Last week, I talked about the starting pitching in light of the absence of Cliff Lee (shown above with Ken Griffey Jr.) Here are some thoughts about the rest of the Mariner team based on my stint in Arizona:
Bullpen: David Aardsma labored much of the spring, but he did have a groin injury early in camp that threw him back. He has thrown well in back-to-back outings, which is encouraging. If Aardsma struggles into the season, the M’s have some options in Brandon League and Mark Lowe, not to mention Chad Cordero, who will start the year in AAA but believes he’s not far from being the 47-save guy he was in 2005. That was before labrum surgery nearly wiped out his career. I still believe that bullpen will be a big strength of this team, and I don’t have major worries about Aardsma.
Infield: I’ve liked what I’ve seen of Casey Kotchman at first. Defensively, he’s superb. He’ll prevent a lot of errors with his ability to dig out bad throws, a la John Olerud. I just have a hunch that Kotchman is at a place in his career where he could out-perform his past at the plate. I think the medical ordeal of his mother took a toll the last couple of years, and he’s had a lot of nagging health issues of his own over the years that have held him down. His mom is better, he’s healthy, he’s comfortable on a team with one of his good friends, Chone Figgins, and he has a past relationship in the Angels’ organization with Don Wakamatsu. Plus, he’s 27, which should be just about the start of his prime. It all points to a good situation for him to break out. The mystery is how much Kotchman will play against lefties. Mike Sweeney appears to have all but made the team, which would probably be at the expense of Ryan Garko, who hasn’t impressed anyone with his glove. But Garko mashes lefties, so a Kotchman-Garko platoon made a lot of sense. Sweeney, however, has out-hit everyone this spring. I was impressed with how well he was running and moving around. The question is whether he can play a passable first base a couple times a week, which would allow both Eric Byrnes and Milton Bradley to play against left-handed pitching. We’ll see.
I have no complaints about the Chone Figgins/Jose Lopez switcheroo. The best part for the Mariners is that Lopez has embraced it, which was half the battle. My feeling is that the gain from moving Lopez out of second base will more than offset whatever defensive downgrade from Figgins as a second baseman as opposed to a third baseman. I watched Jack Wilson and Figgins turning double plays one day during an infield drill, and they were amazingly quick on the pivot. Didn’t matter whether it was 4-6-3, or 6-4-3, they already had great chemistry. If Wilson stays healthy this year, the Mariners infield defense will be excellent, even with the major loss of Adrian Beltre. I’d say Kotchman-Figgins-Wilson-Lopez is markedly better than Branyon-Lopez-Betancourt-Beltre, which is what the M’s had for the first half of last year.
Catching: Rob Johnson is definitely more mobile than he was last year. I think a lot of his defensive issues (like the nine passed balls in 80 games) had to do with two bad hips that made it hard for him to block balls in the dirt (that, and the insane movement on Felix Hernandez’s pitches). I’m really high on Adam Moore, both offensively and defensively. Moore should get considerable playing time early in the season while the M’s continue to be extra cautious with Johnson, and if he performs, it could stay that way.
Outfield: We all know what Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez can do defensively – just about everything there is to be done. The Mariners believe Gutierrez has only scratched the surface offensively, and I wouldn’t disagree. I don’t think 25 homers is unrealistic. As for Ichiro, you can pencil in the 200 hits right now; heck, ink it in, as long as he stays healthy. I’ve always wondered what would happen when Ichiro starts losing all those infield hits (59 last year), but I don’t see any visible loss of speed that would make me think this is the year that happens. Ichiro and Figgins at the top of the lineup is the best thing the Mariners have going for them, offensively. The big question, of course, is who is going to bring them around. Which brings us to Milton Bradley, who will be the cleanup hitter. Bradley willl be a huge indicator of the Mariners’ success, in a variety of ways. They really need him to produce like he did two years ago (.563 slugging, .436 on-base). If he comes close to that, the M’s will be in great shape. The more time he gets at DH, with Eric Byrnes in left, the better. Remember, Bradley has played as many as 141 games just once in his career and has 11 stints on the disabled list. Can he avoid the issues he had last year in Chicago (and throughout his career, to be honest?). I think there’s a decent chance. For all the hubbub over his two ejections, they were really no big deal. One was blatantly ridiculous, the other was minor, and in both cases he just kept walking to the dugout, and didn’t make any kind of scene. Other than that, his spring was pretty much a non-event – and that’s a good thing. I’ve said it before, but if Bradley can’t stay happy with this team, this manager, this fan base and this press core (much more laid-back than Chicago’s), I don’t know where he could go next.
Designated hitter: It looks like Ken Griffey Jr. will be the main guy against righty pitching, at least at the start of the season. He’ll be hitting fifth, too, so he has to produce. If not, the Mariners will face the dilemma of easing him out of playing time. Of course, when Griffey re-signed, it was with the understanding that his playing time could be reduced. At this point, it seems, he’ll get his share of at-bats to show that he still belongs in a place of importance in the batting order. Bradley will get some DH time, and so will Mike Sweeney, assuming he makes the team. It will be interesting to see how that dynamic plays out. It’s one of many questions that await us in one week, when the Mariners kick it off for real in Oakland.
(Photo by Associated Press)