(Photo by Associated Press)
Much like the month of September, spring training can be the Grand Deceiver in baseball. While veterans are more or less using the time to round slowly into shape, kids and those fighting for a job aim to come out blazing, leading to some misleading statistics. I’m reminded of the spring training scene in “Major League” when Pedro Cerrano is tearing the cover off the ball in batting practice, and a marveling coach wonders where they found this guy. Manager Lou Brown motions for the pitcher to start throwing curve balls, which leads to Cerrano flailing away haplessly at pitch after pitch. You see that same scene, though less flamboyantly, every year.
That’s not to say that there is nothing to be learned in spring training, however. It’s amazing how a young player who looked timid and overmatched one spring can appear confident and like he belongs the next. It’s also informative to see what kind of physical condition a player reports in. I know the “best shape of his career” narrative has now become a thing to mock, but I believe that when a player makes a significant transformation — getting noticeably bigger or smaller — it can have some impact. And players are always trying new pitches, new stances, etc., in camp; that can sometimes be much ado about nothing (see Ichiro and his new wide stance last year), but it can also on occasion actually help a player get better.
Here are 12 players I’ll be watching extra closely when the Mariners open camp in two weeks, for a variety of reasons:
1) Justin Smoak. We’ve already heard that he took seriously Eric Wedge’s mandate to get himself in better shape. I think that was a necessary first step, but obviously the key for Smoak will be to carry over the improvement he made when he came back from a stint in Tacoma last August.
Smoak hit .341 over his final 27 games, with a .423 on-base percentage and .571 slugging percentage. I know he’s teased us before, but if that’s indicative of a breakthrough, it would be a huge boon for the Mariners. I’d also point out that unlike many September situations, when opposing teams play their callups and evaluation is difficult, the Mariners faced mainly teams that were still battling for a playoff spot and thus were going with their best.
At any rate, I really am looking forward to seeing Smoak play this spring and assessing his mindset, and whether his improvement is sustainable. He truly has reached a point, it appears, that it’s now or never. Smoak will be one of the most compelling stories of spring for the Mariners.
2) Brandon Maurer. If the Mariners don’t make another starting pitching addition, or even if they bring in a borderline veteran, one of their young pitchers will have a legitimate shot at cracking the rotation. And despite all the hoopla over the “Big Three,” many in and out of the organization will tell you that Maurer — the Southern League Pitcher of the year in 2012 — is actually closer to the big leagues than any of them. This will be Maurer’s first major-league camp, and a lot of eyes will be on him — including mine.
3) Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton. That being said, any one of these guys could blow away the Mariners’ brass by blowing away hitters in spring training. It will be fascinating to see if this is the year it pops for one or more of the Big Three, making it nearly impossible to keep them off the roster. All of them were in camp last year, so the “awe” factor should be past, making it easier for them to just concentrate on pitching, and making their case.
4) Jason Bay. Bay needs to show fairly quickly that he still has something left, after a disastrous stint with the Mets. The Mariners have other outfield options, so they’ll have to make a fairly quick assessment on Bay, who hit .165 last year. He’s obviously at a career crossroads. At 34, Bay is still young enough to get it back together, but on the other hand, he’s getting farther and farther removed from his days as an impact player. He’s one guy for whom spring training is especially important.
5) Jesus Montero.He’s another guy Wedge challenged, both to get in better shape and to take command of his newly installed role as every-day catcher. Montero is a huge key for the Mariners after a fairly disappointing rookie season. If he can move closer to becoming the slugger they anticipated when they traded Michael Pineda to get him, and keep the catching job warm for Mike Zunino without turning it into a major liability, it would be a big boost.
6) Mike Zunino. Speaking of which…this will obviously be the first major-league camp for Zunino. While I don’t think he has much of a shot of making the team, no matter what kind of spring he has, we should be able to get a hint of how close he is to being big-league ready, and whether a mid-season callup is a realistic possibility. It’s always intstructive to see how highly touted players like Zunino fit into the dynamic of a major-league clubhouse.
7) Stefen Romero. Those stats from last year are really mind-boggling (.352, 23 homers, 101 RBIs, .991 OPS). But so were Vinnie Catricala’s a year earlier, and he fizzled last year (I’m eager to get a second look at Catricala, too, by the way). I know the Mariners are really high on Romero, and he could put some thoughts in their head with a strong showing in spring. I’m also curious to see where he fits in defensively.
8) Jeremy Bonderman. It would be foolish to have high expectations for Bonderman, coming off elbow surgery that has kept him out of the major leagues since 2010. But you never know. Did anyone think the Giants would get what they have gotten out of Ryan Vogelsong? Every spring needs (and usually has) a story like Bonderman to follow.
9) Franklin Gutierrez. I learned the lesson last year about getting too worked up over Gutierrez’s showing in spring. His newly muscled physique, and return to health was the pre-eminent story of early spring camp last year for the Mariners. And then he walked off the field one day with what turned out to be a partially torn pectoral muscle, and his season was pretty much shot. A healthy Gutierrez would be a big boost for the Mariners, and monitoring his health will be a key pastime in spring training.
10) Nick Franklin. With all the speculation about whether or not Franklin can play shortstop in the major leagues, I want to see for myself. And at the same time, take a close look at Brad Miller, a rising shortstop prospect (.334 with 15 homers at High Desert and Jackson last year) who will be in his first camp.