The midseason transition of Brad Miller from starting shortstop to super utility player has been one of the Mariners’ more intriguing storylines in recent weeks and that plot continues developing as Miller filled in for second baseman Robinson Cano in Sunday’s series finale against the Blue Jays.
Miller has now played all three outfield positions as well as second base, designated hitter and his familiar shortstop role in a one-week span. It’s a big change, but Miller comes to the park each day with an open mind, waiting to see what role awaits.
“If you embrace that, you can use it to your advantage,” he said. “Whereas if you show up and see it as a negative or pout or something, then it’s not going to help you. So I’m just kind of going with the flow right now.”
It doesn’t hurt that Miller has been one of the Mariners’ more-productive hitters, no matter where he’s been placed defensively.
“That’s part of it, not letting it affect your performance. Not letting other factors get in your way,” Miller said. “I know at the end of the day, I’ve got to play well. So whatever I’ve got to do to do that. I just want to keep it going and keep working.”
Miller has played all three outfield positions now, which is the biggest adjustment for a guy who spent his entire professional career at shortstop along with a few games at second and third. He’s spent considerable time in pregame work the past three weeks with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke and has gotten more comfortable reading the ball off the bat.
And, like any player with a mitt and a wall, he enjoys the leaping attempts at the fence, which he nearly pulled off earlier this week in Baltimore trying to pull back a grand slam by Steve Pearce.
“All me and Andy do the last 10 minutes of batting practice is home run robberies,” Miller said. “I knew the wall in Camden is shorter than Safeco. It’s crazy when it happened. It’s such an adrenaline rush and I’m just going. It ended up being probably two rows too deep. But honestly, my attitude out there is I’m just trying to go get everything. Not really think about anything, but whatever I see just go and get it.”
• Cano moved to designated hitter on Sunday as manager Lloyd McClendon looked to give his legs a break in the midst of six straight games on artificial turf in Toronto and Tampa Bay. Cano is hitting just .253 with one homer and 11 RBIs in Seattle’s first 42 games, a far cry from his normal production.
McClendon said Cano worked on some mechanical issues in Baltimore and believes he’s close to getting back in a groove.
“I’m sure he’s frustrated. He’s probably a little embarrassed,” McClendon said. “That’s only natural. But the fact is, he’s going to hit. He hasn’t gotten results here, but I see better positioning at the plate. I see his hands in a better position. I wouldn’t be surprised if he went out today and got three hits. He’s real close. He’s going to hit.”
• Austin Jackson went 3-for-5 with a double in Triple-A Tacoma’s game at Iowa on Saturday and is now hitting .310 in seven rehab games as he returns from a sprained right ankle. McClendon said a decision is looming on the veteran center fielder.
“He’s feeling a lot better. I think he’s real close,” McClendon said Sunday morning. “We’ll see how he feels after today’s game and go from there.”
It’s possible Jackson could rejoin the Mariners as early as Monday in Tampa Bay.
Mariners closer Fernando Rodney has allowed runs in five of his six appearances in May, but the veteran right-hander has recorded nine straight saves since his one blown opportunity in early April and manager Lloyd McClendon said that means he’s getting his job done.
Rodney’s ERA rose to 6.61 after allowing a two-run homer to Chris Colabello in Friday’s 4-3 win over the Blue Jays, but he’s saved 11 of 12 games this year and 32 of his last 33 opportunities dating back to last July.
“I don’t think you worry about his ERA much,” McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game. “A lot of that is inflated from (two early season games). My old skipper told me this a long time ago. Your responsibility as a manager is to get the ball to your closer in the ninth inning. After that, what are you going to do? He either wins it or loses it.”
Rodney took the loss against the Red Sox last week at Safeco when he entered a 1-1 tie and surrendered the go-ahead run, but in straight save situations he remains near perfect, albeit in a non-perfect way. His ERA in six May games is 9.00 (six runs in six innings) with nine hits, two walks and five strikeouts.
Opposing batters are hitting .308 against him this season, well above his career average of .234, and his WHIP of 1.71 is well north of his career 1.37.
McClendon says Rodney seems to pitch to the situation, gearing up more in close save situations than the three-run lead he inherited on Friday. And he says that’s not unique to his closer.
“He gets those one-run leads, I think he’s a little bit more focused,” McClendon said. “Three-run lead, he’s a little more relaxed. It’s just the animal that most closers are. It’s not just him. I’ve seen it with other guys, too. It gets within one or two and they tighten down.
“You look at last night, the 3-0 pitch [that Josh Donaldson popped out to center on for the last out] was painted. Before that he was in the middle of the plate. That 3-0 pitch was right on the black. Do you like it? No. But it is what it is. That’s the animal that they are.”
McClendon believes it takes a special mentality to close out games and Rodney – whose 144 saves since 2012 are second only to Craig Kimbrel’s 150 in the Majors – has the ability to deal with both the success and inevitable failures in the high-profile position.
“Our closer is what he is,” McClendon said. “Hopefully he’s 49 out of 50 with a 6.00 ERA. I don’t give a [blank]. I don’t care about his ERA. Just close the games out. Sometimes it’s not easy.”
• Austin Jackson went 1-for-5 with three strikeouts in his sixth rehab game for Triple-A Tacoma on Friday while playing center field in a 10-9 loss at Iowa. He’s hitting .250 (6-for-24) with four walks and seven strikeouts. McClendon said he’s not sure when Jackson will be recalled as he returns from a sprained right ankle.
“The ankle is feeling good, but the bat isn’t,” McClendon said. “As of right now, it’s still open.”
• Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma still isn’t throwing as he remains in Seattle getting treatment on his strained right lat muscle.
“I would imagine when we get back he’ll start throwing again and then start his process all over again,” McClendon said. “He’s going to be out awhile.”
Looking to add depth at the catching position, the Mariners acquired six-year Major League veteran Welington Castillo from the Cubs on Tuesday in exchange for right-handed reliever Yoervis Medina.
Castillo is expected to join the Mariners on Wednesday in Baltimore and a corresponding roster move will be made at that time to clear a spot for him. He’ll presumably fill the role of backup catcher to Mike Zunino, a job currently held by Jesus Sucre.
“It’s very challenging in this day and age to have catching depth,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “To add a catcher that has a reasonable amount of Major League experience is important to the entire organization.”
Castillo, 28, has hit .163 in 24 games with two home runs, two doubles and five RBIs for the Cubs this season. He was the Cubs starting catcher in 2013-14, batting .274 in 2013. But his offense dropped last year when he hit .237 and he was working as the team’s third catcher this year behind Miguel Montero and David Ross.
Medina, 26, was a key member of the Mariners bullpen the past two years, but was sent to Triple-A Tacoma two weeks ago. Seattle has some strength in its right-handed power arms, but Zduriencik said it was still a tough decision.
“I don’t think anybody is comfortable with having enough pitching,” Zduriencik said. “But catching at the Major League level is a very challenging position. It’s difficult to get through the season with one or two catchers. We’ve been fortunate to have a healthy Mike Zunino, but a couple years ago he was out six weeks with a broken hamate. It’s a position on the field where if you can add depth, it’s in your best interest to do it.”
The Mariners currently have John Hicks, who has no Major League experience, and veteran John Baker sharing backstop duties at Tacoma. Hicks is hitting .226 with a .674 OPS in 24 games, while Baker has batted .161 with a .378 OPS in 17 appearances.
The Mariners haven’t got much offense out of the position at the Major League level either. Zunino is a well-regarded 24-year-old and excellent defender, but he’s batting just .179 with a .600 OPS in 35 games. Sucre has hit .067 (1-for-15) with a .133 OPS in six games.
Castillo carries a career .252 average with 29 home runs and 110 RBIs. From 2013-14, he hit .255 with 42 doubles, 21 home runs, 78 RBIs and a .716 OPS in 223 games. The Dominican product has thrown out 58 of 220 attempted base stealers in his career (26.4 percent).
“He has the ability to hit and he’s got power,” Zduriencik said. “He has a very good throwing arm and is a good [pitch] blocker. He has a nice skillset. There are those that debate whether he could have been a starting catcher at this level. I think we’re getting someone with ability and we’ll see how he fits in with our club.”
Medina posted a 2.82 ERA in 141 appearances out of the Mariners bullpen the last three seasons. This year, he was 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in 12 innings over 12 outings with Seattle and had a 1.59 ERA in 5 2/3 innings over four appearances with Tacoma. He’ll be assigned to Triple-A Iowa by the Cubs.
Nelson Cruz entered Saturday’s play leading the American League in all three Triple Crown categories – home runs, batting average and tied for tops in RBIs – but Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon believes the big right fielder hasn’t even hit his hottest streak yet.
While everyone knew Cruz would bring some needed right-handed power after leading the Majors in home runs with 40 last year for the Orioles, there were questions about how he’d fare with a full season in Safeco Field. Yet he finished the first 35 games of the season with 15 home runs, 30 RBIs and a .358 batting average that is well above his career mark of .268.
“To be truthful, I don’t think he’s gotten hot to the point where it’s just ridiculous,” said McClendon. “He’s grinding at-bats out and getting his hits, he’s going the other way. If they make a mistake, he’ll hit it out. But I’ve seen him to the point where he’ll get hot and hit good pitches out of the ballpark and that hasn’t happened yet.”
Cruz slugged 10 home runs in April when he was the AL Player of the Month. He has five more halfway through May, though only one in nine games going into Saturday. But Cruz has hit .467 (14-for-30) during an eight-game hitting streak, including the walk-off single in Friday’s 2-1 win over Boston.
The Mariners were just 1-for-20 with runners in scoring position over three games prior to Cruz’s clutch delivery.
“Baseball is crazy,” Cruz said. “You go through slumps and then your swing can click and you get everything done. The good thing is I got it done in that situation. I want to be there in that spot.”
Cruz certainly hasn’t had any slumps of his own in his stunning first six weeks in a Mariners uniform. But his skipper remained steadfast in his belief that things could get better.
“I think home run hitters, when they get hot, they hit home runs in bunches and he hasn’t done that yet,” McClendon said. “His have been spread out. A few here and a few there. He did have a streak where he hit [six] in five days or something like that, but there’s a big streak in there that hasn’t come out yet.”
Lloyd McClendon figures Brad Miller can transition to the outfield easily enough after playing shortstop his entire career for one good reason. McClendon himself made the switch during his playing days after coming up primarily as a catcher and first baseman.
McClendon wound up playing left field, right field, third base, first base and catcher during his eight-year Major League career and he says Miller is a better athlete than he was, so he’s not concerned about introducing the 25-year-old to a new position at this point.
“Listen, you catch up a pop up at shortstop, you can catch a pop up in left field,” McClendon said. “You can screw up at short, you can screw up in left. It’s the same thing. It’s baseball. It’s that simple. If it’s hit to you, you catch it. If you screw it up, pick it up and throw it back in.”
Miller was penciled in at left field for the first time for Thursday’s series opener with the Red Sox after working in the outfield prior to games for the past nine days since Chris Taylor was called up to play shortstop.
Miller has borrowed an outfield glove from Dustin Ackley and worked diligently with outfield coach Andy Van Slyke getting as comfortable as possible with the new spot. He’s put in all the work, even if he’s still not ready to accept the move as permanent.
Asked if he still thinks of himself as a shortstop, Miller didn’t hesitate.
“I am,” he said. “I am a shortstop. No question. But I’m a player and I don’t make out the lineup. Obviously I want to be playing.”
McClendon recalls botching a play in the outfield during his early days with the Cubs and then hitting a big home run later in the same game, drawing advice from manager Don Zimmer that he’s never forgotten.
“I tell [Miller], just like Zimmer told me: If he hits three-run homers, he’s going to be a heckuva left fielder,” McClendon said with a laugh. “Don’t worry about it.”
Miller is hearing words of wisdom from others as well.
“One of my friends from back home gave me advice,” Miller said. “He said, ‘The walls don’t move.’ I said, ‘Alright, that’s good. I’ll see where they’re at.’”
• Center fielder Austin Jackson ran the bases, took batting practice and caught balls in the outfield during pregame work on Thursday as he continues recovering from a sprained right ankle that has him on the 15-day disabled list through Tuesday.
McClendon said he expects Jackson will need a few more days before he goes out on a Minor League rehab assignment.
• Hisashi Iwakuma continues getting treatment on his strained right lat muscle, but won’t begin playing catch for about another week as he remains in shutdown mode after still feeling stiffness in his sore back muscle last weekend.
• Edwin Diaz, one of the Mariners top pitching prospects, was promoted Thursday to Double-A Jackson after going 2-0 with a 1.70 ERA in his first seven starts for High-A Bakersfield. The 21-year-old right-hander takes the spot of Stephan Landazuri, who was bumped up to Triple-A Tacoma after going 0-2 with a 4.61 ERA in six starts for Jackson.
Mariners right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma felt continued tightness in his strained right lat muscle when playing catch last weekend and has been shut down from throwing for the next 10 days, manager Lloyd McClendon said on Tuesday. The decision means the 2013 American League All-Star isn’t anywhere close to returning from the 15-day disabled list after being sidelined nearly three weeks.
“It’s a tough situation,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I took about a week off and then started throwing for about a week. But I still felt something inside. It’s not pain, it’s more tightness. We want to make sure I feel nothing when I throw next time.”
The team isn’t making any estimates on his return, but if Iwakuma can’t do any throwing now until around May 22, he’s likely looking at late June before he’d be ready to rejoin the Mariners at the earliest.
Iwakuma has been one of the AL’s top right-handed starters the past three seasons, posting a 2.97 ERA in 77 starts from 2012-14. But he struggled in his first three outings this year (0-1, 6.61 ERA) and then was placed on the DL after an MRI test showed inflammation in the lat muscle.
He began playing catch at Safeco Field while the Mariners were on the road last week, but that didn’t progress as well as expected.
“His rehab has not gone as well as we thought it would have gone,” McClendon said. “He’s still experiencing some stiffness so we’ll probably push him back 10 days or so. Anytime you have any kind of lat strain, you have to be careful with it. It just makes sense to back him off.”
Iwakuma said he had a similar lat injury when he was in Japan, but feels this one is less serious. He’s still able to do conditioning exercises and shoulder work, but can’t throw.
“It is frustrating because I was hoping I’d be pain free or feel nothing by the time I was scheduled to throw,” he said. “It’s not feeling worse. It’s better than where it was, but I feel tightness. Hopefully next time I throw I won’t feel anything.”
Roenis Elias, a 26-year-old left-hander, has made three starts in Iwakuma’s place and is 0-1 with a 3.86 ERA. He’ll get the ball again Thursday in the opening game of a four-game series against the Red Sox at Safeco Field.
Tom Wilhelmsen threw 25 pitches in a simulated game situation on Wednesday at Angel Stadium as the big right-hander moved closer to returning to the Mariners after 25 days on the disabled list with a hyperextended elbow.
The Mariners could use Wilhelmsen to help shore up their bullpen, but he’ll likely need at least a Minor League outing or two before rejoining the club. Manager Lloyd McClendon said no decision would be made on Wilhelmsen’s next step until the trainers see how his arm reacts on Thursday to his first game-like situation in nearly a month.
“It was good to see batters and how my stuff looks with a batter in there from both sides,” Wilhelmsen said after facing Dustin Ackley and Chris Taylor in the simulated situation prior to Wednesday’s series finale with the Angels. “I felt free and easy today. I threw all my pitches and everything felt good. We’ll figure out the next step a little later.”
Wilhelmsen said his elbow feels 100 percent and his biggest challenge is regaining the feel of his changeup and curve.
“Definitely, those are two pitches I’ll rely on quite a bit,” he said. “This was the second time I’ve thrown the curveball and for the most part, I liked what I saw. The changeup seemed to get better as I was throwing it. My first couple were a little down and away, but I threw a couple nice ones there that I was pretty happy about later in the outing.”
Pitching coach Rick Waits said he thought Wilhelmsen looked very good, considering it was his first time facing live hitters the first week of the season in Oakland.
“For being 25 days since he’s been on a mound, that was pretty good,” Waits said. “I thought his slider was really good. His changeup was good and he threw a couple good curveballs. A couple he left on the arm side, but yeah, for not being off the mound, that’s pretty advanced. It’s good to see that.
“The main thing is he feels good,” said Waits. “I’m not worried about him getting his stuff back and controlling it. If he’s healthy, we’re fine.”
With Seattle’s normally-stout bullpen struggling at times in the first month, Wilhelmsen is eager to get back and help as quickly as possible.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s tough to feel like you can’t contribute, but I’m doing everything I can just as far as talking to guys and trying to keep everyone on the same page and not let anything get too far ahead of us.”
• Hisashi Iwakuma is playing catch up to 75 feet with trainers in Seattle and “feeling pretty good,” McClendon said. “His rehab is going fine.”
The veteran right-hander was eligible to come off the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday, but “he’s a ways away,” said McClendon, who indicated Iwakuma will need to go out on a Minor League rehab assignment once his strained lat muscle behind his right shoulder is fully recovered in a couple weeks.
“He’s progressing well,” McClendon said. “But even when he’s ready, he’s going to have to go out and pitch and build his arm back up.”
It didn’t take Nelson Cruz long to make his presence felt on the Mariners as the club’s new right fielder and designated hitter earned American League Player of the Month honors for his outstanding April on Monday.
It was the first Player of the Month award for Cruz in his 11-year career and he’s the first Seattle player to earn the honor since Ichiro Suzuki in August of 2004.
“It’d be hard pressed to see anybody’s numbers stack up against his for the first month,” said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. “It was pretty impressive.”
Cruz hit .322 in 22 games in the month and had the top slugging percentage in the AL at .724, the top OPS at 1.096 and most extra bats hits with 14, while tying with Boston’s Hanley Ramirez for the most home runs (10) and RBIs (22). In addition to his 10 homers, he also hit three doubles and a triple, while Ramirez had no other extra-base hits and batted .293 in 21 games.
Cruz led the Majors in home runs with 40 last year for the Orioles, then signed a four-year, $57 million deal to play with the Mariners this winter. He hit six home runs in Seattle’s first nine games of the season and earned AL Player of the Week honors that first week.
The three-time All-Star joined Ken Griffey, Jr. (July 1993) and Jay Buhner (May 1996) as the only Mariners to hit eight home runs in an eight-game stretch during a single season. His 10 home runs in the opening month are the third-most in franchise history behind only Griffey, who hit 13 in 1997 and 11 in 1998.
He was the first Mariners player with at least 20 RBIs in the opening month of a season since Raul Ibañez recorded 20 in 2008 and Bret Boone had 21 in 2003.
Cruz has continued his hot hitting into May. On the season, he is hitting .343 with 17 runs, 13 home runs, 25 RBIs, a .387 on-base percentage, a .788 slugging percentage and a 1.175 OPS in 25 games heading into Monday’s series opener with the Angels.
The way Lloyd McClendon sees it, the solution is pretty simple. His Mariners seem to have squared away their early pitching problems. Now they just need to get the expected offensive production to support those arms.
The Mariners averaged 3.57 runs in their first 23 games, down from their 2014 full-season average of 3.91. After Friday’s 4-3 loss to the Astros, their batting average registered at .236, down from last year’s .244. The on-base percentage has slipped from .300 to .291.
Given new addition Nelson Cruz (pictured) has hit .330 and led the American League in home runs and RBIs in his first month, those are disappointing results. Through Friday’s games, the Mariners ranked 13 among the AL’s 15 teams in scoring and batting average and 14th in on-base percentage. They are tied for fifth in home runs and eighth in slugging percentage, but those numbers haven’t translated to increased run production.
“It’s real simple,” McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game with the Astros. “Just like I said with the pitching. If you pitch and play defense, you’ve got a chance to win. But you’ve got to score. You have to outscore the other team. And we’ve had bad at-bats. I’m not going to sugarcoat things. When we’re bad at the plate, we’re bad and I’m going to point it out and I don’t care who doesn’t like it.
“I saw somebody in the paper said I’m frustrated,” said McClendon. “I’m not frustrated, I’m just speaking facts. We’re bad. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got professional hitters in that locker room and they’ve got to give me better at bats and it’s just that simple.”
And what if that doesn’t happen?
“Then I’ll be at the track betting on the Kentucky Derby,” he said with a chuckle.
McClendon made one lineup change Saturday, inserting right-handed hitting Rickie Weeks in left field in place of Dustin Ackley even against Astros right-hander Collin McHugh. McClendon’s decision was based on Ackley’s 0-for-13 career performance against McHugh, with six strikeouts.
But with Ackley hitting just .190, he said it’s likely that he could opt for either right-handers Weeks or Justin Ruggiano more against future right-handers as well.
Clearly the Mariners need to get production from more than just Cruz. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager didn’t have big first months and many of the Mariners seem to be pressing too hard early to provide the needed support. McClendon said that has been evident in the number of hitters chasing bad pitches.
“Anytime you go outside the strike zone, it’s one of two things,” he said. “Either you’re not seeing the ball or you’re trying to do too much. And I think right now, we’re trying to do too much. When you’re talking about driving in runs, it’s a real simple process. You have to get a good pitch to hit and put a good swing on it. We’re doing neither. We’re not getting a good pitch to hit and we’re not putting good swings on bad pitches. And that’s going to equate to not scoring runs.”
• McClendon said reliever Tom Wilhelmsen came out of Friday’s bullpen session without any problems and will throw another on Sunday before the club determines whether he’s ready to go out on a Minor League rehab. Wilhelmsen has been on the 15-day disabled list since April 11 with a hyperextended elbow.
• Logan Morrison hit his first triple in 121 games with the Mariners on Friday, but he had 16 three-baggers in 363 games with the Marlins, including seven in just 62 games in 2010 when he was called up midseason as a rookie.
“That’s when I was a little younger and lighter and before knee surgeries,” said the 27-year-old first baseman. “But I can still run a little.”
Meanwhile, reliever Tom Wilhelmsen took a step toward his own return from the 15-day disabled list as he threw a bullpen session at Minute Maid Park prior to Friday’s game with the Astros. Both right-handers were big parts of last season’s pitching staff that led the American League in ERA.
Iwakuma has missed two starts since straining the lat muscle behind his right shoulder and going on the 15-day DL, while Wilhelmsen has been sidelined since April 11 with a hyperextended right elbow.
Wilhelmsen is closer to returning as he threw 25 pitches off the mound on Friday for the first time since his injury. He’ll throw another bullpen session on Sunday before it’s determined if he’s ready to go out on a Minor League rehab. If all goes well, he should be ready to rejoin the club in mid-May.
The 31-year-old reliever said he threw fastballs and sinkers at about 90-95 percent on Friday and “felt great. No issues at all.”
Wilhelmsen has been out longer than initially expected, but says he’s progressing fine now.
“The first few times I played catch, my shoulder felt a little cranky,” he said. “But that was just due to not doing anything physically with it for awhile. After we got out to 100 feet, it loosened up and there have been no problems for the last week or so.”
Iwakuma, who remained behind in Seattle to rehab during the current 10-game road trip, is just beginning the process of starting to play catch. The 2013 All-Star was 0-1 with a 6.61 ERA in his first three starts before reporting soreness behind his shoulder.
With Iwakuma expected to miss most of May, left-hander Roenis Elias made his second start in his place on Friday against the Astros.
• Second baseman Robinson Cano finished April going 2-for-22 in his last five games as his average dropped from .304 to .253, but McClendon said he’s not worried about the six-time All-Star with a .309 career average.
“He’s working at it,” McClendon said before Friday’s game. “He’s in a little funk now, but Robbie has a tremendous track record. I think when it’s all said and done, his numbers will be right where they’re supposed to be. We went through this last year and had this same conversation. He’s going to hit. He’s going to be just fine.”
• On the flip side, Nelson Cruz finished his first month with the Mariners batting .322 while leading the American League with a .724 slugging percentage. Cruz finished the month tied with Boston’s Hanley Ramirez for the Major League lead in home runs (10) and RBIs (22) and second to the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez (.790) in slugging percentage. He also led MLB with five game-winning RBIs.