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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 18, 2013 at 9:13 AM

Spring training story lines don’t always have positive outcomes

This being the first Mariners spring without Ichiro since 2000 (he also made a guest appearance in the 1999 camp), I got to thinking about Ichiro’s final camp with Seattle last year. Everyone was abuzz about his new, wide batting stance, designed to produce more power as Ichiro was eased into the No. 3 spot in the order. Eric Wedge made that lineup switch official early in camp, and it became THE major story line of spring: How would he adjust, how would the Mariners’ offense be benefited, would he finally show the power in games that he had always displayed in batting practice?

Story line 1A, an offshoot of the above, was the effect Ichiro’s move would have on Chone Figgins, making one last stab at reviving his Seattle career. He would move back into his comfort zone at leadoff; would that be what he needed to become the sparkplug the Mariners’ envisioned when the signed him to a four-year deal?

The third storyline that emerged was Franklin Gutierrez, finally healthy again after a string of injuries and illnesses, and, ahem, in the best shape of his career. He banged line drives all over the Peoria Sports Complex in the early days, and the Mariners were ecstatic about the prospect of Gutierrez’s return to the lineup.

Other angles we were pursuing: Mike Carp, after years of trying to break into the lineup, was finally tabbed as the every day left fielder after an impressive stint the previous year. JesusĀ  Montero was the hot new name in camp, and everyone pondered whether or not he could catch in the major leagues after murmurs that he was a defensive disaster. Hector Noesi, who came in the same deal, was slated for the rotation, and we wondered whether he would enhance the trade by producing positive results. Japanese newcomers Hisashi Iwakuma was a mystery man: Was he a starter, a reliever, or would he even pitch after arm problems the previous year? Another Japanese newcomer, Muenenori Kawasaki, was a pleasant diversion, his quirky animation making him impossible to avoid.

So how did it play out? Ichiro wasn’t much different than he had been in recent years, not making much of an impact as the No. 3 hitter. By June 1, he was back at leadoff, then moved to No. 2, then traded to New York. Figgins was an unmitigated disaster, not revived one bit by hitting leadoff and quickly finding himself riding the bench. Now he’s gone, too. Gutierriez got hurt about two weeks into camp, tearing a pectoral muscle, and was right back where he had been, trying to get healthy enough to come back and help the Mariners. It took til midseason. Carp hurt his shoulder on Opening Day in Japan diving for a ball and was never quite the same, even after he came off the disabled list. That golden opportunity, sadly for him, evaporated, and now he’s been designated for assignment, awaiting a likely trade.

Montero wound up catching 55 games and the questions about his long-term future at the position remain unanswered. Noesi pitched himself right out of the rotation with a 2-12 record, 5.82 ERA and disturbing propensity to groove two-strike pitches. Now he finds himself on the outskirts of their 2013 pitching plans. Iwakuma didn’t do much of anything early in the season, languishing in the bullpen, but eventually cracked the rotation and pitched so well the Mariners re-upped him for two more years. Kawasaki remained a quirky and pleasant diversion, but his .455 spring training average proved to be a mirage. He was a great glove man but over-matched at the plate, and now he, too, is an ex-Mariner.

The point here is not to diminish the reporting we did last year; those were all valid story lines that deserved to be pursued. It’s just another reminder that despite the raging optimism that annually exists in spring, the best-laid plans of mice and general managers often go awry. If more of those stories had turned out positively, the Mariners would have won a lot more games than they did. Now we’ll spend this spring pondering a new set of story lines — the battle for the rotation, whether or not Jeremy Bonderman, Jason Bay and Jon Garland can revive their careers, the new muscle in the middle of the order, one more (and perhaps last) chance for Justin Smoak, the progress of the young prospects., Dustin Ackley’s attempt to get back on track; and some new/old story lines, like whether or not can Gutierrez stay healthy, and can Montero catch every day in the major leagues.

We’ll check back next year to see how it all turned out.

 

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