Racing around this morning trying to tidy up the Times spring training condo for the arrival of Bob Condotta and Jerry Brewer. Also, trying to pack my bags for early morning departure tomorrow. Yes, it’s been five weeks to the day since I flew down here for the Arizona portion of spring training.
I leave for Japan over the weekend, ahead of the Mariners getting there next week. We’ll have round-the-clock coverage from overseas for you. But yes, it’s been a hefty amount of time down here and enough of seeing some things to form impressions. I shared some of them with Twitter followers at my @gbakermariners account last night, but the great thing about the blog — as we all know — is that I can go into issues with greater, ahem, depth.
So, here are some impressions.
Biggest Surprise of Camp: Michael Saunders and his newfound bat. Without a doubt. Coming into camp, Saunders was an afterthought in my mind. Yeah, plenty of players talk about new hitting approaches and I was open-minded enough to want to see whether he’d find something that could help jumpstart his career, maybe land him a stint up north mid-season or with another team at some point. Just didn’t think he’d get an opportunity here.
All of a sudden, Franklin Gutierrez goes down for a month or two and the door is wide open. And even if it wasn’t wide open, Saunders would have kicked it down by now. He’s shown the same solid defensive ability at three outfield positions, demonstrated his usual strong baserunning ability, only now, yes, he’s actually hitting the ball. And not just pulling it. He’s using all fields. Hitting different types of pitches. For both power and average. If he keeps doing this, the team would be nuts not to open with him as the regular center fielder.
Runner up?: Munenori Kawasaki. I mean, this guy can play. He’s hitting the ball straighter and harder than I’d heard about in advance reports from Japan. Not a slap-hitter so far. And he brings Brendan Ryan type energy to his defense. Not as good as Ryan, but the latter needs to stay on the field this season.
Best darkhorse to make the Mariners: I wrote a story about him this morning, Nicaraguan-born pitcher Erasmo Ramirez. The guy is a strike-thrower, as we’ve seen. I asked pitching coach Carl Willis what would separate Ramirez from the journeyman route that often follows pitchers who can throw strikes but lack strikeout ability. Josh Towers comes to mind.
Willis told me it’s Ramirez’s ability to land all four of his pitches — fastball, sinker, change-up and slider — for strikes. You do that and guys will keep mis-hitting the ball because it throws their timing off. Well, at least, that’s the theory. We’ll see. But Eric Wedge mentioned him as a bullpen candidate yesterday and that got my radar up. When a manager says that about a starter, it means he’s looking for a way to get a guy on the team. And that he’s worried about the bullpen, which he should be.
Best candidate to make me go “Oh my!” next spring: That would be Taijuan Walker. I mean, when Felix Hernandez starts comparing him to himself at that age, it says something. Walker’s in better shape than Hernandez was at that age as well. We only saw glimpses of him here and he’s yet to compete above Class A ball. But if he keeps working — and that’s the key, no complacency in minors — we could see him with the big club by September. And then, next spring? Look out. I shudder to think of how much better he could get with a year more under his belt. Tom McNamara deserves plenty of credit for this second-round pick.
Runner up: Vinnie Catricala at third base. Another steal by McNamara and crew in the 10th round. You don’t see the prototypical power-hitting third basemen much anymore. Adrian Beltre is in a class by himself with both the bat and glove and Catricala doesn’t have near the defense. But this team can sacrifice Gold Glove D at third if it means finding a serious bat.
Best player in the wrong position: Kyle Seager gets the nod here. He could be starting at second base for plenty of major league teams right now. Yeah, he needs to step the offense up when the regular season begins. But he’s flashing what I like to call “Shawn Green power”. No, not the ex-Mariners reliever. The ex-Blue Jays/Dodgers power-hitting outfielder. You’d look at Green and his physique and wonder where in the world that strength was coming from. Seager is even more of a marvel. No idea how he’s driving those home runs out to center field. He won’t do that all season, but keep hitting the ball square like he has, the team will have to find a spot for him. Even if it involves moving Dustin Ackley back out to the outfield in 2013. We’ll see what shakes down with Ichiro in rght field and whoever in left field (and heck, let’s throw center in there as well) over the next 12 months, but don’t rule it out just yet. Third base could be an option for Seager if the team can find pure power at other spots on the diamond. But still, I think Catricala gets third if he keeps doing what he has until now
Guys I expected a bit more from: We’re talking about prospects here, not vets coming back off injuries. On the prospect front, Nick Franklin was pretty quiet this spring and his defense looked suspect at times. He’ll have to figure out shortstop because he’s quickly getting blocked by others at third and second base. Franklin is still quite young and has time. Just didn’t reach out and grab anyone by the throat here.
Francisco Martinez is another guy I barely noticed. After all the hype of the Doug Fister deal, I expected to see more. Ditto with Chih-Hsien Chiang, one of the Erik Bedard trade returns. There were times I forgot he was even there.
All of these players will have chances to show more this coming season. You don’t decide a career based off a spring invite and none of them were going to make this team heading in. Still, they need to step it up beyond what I saw if they hope to make the majors with this team.
Biggest question marks: Ichiro and Chone Figgins. Ichiro is trying to do something few major leaguers could get away with at his age — re-invent himself as a hitter. Doesn’t matter what he did in Japan a dozen years ago or for a couple of weeks at the WBC. Evolving from an infield-singles hitting leadoff man of the past couple of years into a gap-driving No. 3 hitter is no easy task. The truth is, there’s a better-than-even chance he won’t succeed. If he doesn’t, I won’t criticize him for it. He’ll just be done as a productive major leaguer. Happens to every Hall of Famer, which he is. If he succeeds, his legend will grow.
We just don’t know. And you can’t measure it off what we’ve seen here. He’s working on stuff and that’s going to impact his stats.
With Figgins, I like his approach, the way he’s making pitchers work for outs and the contact he’s started to put on the ball. It hasn’t shown up in his numbers down here yet, but that part doesn’t matter at all. If he continues the approach and makes solid contact, the numbers should be there for him. Not like in Anaheim three years ago. But even his .340 OBP after a terrible start in 2010 would be a 30-point improvement at leadoff over what Ichiro gave last year.
Again, we just don’t know. Figgins won’t have much time once the season begins. Those numbers will have to start rising for him on the road to build a bit of a comfort zone. Because you can bet some fans will be all over him if he struggles prior to opening at Safeco Field. Playing under those types of conditions won’t help his efforts to get back to where he’s been. So, for his sake, he needs the numbers to be there early.