This is my 28th spring training in Arizona, dating way back to 1986 when I was a fuzzy-cheeked reporter with the Bellevue Journal-American. The Mariners trained in Tempe in those days, and I spent a week cramming in as many interviews as I could with the likes of Mark Langston, Jim Presley, Dave Henderson, Spike Owen, Matt Young and Danny Tartabull. And, of course, Alvin Davis, who was not yet established as Mr. Mariner, but was about as gracious and personable as any athlete ever. Talk about full circle — Alvin is back in a Mariner uniform this spring, having been hired as a minor-league instructor. It was great to see him around the cage as I watched my first workout of the spring. Another guy around the cage who caught my eye: Howard Johnson, who will be Daren Brown’s hitting coach with Tacoma.
Geoff had told me how different the Mariners looked this year, just physically, and he’s absolutely right. They appear much more imposing, especially the very first group in the cage, consisting of Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez, and Jesus Montero. There is some definite girth there, particularly Morse, who was regularly hitting shots into the parking lot behind left field, rattling among the RVs gathered for a show. At some point in his career, Morse belongs in the All-Star Game Home Run Derby. Now he’s just got to make the team — that’s the hard part.
Naturally, there’s a big difference between hitting bombs in batting practice in Arizona, and producing in the regular season. But unlike other strapping dudes the Mariners have had who could hit the ball a mile, the likes of Brad Nelson and Luis Jimenez, these guys have had big years in the majors (except Montero, who by the way looks to me to be in pretty good shape. I know there’s some concerns based on comments by Wedge, but it’s not like he’s noticeably overweight or anything. To my eyes, he looked pretty good).
I flashed back to the first day last year, when Franklin Gutierrez was the talk of camp for his bulked-up physique and the tape-measure homers he was hitting. That lasted about two weeks, until he tore his pectoral and his season was wiped out. Gutierrez doesn’t look as husky this year; his ability to stay healthy is obviously a major story line.
Speaking of big guys, backup catcher Ronny Paulino is huge. Paulino finally arrived after solving the obligatory visa problems getting out of the Dominican Republic. He spent the day undergoing his physical and will presumably hit the field tomorrow. Paulino is listed as 6-3, 250, and that sounds about right. It sure looks to me that Kelly Shoppach is the strong favorite to be the backup to Montero behind the plate while Zunino is groomed in the minors. Interesting sight today — Ibanez introducing himself to Zunino as they trotted past each other on the way to their next work station.
Alex Liddi stood out as a guy who is in great shape and crushing the ball, but there sure doesn’t seem to be any path for him to make the team. He’s back working mainly at third base now that the Mariners have a surplus of first-base types. Shoppach is already a very vocal participant in PFP (pitchers field practice). Michael Saunders has an interesting technique during BP– he attaches a Styrofoam swimming “noodle” around his armpit to keep his elbow close to his body. He takes it off after the first round or so. Another interesting technique I observed today: New hitting coach Dave Hansen taking a picture with his cell phone of Zunino hitting, followed by the two of them huddling over the camera, discussing technical aspects of his stance. Robert Andino made an instant impression on me — he has far more offensive capability than last year’s utility man, Munenori Kawasaki, could ever dream of.
All in all, a great first day — sunny and clear with intermittent batting practice. Can’t wait til tomorrow.