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Seattle Mariners: 2014 Spring Training Preview

Madison GuernseyContributor IIIFebruary 10, 2014

Seattle Mariners: 2014 Spring Training Preview

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    For Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, this offseason was characteristic of the "win now" mentality. The GM has been grilled in the past for his tactics and aggressively went after the biggest free agent available in Robinson Cano and followed by adding more bats, but largely ignored pitching and defense.

    Of course, a new skipper is in town after Eric Wedge was relieved of his duties. Former Pittsburgh Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon was brought in to replace Wedge and begin a new era of Seattle Mariners baseball, which will also begin next season with a new president and COO, former executive VP of finance and ballpark operations Kevin Mather who replaced the recently retired Chuck Armstrong.

    The Mariners made another free agent splash when they signed veteran closer Fernando Rodney last week, and it appears he'll be the front-runner to take over the closer role that was relinquished by Tom Wilhelmsen last season.

    Here's a complete rundown of this offseason's acquisitions:

    Note: Acquisitions include players who have prior major league experience.

    PlayerPositionAgeContract
    Scott BakerP32Minor League***
    Joe Beimel P36Minor League**
    Willie Bloomquist 2B362yr/$5.8M
    John BuckC331yr/$1M*
    Robinson Cano2B3110yrs/$240M
    Endy ChavezOF36Minor League**
    Cole GillespieOF29Minor League**
    Franklin GutierrezOF301yr/$1M*
    Corey HartOF/1B311yr/$6M*
    Logan Kensing P31Minor League**
    Logan Morrison1OF261yr/$1.75M*
    Matt PalmerP34Minor League**
    Humberto Quintero C34Minor League**
    Ramon RamirezP32Minor League**
    Fernando RodneyP362yrs/$14M*
    Mark RogersP28Minor League**

    *: performance bonuses included in contract

    **: player was invited to spring training

    ***: player was invited to spring training AND has performance bonuses included in contract

    1: player was acquired via trade

    As you can see, there are a lot of ages in the 30s in the chart. The Mariners certainly didn't get any younger, but also don't have many large contract obligations for the foreseeable future.

    The addition of Cano will, at the very least, raise the excitement level surrounding this team exponentially and increase a home attendance that was fifth worst in the American League last year. Ideally for Cano and the Mariners, he won't suffer a slump similar to those had by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton following their mega-deals. He makes this team much better and while he alone can't make Seattle a contender, he at least gives them another superstar to build around for the next decade.

    Bringing back Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez gives the outfield much more depth. While Gutierrez's health is in doubt, he's was phenomenal when healthy last season and was signed for the right price.

    Hart is another guy who's recovering from an injury but is a proven slugger. Having him in the outfield or at DH will give Cano some protection in the lineup and a potential 30-homer/95-RBI bat.

    John Buck and Humberto Quintero figure to both make the roster in some regard. One will be Mike Zunino's backup, the other most likely in the minor leagues as a potential injury call-up.

    Rodney is an interesting signing. He had one great season (2012) but has otherwise been an average relief pitcher. He definitely fills a role Seattle needed to fill, but it seemed as if Zduriencik was enticed by the big name.

     

    Losses

    Below are all the players who won't be rejoining the Mariners this season.

    PlayerPositionNew Team
    Henry Blanco CArizona Diamondbacks
    Carter Capps RPMiami Marlins
    Raul IbanezOFLos Angeles Angels
    Kendrys Morales1BNone
    Carlos Peguero OFKansas City Royals
    Oliver PerezPNone
    Joe SaundersSPNone

    The biggest loss on this list is undoubtedly Kendrys Morales. Though he's yet to be picked up by another team, there's been little news regarding a return to Seattle, especially with the addition of Hart.

    Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe reports  Morales and the Pittsburgh Pirates have mutual interest in one another, but signing him would cost the Bucs the 25th overall pick in June's draft.

    Oliver Perez was an effective piece in Seattle's bullpen last season and could be used again this year. The latest report from Fox Sports 1's Jon Morosi is that Perez is "very close" to a deal with an undisclosed team. The Nationals and Padres have shown some interest this winter, but grumblings on the veteran southpaw have been mostly quiet.

    Next slide: Injury updates.

Injuries

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    Mariners RHP Stephen Pryor
    Mariners RHP Stephen PryorElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Several key players went down with injuries last season for the Mariners. Michael Morse, Jesus Montero, Stephen Pryor, Gutierrez and prospect Danny Hultzen all suffered significant injuries that kept them out for extended periods of time. 

    Newly acquired players Hart and Scott Baker are also coming off serious injuries, so the question is how many healthy bodies will the Mariners be able to field come Opening Day?

     

    Stephen Pryor

    Pryor had major shoulder problems and underwent surgery to repair a torn latissimus dorsi muscle on August 9. According to trainer Rob Nodine via SeattleMariners.com, Pryor may return around the end of May.

    "Hopefully it will be somewhere around the end of May, we're guessing, but we'll see how that goes. We're not going to hold him to a timetable, just because we want to see how this progresses."

    Pryor recently began a throwing program and is taking things slowly, according to Nodine. Due to the severity of the injury and the rarity of the type of surgery, progressions won't be rushed.

     

    Danny Hultzen

    Seattle's prized pitching prospect, Hultzen will miss the entire 2014 season after undergoing rotator cuff surgery.

    Per the same report, Hultzen is yet to begin a throwing program but will do so soon.

    Corey Hart

    The newly acquired slugger should be ready to go come spring training after missing all of last year with knee troubles. Hart had microfracture surgery on both knees but "is feeling much better," according to Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune.

    I haven't gotten on the field yet to do fly balls, but I've been doing simulated ground balls to work on my footwork and agility. It's been progressing. I've been able to do everything. It's been nice.

    It's unclear what Hart's role will be on defense. Per Dutton's report, Zduriencik and McClendon plan to have a three-man rotation of Hart, Morrison and Justin Smoak at first base and DH.

     

    Logan Morrison

    Speaking of Morrison, he's undergone surgeries on his right knee that have kept him out of spring training each of the last two years. Nodine said both he and Hart are "doing very, very good."

     

    Scott Baker

    Seattle acquired Baker via free agency to potentially fill a spot in the middle of the rotation. The right-hander underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and has missed nearly all of the last two seasons—other than 15 innings for the Chicago Cubs last year. 

    All indications are that Baker is healthy and ready to go. He was signed to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training, whereupon if he makes the club he'll make $1 million with up to $3.25 million added in performance bonuses. If he makes the team, he would be a very welcomed addition to the pitching staff.

Coaching Staff

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    New Mariners skipper Lloyd McClendon landed his first managerial gig since he headed the Pirates from 2001-05. 

    He was on Jim Leyland's staff with the Detroit Tigers from 2006-2013 first as a bullpen coach and then as the hitting coach where he tutored three-time batting champion Miguel Cabrera who led a consistently potent offense.

    What McClendon may be most remembered for is this tirade in which he stole first base (No. 5 on the list).

    McClendon will certainly have his work cut out for him. He joins a franchise that's seen eight losing seasons in the last 10 years with four playoff appearances in its history. 

    McClendon didn't fare well in Pittsburgh but had terrible rosters, so it's difficult to judge his abilities as a manager. Zduriencik explained to Shannon Drayer of MYNorthwest.com why he thought McClendon was the right man for the job:

    "To a man, even the players in Detroit right now had great things to say about his demeanor," Zduriencik said. "He's a tough guy, he's a quiet guy, very humble. It's not out there, it's not in-your-face personality but it is a very confident inner quietness about him, but his players play hard for him and they respect him."

    Although Zduriencik's comments are contrary to the video above, how much different is McClendon's demeanor from Wedge's? He rarely blew up and I'm sure his players played hard for him.

    Maybe a change of scenery is what this team needs, though. There was clearly tension between Wedge and the front office, so a fresh start was necessary. 

    Joining McClendon will be new hitting coach Howard Johnson. Johnson was a two-time All-Star as a player and was the hitting coach for Seattle's triple-A affiliate in Tacoma last year, which finished 10th in the Pacific Coast League with a .269 batting average.

    The new pitching coach is Rick Waits, who was also hired within. Waits was formerly the Mariners' minor league pitching coordinator and spent four seasons on the New York Mets staff with Johnson.

    Another notable coach is Andy Van Slyke, Seattle's new first base coach. Van Slyke has been away from baseball since the end of the 2009 season but returns to work with McClendon, whom he coached with in Detroit and played with in Pittsburgh.

Lineup Preview

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Projected lineup:

    1. Willie Bloomquist, LF

    2. Kyle Seager, 3B

    3. Robinson Cano, 2B

    4. Corey Hart, DH

    5. Justin Smoak, 1B

    6. Franklin Gutierrez, CF

    7. Mike Zunino, C

    8. Michael Saunders, RF

    9. Nick Franklin, SS

    Bench:

    Dustin Ackley, UTIL

    John Buck, C

    Logan Morrison, 1B

    Brad Miller, INF

     

    Bloomquist gets the starting nod atop the order for now, but Ackley may sneak in there if he has a good spring. Bloomquist is the closest thing Seattle has to a true leadoff hitter other than Brad Miller, who did well in that role last year. Unfortunately for Miller, Cano came in and, barring a setback, I don't see McClendon benching Nick Franklin.

    Second through fifth in the order will be pretty consistent, and Seager and Gutierrez are interchangeable at two and six.

    The bottom third is a crapshoot. McClendon and Zduriencik may determine Zunino isn't ready to be a starter and put Buck behind the dish.

    Saunders is one slump away from being demoted, and Franklin was inconsistent last year and could lose his job to Miller, who may be better defensively at short.

Rotation Preview

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    1. Felix Hernandez, RHP

    2. Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP

    3. Scott Baker, RHP

    4. Taijuan Walker, RHP

    5. James Paxton, LHP

     

    The Mariners' rotation is a mess. Only two things are for sure: Felix Hernandez will be the ace, and Hisashi Iwakuma will be his Robin.

    From there the rotation leaves many question marks. Will they add another veteran to fill the third spot? Will it lean youth-heavy?

    Baker gets the nod as the third starter based on his experience and success (63-48, 4.14 ERA, 1.258 WHIP). Walker and Paxton have the most talent of everyone remaining but their lack of experience is a red flag. 

    Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Hector Noesi all have more experience but haven't fared as well as starters. 

    Beavan and Ramirez have been solid but inconsistent, and Noesi and Maurer have downright struggled in the rotation and will be lucky to land bullpen roles.

Bullpen Preview

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    Mariners closer Fernando Rodney
    Mariners closer Fernando RodneyChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Blake Beavan, RHP

    Danny Farquhar, RHP

    Charlie Furbush, LHP

    Lucas Luetge, LHP

    Yoervis Medina, RHP

    Fernando Rodney, RHP (C)

    Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP (SU)

     

    Seattle's bullpen isn't great, but it's well-balanced.

    Beavan can throw long innings when needed but won't be used much other than that. He's mostly a placeholder until Pryor returns from injury.

    Furbush can go three-plus innings as well and doubles as a lefty specialist. He was one of Seattle's best relievers last year and allowed left-handed batters to hit just .173 off him. 

    Luetge is a middle-innings guy who isn't great against lefties (.259) but is even worse against right-handed hitters (.318).

    Medina and Farquhar were both pleasant surprises last season. Farquhar took over as closer after Wilhelmsen struggled and was successful, converting 16 of 18 save opportunities. Medina was the most consistent reliever as a rookie, posting a 2.91 ERA and 19 holds.

    Wilhelmsen still has good stuff, something just went wrong at a bad time last season. He'll bounce back and be Rodney's eighth-inning guy.

    Rodney will be Seattle's new closer and should do well. He's played in a pitcher's park throughout his career, and I think we're all excited to see the angle of his hat.

Propect Watch

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    Mariners prospect Stefen Romero
    Mariners prospect Stefen RomeroCharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Aside form Paxton, Walker, Miller, Zunino and Franklin, there are some notable prospects to be looking for this spring who will challenge for a roster spot.

     

    Stefen Romero

    This guy has switched positions half a dozen times but can flat-out hit. 

    Through 330 minor league games he has a slash line of .306/.357/.506 with 50 homers and 242 RBI. He strikes out way more than he walks but he doesn't do much of either. If he can show a little more patience and raise his on-base percentage he'll be hard to keep out of the lineup.

     

    Julio Morban

    The 21-year-old outfielder has been in the Mariners system for five years now and keeps improving. He can hit for average and power but needs to improve defensively. His athleticism and natural ability will give him a chance to make the big leagues at some point this season.

     

    Ji-Man Choi

    The South Korea product is just 22 years old but has quickly ascended the minor league ranks, playing in high-A ball, double-A and triple-A all last year.

    He put up ridiculous numbers in rookie ball before getting hurt and missing all of 2011 but still hit .295/.394/.535 with 18 homers and 85 RBI in 499 plate appearances last season. 

    He's been a consistently impressive hitter and is solid with the glove. He probably won't make the ballclub out of spring training, but expect him in a Mariners uniform before the season is over.

Breakout Candidates

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    Taijuan Walker

    The highly touted prospect finally made his major league debut last fall and didn't disappoint.

    He'll have high expectations put on him to replicate and build upon that success, but he should have no trouble doing so. 

    It was a small sample size, but Walker's 3.60 ERA, 1.0 WHIP and 12 strikeouts in 15 innings didn't go unnoticed. 

    McClendon said he expects Walkers to open the season in the starting rotation, so he'll have plenty of opportunities to rise to the occasion.

     

    Erasmo Ramirez

    This is a guy who may not even make the team out of spring training but just needs to get his chance and he'll make a name for himself.

    Ramirez appeared in 30 games (21 starts) in parts of the last two seasons and has done well in both roles. As a starter Ramirez is 6-6 with a 4.44 ERA and a 1.258 WHIP (117.2 IP). As a reliever he's posted a 2.63 ERA and a 1.171 WHIP (13.2 IP).

    If he doesn't make the Opening Day squad, Ramirez is just an injury or a few poor outings away from getting recalled and having another chance to earn his keep in Seattle.

     

    Dustin Ackley

    I know, he's been a huge bust. But he turned things around in the second half last year after getting a wake-up call in the form of a relegation to the minors. 

    Lookout Landing does a nice job here of showing Ackley's improvement in pitch recognition and his improved patience at the plate.

    He can play outfield, second or first, giving Seattle two utility men and giving Ackley ample opportunities to see the field and get at-bats.

Position Battle Predictions

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    Mariners catcher Mike Zunino
    Mariners catcher Mike ZuninoElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Catcher

    The entire catching depth chart is up in the air.

    It would make sense for Mike Zunino to be the starter, but it would also make sense for John Buck to take the reins and let Zunino ease his way into the starting role.

    Last season Zunino struggled at the plate, hitting .214/.290/.329 with five homers and 14 RBI in 193 plate appearances. 

    There's no doubt he's the catcher of the future in Seattle, but perhaps he was brought up prematurely. 

    Buck is a veteran who's never hit for average but has some pop and is slightly above average defensively. He will help Zunino as either a starter or his backup.

    Let's hope for Seattle's sake they employ fewer than seven catchers this season.

    Predicted winner: Zunino.

     

    Outfield

    The outfield is packed with sub-par fielders, rookies and a walking trainer's table.

    Hart and Morrison will likely have to play outfield at some point this season due to a log jam at first base/DH.

    Gutierrez has a spot in center if he's able to take it.

    Ackley is now an outfielder with the middle infield of Cano, Miller and Franklin taking shape.

    Michael Saunders is a mainstay out there but hasn't produced offensively. 

    Willie Bloomquist can and will play everywhere.

    The outfield is doomed for platoon duty, but that may not be such a bad thing after all. Until the season gets going and roles are more clearly established, that is.

    Until Ackley shows some consistency I don't think he's a starter. As I mentioned earlier, Bloomquist is the best option at leadoff and can play left, so that's one down.

    Gutierrez will play center for as long as his body lets him and Saunders will play right, but expect there to be differences in the lineup and in the field every day for at least a little while.

     

    Back end of the rotation

    Will Scott Baker return to his old form after almost two seasons away from a major league mound?

    Will Taijuan Walker and James Paxton take the spring by storm and lock down spots in the rotation?

    Will former starters Blake Beavan or Erasmo Ramirez resurrect their former roles as starting pitchers?

    If, and it's a big if, Baker looks 100 percent, he has to be in the rotation. He has more experience than the other names combined and was a very reliable starter before he got injured.

    As for the other four, it's ultimately going to come down to Lloyd McClendon's gut and how they look this spring. Walker and Paxton were far better than Beavan and Ramirez last year, but they were pitching to unfamiliar bats, many of whom were September call-ups themselves.

    Predicted winners: Baker, Paxton, Walker.

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