Munenori Kawasaki, SS
If you've been following the Mariners closely so far in camp, you've noticed that Kawasaki is an interesting storyline.
Trying to adjust to baseball in the United States, the Japanese star has been extremely vocal and outgoing, learning as much as he can—including Spanish cuss-words from some players.
Anyways, Kawasaki has the enthusiasm that makes me believe he's primed for a great Spring Training. He's energetic in everything he does, and everyone knows he wants it badly—to be able to play with Ichiro, for whom he pretty much exclusively came to Seattle for.
He's not going to be able to do that if he's sent to the minor leagues.
Kawasaki has fit in well with the ballclub, and you can bet he'll be working as hard as he can to make sure he's on the 25-man roster when the Mariners open the regular season in Japan.
He's already drawn comparisons to fellow shortstop Brendan Ryan, and it'll be interesting to see how he does offensively.
Justin Smoak, 1B
When you talk about guys showing up ot Spring Training in the best shape of their life, Justin Smoak is one of them.
Manager Eric Wedge called Smoak into his office at the end of the season, asking him to commit to conditioning himself in the offseason.
Smoak answered the challenge, giving up junk-foods like pizza and burritos and showing up to camp both stronger and more athletic.
The lingering thumb injury both the Mariners and Smoak tried to keep under the table is healed, and he is likely recovered from the emotional impact of his father's death a year ago.
I feel stronger, my agility is better, I feel quicker. Guys see me and ask if I’m going to steal 30 bases this season.
All this points to a potential breakout campaign in 2012 that starts in Spring Training. If Smoak's dedication to improving himself pays off, M's fans could be in for a monster season from him this summer.
Vinnie Catricala, 3B
Vinnie Catricala is an interesting prospect at this point because the third base position is completely up in the air. The Mariners have Figgins cautiously penciled in as the starter, but it's anybody's game right now.
Catricala was the Mariners' minor league player of the year last year, hitting for a .420 OBP in 62 games with Double-A Jackson.
The caveat people have with his game right now is his defense, but Catricala is a "perfectionist" and is working on that aspect.
If he can clean that up and impress in Spring Training, he could be hard for the Mariners to turn down.
The M's will try Catricala in the outfield and at third base this spring, but he could be their third-baseman of the future if Kyle Seager is unimpressive and Chone Figgins is, well, Chone Figgins.
Every candidate has glaring weaknesses at this point.
It's an opportunity that Catricala could take advantage of if he keeps hitting as well as he has. The team would have no choice but to see what he can do at the major league level if he breaks out in Spring Training.
James Paxton, SP
Of the three prospect names you'll hear whenever someone mentions Mariners pitchers—Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton- Paxton is the most major-league ready.
At the age of 23, he's had the most experience and the maturity often needed to make that jump to the major leagues.
That isn't to say that Walker (19) or Hultzen (Rookie) won't break out this year, but I believe that Paxton is the most likely, especially if the criteria is making the Mariners roster.
Paxton has drawn comparisons to Michael Pineda's amazing performance last year with his fastball-curve combination with a developing changeup. Pineda was able to take the major leagues by storm with just two pitches, and Paxton has even better command of his body and repeatability of pitches.
Paxton, who majored in accounting in college and was planning on earning a master's degree in finance if baseball didn't work out, is a naturally gifted pitcher with a strong mental capacity.
In a position where it's just as important to have the smarts as it is the physical talent, Paxton is in great shape.
Look for Paxton to tear through Spring Training just as he did in Class-A and Double-A ball. I wouldn't be surprised if he follows Pineda's route, taking a brief stint in Triple-A after a breakout Spring Training before testing his stuff in the majors.
Mike Carp, LF/1B/DH
It's mindblowing what just a year can do for a person, and this past year may have been the most tumultuous one in Carp's life.
At this same time last year, Carp's career was in limbo.
Often labeled an AAAA-level player, Carp bounced around between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle without any staying ability.
Then, this summer, he became the team's offensive MVP down the stretch.
Then, he lost a great friend of his in Greg Halman, who was stabbed to death this past winter.
Carp has taken it upon himself to be inspired by Halman's death, and has already shown clubhouse leadership by having commemorative t-shirts made in remembrance of Halman.
Carp is ready to take the next step and turn himself into a star in 2012. He's ready for Spring Training and knows there isn't a moment to waste. He's ready to build off of 2011 with an even better physique and rigorous core-muscle training.
Buckle yourselves to your seats, because fans will be in for a ride with Mike Carp.
Casper Wells, LF
Casper Wells was on fire after the trade-deadline with Detroit deal sent him to Seattle, showing impressive home-run power that made Safeco field look like a hitter's ballpark.
That was until he was hit in the face by a pitch, and Wells struggled mightily at the plate from then on.
Doctors couldn't exactly figure out what was wrong as Wells went on a 3-for-45 slump the rest of the season, but now we know it had to do with his balance being affected.
An important joint in his spine was affected, throwing off his equilibrium and subsequently, his vision and balance. Now, those problems are 100% gone, and it will be exciting to see if Wells can crush pitches like he did last season.
And following the theme of players committing to a transforming offseason:
The day the 2011 season ended, I started preparing for the 2012 season, mentally, physically, emotionally. I worked on first-step quickness, did a lot of strength and conditioning—I want to play through a 162-game season.
What I wanted to do was put myself in prime condition to compete. My diet, my workouts, my approach. My apartment is full of sticky notes with things that inspire me.
Wells needs to be an important part of this team moving forward as a spot-starter and maybe Ichiro's eventual replacement. It all starts with how he does in Spring Training, but I think he will impress.
He clearly gets it, and Wedge is looking for players who can stay physically strong through the entire season.
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