February 2012

Here’s what we saw and learned Tuesday in Peoria

Busy day in Peoria today as Mariners skipper Eric Wedge made official what he’d been hinting at for weeks now, saying Ichiro no longer would be the leadoff hitter this season. But what did surprise some is that he’ll be putting the veteran right fielder in the No. 3 spot in the order and says this is more than just a Spring Training experiment, but rather a long-term solution.

In my mind, the biggest upside of Wedge’s decision will be if it helps get Chone Figgins back to being the Chone Figgins the Mariners thought they’d acquired when they signed him two years ago.

Figgins was already gone by the time Wedge made his announcement today, but I’d talked to Figgins this morning and was already working on a story on his potential return to the leadoff role for Mariners.com. So that worked out well and I filed this story this evening, with Figgins talking about why he thinks his approach works better in the leadoff spot and why he struggled so much hitting second.

Wedge figures Ichiro can be more valuable hitting third. And if the move kick-starts Figgins, it’s a double bonus. He didn’t say it, but if Figgins doesn’t produce, I think Dustin Ackley might eventually get a shot in the leadoff role and Kyle Seager will be waiting in the wings at third.

I know some are clamoring for Alex Liddi (pictured below), but the feeling is he needs more seasoning in Triple A to improve his contact rate, the same thing Carlos Peguero and Trayvon Robinson need to work on to make the jump to the Majors. The Mariners broke a franchise record for strikeouts last season and Wedge isn’t looking to go down that same road.

What does the potential Mariners lineup look like at this point? Wedge didn’t go beyond his likely top three, but it’s not hard to pencil out a scenario:

Chone Figgins 3B
Dustin Ackley 2B
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Mike Carp LF
Justin Smoak 1B
Jesus Montero DH
Franklin Gutierrez CF
Miguel Olivo C
Brendan Ryan SS

Smoak and Carp could easily be flip-flopped, but I put Carp fourth at this point because he is killing it in batting practice out of the chute and clearly looks like the team’s best hitter to me at the moment. But we haven’t played a game yet and there’s a long way to go, obviously.

I put Montero sixth, but that is a whole lot of lefties up top and he eventually could move up. But again, this is just an example of what we might be looking at, which frankly looks a lot deeper than last year’s lineup potentially.

Otherwise today, Brendan Ryan again didn’t throw as the herniated disc he suffered at the end of last year is limiting his early action. Here’s his view as teammates warmed up their arms today.

On the plus side, George Sherrill (below) threw his first bullpen session, a quick five-minute opener, after being held back the first 10 days. I cover both the Ryan and Sherrill stories here in today’s notebook.

Meanwhile, here’s my fun photo for the day with Figgins and Seager. Here’s to looking for better things to come …


Wedge says Ichiro will bat third this season

Mariners manager Eric Wedge says Ichiro Suzuki will bat third this season, with Chone Figgins and Dustin Ackley the likely 1-2 hitters in Seattle’s lineup.

Wedge made the announcement Tuesday after talking to all the players involved.

“I’ve done a lot of thinking about it this winter and talked with the coaches and Jack [Zduriencik] and everyone,” Wedge said. “Bottom line is for us to have the best lineup 1 through 9 out there. I want our lineup to be extended. I feel our best opportunity to score runs is with Ichiro batting third. It helps the guy in front of him, it helps the guy behind him and it helps him.

“When you look at what we have coming back this year and trying to be deeper 1 through 9 and giving ourselves the greatest opportunity to score runs, that’s why I’m going to him him third. Everybody in there wants to win. Ichiro as much as anybody,  they all want us to put together the best lineup we can to score the most runs possible.”

Wedge said moving Figgins back to the leadoff role he had in Anaheim before signing with Seattle in 2010 could ignite the third baseman, who hit just .188 last year.

“I’m confident he can get back to his old self as the leadoff hitter,” Wedge said. “That’s when he was the Figgins that produced, that got on base and scored runs and was really a pain for opposing teams. I feel like to give him the greatest chance to get back on track and succeed is to put him back in that role.”

Wedge said he wasn’t setting the 1-2 hitters in stone, but that Figgins and Ackley were the leading contenders at this point.

The biggest news is Ichiro moving out of the leadoff spot he’s maintained for almost his entire 11 years in Seattle.

“He’s as smart a baseball player as we have in there and he understands the game very well,” Wedge said. “He understands what the responsibility and priorities are with somebody hitting third and I’m trusting in that.”

“I had a good talk with him yesterday,” Wedge said. “It wasn’t out of left field, because we’ve had discussions [previously]. He’s on board. He’s ready to go.”

Wedge said the decision would stand for the season, not just for the spring.

“I had the opporutnity to watch Ichiro and all these other guys all of last year and this is our best fit,” he said.

Ichiro, 38, has led off for 1,720 of the 1,733 starts he’s made with the Mariners. His batting average slipped to a career low .272 last year and his on-base percentage was just .310 as the Mariners finished last in the Majors in scoring for a second straight season.

“I came prepared mentally because there was a possibility I’d be hitting elsewhere,” Ichiro said through translator Antony Suzuki. “I was always prepared to do what is best forthe  team. So if this is the case, this is the best for me to do.”

How strange will it be to hit third?

“Anything can happen in this game,” Ichiro said. “It’s not just leading off. That’s the fun part about this game. That’s what it is. Like I tell you guys all the time, I’m ready to pitch, too. Anything is possible.”

Ichiro has been working on a new, more-open stance throughout the offseason, but said hitting third won’t change his general approach at the plate.

“The situation of  hitting third won’t change my approach in my hitting style,” he said. “It’ll only change the situation with runners on base.”

Pictures from Peoria — Monday edition

Lots of good stories in camp already and I’ve been trying to get those to you daily on Mariners.com. Really enjoyed doing this piece on new shortstop Munenori Kawasaki yesterday. He’s been the live wire of camp so far and everybody is getting a kick out of his energetic approach.

But in addition to writing daily features and news on the site, I’ve been taking pictures every day and just wanted to share a few today while I’ve got a few extra minutes.

Here’s Mike Carp, whose future is so bright, he really does have to wear shades. It was nice today, clear blue skies and about 70 degrees. Supposed to reach 80 by Thursday, so come on down if you get a chance.

Carp looks really locked in early in camp, as I wrote about today in this story.

The Mariners have 67 players in camp and they really are in all shapes and sizes. Here’s little Chone Figgins chatting with hulking DH candidate Luis Jimenez, who is generously listed at 6-3, 280.

Figgins is an interesting story in this camp. He’s worked exclusively at third base so far. And while Eric Wedge talked about moving him around, it was Kyle Seager who shifted to second some today. Figgins, Seager and Carlos Guillen seem the prime contenders at third and Wedge appears to be leaning toward giving Figgins a shot at the leadoff role early this spring and see what he does with it.

Franklin Gutierrez is another one to watch this spring. Here he is waiting his turn in batting practice.

And Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma threw his first live batting practice today, pitching to Ichiro among others. Ichiro didn’t swing at any of Iwakuma’s 10 offerings, tracking pitches today like most in the early live BP rounds. But that didn’t stop about two dozen Japanese journalists on hand from tracking every pitch.

I’ll try to update every few days with more photos and you can keep track of the daily news here and on Mariners.com.

Mike Wilson returns on Minor League deal

There was a familiar face back in the Mariners clubhouse at Spring Training on Saturday as outfielder  Mike Wilson, who was designated for assignment 12 days ago, rejoined the club on Saturday after having his contract outrighted to Triple-A Tacoma.

Wilson accepted the Minor League deal and was invited to the big league camp, where position players hit the field for the first time Saturday. The Mariners now have 67 players in camp, including 27 non-roster invitees.

Wilson, 28, has spent his entire pro career in the Mariners organization and made his Major League debut last year when he hit .148 in 27 at-bats over eight games in May.

Wilson said he looked into going elsewhere before deciding to stick with the Mariners, who selected him in the second round of the 2001 Draft. He was designated for assignment along with catcher Chris Gimenez on Feb. 6  in order to make room on the 40-man roster for free-agent relievers Shawn Camp and Hong-Chih Kuo.

“It’s tough, but it’s a business and moves have to be made,” said Wilson. “All I can do is come back ready to work. I can’t stay mad about it. I just have to focus on the utlimate goal of getting back to the big leagues.

“We looked at places, but with the timing and stuff, rosters were already set. That’s the toughest thing about it.”

Wilson hit .331 with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs in 87 games with Tacoma last year, but after 10 years in the Minors, he’s itching for a shot at a full-time Major League opportunity.

“Yeah, I’m just trying to get back there,” he said. “That’s it. Of course there are other teams, but you want to make it with the team you’re with.”

Manager Eric Wedge is meeting with the club this morning before they hit the field for the first time as a full squad about 10 a.m. MT, or 9 a.m. PT.

An inside look at first few days of Mariners camp

Let’s face it. The first week of Spring Training doesn’t answer a lot of questions. It’s all about pitchers shaking off the rust, doing some throwing and beginning to build up arm strength for the long haul ahead.

But that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been some interesting things to watch in Mariners camp the first three days. My favorite moments so far have centered around watching the young guns. The first week, pitchers throw 10-minute bullpen sessions every other day in groups of six.

Typically, the top pitchers go in the first group each day. So you’ll get your Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma and Brandon League in the first group.

The second set of six will be less-heralded players and the third group usually are guys just happy to be there.

But in the Mariners case, the final group both Sunday and today included the fearsome foursome of prospects: James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Erasmo Ramirez and Taijuan Walker. Those four lined up throwing side-by-side is something to behold. Here’s a picture of them today. Yes, this is the future for the Mariners. Yes, Ramirez is short (and throws surprisingly hard for a guy of that size). And, no, they won’t be throwing in the final group in future years in their Major League careers.

The other fun guy to watch has been catcher Jesus Montero as he goes about his business. The kid is 22 and looks young. But he’s a big, lanky kid who seems to move pretty well and I’m eager to see him in batting practice when full-squad activities begin Saturday.

All these kids are learning their way in their first camps. Hultzen, below, had to introduce himself to new catcher John Jaso after his throwing session. That won’t happen too many times in the future either for last year’s No. 2 Draft pick. But new pitchers are learning new catchers and it’s all part of the process.

By Friday the position players will all be in camp and the first full-squad workout is Saturday. Outfielder Trayvon Robinson, sporting new glasses, was the latest to arrive. He was on the field for the first time today. Lots of new looks. Lots of new faces. It’ll be interesting to see how all this comes together in the coming weeks.

Pitchers, catchers hit the field for first time

Manager Eric Wedge, overseeing the start of his second camp with the Mariners on Sunday.

The 35 Mariners pitchers and seven catchers in camp hit the field for the first time Sunday morning in Peoria, Ariz., after manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis addressed the troops with their first meeting.

“It’s good to see the guys outside in uniform,” Wedge said at the conclusion of the first workout. “It’s a nice day here in Arizona and it’s just about getting it rolling and getting it off the ground and that’s what we did today. Not a whole lot happened. Half the guys threw bullpens today and the other half will throw tomorrow. Position players are trickling in a little bit, so that’s where we are.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to prepare for Opening Day in Japan and we’ve got a lot of players in camp that we need to give ample time to as we prepare to put this thing together.”

It’s a group with a lot of new faces. Only 10 of the pitchers were in Major League camp with the Mariners last spring — Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan, Shawn Kelley, Brandon League, Yoervis Medina, Tom Wilhelmsen, Mauricio Robles, Cesar Jimenez and James Paxton. And even from that group, Kelley and Jimenez were injured most of camp and Paxton was only in for about a week.

Hernandez and Vargas — who Wedge said will likely be his opening starters in Japan — were among the 17 pitchers who threw bullpen sessions.

Among the newcomers, Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma drew the most attention with a large gathering of Japanese journalists following his every move. Iwakuma signed a lot of autographs coming off the field, then spoke with the media through intepreter Daisuke Sekiba.

I’ll have a story on that on Mariners.com later today, as well as further updates.

Greg Halman not forgotten as camp opens

Greg Halman tribute jerseys were hanging in each Mariners locker as camp opened Saturday, courtesy of teammate Mike Carp.

Mike Carp doesn’t want people to forget his teammate, Greg Halman. Not even his current teammates, some of whom are new to the Mariners and didn’t know the gregarious outfielder who was slain in his native Netherlands in November.

So Carp and former Mariners Minor Leaguer Brodie Downs had shirts made with Halman’s name and number, along with a Jackie Robinson quote and some tributes to Halman, and had one hung in the locker of each Mariners player when they arrived for the start of camp this weekend when pitchers and catchers reported on Saturday.

Carp and the rest of the Mariners position players aren’t scheduled to arrive in Peoria until Friday, but he and some others were already in camp working out the last few days and I talked to Carp about the shirts — as well as a Halman tattoo that he had done on his left arm. You can read that full story here.