January 2011

Felix taking next step as face of franchise

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Felix Hernandez chats with Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims during FanFest, then works with a young fan in the bullpen (below). Photos by Ben VanHouten/Mariners.

Two interesting observations from the weekend’s FanFest at Safeco Field, when 12,298 fans enjoyed the chance to meet some Mariners and take their own shots at running the bases, throwing in the bullpen and catching fly balls in the outfield.

One, the Mariners were smart to play up their promising future by inviting four of their top prospects to the event. Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda figure to be part of the very near-future at Safeco and fans enjoyed getting a chance to meet and learn more about them.

But the club also invited two young infielders — Kyle Seager and Nick Franklin — who are a little further down the pipeline as high draft choices who played Class A ball last year. That was an unusual move for a FanFest, but both showed up as bright and confident youngsters who relished the opportunity.

FelixBullpenFan.jpgI’ll have more on those players later in the week, as well as the promising Pineda, so stay tuned to Mariners.com for those stories.

But something else worth noting was the continuing emergence of Felix Hernandez as the face of the franchise. Hernandez always has been a presence because of his ability, obviously. But at 24 and fresh off his Cy Young Award, Hernandez really seems to be gaining comfort and letting his personality emerge.

With four years remaining on his five-year, $78 million deal, Hernandez isn’t taking his money and position for granted. Instead, he’s embracing an increased leadership role and public-relations responsiblity.

This was his first FanFest appearance since ’06 and he literally lit up for the fans. If you have time, check out his Q&A fan session video. It’s really a great glimpse into his personality.

Hernandez said he understands representing the Mariners is part of his job. Clearly, he gets that there’s more to being “The King” than just pitching every fifth day.

“It’s important to me and the team, too,” he said of his offseason appearances. “We’re a family together.”

Hernandez spent part of his offseason back home in Valencia, Venezuela, but he has a full-time residence in Seattle now. That is the house where the Cy Young Trophy will sit on his mantle. That is the house where he and his wife Sandra are raising their young son and daughter.

“I love this city,” Hernandez said. “This is my home.”

For Mariners’ fans who’ve always loved players who truly adopt their town — players like Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson, Jamie Moyer — those have to be welcome words indeed.

Check out the Dave Niehaus uniform patch

Almost lost in the crush of news and interviews at yesterday’s pre-Spring Training media day, but the Mariners released an image of the Dave Niehaus patch that will be worn on the right sleeve of every Seattle player for every game of the upcoming season.

 

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The team also is working on a Niehaus statue to be placed somewhere at Safeco Field. They’re in the process of finding the right artist and finalizing all the details, but expect the statue will be in place either by the end of this season or, at the latest, the start of next year.

What do you think of the patch and where would you like to see the statue placed?

Zduriencik expects Figgins to remain a Mariner

Lots of reports from reliable journalists today about the Mariners and A’s talking trade, with Chone Figgins going to Oakland for third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and likely a pitcher.

FigginsChone.jpgBut Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was very adamant in telling me this afternoon that his plan is for Figgins to remain with the Mariners.

“I’m looking forward to Figgins being our starting third baseman,” Zduriencik said. “He’ll be here tomorrow [for the Mariners' FanFest]. He’s been agreeable to moving back to third base and that’s our plan, to have Chone be our Opening Day third baseman.”

Things can always change, of course, but that doesn’t sound like a man who thinks that trade is coming down.

Joe Stiglich of the Contra Costa Times first bounced the story out that the A’s were trying to trade for Figgins in this report and Ken Rosenthal of FOX and Buster Olney of ESPN followed up, with Olney saying the Blue Jays might be involved in a three-way deal.

There are reasons the initial report could make sense from a Mariners’ perspective. Kouzmanoff has more power than Figgins and Seattle certainly can use all the pop it can find. But that same thing holds true for the A’s. And Oakland has Coco Crisp in the leadoff role and isn’t normally a team that looks to take on salary.

My assumption is the A’s would want Seattle to take on some of Figgins’ remaining salary, since Kouzmanoff is owed a far-more palatable $4.75 million in a deal he just signed to avoid arbitration.

The Mariners also are operating on a tight payroll situation this season, due in part to several contracts like Figgins’ deal, which still has three years and $26 million remaining. He struggled a lot in his initial foray with Seattle after both he and the team got off to slow starts.

But Figgins also played much better in the closing months, hitting .286 with a .688 OPS in the second half after posting .235 and .608 pre-All-Star numbers. There were reasons Zduriencik coveted Figgins last year and he’s not going to just dump him without reasonable return.

Much of Zduriencik’s offseason talk has been of getting players to bounce back and be what they expected last year and Figgins is at the top of that list. Moving back to third, where he stood out for the Angels, and having a year’s adjustment to hitting second behind Ichiro could help.

So I’d be surprised if the Mariners give up on the investment they made in Figgins at this point unless the right offer comes into play. And that right offer, at this point, clearly hasn’t been made.

Here’s your FanFest autograph schedule

The Mariners have released the schedule for autograph availability at this weekend’s FanFest at Safeco Field. Players will be set up at tables on the concourse, but you have to get a voucher when entering the Home Plate Gate that allows you in the various autograph lines.

Each autograph table is limited to 500 fans to make things workable.

FanFest runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday with lots of activities throughout. Here are the autograph schedules:

Saturday

11:30 a.m.: Chone Figgins and Michael Saunders (station 1); Eric Wedge (station 2); Felix Hernandez (station 3); Kyle Seager and Dustin Ackley (station 4).

1:30 p.m.: Miguel Olivo and Brendan Ryan (station 1); Dave Valle, Dave Henderson and Julio Cruz (station 2); Brandon League and Jason Vargas (station 3); Michael Pineda and Nick Franklin (station 4).

Sunday

11:30 a.m.: Brendan Ryan and Michael Saunders (station 1); Bret Boone and Jay Buhner (station 2); Felix Hernandez (station 3); Dustin Ackley and Nick Franklin (station 4).

1:30 p.m.: Jason Vargas (station 1); Dan Wilson (station 2); Brandon League and Miguel Olivo (station 3); Michael Pineda and Kyle Seager (station 4).

For more information on FanFest and ticket availability, click here.

June series with Florida Marlins moved to Safeco Field

The Mariners picked up three more home games on Thursday in an unusual move by Major League Baseball as the three-game series June 24-26 at Florida will now be played instead at Safeco Field.

A conflict at the Marlins’ home park forced MLB to find an alternate site and the best solution was moving the games to Seattle, Mariners vice president of communications Randy Adamack said.

The Mariners thus will have 84 regular-season games at Safeco Field, though Florida will be the home team and bat in the bottom of the ninth inning in the shifted series. National League rules will be in play as well, meaning no designated hitter.

Adamack said the games will not be part of the Mariners’ season ticket package, but would be sold on a single-game basis with first priority for season ticket holders who want to purchase their same seats.

The Friday and Saturday games (June 24-25) will start at 7:10 p.m., with the Sunday finale at 1:10 p.m.

The Mariners originally were scheduled to travel from Washington, D.C., to Florida on a six-game road swing, but now instead will return home and have the Marlins’ series kick off a nine-game Safeco homestand that will also include interleague series against Atlanta and San Diego.

According to MLB.com’s Joe Frisaro, who covers the Marlins, the conflict involves a U2 concert at Sun Life Stadium. Florida is playing its final season at Sun Life before moving to its own retractable-roof facility in 2012.

You can read Frisaro’s complete story on the situation in Florida here.

Moyer: Maybe I’ll be back in Seattle in 2012

Leave it to Jamie Moyer to toss out the ultimate tease Wednesday, telling a crowd of about 800 at the Hutch Award ceremony at Safeco Field that he wants to return to baseball in 2012 and leaving the door open to a Mariners reunion.

The former Mariners southpaw underwent Tommy John surgery on his throwing elbow seven weeks ago and will have to sit out the upcoming season, but he’s dead set on giving it a go the following year at the age of 49.

MoyerJamieRizz.jpg“I’m doing great,” Moyer told the gathering at the 46th annual charity event. “I’m about three weeks into rehab. It’s probably be about a full year of rehab. My goal is to make a comeback in 2012. And maybe it’ll be here in Seattle.”

After the luncheon, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik spoke briefly with Moyer on his way out … but they just exchanged pleasantries, not contract offers.

“Not yet,” Moyer said with a chuckle. “I think he’s got enough headaches right now.”

Realistically, Moyer faces a huge challenge at his age. He already was walking rare ground in pitching in the Major Leagues at 47 when he went 9-9 with a 4.84 ERA for the Phillies.

Now he’s turned 48 on Nov. 18 and then underwent the Tommy John surgery two weeks later. His biggest problem so far was sleeping with the cast on his arm, but he says things figure to get more difficult when he starts throwing.

For now he’s limited to lifting very light weights, elevating Wednesday to 2 pounds with his recovering arm, though his range of motion appears normal and he was showing youngsters how to grip and move their arm when throwing a changeup after the Hutch event.

Braves pitcher Tim Hudson, who received the 2011 Hutch Award at the banquet, returned last season from Tommy John surgery himself and was named the NL Comeback Player of the Year. But Hudson is 35.

Moyer was hitting up Hudson for advice Wednesday, but the Atlanta standout wasn’t sure why.

“I don’t think he needs it,” Hudson said with a grin. “He said he feels great. I’m thinking, ‘How old are you again?’ He’s like 89.”

The two pitching standouts have become friends through off-field endeavors, teaming together on the Moyer Foundation’s “Camp Erin” projects, which offer bereavement retreats for kids whose parents or loved ones have died.

That’s a program near and dear to the hearts of Moyer and his wife, Karen. They approached Hudson and his wife, Kim, several years ago about joining the efforts and the Hudson Family Foundation opened “Camp Erin Atlanta” in ’09.

“They just said, ‘How can we get involved?'” Moyer said. “Karen met with them again yesterday and now they want to open another camp in Auburn (Ala.), where they live. That’s how much this means to them.

“These bereavement camps are needed. There are 2.5 million kids ages 6-17 in this country that are in this type of situation and you’re trying to reach as many as you can. Some of it is due to cancer, or car accidents, or murder. It’s anything and everything.

“I’ve fortunately never had to go through that, but we see kids that do go through it,” Moyer said. “You see why kids start falling through the cracks because some don’t have a support system or know how to deal. We’re trying to teach them coping skills and get them to remember their loved ones in a positive way and move forward and make something of themselves.

“We just need to do these things and set the example for people who need help. There’s not one person at the Hutch or at our camps who asked for the circumstances that have led them there. So when you do have your health, it’s wise to get involved. Unfortunately a lot of people don’t get involved until something directly affects them. That’s not a knock. It’s reality. But it’s important to go out and do the work.”

That goes for charitable causes as well as medical rehab. Moyer, as you’d expect, plans to do both.

(Photo of Moyer talking to Rick Rizzs at the Hutch Award luncheon courtesy of Jamie Moyer Foundation. For more on the Moyer Foundation, visit their website at moyerfoundation.org).

Mariners doctor part of concussion discussion

Dr. Stan Herring, one of the Mariners and Seahawks team physicians, is taking part in a live Twitter chat Thursday focusing on the problem of concussions in sports.

The chat is being put on by the Centers for Disease Control and will also include former NFL special teams standout Sean Morey, who retired just prior to last season after signing briefly with the Seahawks, as well as former pro wrestler and college football player Chris Nowinski.

Dr. Richard Hunt, director of CDC Division of Injury Response, will also take part along with other CDC experts.

The discussion will take place on Twitter at www.twitter.com/CDCInjury from noon-1 p.m. PT and will use the #CDCHeadsUp hashtag. You can also access the chat by clicking on this CDC website.

Former Orioles closer Chris Ray added to bullpen mix

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Chris Ray pitched for the Rangers last year before being traded to the Giants in July. (Getty Images photo/Al Bello)

Another interesting Minor League deal worked by Jack Zduriencik on Tuesday as the Mariners signed former Baltimore closer Chris Ray as a non-roster invitee to Spring Training.

Ray, 29, had 51 saves in two seasons for the Orioles before undergoing Tommy John surgery on his elbow in ’08. But he was healthy enough to pitch in 63 games for the Rangers and Giants last year, splitting his season between two teams that wound up in the World Series.

Without question, Ray could help the Mariners if he’s healthy. He was 5-0 with a 3.72 ERA last year, though he didn’t pitch in the playoffs.

Ray was making $975,000 last season and the Giants — who acquired him for Bengie Molina in a July trade — chose to not tender him a contract rather than go to arbitration. The fact he’s agreed to a Minor League deal would indicate he’s willing to take a chance in Seattle, where David Aardsma won’t be ready for at least the first few weeks of the season as he recovers from hip surgery and the rest of the bullpen is very young.

At this point, Brandon League would appear the front runner to fill Aardsma’s role initially, though Zduriencik says the team will see how things shake out in Spring Training. Rookies Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke, a pair of hard-throwing right handers, could be targeted for late-inning roles if they show well in spring.

Rule 5 draft pick Jose Flores also will be given a shot, but he’s only 21. The Mariners also have left-handers Garrett Olson, Cesar Jimenez and Mauricio Robles, as well as a number of young right-handed prospects.

So it’ll be interesting to see where Ray fits into the mix and if he’ll be targeted for late-inning opportunities as things shake out. He was primarily a late-inning reliever last year, with 50 of his appearances coming in the seventh inning or later.

But after throwing a lot for the Giants initially after his acquisition, his use dwindled down the stretch and he was left off the postseason rosters.

Seems like another cost-efficient move with potential upside for the Mariners, who’ve already added starting pitcher Nate Robertson, infielder Adam Kennedy, outfielder Jody Gerut, catcher Josh Bard and a handful of other interesting veterans through similar Minor League deals.

Garrett Olson on top of the world

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I love this photo of Mariners pitcher Garrett Olson from his adventure this winter when he and a friend hiked the 33-mile Milford Trail in New Zealand.

The scenery obviously was spectacular and Olson had fun recounting the tales of his trip for this story I did on the website. This particular shot was taken at a spot called the “12 second drop,” a name that needs no further explanation.

Olson sent me a bunch of pictures from the trip — he’s an amateur photographer and included some of his own work — and not all of that was included in the story, so here are a couple more.

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This is Olson at Sutherland Falls, one of the many sites on the “Great Walk” trail he traversed over the four-day journey.

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And this is one of the beautiful scenic shots Olson took with his Nikon D700. You can see more on this photo gallery on MLB.com.

It’s great stuff from Olson and was a fun story to write. I can only imagine how cool it was doing the hiking …

Zduriencik says Milton Bradley will get a chance

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik was on KJR-AM 950 this morning and told Dave “Softy” Mahler that Milton Bradley will be given a chance to win a roster spot this Spring Training despite his latest off-field incident.

BradleyMiltonMug.jpgBradley was arrested last week for allegedly threatening a woman in his Los Angeles-area home and faces a Feb. 8 court date.

“Milton is going to get a chance to come in and compete for a job,” Zduriencik told Mahler. “When we acquired him, we felt he had a chance to be a middle-of-the order hitter. Obviously some things fell apart for him last year and he had one thing happen this winter. We’re hoping he comes in and competes for a job.”

Zduriencik said Bradley’s $12 million salary will not determine whether he is kept on the roster or not.

“What we hope is he bounces back to be the player he was in the past and that will dictate whether he’s on the club,” he said. “I’d like to see Milton have a bounce-back year.”

Bradley hit just .205 last year before going on the Disabled List at the end of July with a knee problem. But he wasn’t alone in his struggles.

Zduriencik called last year’s squad “the most-underachieving group I’ve ever been around” in terms of how they performed and indicated again that much of the key to this coming season will be getting veterans like Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez and Jack Wilson to return to their normal production.

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