(Tampa Bay’s Casey Kotchman is congratulated after hitting his first, and so far only, spring homer on March 19 against Minnesota. Photo by Associated Press).
On Opening Day of 2010, nearly one year ago, Casey Kotchman, Jose Lopez and Rob Johnson were all in the Seattle lineup, and Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ian Snell comprised 40 percent of the five-man Mariner rotation. Johnson even hit a home run in Seattle’s win over Oakland, putting him on pace for 162 (he finished with two). Kotchman drove in four runs and you thought maybe he was poised for a breakout year (he wasn’t).
All are gone now, of course. I thought you might like to know how all those ex-Mariners are doing as Opening Day of 2011 beckons (plus Russell Branyan, who didn’t start the season with Seattle but ended up leading them in home runs with 15 despite not joining the team until June 26 – a sentence that tells you pretty much all you need to know about the 2010 Mariners). Ken Griffey Jr. is also gone from last year’s season-opening lineup, but I think everyone knows what he’s up to.
Russell Branyon: Today is the day the Diamondbacks must make a decision on Branyan, who is in camp on a minor-league contract, which he signed the day before spring training started. He has an out clause allowing him to become a free agent if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster (and a $2 million contract if he does). GM Kevin Towers said he’ll make the decision today. (UPDATE 3:30 p.m. Friday: Branyan makes Diamondbacks roster).
It’s looking good for Branyan, who is competing with Juan Miranda and Brandon Allen for the starting first base job (thought Xavier Nady could play first against tough lefties). For one thing, the Diamondbacks need power after losing Mark Reynolds and Adam LaRoche. And for another, he’s hitting .467 this spring with four homers and 16 RBI, both team highs. He had a game-winning grand slam on Wednesday off a lefty – Texas’s Arthur Rhodes.
“He’s certainly made a great case to make the team,” manager Kirk Gibson told Fox Sports Arizona.
Jose Lopez: Traded to Colorado last December (for pitcher Chaz Roe), Lopez may be on the trade block, according to a tweet yesterday from Ken Rosenthal of FOXsports.com. Lopez is competing with Ty Wiggington and Jonathan Herrera for the Rockies’ second-base job. He’s already been a part of another trade rumor this spring, when the Rockies were supposedly interested in dealing for Texas’s Michael Young.
In 44 at-bats this spring, Lopez is hitting .222 with one extra-base hit (a double) and a .286 on-base percentage. Yup, same Jose Lopez.
Casey Kotchman: Kotchman is tearing it up this spring with Tampa Bay, hitting .362 (17-for-47) with a .412 on-base percentage and .532 slugging percentage (slightly ahead of last year’s .217/.280/.336 numbers for Seattle).
Despite Kotchman’s success, Dan Johnson appears likely to win the battle for the Rays’ first-base job, which could well mean Kotchman is headed to the Triple-A Durham Bulls.
“Right now, just being honest, Johnson has the inside edge,” Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon told reporters earlier this week. “He’s got the inside track.”
Last year, between Durham and the Rays, Johnson had 37 homers, 118 RBIs and 100 walks in 138 games. In 40 games for Tampa, he had seven homers and 23 RBIs, with 25 walks in 140 plate appearances.
Kotchman signed a minor-league contract on Jan. 28. The fact he’s not on the 40-man roster is part of the reason he’s still a long-shot to make the team. The Rays don’t appear to have the luxury of keeping a backup first baseman.
“Kotch is doing a great job, and he’s making this whole thought process a little more difficult,” Maddon told MLB.colm. “But you’ve got to look at what Danny did for us last year and the last couple of years, and consider that strongly. I think he’s swinging the bat well right now. So it’s a nice problem for us to have right now, but as I’ve said from the beginning, Danny’s the incumbent.”
Ryan Rowland-Smith: Rowland-Smith, who endured a brutal season with the Mariners last year (1-10, 6.75 ERA), signed with Houston after being non-tendered by Seattle. He competed all spring for the No. 5 starters job, but was informed on Sunday he wasn’t going to get it. So now he’s competing for a relief job. Nelson Figueroa, 36, will be Houston’s No. 5 starter behind Brett Myers, Wandy Rodriguez, J.A. Happ and Bud Norris.
Rowland-Smith has a 6.55 ERA in 11 innings this spring. He has given up three homers, and has walked seven with just three strikeouts. Now he is competing for Fernando Abad and Gustavo Chacin for a left-handed relief role.
“I want to have a good last week and embrace whatever role they give me and contribute,” Rowland-Smith told MLB.com “I’ve probably spent 50 percent of my career in the bullpen, and I’ve had a lot of success in the bullpen before I got a chance to start. Like I said, wherever I pitch, I want to be a part of this. I know I can contribute in different ways.”
Ian Snell: Snell went to camp with the St. Louis Cardinals but opted to retire when they reassigned him to minor-league camp on March 15.
Thus apparently ends a rollercoaster career that saw Snell win 14 games for Pittsburgh as a 24-year-old in 2006. He looked like one of the rising young pitchers in the National League but regressed from there, bottoming out last year in Seattle with an 0-5 record and 6.41 ERA in 12 games (eight starts). But on the bright side, Snell earned $8.8 million over the course of his career.
Rob Johnson: Johnson, traded to San Diego in December after a .191 season, is in line to be the Padres’ backup catcher behind Nick Hundley. That status solidified when Gregg Zaun opted to retire in early March. Johnson is hitting .227 in 22 at-bats.