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January 22, 2015 at 5:06 PM

Eleven things from the Mariners’ pre-spring training banquet on Thursday

AP photo

AP photo

1. Expectations? 

Obviously much is expected of the Mariners as they head into the 2015 season. After winning 87 games last season and missing the playoffs by one game, there are postseason goals for this team, particularly with the additions of Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith.

But what are their expectations? Postseason? Division? World Series? They wouldn’t come out and make any definitive statements

“I look at it like this,” Zduriencik said. “There are way too many factors. I know we like to put the numbers down. We like to look at the improvement of our club. But our job is to put the best club we can on the field. Health is such a major issue. You go through all of baseball last year and you could have a 95-win club on paper, but all of the sudden you lose one guy or two guys and everything changes. So for us, our expectations are that our players play to the best of their ability. And our players go out and perform every single day.”

Zduriencik talked about preparation, execution and being ready to take the next step, instead.

“I think that’s the expectation,” he said. “We think we our club is a good club. We think we have a chance to be really competitive. There’s nice pieces here. There’s young kids growing up with veteran players joined in. There’s some guys that had really nice years last year. I think, on paper, this has a chance to be a lot of fun. But you have to execute, you have to perform and you have to stay healthy. And then let the pieces fall where they may.”

As for manager Lloyd McClendon?

“I don’t get caught up in expectations,” he said. “I think that’s a word for the media. I’m more concerned about preparation and how we go about our business in spring training. I will let you guys decide on that stuff. But that means absolutely nothing to me.”

But it may mean something to the players. For the first time since 2008 or maybe 2010, the Mariners enter a season where the outside world, including their fanbase, expects them to compete for a division title and a playoff spot. How will his players handle it?

“That’s ok,” he said. “That’s my job to take care of that at spring training. I will send them the same message that I sent them last year. If we get concerned about expectations, then we aren’t focused. Our concern should be preparation and making sure we get ready to start the season and get ready for the journey. The expectations is a nice conversation for the media, TV and things of that nature. But I don’t get too concerned with that.”

 

2. Jesus Montero has not run out of chances in the organization. 

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Jesus Montero from spring training last season. (Seattle times photo/Dean Rutz)

Trainer Rick Griffin reported that Jesus Montero is down to his spring training reporting weight of 235 pounds, which is the weight he was supposed to report at last season as well. Montero instead reported closer to 265 pounds.

“He’s just doing fabulous,” Griffin said. “We’re all very excited by the fact that he’s already made his reporting weight with time to go and he’ll probably get down even lower.”

Mariners director of player development Chris Gwynn  just saw Montero in Peoria last week.

“He looks really good,” Gwynn said. “What you really notice is how easy he moves. He’s moving a lot easier. His hips are better. He can do whatever he needs to do. I’m anxious to see how well he does. There were times when he was definitely our best hitter in Triple A last year.”

If Montero starts the season with the Rainiers, which is likely, first base, not DH, will be his primary position.

“If he’s with me, he’s going to play there a lot,” Gwynn said

Gwynn admitted to being frustrated with Montero at times last season.

“A little,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like these guys’ fathers or big brother and you have to tell them what you think – you need to pick it up. Nobody has promised you anything in baseball. The game will move on without you, that is a promise. So I’m ecstatic to see where he is.

McClendon met with Montero before the winter meetings and was impressed with the change in body and mindset.

“In the short term, he’s accomplished the things I set out for him to do,” McClendon said. “We had a real good conversation a few months ago and he’s exceeded those expectations.”

It wasn’t hitting or working on first base or baseball related.

“When I talk about exceeding expectations, they had nothing to do with the game of baseball and everything to do with the game of life,” McClendon said. “I think he’s made that progression. So now he can start concentrating on being a better baseball player. We’ll see what happens this spring.”

Zduriencik was particularly critical of Montero last spring. He’s been nothing but complimentary since Montero has started making changes.

“We set a program in place that he embraced,” Zduriencik said. “Now what happens, we’re going to find out. But I’ve never given up on him. The expectations on him right now aren’t great, but I asked Robbie Cano last fall, ‘You were in that Yankee dugout when this 20-year-old kid came up from the Minor Leagues. What did you think as a veteran player?’ And he goes, ‘Jack, we were like, ‘Whoa, this guy is hitting balls out to right-center field, home runs down the left-field line against Jered Weaver. This guy is 20 years old, he’s a monster. We’ve got ourselves a 30- to 40-home run guy going forward.'”

Montero never turned into that player. But the Mariners haven’t given up hope that he might be that player in some way after the weight issues, the BioGenesis suspension and his recent run-in with a scout during a minor league game.

“He stubbed his toe, his second toe and his third toe,” Zduriencik said. “But the bottom line is, he’s still part of this organization. We’ve got a lot invested in him and we certainly want him to be successful. And he’s going to be given that opportunity.”

3. J.A. Happ is in the starting rotation and there will be competition for one open spot.

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AP photo

This is something McClendon said at the winter meetings and he reiterated it on Thursday.

“I said we didn’t acquire Happ to pitch out of the bullpen,” he said. “We can put all that to rest.”

So Happ is in the rotation. He’ll join Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who are obviously in.  James Paxton is most likely in, though McClendon wouldn’t confirm it. So one spot remains.

“We have candidates for one spot,” McClendon said. “Competition is a good thing. You hope at the end of spring training that you have some really tough decisions to make. We’ll see what happens.”

That leaves Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias to fight for the last spot. You can also throw Erasmo Ramirez into that competition as well because he’s around. Ramirez has pitched well in winter ball and is out of minor league options. So if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, he’ll be designated for assignment and likely claimed by another team.

The odd man out will be with Class AAA Tacoma this season.

4. Shortstop hasn’t been decided

There aren’t many positions battles on the 25-man roster. But for the second straight spring, there will be one at shortstop.

Brad Miller and Chris Taylor will vie for the starting shortstop position. A year ago, Miller beat out Nick Franklin for the job. But an awful start at the plate for Miller and some miscues in the field cost Miller the starting job. Taylor was called up in July and the two shared time later in the season.

The competition is open for 2015.

“We have two young men that performed pretty well in spurts,” McClendon said. “They will be given the opportunity to battle it out in spring training and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hell, they could both be on the team, who knows.”

The breakdown is simple.

“Obviously, Miller is more gifted offensively and Taylor is more gifted defensively,” McClendon said. “It’s more of a natural position for Taylor. I think the sum of the parts equals up to a pretty good combination.”

How do you weigh the importance of defense vs. offense to a team?

“They’re both capable of making the routine plays,” McClendon said. “It just looks a little easier for one than the other, but that doesn’t mean he’s better in that sense. You have to figure what your strengths our and what fits best as far as that shortstop position is concerned. That’s what spring training is for.”

What will happen to the one who doesn’t win the spot?

“I don’t have the answer to that right now because there are so many things attached to it,” Zduriencik said. “Does someone end at Triple A? Is Willie ready to break camp on opening day as your utility player? How do those two players look when they come into spring training? We are really going to give Brad and Chris every opportunity to win the job. There is no favorite right now, at least in my mind. I don’t think Lloyd feels any different.”

5. Expect Dustin Ackley to play a lot this spring

Screen Shot 2015-01-22 at 4.08.40 PM

Dustin Ackley has been a slow starter the past few seasons and then really picked it up in the second half of the season. His 2015 splits are above.  How can McClendon and the Mariners avoid this kind of issue?

“My plan is to play the hell out of him and get all this slow start stuff out of the way,” McClendon said. “I’m going to wear him out. And he knows that too. Either he’s going to get tired or I’m going to get tired.”

Expect Ackley to get plenty of at-bats in Cactus League games, intrasquad games and even minor league games. And don’t expect for a ton of patience if he does start slow with Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano on the roster.

6. Speaking of …. don’t label Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith a platoon

McClendon hates the label of platoons. He feels it boxes him into a situation where he’s forced to play people accordingly. So while the recently acquired Ruggiano and Smith form a perfect platoon in right field, McClendon won’t be held to that.

“They’re veteran players with really good track records,” McClendon said. “Jack touched on it earlier about the left-right situation. But I’m not sure how that’s going to play out. From a standpoint of making out your lineups the night before and figuring out the matchups you are going to have, I can’t sit here and say that Seth is going to play strictly against right-handers and Ruggiano will play strictly against left-handers. I can’t say that. There may be times where we see them both in the lineup. You just never know.”

7. Injury and health updates

Really the only major injury issue over the offseason was the microfracture surgery for utility player Willie Bloomquist on his right knee.

Per trainer Rick Griffin, Bloomquist has been cleared for activity. He’s on a running program that started two and half weeks ago.

“We anticipate him being ready for spring training,” Griffin said.

*** Roenis Elias, who missed the last few weeks of the season with tendinitis in his throwing elbow, completed a throwing program over the winter, including bullpen sessions. He had no discomfort during those sessions. He just reported back to Arizona to start another throwing program.

*** Danny Hultzen (labral/rotator cuff surgery)  is cleared for normal activity when he reports to spring training. He’ll do the same workouts as the rest of the pitchers without limitations. “We’ll watch him and monitor him closely,” Griffin said. “He’s reported back to Arizona and is working out.”

*** Dustin Ackley met with an ankle specialist in North Carolina. It’s the same one that Seahawks’ safety Kam Chancellor met with and many NBA players go to see. Ackley did not need surgery. The specialist said the Mariners maintenance plan was proper and added a few suggestions to keep the ankle healthy.

*** Taijuan Walker had a little different offseason conditioning program than past seasons. It focused on upper body flexibility. Walker came into spring training built like a free safety last season and the Mariners felt it hurt his mechanics.

“Taijuan is still growing,” Griffin said. “When he lifts weight, he gets big very quickly and he learned that last year. He didn’t do anything wrong. His body type is such that when he lifts weights, he gets big very quickly. So we completely changed his routine this offseason. He’s doing things that center around his core, his legs and cardio. He’s not doing a lot of lifting with his upper body other than things he needs to do maintain flexibility and shoulder strength. We feel going into spring he’ll be a lot better off.”

8. Prospect updates

Everybody loves prospects!

As you will see on the list below, top hitting prospects like DJ Peterson, Patrick Kivlehan and Jordy Lara have all received invites to spring training. Nobody expects them to make the team. But this is big for their development.

With Montero likely at first in Tacoma and DJ Peterson likely to play third and first at times, expect Kivlehan, who can also play both corner positions, to play in the outfield most of the time. Kivlehan hit .295 (153×519) with 84 runs scored, 32 doubles, 9 triples, 103 RBI, 56 walks and 11 stolen bases in 138 games combined between High Desert and Jackson.

“We are going to figure that out,” Gwynn said of Kivlehan’s position. “While we figure it out, we are going to keep giving him at-bats. I don’t know where he ends up. He says he’s more comfortable at first base than he used to be. We’re going to probably play him a little at first and more in the outfield. For the most part, he’s going to play a lot of outfield.”

Lara hit and hit last season. How much? He hit .337 (177×525) with 91 runs scored, 40 doubles, 5 triples, 26 home runs, 104 RBI, 46 walks and 1 stolen base in 135 games combined between High Desert and Jackson.

“I have to be honest, we kind overlooked him at first,” Gwynn said of Lara a few years ago. “We started to notice how easily he squares the ball up when he hits. He just had a breakout season last year. Every coordinator and coach in our organization is really proud of him. His best position is probably first base and he’s going to play some outfield. He has power. He has a really good on-base percentage and he swings at strikes.”

Outfielder Gabby Guerrero will start the season in Class AA Jackson. Guerrero set career highs in nearly every offensive category with High Desert this past season, including games, at-bats, runs scored, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI and stolen bases. Overall he hit .307 (165-for-538) with 97 runs scored, 28 doubles, 2 triples, 18 home runs, 96 RBI and 18 stolen bases in 131 games.

Gwynn said Guerrero’s biggest issue is pitch recognition. Guerrero struck out 131 times last season and walked just 34 times.

*** Ji-Man Choi is experimenting with switch hitting during the offseason. The first baseman/DH out of South Korea missed 50 games with a drug suspension this past season and is getting work in. Normally a left-handed hitter, Choi, started hitting right-handed in the cages and is trying it out.

“I just found this out, there was word that he was switch hitting,” Gwynn said. “He called me and it turns out he’s hitting right-handed. His swing supposedly looks pretty good right-handed. Kids. You just never know what they’re going to do.”

9. Future moves and payroll

The Mariners payroll will be higher this year. I’m guessing it will start the season around $120 million when you factor in everyone on the 40-man roster. They still have some money left to work with. Here’s a few comments from Zduriencik about it.

“We didn’t have the money till midseason last year when ownership said we were in a pretty good spot –  ‘If you have to take on payroll, we are willing to support you in that.’

Just because you have some money left over, if the right situation isn’t out there, why would you spend it? Because things happen the day before spring training, they happen in the middle of spring training and they happen at the end of spring training. So any time you have available dollars – it’s an asset. If you spend it now, and you don’t have it later, it could tie your hands. We will do – in our estimation – the wise thing with any money we have left over. And we are not going to spend it just to spend it. If common sense is there, if the right move is there, then we’ll do it.”

One of those right moves could be signing Joe Beimel or another lefty reliever. McClendon said one of his biggest concerns is who will be the second lefty in the bullpen to accompany Charlie Furbush. Right now on the 40-man roster, Seattle has lefty Lucas Luetge and Rule 5 selection David Rollins. McClendon has it made no secret that he would like to have Beimel, who posted a 3-1 record and a 2.20 ERA in 56 appearances back for another season.

Zduriencik said bringing back Beimel was possible.

“We’ve had discussions with Joe,” he said.

Zduriencik said the team is looking at some veteran outfielders and assistant GM Jeff Kingston said they are looking at a few more non-roster invites (see below) for spring training.

Seattle has been linked to Endy Chavez this offseason so that’s a fit. Chavez would likely sign a minor league deal with a May or June opt out like he did last season. Chavez hit .276 in 80 games last season and was valuable contributor at times.

The question of Franklin Gutierrez came up. The oft-injured outfielder is playing down in Venezuela and the Mariners’ have scouted him.

“He’s hitting for some power but not much average,” Kingston said.

Gutierrez is healthy, according to his agent. So there’s that. But if Gutierrez is brought back, it would only be on a minor league deal.

One payroll note to watch — Tom Wilhelmsen, who is arbitration eligible,  and the Mariners haven’t agreed to a contract yet. There is a good chance that the two sides actually won’t get a deal figured out and they’ll go to arbitration. The last time the M’s have gone to arbitration with a player was Freddy Garcia.

10. Non-roster invites and a minor league signing 

Below is a list of players that are not on the 40-man roster that will be invited to major league spring training. The Mariners announced the signing of utility player Shawn O’Malley today.  O’Malley, a Richland native, signed a minor league deal. He played in the Angels organization last season. He and Carlos Rivero provide some insurance in case Willie Bloomquist isn’t ready to start the season.

Pitchers

  • Sam Gaviglio
  • Justin Germano
  • Stephen Landazuri
  • Tyler Olson
  • Jordan Pries
  • Forrest Snow
  • Mark Lowe

Catchers

  • Steven Baron
  • Mike Dowd
  • Tyler Marlette

Infielders

  • Shawn O’Malley
  • DJ Peterson
  • Carlos Rivero

Outfielders

  • Patrick Kivlehan
  • Jordy Lara

 

11. Stadium improvements and TV schedule

We’ve heard about the new LED lights.

For you fans wanting to check your phones and follow my musings on Twitter with much better ease, there will be free Wi-Fi at Safeco Field for fans. They will debut the Wi-Fi for a soft launch at FanFest.

The Mariners confirmed that they will televise 16 spring training games live on Root Sports. Day games will also be rebroadcast on prime time on Root. The 16 games will be the third most broadcast of any Cactus League team. The Dodgers and Angels are the only teams that broadcast more last season. Here’s the schedule

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