MLB Spring Training 2011: 10 Things We've Already Learned About the Mariners

Brandon McClintock@@BMcClintock_BSNCorrespondent IMarch 2, 2011

MLB Spring Training 2011: 10 Things We've Already Learned About the Mariners

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    Let's face it, the Mariners' 2010 season was forgettable, just down right awful. At 61-101, only the Pittsburgh Pirates were worse in 2010 at 57-105.

    The Mariners will likely struggle to compete in the AL West again this season. The Texas Rangers are the reigning American League champions, the Oakland Athletics spent the offseason improving every part of their roster and the Los Angeles Angels are poised to improve on their 80-82 season if health cooperates this season.

    The Mariners have some promising prospects who figure to contribute in 2011 and could help them to compete in the near future.

    The Cliff Lee trade in 2010 landed the Mariners prospects Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak. Current organizational top-prospects Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley figure to be in the mix with Seattle this season as well.

    The Mariners, under new manager Eric Wedge, will look to build on their strengths and work to address their weaknesses. With an abundance of young talent and 23 non-roster invitees in attendance, the Mariners will have options to address each of these concerns.

    While not much news has come out of spring training yet, let's take a look at 10 things we have already learned about the Seattle Mariners in the early stages of spring.

Griffey Back with Mariners as Special Assistant

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    While this does not effect the Seattle Mariners on the field in 2011, this was a nice development at the beginning of spring training. After his abrupt retirement last June after clashing with then-manager Don Wakamatsu, Griffey's relationship with the Mariners seemed fractured.

    Wakamatsu is gone now, though, and the Mariners have brought Griffey back to serve in an unspecified role with the Mariners. He will be a consultant in spring training and throughout the season he will be a spokesman for the Mariners public relations and marketing interests.

    Ken Griffey is one of the all-time greatest Mariners and he can make an impact on the younger players in Mariners camp and in the minor leagues. Will this result in any additional wins for the Mariners in 2011? No, but having Griffey as part of the Mariners administrative side rather than playing side likely will have a positive impact.

    Before his retirement it was obvious that his days as an elite player were behind him and replacing him in the lineup with Jack Cust will add production to the Mariners lineup. Griffey's influence on the Mariners prospects will provide a positive impact on future Mariners lineups.

Eric Wedge Will Control the Team Better Than Wakamatsu Could

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    After the incidents that prompted the early mid-season retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. and the in-dugout feud with Chone Figgins, it is easy to come to the conclusion that Don Wakamatsu lost control of his clubhouse in 2010. The 61-101 record was just icing on the cake to ensure his dismissal.

    Eric Wedge already established a different approach to his handling of the 2011 Mariners by taking control of the clubhouse.

    The Mariners most recognizable player over the past decade discussed his new manager so far in spring training: "He's got a strong heart,'' Ichiro said. "He's not very emotional, although he can get emotional, which is good. You can see he's got very strong base and he's not the kind of guy that will sway. He's got his own strong feelings and he will come right after you, which is good. That's what this team needs.''

    "He's totally different from Wak,'' Ichiro continued. "He expresses his feelings in a different way. The things they have in common are they have a very strong feeling towards the game. And a good feel towards the game...basic fundamentals. That's what is very similar. But besides that, you can say there is a lot that's different from just talking about Wakamatsu.''

    It's hard to evaluate if Wedge will be a better manager and have more success than Wakamatsu or not. But let's be honest: It would be awfully hard for him not to have more success than Wakamatsu.

Dustin Ackley Almost Ready but Likely to Start Season in AAA

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    Dustin Ackley has impressed early in spring training and he will get plenty more opportunities to compete for the starting job at second base throughout spring. His bat is not a concern for the Mariners, but they want to see him improve his footwork and overall defense if he is to earn the job.

    The early speculation out of Mariners training camp is that Ackley will likely start the season in AAA while they continue to further develop his talents.

    It appears from comments made by Mariners coach Robbie Thompson that Ackley has made serious improvements from where the Mariners expected him to be defensively.

    "We look for actions,'' he said. "How his hands and feet move together. How he moves around. Obviously, the pivot. His arm strength on the pivot. How he works around the back (of second base). For me, he's ahead of the game compared to where I thought he might be.''

    Thompson added this regarding Ackley's offensive capabilities: "For a young kid, it's been a long time since I've seen a guy repeat that swing path as consistently as he does and the way he takes the head of the bat, whether the ball's down and away or down and in, and can manipulate the bat to where it needs to be.''

    If Ackley starts the season in AAA, it will be solely to get more games under his belt so the defensive actions at second base come more naturally for him.

Michael Pineda Appears Poised to Help the Mariners Rotation in 2011

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    The highly-touted 22-year-old pitching phenom has looked very good in his bullpen sessions and in his first intra-squad game this spring.

    Pineda has shown off his plus-fastball repeatedly this spring, reaching 97-98 mph regularly. His changeup has looked good and effective at 89-90 mph. The pitch still causing some concern is his slider.

    Pineda's slider is still coming in a little too hard and flat. He will need three pitches to be an effective big-league starter, so this is still something the Mariners hope to see him address and improve throughout the remainder of the spring.

    Pineda looks like the early favorite for the fifth-starter spot in the rotation if he can improve his slider. If Pineda starts the season in the minor leagues, it will likely be to avoid him reaching Super Two status and reaching arbitration a year early.

    Pineda figures to be a staple in the Mariners rotation behind Felix Hernandez for many years. So far this spring, he appears to be ready.

Prospects from Cliff Lee Trade Ready to Step in and Help

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    When the Mariners fell out of contention and traded left-hander Cliff Lee to Texas last summer, the primary prospects they received in return were Justin Smoak and Blake Beaven.

    Moving into this year, both players figure to be contributors to the 2011 Mariners roster.

    Justin Smoak played 30 games with the Mariners last season, hitting .239/.287/.407 with five home runs and 14 RBI.

    He enters 2011 as the Mariners primary first baseman. Smoak is a talented switch hitter with power from both sides of the plate. Early in spring training he has shown flashes of his hitting ability. He will attempt to put together a strong spring to erase any memories of his performance with the Mariners last season which earned him a minor league demotion.

    Beaven looked good in his intra-squad appearance, and while he is likely headed to AAA to start the season, he could figure into the Mariners starting rotation at some point this season if any of the current starters start to falter or in the event of an injury.

    Manager Eric Wedge has been quick to praise Beaven often this spring: "You love his size,'' Wedge says. "I really like the way his arm looks. And you love to watch a young person like that just continue to learn, continue to get better.''

Aardsma Recovering from Hip Surgery Slower Than Expected

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    David Aardsma was able to start walking without the use of his crutches last week for the first time since early-January hip surgery.

    Aardsma is expected to start his throwing program in about a week which could have him missing about a month of the regular season.

    "Right now the plan is to take maybe about a week and really get comfortable walking and rotating and getting my body in the right direction, so when we start throwing, there are no setbacks," Aardsma said. "I think it's smart to not jump into something before my body is ready."

    While Aardsma rehabs his injury, Brandon League appears to be the early front-runner for the closer role in April.

    The Mariners have been rumored to be shopping Aardsma before his surgery, though, so the Mariners could be auditioning for the permanent position if they do find a taker after Aardsma returns and proves his health.

Jack Cust Will Take over for Ken Griffey (in More Ways Than 1)

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    Offseason free-agent signing Jack Cust is trying to fill in for Griffey in more ways than just lineup production. So far in spring training, Cust is already occupying Griffey's old locker across from Ichiro, he will fill in at the DH spot previously occupied by Griffey and he has apparently taken over the role of Ichiro's personal entertainment as well.

    Recently while Ichiro was conducting an interview, Cust decided to mimic Ichiro's sense of style in the background. Wearing a pair of jeans rolled up around the ankles with a pair of high-top sneakers on underneath, Ichiro noticed and asked Cust through his interpreter if the immitation was intentional.

    "Yeah,'' Cust replied. "Ichiro wears his pants like this. That's the style. Too bad I don't have the belt to match.''

    "He's a funny guy,'' Ichiro responded to reporters. "If you were to break it down, I'm the good sample and he's the bad sample. Say, for instance, if you see a (fashion) magazine where it says 'good' and 'bad'? I'd be on the good side and he'd be on the bad side.''

    Somehow I don't see Cust being able to get away with tickling Ichiro as Griffey was able to, though.

    On the preparation side, though, Cust has been putting in his time in the outfield as well. Although he was signed as the primary DH, he takes his reps in the outfield, primarily left field, so he is prepared should he need to play there during the regular season.

    He has impressed teammates and fans so far with his early hitting abilities as well as his strong arm in left field.

Milton Bradley Leads Left Field Competion, Michael Saunders Still in the Mix

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    Milton Bradley has appeared healthy (at least physically, no comment on mental status) early this spring. In the first intra-squad game of the spring, Bradley stole two bases and he was thrown out stealing once, showing that his surgically-repaired knee is healthy. He was 3-for-3 with two RBI against the Rangers while playing left field on Monday.

    Bradley, a switch-hitter, gives the M's some options in both the outfield and to spell regular-DH Jack Cust occasionally for a day off.

    Bradley had some legal trouble during the offseason. While it does not seem it will result in any charges that would cost him time during the season, the Mariners have to be concerned about his state of mind and any distractions that could come from an ongoing legal matter.

    Saunders could find himself starting the season in AAA if he is not able to win the starting job away from Bradley by the end of spring. The idea is that the Mariners would rather have him receive regular at-bats and playing time in the minor leagues instead of sporadic at-bats and time on the bench in the major leagues.

    Manager Eric Wedge has said it is not a foregone conclusion that Saunders would go to the minor leagues if he does not win the starting job however:

    "That's not something we have to decide in spring training,'' Wedge said. "With Michael, I think it's important for me, Chris (Chambliss), all the coaches really, to get a good feel for him on the field. Obviously, particularly at home plate. But I don't think we need to make that determining factor in spring training. What we need to figure out initially is, just, how is he going to be a part of this thing as we move forward? Where do we see him at now and where does he need to be?''

Erik Bedard Poised to Return to the Mariners Rotation

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    A healthy Erik Bedard will help ease the mid-season loss last year of Cliff Lee. Bedard has looked sharp in bullpen sessions so far this spring after missing all of 2010 while recovering from shoulder surgery.

    Bedard could wind up trade bait by the July trade deadline if he is able to put together an effective-and-healthy spring training and first half of the season.

    So far this spring, Bedard looked very good in the Mariners first exhibition game against the San Diego Padres on Sunday. In his half-inning of work, Bedard struck-out two batters and got a first-pitch ground out on nine total pitches, eight strikes and only one ball.

Felix Can Pitch and Ichiro Can Hit

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    OK, this really falls under common knowledge and not something we learned so far this spring, but early in spring we have seen that Felix can pitch and Ichiro can hit. Who knew, right?

    The Mariners will count on this remaining true for the duration of the 2011 season in order to see successful improvement over last season.

    While spring training games have just started, Felix Hernandez has looked very good in his bullpen sessions so far. He appears poised to repeat as the American League's Cy Young winner again in 2011. With some additional run-support, he could become a 20-game winner for the first time in his career.

    Ichiro roped a pair of singles through the shortstop hole in the first intra-squad game of the spring season, picking up right where he left off last season. Ichiro can be penciled in for 200-hits, .300-average and a Gold Glove annually. Even at 37 years old, his skills do not appear to have deteriorated at all.

    Felix Hernandez and Ichiro will look to provide the veteran leadership necessary to bond their young-and-talented team together and start to transform them into a contender.

    Contention may not be within reach in 2011, but the Mariners should be able to drastically improve on their 61-101 record from last season and approach the .500 mark this season. With another year under their belts, the Mariners could be back in contention in the AL West as early as 2012.