Greetings all. It’s great to be back from an extended trip through South America, where I paused for a moment on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro to watch my Pittsburgh Steelers (Jack Zduriencik’s team, too) take out Arizona in a thrilling Super Bowl. Fun to be sitting around a hotel lounge with dozens of American ex-pats watching an English ESPN feed of the big game with a view of Copacabana Beach looming in the backdrop. Anyhow, a huge thanks to Larry Stone for filling in with some extensive and interesting posts while I was away. Enjoyed reading them. Larry should start his own blog, don’t you think?
Seven days from today, the Mariners’ pitchers and catchers report to the team’s Peoria training facilities for their annual weigh-ins and physicals. That’s when my season, and yours, will officially begin on this blog. Yes, we will take breaks from time-to-time, as many of you never tire of noting, but our full-time coverage begins seven days from now. For me, it will be my 11th spring training. And while the players and officials (even teams) sometimes change, a few things remain the same. They are part of what makes spring training fun. Let’s face it, much of spring training is a glorified PR exercise. You could knock it down to three weeks and likely get just as much pratical use out of it, provided pitchers began their own throwing regimens a bit early. So, the point is to have a little fun with it. Nobody seriously analyzes a player’s or pitcher’s ability in the first couple of weeks. In fact, coaches usually tell players not to blow themselves out the first few weeks of camp trying to win a job. So, what are some of the fun things I look for every spring? Here are a few, starting with the theme of the photos shown above.
1. Biggest weight fluctuation
Felix Hernandez dazzled everybody in 2007 when he arrived at camp having dropped anywhere from 20 to 30 pounds from the previous season. The photos above show Hernandez in October 2006, when I visited him at home in Valencia, Venezuela, compared to the following January (Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP) right before spring training. Quite the turnaround and exactly the type you look for as a Mariners fan. The kind you don’t want is what Andruw Jones (Photo Credit: LA Times) brought to the Dodgers last year, ballooning up from his previous seasons with the Braves.
Anyhow, the obvious candidate for this spring’s feel-good weight story should be Carlos Silva, who we’ve heard has dropped down about 30 pounds from last year. Can’t “weight” to see that.
2. Comeback Player of the Year Contender
The best thing about spring training is, everybody gets a fresh start. That includes players fortunate to still have a major league job. For some, this could represent the final chance to establish themselves as everyday major leaguers. Last spring, it was Richie Sexson leading the “Can’t Do Any Worse” brigade. Well, guess what? He did. Sexson is no longer an everyday major leaguer.
This spring, catcher Kenji Johjima is in a similar fix. If he doesn’t get his bat going, or rebuild some of his reputation as a defensive catcher, he will have trouble sticking around as a regular major leaguer. If not for that three-year, $24 million contract extension given him last April, it’s doubtful the new M’s regime would have held on to him. Johjima is living on borrowed time right now, money or no money. Players have been paid to go away before, This spring and early season will be critical to Johjima avoiding the fate that befell Sexson. That said, if Johjima does get things going a la 2007, a Comback Player of the Year Award is not out of the question. But there’s a long way to go to make that a reality.
3. On the Hot Seat
Two years ago, it was GM Bill Bavasi on Howard Lincoln’s personal “Hot Seat”. Last year, it was second baseman Jose Lopez. Both of them lived to see another campaign. This year, it’s shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt who should be feeling some flames. Especially with the Ronny Cedeno acquisition. The difference between the past two Hot Seat stories is that, this spring, GM Zduriencik has actually done something to increase the temperature. For all the “Hot seat” stories Lopez was subjected to last spring, the biggest threat to his job came from Miguel Cairo and Willie Bloomquist. Both were career part-timers who seemed unlikely to be around beyond 2008. Tug Hulett? A minor leaguer at the time. This year, Cedeno seems a sure bet to make the squad and is young enough to stick around for a while. So, yes, this time, all of those “heat” stories you’ll read actually have some legitimacy.
4. Team transformer
Last year, it was starting pitcher Erik Bedard who was going to “transform” the Mariners, with yours truly leading the charge on that brigade of stories. This year, it’s center fielder Franklin Gutierrez who is going to come under all types of scrutiny. Yes, he’s younger than Bedard and more patience will have to be shown. But the Mariners did trade away a whole bunch of guys to land Gutierrez and, let’s face it, he’s the key to a revamped outfield strategy that will see the M’s go with speed and defense at the expense of some offensive pop. So yeah, it will be fun to watch how he handles the scrutiny and performs. Expect plenty of ink to flow his way.
5. Biggest missed story
With two weeks to go in last year’s spring training, manager John McLaren erupted about his team’s lack of seriousness and cohesiveness on the field. His comments came at roughly the same time that Tigers manager Jim Leyland was saying the same things about his own, highly-favored squad, at his camp in Lakeland, Fla. We all rolled our eyes at the time and chuckled about the annual “we aren’t coming together as a team” stories that managers seem to often use to wake their players up during the dog days of March. But this time, both men were bang-on. The Mariners and Tigers both tripped over themselves early and often in 2008 and neither could recover in time. I think a lot about how that story was one of the most overlooked of last year’s spring training. Regardless of whether you thought the M’s were a 90, 85, 80 or 60-win team, they likely would have stayed in contention a whole lot longer than early May had they played a little more like a team. Spring training games tend to mean little. But there comes a point, usually with two weeks or so left in camp, where players get serious about their performance from a stats standpoint. Managers also want to see their teams play a certain way, win or lose. The M’s did not play good baseball towards the end of last spring. It will be worth keeping an eye on how they play the game this time around.
6. Pop goes the balloon
Every spring, we see lots of hype surrounding a new player who looks to be a tremendous value acquisiton. We hear talk about how, if all things go right, that player can represent a giant cost savings over the player he replaced. Sometimes, the hype is accurate. We saw it in 2007, when Jose Guillen came in and added some much-needed power to a weak-hitting M’s outfield relying exclusively on Raul Ibanez. But things don’t always work out that way. A year ago, Brad Wilkerson was going to come in, be a slight defensive upgrade over Guillen and provide some of that OPS he’d previously shown in Texas before injuries slowed his career. Wilkerson didn’t even make it to May with the club, which ate $3 million to get rid of him.
Which brings us to Russell Branyan, the first baseman who looks to be an immense cost savings over the departed Sexson. If all goes right, he could even club 25 or 30 home runs the way Sexson used to regularly do. So, expect to read plenty about him this spring. But also beware, there are a number of warning flags already up. The questions about whether he can hit lefties as well as righties, for starters. If he can’t, then 30 homers seems ridiculous. There is also the fact he has never played a full season of major-league ball before. I find Branyan to be one of the more intriguing components of this team. He is no sure thing. But if he works out, (notching an OPS above .800 with at least 450-500 ABs, if not 30 homers) then Zduriencik looks like a genius.
7. Dumbest looking achievement prediction
Last year, it was the whole Ichiro stealing 80 bases thing. This year, the new administration has, quite wisely, avoided that type of stuff — at least out loud where we can hear it. But if I had to make a call on the next potentially dumbest thing I’ve heard from other voices outside of the team, it would be the suggestion that Jose Lopez can be an effective first baseman. That, to me, is akin to dancing on the edge of a cliff. Lopez’s bat is valuable as a second baseman if he can turn his power up just a notch or two. As a corner infielder, he’d be average at best. And all of the energy he’d have to put in to changing his defensive style to play first or third base would likely take something away from his bat. Just a hunch. As long as Lopez stays focused and works on his second base glove, I’d leave him right where he is. His best value (delivering above average results) will come from staying in the middle infield.
8. Last Hurrah These stories always have plenty of spring training legs, then seem meaningless once a season gets into its second month. A year ago, it was Mike Morse, out of minor league options and down to his last few swings with the organization, who finally made the squad out of spring training. Morse was probably the second biggest story of the spring, next to Bedard. And then, he got hurt right out of camp and now will be in-tough to stick in the majors. So, maybe it’s Morse II this spring?
It could have been, but Wladimir Balentien, to me, rates as an even bigger story. He’s also out of options and, not too long ago, was considered one of this team’s top prospects. Much bigger than Morse was. Remember all that talk two summers ago about how the M’s couldn’t contemplate moving Balentien for a veteran reliever at the deadline? Well, it’s possible he could be let go for nothing if he has a lousy spring. Balentien has much to prove in February and March as he fights Endy Chavez for a starting left fielder job. Balentien could also find himself fighting merely for a fourth outfielder’s spot. It’s really that wide open on his future. Should make for some intriguing spring stories.
9. Coaches will right the universe
This is inevitably a huge spring training story because new coaches mean a different way of doing things. Last year, the veteran coaching staff was going to right all the ills of the previous, younger coaches they replaced. This year, with an entirely new staff top to bottom, everything will be done differently, There will be plenty of “unlike last year’s silliness, this year, the coaches…” types of storylines. Hey, the changes may even work. Or, they may totally flop. As a fan, best thing is to hope for something down the middle.
Those are all off the top of my head for now. No, it’s not a “Top 10” list, because that’s a bit of a cliche and I want to be different just for the sake of it. (I’m also running late for something). Some of those stories will be worth the attention given them and others will prove laughably wasteful. But in all, they should be fun to follow this spring — regardless of how telling or useful they prove. Got any more for me? I can always use some good suggestions by the time Week 4 of camp rolls around.
ADDITIONAL NOTE (2:02 p.m.): For Savannah, in the comments thread, there might be a Girl from Ipanema in this photo if you have a powerful zoom on your computer. Otherwise, I have to keep it family-friendly. For Ron Lacroix, yes, Rio is still a dangerous place, but we took precautions and had no trouble anywhere. Lots of police presence in the daytime. At night, you just use cabs and stay off dark streets.