(Carlos Guillen, photo by Associated Press)
For the Mariners, this is a season predicated on youth. It’s the essence of “The Plan” that’s going to lead the Mariners out of the darkness (they say). It’s the reason that Jack Zduriencik pleads for patience while all this young talent coalesces. It’s the central meme for 2012: the Mariners are going young, with all the pitfalls and all the payoff.
Obviously, the shining hope for the future is the young core of players that broke in last year (Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Casper Wells, Mike Carp et al, with new addition Jesus Montero), backed up by the wave of young pitchers knocking on the door (Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker).
But a flurry of late signings makes it apparent that the M’s aren’t quite ready to turn this thing over to the kids, lock, stock and bat barrel. Kevin Millwood was signed on Jan. 24, and if I were a betting man, I’d wager that the old warhorse is going to be in the rotation if he doesn’t completely self-destruct in spring training. Manager Eric Wedge said recently that he’s never seen a veteran provide more leadership than Millwood did when he pitched for Wedge in Cleveland. It sure sounds to me like he wants Millwood, now 37, to win a job, and I expect him to do just that.
Hasashi Iwakuma is going to almost certainly be in rotation as well, and even though he’s a rookie by major-league standards, he’s 30 years old and has several seasons in Japan under his belt. Throw in incumbents Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas, and the Mariners have room for one kid in their rotation, with Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush to fight it out.
Moving to the bullpen, the Mariners earlier this week signed two veteran relievers, Hong-Chih Kuo (age 30) and Shawn Camp (age 36) to major-league contracts. That doesn’t make them a lock to stick in the Mariners’ bullpen, but it sure gives them a leg up. Two other veterans, Brandon League and George Sherrill, are already set. Assuming a seven-man pen, that leaves maybe three spots for the “kids” — unless 33-year-old Aaron Heilman, who is coming to camp on a minor-league contract, makes the team. Shawn Kelley, who is young but not exactly an untried rookie, is also strongly in the mix. Tom Wilhelmsen, who flashed great promise last year, has an excellent chance to make the staff as well. He’s not young (age 28) because of the hiatus he took from baseball, but he’s youthful in major-league experience. That leaves the likes of Chance Ruffin, Cesar Jimenez, Rule 5 selectee Lucas Luetge and perhaps Furbush (if he doesnt crack the rotation) to fight it out for the remaining bullpen berths.
In the lineup, obviously the Mariners will have young, developing players at first base (Smoak), second base (Ackley), designated hitter (Montero, who will also catch, though how much is still unclear), and left field (Carp, Wells). But the signing of 36-year-old Carlos Guillen last week, along with the way Wedge has been talking up Chone Figgins (age 34), makes it possible that Kyle Seager will begin the season at Tacoma, as Geoff speculated recently. The M’s are also going with veterans at catcher (Miguel Olivo, age 33), shortstop (Brendan Ryan, age 30), center field (Franklin Gutierrez, age 29), and, of course, right field (Ichiro, age 38). The bench could be rounded out by either 30-year-old Munenori Kawasaki, another technical rookie who is a veteran Japanese player, or 31-year-old Luis Rodriguez, along with catcher John Jaso, who will be in his third full year.
It’s impossible to predict exactly what will happen in spring training. Millwood and Guillen might show that they have nothing left and get cut, leaving rookies to take those roles. Figgins could get traded. Seager could seize the third-base job, or one of the youngsters currently ticketed for Tacoma might have such a great spring that the Mariners simply can’t leave them off the roster. And it’s important to realize that, just like last year, the Mariner team that starts the season isn’t likely to resemble the one that ends it — or even the one they’ll field in July. Hultzen, Paxton, Seager and others like Vinny Catricala could work their way onto the roster, and into prominent roles, as the season progresses. And who knows what kind of growth players like Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero and Michael Saunders — all of whom seem to have played their way out of all but long-shot contention for an Opening Day roster spot — will display?
The Mariners are undeniably skewing young, but with guys like Millwood, Guillen, Kuo, Camp and Sherrill brought in, they are hedging their bets a little, and providing Wedge with what they hope is some veteran stability and leadership. However, in a season in which contention is almost certainly not in the cards — and if it does, by some shocker, turn out to be the case, will surely be prompted by breakouts from young players, not revivals by faded veterans — it seems to me that they should live and die with the kids.
I realize there’s always the danger of damaging the confidence of a young player thrust into a role for which he’s not ready (see Robinson, Trayvon). But if the Mariners are not going to bring in prime-time players, I’d rather look at Seager, or Alex Liddi, or Catricala, than Figgins trying one more time to find himself, or the last gasp of Guillen. I also realize that managers find great comfort in veterans like Millwood, and he could have value in imparting wisdom to the Beavans of the world. But if this season is about the youth, I hope they turn it over to the kids sooner rather than later. We’ve seen enough last-gasp veterans the last few years.