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March 12, 2013 at 5:00 AM

The Mariners and the meaning of spring training

Mariners manager Eric Wedge watches players during spring training workout in Peoria, AZ.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge watches players during spring training workout in Peoria, AZ.

Good to be back after taking the past week off. Even better to arrive in Arizona and see the Mariners doing so well this spring. Now, before the chorus trumpets up, yes, I know it’s spring training. It had better be, because otherwise I can think of far better places to spend February and March than Peoria, Ariz., no offense to those who love a good cactus, some sand and a few dozen strip malls. Yes, it’s spring training. Tell me something I don’t know.

That aside, just because the Mariners are playing exhibition games here does not mean the games are meaningless. The mere fact that jobs are won and lost in Arizona and Florida every spring — in organizations as philosophically diverse as the Dodgers and the Rays — means the professionals paid to get this thing right do find meaning to it.

The problem is, we as outside fans and pundits don’t always see the things that go into gauging spring training performance. It isn’t as simple as glancing at the stats, because, as many of you point out, the numbers down here can deceive. But just because we lack the means to measure everything under the sun does not render spring training meaningless.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge has said numerous times that he does not place much value in spring training numbers. So, how does he measure things? How does he gauge who to keep and who to discard? Well, much of it comes down to process. With a guy like Michael Saunders last spring — and Justin Smoak this year — the Mariners have been impressed with their newfound ability to spray the ball to all fields. In Smoak’s case, as a switch-hitter, he’s been doing it from the left side, which is the side that really matters for him.

Can we pencil Smoak in for a 30-homer season? Not yet. After all, he still has to do this when the games count. But when you’re a manager paid to determine whether players are making progress or not, the mere fact Smoak is doing this from the left side and going the other way to left-center on certain pitches has to rate as a reason for optimism. It doesn’t even matter much whether the contact Smoak makes results in a hit or not. I can remember a game against the Brewers a couple of weeks ago when Smoak hit a home run and it wasn’t even the at-bat that pleased him or his manager the most. No, that honor fell to a line drive Smoak hit the other way to left field that Ryan Braun had to make a diving play on. When you’re talking about hitters who have struggled in the past, few things will delight their coaches more than being able to hit the ball to all fields. It’s a sign that a hitter isn’t trying to cheat and pull everything. A sign that he can do something with the tougher pitches by using a compact swing to hit the ball where it’s pitched.

Even once the regular season begins, you have to look for things beyond the stats.

I can remember last July, when Wedge was seeking positive signs that Smoak still had the potential to be a major leager despite his abysmal numbers. In a game against Oakland right before the All-Star break, a left-handed hitting Smoak ripped a long, foul ball down the right field line at The Coliseum. That foul ball may not have seemed like much to Mariners fans at the time. But it was likely the reason Smoak wasn’t demoted to Class AAA at the break. Smoak didn’t go the other way that time. Instead, the mere fact Wedge saw Smoak turn on a pitch so quickly from his struggling left side and pull it screaming into the stands in foul territory some 300 feet away gave the manager hope that his first baseman could eventually turn things around.

As it turned out, Smoak didn’t find his answers right away. He was indeed demoted to AAA two weeks later, where he finally took a breath, put a plan together and began stepping to the plate with a goal in mind.

And now, after a very good final month last year, Smoak has carried things over into spring training. We may not be able to use it to predict his future just yet. But you’d have to be a bit dense not to view it as a positive sign — spring training or not.

Baseball is a game where the players who are the most consistent tend to be the most successful. So, when any player starts to do something more consistently, it’s a sign they can be more successful.

We saw that a year ago with Saunders. The Mariners now know, based on his track record, that Saunders has the ability to at least be a solid, everyday outfielder in the majors. What Saunders wants to do this spring, from what he’s told me, is take things to another level. Well, I’d say his performance in the World Baseball Classic, winning Pool MVP honors for Canada, is an early sign he could be headed for that. The WBC may rate as glorified exhibition games to some people, but try telling that to adrenaline-pumped players participating in them. Anyone who witnessed the Canada-Mexico brawl over the weekend can see that the games mean something to the players. And for me, the fact Saunders was able to rise to the occasion for his club, put it on his shoulders and almost lead it to a stunning upset of the USA in the first round is anything but meaningless.

I think we saw from Saunders the potential the Mariners have always seen from him: that of a star outfielder with pure home run power in the post-steroids era, a rare commodity indeed. Now, it will take more than a few good games from Saunders before we say he’s able to consistently elevate his game to the level of a star caliber player. But that WBC first round provided a hint that there is likely more to Saunders than what we’ve seen so far. I wrote back in January that he’ll likely play far more right field than he has to this point and than many of us initially expected. It’s because of flashes like we just saw. When Saunders is seeing the ball, he’s as dangerous as any hitter on this Mariners team. And we can’t uderestimate the confidence boost he just gained from being able to carry his national team on his back against some of the best players in the game. So, I think his spring so far has been something very meaningful.

Frankly, having Saunders and Smoak emerge into the stars the Mariners once envisioned would be a huge boon for this franchise and alleviate some of my concerns about the brevity of the deals involving key members of the offense. Have Smoak become the first baseman once envisioned, you don’t need to extend Kendrys Morales long-term. Get Saunders to up his game to more elite status, maybe he’s your big, power bat corner outfielder and you don’t need Michael Morse on a long-term contract beyond 2013.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think the Mariners would help themselves out big-time if they could keep Morales or Morse beyond 2013. But if Saunders and Smoak both reach their full potential, you might not need to ink those other guys. There’s a big difference.

As for other players, you judge veterans differently from younger guys with no track records. It’s great so see guys like Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez smashing the baseball with authority. Beyond the stats, the team has to make sure their bat speed is up to par. I can remember spring training in 2008, when a panicked Mariners coaching staff and front office realized that Richie Sexson, Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro had all “lost it” from one year to the next. They were cooked bat-speed wise, as happens to all players at some point. All of them saw their careers end that year. They were done. The difference is, the Mariners back then had little in the way of reinforcements to offer that spring. There were some guys in Class AAA like Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien who weren’t quite ready to pick up the slack — and as it turned out, never were ready.

But the Mariners weren’t going to be able to replace three veteran starters and cogs in any event. This year, with Bay and Ibanez, there are younger alternatives who could fill their support roles if needed. So, the most important thing with those vets this spring was to make sure they can still catch up to major league pitching. Even if their stats weren’t as good as they are now, the team would have to make a call on whether the fundamentals would be there to kick things into gear once the season begins. Of course, there are other things, like gauging the value of Bay to the team and how much he can contribute versus others. But first and foremost — given how his past three seasons have gone — the Mariners had to be sure he wasn’t done. Right now, he’s shown he still has something left, as has Ibanez.

It’s a little different with a guy like Casper Wells, who has a limited big league track record. He has put up some nice spring numbers, but because he lacks the track record of consistent success, those stats will be scrutinized more carefully. The team will look a lot more carefully at who the hits have come off of and the game  and weather conditions at the time. With Wells, they will see how he looks when he is at the plate. Is he decisive, with a plan on how to attack hittable pitches in his wheelhouse? Or is he still a bit too passive at times, or overly aggressive in situations where he shouldn’t be? Given the stakes in his case, where he could be lost to a waiver claim if he doesn’t break camp with the team, I’d say the quality of the at-bats taken by Wells is probably being judged more than any other player on the roster right about now.

We can go on and on about this. On the pitching side, the team has to like the consistency shown by Hisashi Iwakuma when it comes to how he’s challenged the hitters this spring. At his ability to spot strikes in tough-to-hit places. Also, his ability to get hitters to chase balls out of the zone. One thing often feeds off the other. There is a rhythm and feel to pitching that goes beyond velocity readings and stats. The Mariners pay professionals to gauge whether their pitchers have that. The Mariners in the second half of last year saw a very different-looking Iwakuma than they had in spring training when he looked unsteady and lacked a feel. What they’ll look for this spring is whether he can consistently repeat what he did last fall. Had he shown up here looking as bad as he did a year ago, this team would be in serious trouble because it is counting on Iwakuma to deliver badly-needed quality innings to the rotation. One of the most telling indicators of trouble ahead with Iwakuma a year ago was how long it would take him to recover from his outings. He often needed several days longer than some of the other pitchers in camp — a no-no for any pitcher with designs on starting every five days. This spring, he came in stronger and better conditioned to avoid some of that. So, yes, in his case, getting a spring read on him was very important for the Mariners.

I’ll stop now because most of you probably get the point. But this is an ongoing thing for the Mariners, whether it’s gauging whether Blake Beavan’s attemps to repeat his delivery consistently can outweigh the strike-throwing, harder stuff of Erasmo Ramirez. Whether Jon Garland’s past ability to generate close to 200 innings of work can be duplicated and allow him to make the team at the expense of a younger arm unlikely to throw more than 150 innings.

Does the 100 mph stuff of a Stephen Pryor or  Carter Capps best suit the team in a late-inning role from the right side? Or will the mental make-up of a guy like Kameron Loe, who’s been there and done it before, profile better, at least in the early going. These are the things teams decide by watching players in actual live competition, in their throwing sessions on the side and in the way they interact with teammates and handle the emotional ups and downs of their difficult tasks at the MLB level.

So, sit back and enjoy the rest of spring training. I’ve missed plenty of internal stuff going on with the club in this one post, but the season is still three weeks away. We’ll be here to bring you all the stuff you want to see — and all the stuff you can’t always see from a distance.

 

 

Comments | More in spring training | Topics: justin smoak; michael saunders; eric wedge; hisashi iwakuma

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