The greatest power display the Mariners have seen in spring training over the past 10 years was turned in by none other than Mike Wilson. He was the very definition of a journeyman, with the journey occurring entirely in the minor leagues with the exception of eight games in The Show in 2011. In 2009, Wilson blasted eight homers in Arizona — still the Mariners’ record for the Cactus League — and slugged .681, but it still wasn’t enough to sway the Mariners to keep him on the roster. Wilson was returned to the minor leagues at the end of camp (an annual rite of spring for him), as was Chris Shelton, who had hit .460 with a 1.254 OPS that spring. They lost spots to Mike Sweeney, whose “veteran leadership” prove irresistible, and Wladimir Balentien, who was out of options.
As the Mariners tantalize us all with their robust spring training stats early in Cactus League play, I looked back at some of the best springs turned in by Mariner hitters over the past decade, and what exactly it meant in the big picture. Or didn’t mean. Sometimes, as with Wilson and Shelton, the odds for a particular player are so long, the obstacles so great, that there is almost literally nothing they can do to make the team.
But contrast that with 2010, when the Mariners brought back Sweeney to camp almost as a favor, with seemingly no chance to make the team, until he started to hit. Sweeney batted .500 that spring (20-for-40) and by virtue of that performance found himself on the Opening Day roster. It wasn’t like he was keeping a top prospect off the team — the final cuts were Chris Woodward and Josh Bard. Sweeney actually was fairly productive early in the season (he hit six homers and slugged .655 in May) until back spasms slowed him down. The Mariners traded him to Philadelphia on Aug. 4 — five days before manager Don Wakamatsu was fired in the midst of their disastrous season.
The Mariners’ recent past is littered with stellar spring training runs that turned out to be indicative of absolutely nothing. But there was also an occasional player who followed a hot spring with a fine year (particularly if they were named Ichiro or Edgar Martinez, who would have made a lot of Cactus League All-Star teams, if one existed, and did pretty well when the season started, too). I’m sticking to offense here, mind you. Looking at Cactus League pitching will have to wait for another day.
The most recent example was last year, when infielder Munenori Kawasaki hit a torrid .455 in spring (with a .523 slugging percentage). Manager Eric Wedge wasn’t exactly fooled into thinking the M’s had unearthed the next Cal Ripken Jr. Kawasaki played sparingly and hit .192 (with one extra-base-hit) in 104 at-bats.
In 2011, Chone Figgins put up a .373/.448/.490 line in spring to raise hopes that after a disappointing first season in Seattle, he was poised to return to his Angels’ form. Uh, not so fast. Figgins hit .188 in 81 games.
One of the most prodigious slugging springs by a recent Mariner occurred in 2009, when newly acquired Russ Branyan hit seven homers (one fewer than Wilson) and slugged .633. It turned out to be the precursor to a season in which Branyan hit 31 homers in just 116 games.
In 2008, Mike Morse scorched his way to a .492/.548/.769 (1.317 OPS) line in spring, and the Mariners couldn’t deny him a semi-regular job in right field. But very early in the season — after playing just five games — Morse hurt his shoulder diving for a ball, requiring season-ending shoulder surgery. He was traded the following year, blossomed with the Nationals,and is now back in Seattle.
Willie Bloomquist, favorite of all (well, almost all), put up a blazing .419/.478/.516 line in the spring of 2007. When the season started, however, he was pretty standard Willie Ballgame, hitting .277 with five extra-base-hits in 173 at-bats.
The highest slugging percentage I could find for a Mariner in spring over the last 10 years was Richie Sexson’s .822 in 2006. And Sexson turned in a solid year, hitting 34 homers and producing one of the very few slugging percentages over. 500 (.504) by a Mariner in recent years.
Roberto Petagine, a name I’d almost forgotten, fashioned a classic spring surge in 2006 in which he hit.419 to make the team as a non-roster invitee (filling the spot on the 40-man cleared when, sigh, Chris Snelling was placed on the 60-day DL). Then the season started, and Petagine reverted to form, hitting .185 in 31 games before getting demoted. He never played in the major leagues again.
Another cautionary tale was Jeremy Reed, who followed his .397 cameo in 18 games in Seattle the previous September by hitting .354 with a .404 on-base percentage in spring of 2005. The rookie seemed poised for great things as the Mariners’ regular center fielder, but he put up a lackluster .675 OPS that year and never realized his perceived potential with Seattle (or the six organizations among which he’s drifted in ensuing years).
Raul Ibanez, another ex-Mariner who has returned, put up some All-World numbers in three consecutive springs from 2005-07. hitting .356, .443, and .375, respectively. And all three were converted into solid hitting seasons with the Mariners, two of which produced more than 100 RBIs, and all with OPS’s of .791 or higher.
I guess the underwhelming lesson is to take spring assaults with a grain of desert sand. They might be a sign of great things to come. Or not.