March 2012

Wedge going with starters in exhibition vs. Hanshin

It’s 10 a.m. on Sunday morning in Tokyo at this moment and the Mariners are on the field stretching and getting ready for today’s 12:04 p.m exhibition game against the Hanshin Tigers.

This one might not count for the Mariners, but it’s big here in Tokyo and there are hundreds of Japanese journalists lined up on the side of the field taking in every warmup toss and stretch.

Mariners manager Eric Wedge is pointing toward Wednesday night’s Opening Day game against the A’s, but he’s not overlooking today’s game. Seattle will start what appears to be its opening day lineup, except with right-hander Hector Noesi on the mound.

Asked at a quick press conference this morning what he expects from the two Japanese teams — the Mariners will face the Yomiuri Giants on Monday evening here in Tokyo — Wedge said:

“I’m just looking to our team to go out and compete. I don’t know much abou these two Japanese teams, but I’m excited to see their brand of baseball and for our players to compete against them. Opening our season against Oakland is our priority because that is the regular season and that counts. But for exhibition games, there can’t be any more exciting games than here against these Japanese teams and we’re excited to do it.”

Here is the Mariners lineup for today’s game, which starts at 8:04 p.m. Saturday in Seattle and will be broadcast on 710 ESPN radio.

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

Hector Noesi RHP

Ichiro is everywhere … and more from Japan

OK, my first morning in Toyko led to a few interesting surprises. First and foremost was running into the above picture of Ichiro in an advertisement in the window of a shop at the New Otani hotel before I even made it out to the street. Yeah, he’s big here.

And it looks like all the Mariners have a following here. I went for a long walk through the nearby shopping area and found some lunch, challenging my communication skills since I’m not exactly fluent in Japanese. But found a cafe where I could point out what I wanted and handed over some yen and, well, it worked!

On the way back, I ran into a group of people on the sidewalk and saw they were surrounding outfielder Casper Wells. Several had baseball cards of all the Mariners players and were getting autographs of as many as they could find. Wells was glad to accomodate and was still signing when I took off.

Next I ran into shortstop Brendan Ryan, his head buried in a map as he walked down the sidewalk trying to figure out where he was going. Typical Ryan, he was on the move, whether he knew where he was going or not …

Then as I got back the hotel, third baseman Kyle Seager and pitcher Blake Beavan were just outside the door, surrounded by autograph seekers as well. Clearly these guys aren’t going far without being recognized. I may be a stranger in a strange land trying to figure out lunch, but the players are obviously pretty well known, at least among some here in Tokyo.

They’ve got a workout this afternoon about three hours from now, which will be in the middle of the night back home. I’ll check in with an update from there.

Here’s a picture of Beavan, signing outside the hotel.

Mariners make it to Tokyo … and I didn’t lose my passport

A crowd of Japanese journalists awaits the Mariners as they came through the Narita Airport on Friday.Just arrived in Tokyo with the Mariners. And it’s a weary contingent after a 16-hour travel day that started at 1 p.m. when the team and its party took off from Phoenix and ended at what was 5 a.m. PT, though it was 9 p.m. Tokyo time.

The flight was 12 1/2 hours, then there was an hour wait through customs and then a two hour bus ride from the Narita Airport to Tokyo.

There was a pretty good stir when the team finally made it through customs as about 100 photographers and Japanese journalists were waiting to shoot pictures of the team — or Ichiro specifically — as they came through the concourse.

There was also a large scream from a group of fans when the Mariners arrived at the hotel. I was on a second bus, but I’m pretty sure the squeals were for Ichiro. Just a hunch.

My first impression of Tokyo is that the weather looks a lot like Seattle today, very rainy and overcast, but the city is huge. I’ve never been to Japan before, so this will be an interesting experience. I was surprised to see as many American restaurants as we did just driving in — everything from Starbucks to Krispy Kreme to Hooters.

Traffic was bad and our bus driver stopped at one point and said it was 30 minutes still to the hotel, but he was stopping for a five-minute bathroom break. Given that everyone had already spent 14-plus hours traveling, that was met by large groans and “just get there” comments. And the only one who got off the bus was the driver himself. But after the required five minutes, we were back on the road and eventually did arrive.

My first travel horror story was the feeling of panic when I thought I’d lost my passport, frantically checking every pocket of every bag where I thought I might have stuck it after we went through customs. Just when I began to wonder exactly whether I would get back to the good ol’ USA without it, I found it stuck in a book I’d been carrying.

Whew!

Now I’m headed for bed as in my mind, it’s 6:30 a.m., even though the clock here insists that it’s 10:30 p.m.

Either way, I haven’t slept much for a long time, so it’s time to adjust the body clock and be ready for tomorrow’s workout at the Tokyo Dome. I’ll keep you posted here and on Mariners.com. And you can follow me on Twitter as well at @gregjohnsmlb.

Mariners outright Jimenez, set 30-man travel roster

Lots going on in Peoria this morning with the team and its traveling party gathering for the 13-hour flight to Tokyo at 1 p.m. today.  The Mariners set their 30-player squad that will travel to Japan on the week-long trip, which concludes with two regular-season opening games against the A’s next Wednesday and Thursday.

Left-handed reliever Cesar Jimenez was outrighted to Triple-A Tacoma to clear a spot on the 40-man roster as the Mariners need to open space for several non-roster invitees. The roster now is at 37 players.

Jimenez, 27, has been in the Mariners organization since 2001 and played with the big league club in 2006, 2008 and 2011, going 1-0 with a 5.40 ERA in eight games last year as a September callup.

Here’s the 30-man travel squad, which doesn’t include starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, as he’ll stay behind in Arizona since he wasn’t going to be used in either of the two exhibition or two regular-season contests:

Starting pitchers: Blake Beavan, Felix Hernandez, Hector Noesi, Jason Vargas.

Relievers: Steve Delabar, Charlie Furbush, Hisashi Iwakuma, Shawn Kelley, Brandon League, Lucas Luetge, Erasmo Ramirez, Chance Ruffin, George Sherrill, Tom Wilhelmsen.

Catchers: John Jaso, Jesus Montero, Miguel Olivo, Guillermo Quiroz.

Infielders: Dustin Ackley, Chone Figgins, Munenori Kawasaki, Alex Liddi, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak.

Outfielders: Mike Carp, Carlos Peguero, Michael Saunders, Ichiro Suzuki, Casper Wells.

Not traveling with the team are catchers Jesus Sucre and Adam Moore, infielders Vinnie Catricala and Luis Rodriguez, and outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Mike Wilson. Moore and Gutierrez are both rehabilitating from injuries.

The MLB roster rules for the trip are a little complicated, but both the Mariners and A’s can take 30 players. All 30 are available for the two exhibition games against the Hanshin Tigers and Yomiuri Giants on Saturday and Sunday, but each team then must set an active roster of 28 by Wednesday at 1 p.m. in Japan on Opening Day, then designated 25 of those players to be eligible to actually play in the two-game series.

That active roster must include all players that teams expect to open the rest of the season with, so Mariners pitcher Kevin Millwood — who didn’t make the trip since he won’t be pitching — must be included in the 28. Thus three players who are in Japan will be optioned or re-assigned to the Minors on the morning of the opener and two more will be designated as ineligible to play in the two games with the A’s.

Once the club returns to Arizona, it will be back to a 28-man roster and will need to make three more moves before regular-season play resumes April 6 in Oakland. Other players already assigned to the Minors will be able to join the team to play in the five remaining Cactus League contests, as is always the case in spring.

Wedge announces final rotation, Iwakuma to bullpen

Eric Wedge named his regular-season starting rotation on Wednesday and it didn’t include Japanese standout Hishashi Iwakuma, who will instead begin the year pitching long relief out of the bullpen.

Wedge said his five-man rotation will be Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan and Kevin Millwood.

Millwood will not be making the trip to Japan this week, however, instead staying behind as the team can only take 30 players and doesn’t need all its starting pitchers.

Hernandez and Vargas were already slated to pitch the two regular-season games against the A’s on March 28-29. Wedge said Noesi will start the first exhibition game in Japan on Monday, with Iwakuma starting the second game.

Beavan and Vargas will throw a simulated game during the first workout session in Tokyo in order to keep sharp, with Beavan then being held in an emergency role in case something should happen to Vargas or Hernandez.

Iwakuma, 30, had been the least-effective of the starters this spring, but his fastball had more life on Tuesday as he pitched three innings of relief.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s the best way to transition him this year with the history he had last year with the health and what not, introducing him to this game and helping him get off to a good start,” Wedge said.

The biggest challenge could be Iwakuma’s required warm-up time as a normal starter. He was up in the bullpen throwing in the fourth inning Tuesday, then sat down and got back up again before entering in the sixth, which isn’t normal for a reliever.

“That’s another thing that went into our decision. The guy loves to throw,” Wedge said. “It’s not a problem for him to get up and throw a little bit and then if we call on him, he’s ready. And if we don’t, he’s thrown a little bit anyway, which is what he would normally do.

“This is a young man who is getting stronger and working hard and as we break camp, I feel that’s the best role for him.”

Putting Iwakuma in the bullpen allowed the Mariners to keep Millwood after a strong spring by the 37-year-old.

“He made this ballclub,” said Wedge. “He made the decision for us just by the way he pitched and competed.”

Wedge said he wouldn’t discuss bullpen or position player decisions until Thursday, when the club will announce its final roster decisions before boarding the plane for Tokyo with 30 players. Of those, 25 will be eligible to play in the regular-season games.

The one move the Mariners did announce was the release of veteran reliever Shawn Camp, which Wedge said was the result of young pitchers stepping to the fore this spring.

Here’s my best guess at Mariners final roster

The use of Hisashi Iwakuma out of the bullpen on Tuesday provided a glimpse into one possible solution for a difficult quandry, given that if he’s kept in the rotation, Blake Beavan or Kevin Millwood would have been left out and both have pitched well this spring.

The Mariners won’t announce their roster cutdown to 30 until Thursday morning and don’t have to designate the chosen 25-man Opening Day roster until next week in Tokyo.

But here’s how I think things could play out:

Starting pitchers: Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood.

Bullpen: Brandon League, Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Camp, Shawn Kelley, George Sherrill, Steve Delabar, Hisashi Iwakuma.

Catchers: Miguel Olivo, Jesus Montero, John Jaso.

Infielders: Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Kyle Seager, Munenori Kawasaki.

Outfielders: Ichiro Suzuki, Michael Saunders, Mike Carp, Casper Wells. (Franklin Gutierrez on 15-day DL).

Five other players will also make the trip to Japan and final decisions don’t have to all be made now. So it’ll be interesting to see what they do with Rule 5 draft pick Lucas Luetge, who has worked his way into the mix as a lefty reliever. Charlie Furbush has also had a nice camp, but he could be sent to Tacoma.

Carlos Peguero has shown his impressive power this camp, but he’s not versatile enough as a defender to fill the backup outfield role, so that likely goes to Wells. Figgins can also play some outfield if needed.

My biggest question is whether Iwakuma really can pitch out of the bullpen. He looked better on Tuesday against the Reds and I doubt the Mariners want to just release him without giving him more of a chance. But he’s a guy who needs a long time to warm up — which is why he warmed up in the fourth inning Tuesday, then sat down and then warmed up again before coming in for the sixth.

That’s one of several questions that remain to play out …

 

This looks an awful lot like your Opening Day lineup

If you’re looking for a clue as to what the Mariners lineup might look like on Opening Day, Eric Wedge posted a pretty good one on the clubhouse door in Peoria this morning with today’s batting order for the final Cactus League game before the team departs for Japan tomorrow.

With Felix Hernandez on the mound for his final start before Opening Day on March 28 in Tokyo, Wedge lined up his regulars for a final test run.

Here you go:

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

Felix Hernandez P

Tom Wilhelmsen, Chance Ruffin, Charlie Furbush, Steve Delabar, Shawn Kelley and Lucas Luetge will be available in the bullpen, though not all those guys will get action since Hernandez figures to go 5-6 innings and throw close to 100 pitches.

George Sherrill will throw in a Minor League game today.

The Mariners have a few roster moves still to determine, or at least announce, with the 30-man group headed to Tokyo not expected to be made public until 10 a.m. on Thursday.

Decisions looming as Tokyo trip nears

It’ll be an interesting Cactus League contest for the Mariners this afternoon in Goodyear, with rotation candidates Kevin Millwood and Hisashi Iwakuma both scheduled to pitch against the Reds in their final auditions before the team heads to Japan.

Neither will be among the two regular-season starters in Tokyo since Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas have those spots, but the team does need to make some decisions soon on how it’s going to trim to a 30-man roster by the time the plane heads out Thursday morning.

Not sure how much it means that Millwood is getting the start today while Iwakuma pitches in relief, but clearly the club is intrigued by the veteran Millwood … and a little concerned by an erratic spring so far by Iwakuma. So we’ll see how those two throw today.

Several of the lefty relief specialists are also slated to throw today — or at least available — with Goergie Sherrill, Cesar Jimenez and Charlie Furbush making the trip to Goodyear. How many innings are left after Millwood and Iwakuma throw remains to be seen, but the club is also facing some decision time on the bullpen situation.

Manager Eric Wedge is going with quite a few backups in the lineup today, then will come back with something close to his Opening Day crew Wednesday against the White Sox when Felix Hernandez will make his final spring start.

Mike Carp is back in the lineup today after sitting out Monday. He said he didn’t feel well on Sunday and thus was kept out of Monday’s game, the one expected starter who didn’t play Monday. But he’s back to normal and I suspect he’ll play today and Wednesday.

Here’s today’s lineup:

Munenori Kawasaki SS
Luis Rodriguez 2B
Mike Carp LF
Jesus Montero C
Kyle Seager 3B
Alex Liddi 1B
Vinnie Catricala DH
Carlos Peguero RF
Casper Wells CF

Kevin Millwood RHP

Kuo’s release leaves four lefties in bullpen battle

Veteran left-handed reliever Hong-Chih Kuo was released by the Mariners on Monday, opening a spot on the team’s 40-man roster and ending the bid for a comeback with Seattle by the former National League All-Star.

Kuo, 30, was having a tough spring with a 17.55 ERA in six appearances. He’d signed a one-year, non-guaranteed deal with Seattle after being released by the Dodgers following a difficult 2011 season.

If Kuo clears waivers, it’s possible he could be brought back on a Minor League deal, but it was clear he was going to have a tough time cracking the 25-man roster cming out of camp.

Kuo was one of the NL’s top relievers from 2008-10 with the Dodgers and earned an All-Star berth in 2010, when he posted a 1.20 ERA with 73 strikeouts in 60 innings.  But the native of Taiwan battled a back problem and anxiety issues in 2011, when he had a 9.00 ERA in 40 appearances before being released after the season.

The Mariners hoped the 6-foot-2, 240-pound lefty could regain his former command, but he gave up 15 hits and four walks with four strikeouts in 6 2/3 innings this spring. In his last outing, Kuo allowed four hits and four runs – including a three-run home run – and also hit a batter in one inning against the White Sox.

The move leaves the Mariners with four left-handed relievers among their 39 players in camp, with George Sherrill, Cesar Jimenez, Charlie Furbush and Rule 5 draft pick Lucas Luetge.

Today’s lineup and an Adam Moore update

Relatively blue skies this morning as we prepare for this afternoon’s  game with the Cubs, though forecasts today call for temperatures in the low 50s and about a 30 percent chance of rain.

So we’ll see if the Mariners can get in today’s 1:05 p.m. Cactus League contest after yesterday’s duel with the Rockies was halted by hail and rain in the top of the fifth inning.

Assuming they do play today, the Mariners are going with a lineup that figures to be close to their Opening Day crew, with the exception of left fielder Mike Carp getting the day off.

Carp said he wasn’t feeling well on Sunday, so he’s being given today off even though he’s back to normal. Chone Figgins will play left field today as he continues his tour around the field.

Brendan Ryan is back after a four-day absence as he let a sore quadricep heal up.

Just ran into catcher Adam Moore in the clubhouse and he had the splint off his hand for the moment. He’ll be seeing a hand specialist on Thursday for an update on his condition, but said he’s progressing very well and can catch bullpens — while having someone else make the throws back to the pitcher — in order to keep his legs in condition.

He’s able to grip a ball and bat, but still can’t swing fully because of the pressure that puts on the chipped bone in the back of his hand. The hope is he won’t miss much of the regular season if he continues progressing.

As for the latest pitching news, Jason Vargas starts today, Kevin Millwood will go Tuesday in Goodyear against the Reds and then Felix Hernandez makes his final spring start Wednesday against the White Sox in Peoria. Hisashi Iwakuma will pitch relief on Tuesday after Millwood.

Here’s the full lineup for today:

Chone Figgins LF
Dustin Ackley 2B
Ichiro Suzuki RF
Justin Smoak 1B
Jesus Montero DH
Kyle Seager 3B
Miguel Olivo C
Michael Saunders CF
Brendan Ryan SS

Jason Vargas LHP

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