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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

February 23, 2012 at 8:15 AM

Not much competition for starting position player jobs in Mariners camp

One of the things tough not to notice after this week’s batting order announcements by the Mariners is just how few jobs in the starting nine are actually up for grabs in spring training. I mean, for a team that’s lost 196 games in two years, you’d think there would be some positions wide open for the taking.
But not this spring. The team’s starting eight position spots and DH are pretty much set.
Not sure whether that’s a good or bad thing. You can look at it two ways: either the M’s feel so set with their future that they are ready to bypass competition and go with this squad, or, there are things trumping the actual baseball decisions you would normally tend to see out of rebuilding squads.
I’ll let you decide.
But make no mistake: the fact that we can pretty much pencil in the regular lineup — to the point where many websites, including this one, are now figuring out the batting order down to haggling over No. 7 versus No. 8 — is not common for a team that’s lost as often as this one has in the recent past.
Still, the Mariners have all-but-confirmed Chone Figgins as the third baseman this season despite his .188 average last year. Ichiro and his .645 on-base-plus-slugging percentage from last season have automatically been re-instated in right field with not a hint of any challenges to that being allowed.
Right there, you have two unproductive spots on a struggling team filled with 30-something players who normally would not factor in to the rebuilding plan the Mariners say they are undertaking.
But that’s not all.

Franklin Gutierrez is back in at center field without much of a whisper of competition for that spot from anyone associated with the team. Gutierrez had one of the more unproductive seasons of any MLB regular last year, but the team is attributing it all to his irritable bowel syndrome and willing to give him the full-time job once again.
Those three regular players also happen to be taking up nearly 40 percent of team payroll all on their own. Believe it or not, that plays in to decisions on whether teams keep guys where they are — trumping a lot of the stats-based arguments one will see made this spring.
And whether you buy those arguments or not, it explains how a team as bad as the Mariners were in 2011 can have virtually no competition for starting position player jobs.
Brendan Ryan was another big part of Seattle’s offensive sinkhole last year, his batting numbers tumbling off a cliff from June onward. Ryan’s exceptional glove has all-but-guaranteed him a second chance at the starting job this year by a Mariners team willing to reward his defense and attribute many of his 2011 offensive struggles to injury.
Again, considering this is supposed to be a rebuilding team, the Ryan situation does not appear to have a whole lot of permanence to it. He’s on a cheap contract and the team will look to see whether he can up his game this year or merely be a placeholder keeping the spot warm for Nick Franklin or somebody else.
The whole injuries-are-to-blame theme is common around this lineup, as Justin Smoak heads in to 2012 as the starting first baseman with the squad now attributing many of his struggles to thumb injuries they say they kept mum about for competitive reasons. One could also suggest that, if Smoak’s thumb problems were so bad, the team might have considered not playing him for those same “competitive reasons” — especially in the middle of that 17-game losing streak.
But that’s in the past. The injury thing is now cited as the explanation for Smoak’s stats dropoff in 2011 and he’ll be the first baseman on Opening Day once again this year barring injury. That’s not such a big deal for a rebuilding team, since you want the guys you envision as part of your future cornerstones to actually be on the field. But again, it offers part of the explanation for how a team as awful as Seattle was in 2011 can head into 2012 with almost zero competition for starting position jobs.
Miguel Olivo heads into 2012 as the starting catcher despite his terrible on-base percentage in 2011. Part of it is because he led the team in home runs and there isn’t much veteran leadership to be found elsewhere in the position player ranks. The arrival of John Jaso means the team could look to play Olivo in fewer games and hope that his offensive numbers respond accordingly, since they were pretty good in the early part of last season. Olivo is also in the final year of a contract that pays him $3.75 million in 2012 salary and bonus cash — roughly seven or eight times more than any other catcher on the roster. So, yeah, that will have something to do with it, too.
Jesus Montero is a guy the Mariners feel will at least be their full-time DH for years to come, so he’s in at that spot as the primary guy. Again, for a rebuilding team that just traded one of its best pitchers to get Montero, that’s not unusual.
Nor is it unusual to see Dustin Ackley in there at second base. He earned the job last year.
The only spot on the diamond where a starting job has a whiff of a question mark attached to it is in left field, where Mike Carp is slotted as the starting guy for now. The Mariners still aren’t sure what they have in Casper Wells, who was impacted by balance issues after being drilled by a Brandon Morrow pitch last August. Prior to that, Wells had homered in four consecutive games.
But after the beaning, he pretty much lost the remaining games the team could have used to better get a feel for the kind of player he is. Carp still has lingering question marks as to whether he can sustain the kind of numbers he put up in a couple of big late-season months. But manager Eric Wedge has talked since the winter meetings about how Carp would be his everyday left fielder — against both lefties and righties — if the team did not make some type of winter trade.
Well, no trade was made. Carp is here and is the left fielder if the season starts today.
Wells will probably make the squad as a fourth outfielder, but it will take a massive spring training performance for him to dislodge Carp from the primary left field job.
And so, there you have it.
That’s how a team that scored only 558 runs last year can head into spring training with almost no competition for starting position player jobs. The team will, of course, say otherwise and proclaim that everything’s up-for-grabs once Cactus League games start. But really, who’s kidding who? Barring injury, does anyone reading this really think those won’t be the starting nine guys when the team plays in Japan next month?
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. But it’s not a normal thing.
And there are all kinds of factors playing into it. This is meant to try to explain some of it for you.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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