(Photo by Associated Press)
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It seems like a vague memory now, but the biggest story when Mariners camp opened way back in mid-February was Franklin Gutierrez — his new, chiseled body, the fact he had conquered his stomach issues, and the line drives and long blasts that were echoing off his bat at the Peoria Sports Complex. Visions of a monster breakthrough season by Gutierrez danced in everyone’s head.
All that became moot, of course, on Feb. 28 when Gutierrez, after feeling a twinge during a throwing drill, left the field, hopped into a car with an assistant trainer, and drove away for medical tests. The diagnosis was a pectoral injury, and the hopes of Gutierrez making an early impact on the Mariners was torn asunder. His rehab was complicated by a plantar fasciitis problem, and now Gutierrez is in Tacoma on a rehab assignment, still trying to make his way back to Seattle, more than three months later.
Michael Saunders, meanwhile, was not prominent in the Mariners’ plans when camp opened. I don’t think it’s a stretch to think that if Gutierrez had stayed healthy, Saunders was ticketed for Tacoma, coming off a troubled year in which he introduced himself to Eric Wedge and the new coaching staff by hitting .149 in 58 games. That left Saunders’ career average in 204 games at .196. Everyone recognized his raw talent and athleticism, but at some point, you run out of chances to show that you can actually transform that potential into reality.
Gutierrez’s injury gave Saunders one more chance, and to his credit, he’s run with it. Sprinted, actually. First, he solidified his spot on the team by hitting .356 in spring training to clinch the center field job vacated by Gutierrez.. And now he is rapidly developing into one of the most productive players in the league at that position. Since his average dipped to .219 on May 12, Saunders has gone .344/.394/.511 (.905 OPS) over his last 24 games. Overall, he’s at .277/.346/.462 (.807), with six homers (and 16 doubles) and 20 RBIs. Those numbers will play in this league (though Saunders, like most everyone else on the team, still has to show he can produce at Safeo Field). It’s to the point now that if and when Gutierrez returns to the Mariners, Eric Wedge wouldn’t even think of taking Saunders out of the lineup. He’ll get creative to find ways to keep his bat (and glove) in there — an amazing turnaround for a guy slated for Triple-A.
The Mariners’ other big success story this year is Kyle Seager (above, after hitting a home run in the first inning aganist the Angels on Monday), another player who came to camp without a defined role. The Mariners had determined to give Chone Figgins one last chance to show that he was capable of playing every day, so third base was ticketed for him. Seager at best seemed destined to be an infield utility man and spot starter.
Then, on Opening Day in Japan — a game in which Seager didn’t play — left fielder Mike Carp injured his shoulder on a diving play, and landed on the disabled list. He was out for the entire month of April, requiring a chain reaction of moves that included Figgins taking over in left, and Seager getting the first crack at third base. Just like Saunders, he ran with it, to the point that Seager is now a legitimate candidate for the American League All-Star team, on pace for 47 doubles and 99 RBIs while trailing only Miguel Cabrera in RBIs among American League third baseman. All because Mike Carp got injured.
It just goes to show you that in baseball, the best-laid plans of managers and men often go awry. And as a player, you’d better be prepared to seize the opportunity when it’s presented to you, as Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager have done this year.
(Photo by Getty Images)
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