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Strength coach talks about Montero’s turnaround

MonteroGrounderJesus Montero figures to be one of the more interesting storylines in Mariners camp this spring. The 25-year-old has turned heads with his work ethic and physical makeover. You can read his story here today as he talked about why he’s turned things around.

But Montero hasn’t done all this on his own. He worked out every day over the offseason with Mariners strength and conditioning coach James Clifford, the former Husky linebacker, along with two other members of the club’s training staff.

So it was interesting today to hear Clifford’s perspective on Montero’s efforts. Here are a few of his thoughts:

— “It’s been fun. I’ve known Jesus since he got to us and coming in this offseason, what he did, what he asked for and how he went about it was really impressive. I know Jesus is a humble guy and likes to give a lot of credit to a lot of people. But he deserves that. He came in every day this offseason. And when I say every day, I mean every day. He came in Christmas Day, New Year’s Day. He just said, ‘Whatever you’ve got for me, I’m here to do it.”

MonteroWoodward– “That first month, there were days I thought he might say, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough’ for that day. But as he was laying on the ground looking up, he’d say, ‘If you’ve got more, just tell me.’”

— “People talk about how much weight he’s lost and it’s visible. You can see that. But what I see the most is what he’s gained in mobility and stability and movement. Those are the biggest gains I’m excited about and impressed with. We wanted not only to get him in condition, we wanted to help his performance and that’s part of our plan.”

— “He’s a great young man. He truly is and I was coming in and what I knew of him, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after the first couple weeks. I just wasn’t. We made a pact that we were going to get something done and he literally just was all in. Whatever you’ve got for me, I’ve got it. I’ll go until I can’t go. It was impressive. It was good.”

— “We’ve worked on sprint mechanics. What we’ve really targeted is shorter bursts, but you’re going to see a difference for sure. What’s improved so much is his agility, just being able to use his body, load and change direction. We did sprint mechanics for sure, just cleaned him up and made him more efficient. And he’s going to get better.”

— “He is an athlete and he’s always been an athlete, he just didn’t maintain what he needed to do to continue to be an athlete. When you get away from that and don’t take care of yourself, you lose mobility. That’s one thing we talk about during the season, one of our biggest things is mobility. We sit down all the time, we’re on planes, cramped, in clubhouse, we have to make sure they maintain that mobility. For him, he’d just lost so much of it. Now it’s there.”

— “I’ve been in the organization 23 years and doing this 16-17 years. He dedicated himself as much this offseason as I’ve ever seen anybody and I’m proud of him. It’s just been rewarding for me to watch this guy do this. He really just said, ‘I’m going to do this.’”

Joe Saunders headed back to Mariners

Seattle Mariners v Detroit TigersWhile the Mariners have yet to make it official, it was hard to ignore the temporary sign at a locker in the team’s Spring Training clubhouse on Friday to clear a space for Joe Saunders.

The 33-year-old southpaw has agreed to a Minor League deal with a non-roster invitation to camp with the Mariners, but must pass his physical exam before things are finalized. Mariners pitchers and catchers were reporting to camp on Friday and will be on the field for the first time Saturday morning.

Saunders has been a starter most of his 10-year Major League career, but could compete for a role as a lefty relief specialist or provide further depth and injury insurance for a Seattle club that already has seven starting candidates.

Saunders was 0-5 with a 6.70 ERA in 14 appearances (eight starts) with the Rangers and Orioles last year after going 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA in 32 starts for Seattle in 2013. The Virginia native was a 2008 American League All-Star with the Angels and has a career 86-89 record with a 4.37 ERA in 235 Major League games, with only six of those in relief.

Seattle has been searching for left-handed bullpen candidates to complement Charlie Furbush, the lone full-time lefty returnee from 2014. Veteran Joe Beimel filled the second lefty slot last season, but he remains an unsigned free agent.

Lucas Luetge is another southpaw who split time between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle last year and the club selected left-handed reliever David Rollins from the Astros in the Rule 5 Draft. General manager Jack Zduriencik also acquired lefty Mike Kickham from the Giants in an offseason trade, claimed Edgar Olmos off waivers and brought in veteran Rafael Perez as a non-roster invitee.

Olmos, who has some Major League experience with the Marlins, was designated for assignment last week and the club is currently waiting to see if he clears waivers.

Top pitching prospect injured in boating accident

Victor Sanchez, one of the top pitching prospects in the Mariners farm system, suffered a head injury in a boating accident in his home country of Venezuela on Saturday, according to Venezuelan media reports.

The Mariners say they are aware that Sanchez has been in an accident, but have been unable to confirm the nature or severity of the accident at this point.

Sanchez, 20, was reportedly struck by a boat while swimming on a beach in Carúpano and, according to a report in Venezuelan sports website Lavinotinto.com, he was unconscious for some period of time on Saturday night and hospitalized in Carupuano.

The 6-foot, 255-pound right-hander was ranked as the Mariners’ 11th-best prospect by MLB.com last year. He went 7-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 23 starts for Double-A Jackson, where he was the second-youngest player in the Southern League.

Sanchez was regarded as one of Venezuela’s top young pitching prospects when the Mariners signed him for a reported $2.5 million bonus in 2011 as a 16-year-old out of Rio Chico, Venezuela. He made 15 starts with Low-A Everett in 2012, going 6-2 with a 3.18 ERA, then posted a 6-6 record and 2.78 ERA in 20 starts for Class-A Clinton in 2013 before being promoted to Double-A ball last season.

Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2013 for Clinton in the 27th start of his pro career, blanking Lansing for nine innings with eight strikeouts, no walks and just one hit batter marring his outing.

Sanchez was not among the players invited to Seattle’s upcoming Major League camp, but was preparing to report to Minor League camp in several weeks at the team’s complex in Peoria, Ariz.

Weeks signing official; he’ll fill utility role

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati RedsRickie Weeks doesn’t figure to play a lot of second base for the Mariners, but that didn’t stop the free agent infielder from signing a one-year deal with Seattle on Thursday as he starts a new chapter in his baseball career.

Weeks played strictly second base in 11 seasons with the Brewers, but figures to compete more as a utility player on a Mariners team that has Robinson Cano at second. The 32-year-old free agent agreed to terms on Wednesday, but the contract wasn’t finalized until he passed a physical exam on Friday.

“Rickie is a talented player who will be used at multiple positions,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “His toughness, right-handed bat and Major League experience are desirable factors for our 2015 ball club. We look forward to Rickie’s contributions this season and see him as a very nice fit, complementing the pieces we already have in place.”

The deal will pay $2 million in base salary, with another potential $2 million in incentives.

Left-handed reliever Edgar Olmos was designated for assignment to open a spot on Seattle’s 40-man roster. Olmos was acquired by the Mariners off waivers from the Marlins in November.

Zduriencik, who was the Brewers scouting director in 2003 when Milwaukee selected Weeks with the second overall pick in the Draft, has been looking to add right-handed bats to a club looking to bolster its offense and balance a team that finished one game shy of an American League Wild Card spot in 2014.

Weeks posted a .274/.357/.452 slash line with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 252 at-bats with Milwaukee last year while splitting time at second base with Scooter Gennett. He hit 29 home runs and 83 RBIs in 2010, was a National League All-Star and Home Run Derby participant in 2011 and carries a career .249 average with a .771 OPS.

Weeks has a career .385 on-base percentage and .834 OPS against left-handed pitchers and could work into the mix as a right-handed option in left field alongside Dustin Ackley or at first base with Logan Morrison, while also capable of filling in as needed for Cano at second or Nelson Cruz at designated hitter. Seattle was last in the AL in on-base percentage (.300) and OPS (.676) last season.

The Brewers asked Weeks to play some outfield last year, but he declined at that time and wound up starting just 51 games in the final season of a four-year, $38 million contract. Milwaukee then declined an $11.5 million option for 2015 and he remained unsigned until Friday, one week before Seattle’s pitchers and catchers will report to Peoria, Ariz., for the start of camp.

Analysis: Where does Weeks fit with Mariners?

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee BrewersWhile there was nothing official on Rickie Weeks’ signing from the Mariners on Thursday, the veteran second baseman is expected to take his physical exam in Seattle on Friday and if all goes well, put his name on a new one-year deal perhaps as early as Friday afternoon.

The obvious question is where Weeks fits in for a club that already has Robinson Cano at second base for the next nine years.

That’ll be something the Mariners and Weeks will obviously address once he joins the club, but here’s my take. General manager Jack Zduriencik wasn’t looking for a second baseman, but he has been in search of veteran right-handed hitters to help Lloyd McClendon balance a very left-leaning lineup. And while Nelson Cruz and Justin Ruggiano help in that regard, having Weeks still available and willing to sign relatively cheap – a $2 million base deal with another $2 million in potential incentives – was an opportunity the Mariners couldn’t pass up.

Let’s face it. The Mariners are still pretty southpaw heavy. If Brad Miller wins the starting shortstop job, they’d have an all-lefty infield with Logan Morrison, Cano, Miller and Kyle Seager, plus left fielder Dustin Ackley. Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino and center fielder Austin Jackson are right-handed, while lefty Seth Smith and righty Justin Ruggiano are likely platoon candidates in right field. So Weeks presents an intriguing right-handed bat and some interesting questions as to how to get that bat in the lineup.

At 32 and coming off a couple injuries, including some hamstring issues, Weeks isn’t the same player he was when he was a National League All-Star in 2011. But he was a productive right-handed hitter last year in a part-time role for the Brewers, hitting .274 with a .357 on-base percentage and .809 OPS in 252 at-bats.

Those numbers are even better when Weeks lines up against left-handed pitchers. He owns a .261/385/.448 slash with an .834 OPS against southpaws and a reputation as a professional hitter who knows how to work counts and get on base.

Miami Marlins v Milwaukee BrewersFor a Seattle club that finished last in the AL in on-base percentage at .300 and OPS at .676, those are tempting numbers. Tempting enough that McClendon will now try to find ways to squeeze Weeks in on club that already has a second baseman.

How might that work? Weeks has never played any other position in his professional career and declined last year when asked by the Brewers if he’d be willing to try the outfield after losing playing time at second to Scooter Gennett.

But Weeks clearly is in a different position now. His options in free agency were limited and he wound up choosing to play for Seattle, fully knowing the situation with Cano. So we’ll see how it plays out, but my presumption is Weeks will be worked some in left field, where he could offer a right-handed complement to Ackley.

He could be used occasionally at second or third, allowing Cano and Seager to rest their legs and/or play DH. Weeks himself can DH now and then to rest Nelson Cruz. Or more likely, Weeks and Cruz could both be in the lineup against southpaws as it’s quite possible Cruz could play a corner outfield spot while Weeks takes the DH swings.

Remember, Cruz has been an outfielder all his career. He’s played 833 games in the outfield compared to 120 at DH. Even last year, he played 70 games in the outfield for the Orioles. He might not be a preferred option out there, but he’s got a good arm and won’t embarrass himself. So if Weeks doesn’t adapt well in the outfield, Cruz could shift there some to allow Weeks at-bats at DH.

Another option could be time at first base as Logan Morrison’s backup. Morrison has played more than 100 games just once in five years in his career. Seattle’s current backup plan is to see how Jesus Montero looks this spring, or use Ackley or utility man Willie Bloomquist for spot duty.

Bloomquist is a major wildcard in this situation, coming off microfracture knee surgery. The Mariners have said they expect him to be ready by the start of the regular season, but that’s definitely not a sure thing. Weeks, despite his lack of prior versatility, ironically might fall into that kind of super utility role if needed.

Or maybe McClendon and Zduriencik have something completely different in mind. This one admittedly came out of left field. If you’d listed teams who figured to be a good match for Weeks heading into the offseason, the Mariners figured to be somewhere toward 30 on that list, thanks to Cano. But it just might make sense if Weeks is willing and able to play different positions, which appears to be the case since he’s voluntarily signing with Seattle.

Will it all work out in the end, who knows? But the Mariners just added another interesting element to their Spring Training. And more importantly, another capable right-handed bat to their bench.

Mariners add another lefty relief candidate

Cleveland Indians v Oakland AthleticsThe Mariners continued stocking up on left-handed bullpen candidates Thursday as the club announced the signing of former Indians reliever Rafael Perez to a Minor League contract with an invite to Major League camp.

With pitchers and catchers reporting next Friday in Peoria, Ariz., the club now has seven left-handed relievers coming to camp.

Of that group, returners Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge and newcomers Mike Kickham, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins are on the 40-man roster, while Perez and Tyler Olson are non-roster invitees. Kickham and Perez are both candidates for starting roles as well, should they wind up in Triple-A Tacoma.

Perez has the most experience of any in that group, having made 338 relief appearances with the Indians from 2006-12. He pitched 14 games, including eight starts, with Triple-A Round Rock and Indianapolis in the Rangers and Pirates organizations last year. He also pitched 10 games, with eight starts, in the Mexican League.

Between those three clubs, Perez was 6-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 103 1/3 innings.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder also posted a 2.31 ERA in 15 regular-season games (six starts) with Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, then was 3-1 with a 0.84 ERA over 32 innings in six playoff starts. He then pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in one start in the Caribbean Series against Cuba.

Perez was a workhorse for the Indians from 2008-11, with his 268 appearances in that span tied for the most by an American League reliever with Craig Breslow. He also made six relief appearances in the 2007 playoffs when the Indians fell one win shy of the World Series.

In his seven-year Major League career, Perez is 21-12 with a 3.64 ERA in 338 outings, all in relief for the Indians.

Seattle’s pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Peoria on Feb. 20 for physicals, with the first workout on Feb. 21. Position players are scheduled to report for physicals Feb. 24 and the first full-squad workout will be Feb. 25.

The Mariners Spring Training roster is currently at 59 players (40 roster, 19 non-roster), including 28 pitchers (8 non-roster), seven catchers (four non-roster), 12 infielders (three non-roster) and 12 outfielders (four non-roster).

Here is the full 40-man roster, as well as the non-roster invitees.

Mariners close to deal with Rickie Weeks

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati RedsJust a week before the start of Spring Training, the Mariners are close to adding another veteran to their roster as a source confirmed that free agent infielder Rickie Weeks has an agreement in place on a one-year deal.

The Mariners declined to confirm the signing, originally reported by ESPN’s Jim Bowden. Weeks has yet to take a physical exam, which would be needed before finalizing the deal.

Weeks, 32, played strictly second base in his 11-year career with the Brewers, but obviously would be used elsewhere by the Mariners, given six-time All-Star Robinson Cano’s presence at that position.

Bowden reported the deal carries a $2 million base salary, with another potential $2 million in incentives.

The Brewers talked of using Weeks in the outfield last year. He balked at that idea, but could presumably be used as a corner outfielder or utility infielder by Seattle. The Mariners have Dustin Ackley returning in left field and acquired veterans Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano this winter to likely platoon in right field.

Weeks put up a .274/.357/.452 slash line with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 252 at-bats with Milwaukee last year while platooning primarily against left-handed pitchers. He hit 29 home runs and 83 RBIs in 2010, was a National League All-Star in 2011 and carries a career .249 average with a .771 OPS. But his numbers and playing time dropped the past three years and the Brewers declined his contract option for 2015 at the conclusion of a four-year, $38 million deal.

The signing is something of a surprise for Seattle, given Cano’s presence at second and Kyle Seager at third base. But the Mariners have been looking to add veteran, right-handed bats to their lineup and it remains to be seen how Weeks might be worked into the mix.

Veteran utility man Willie Bloomquist has one year remaining on his contract with Seattle, but is coming off microfracture knee surgery and isn’t a sure thing to be ready for the start of the season.

Veteran catcher Baker agrees to Minor League deal

Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh PiratesLooking to add depth behind starting catcher Mike Zunino, the Mariners have an agreement with veteran John Baker to a Minor League deal with an invitation to Major League camp.

The Mariners have not confirmed the deal, but shortly after CBSports.com reported the news on Wednesday, Baker tweeted a photo of himself in front of the Space Needle and said, “Thanks for all the positive vibes being sent my way. Next Chapter begins. @Mariners.”

Baker is headed to Seattle for a physical exam on Thursday, so nothing will be finalized until that process is completed.

The Mariners are looking to add an experienced catcher to their backstop mix that currently includes Zunino, Jesus Sucre and John Hicks on the 40-man roster.

Zunino, 23, caught 131 games last year in his first full season as a starter. Sucre, 26, has played in 29 games over the past two seasons with Seattle in a backup role. Hicks, 25, is a well-regarded prospect, but has just 28 games of experience at the Triple-A level after a midseason promotion to Tacoma last season.

Baker, 34, has seven seasons of Major League experience with the Marlins, Padres and Cubs, with a career slash line of .247/.330/.341 in 359 games.

The left-handed hitting catcher played 68 games with the Cubs last season, batting .192 with 15 RBIs. His headline moment in 2014 came when he earned the pitching victory and scored the winning run in the 16th inning of a game against the Rockies. Baker threw a scoreless top of the 16th in the July 29 game, then walked and eventually came around to win the game and become just the fourth position player to pick up a pitching victory since 1968.

Baker is a California native who was drafted by the A’s in the fourth round in 2002 out of Cal-Berkeley. He was the Marlins’ 2010 nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award.

Guti, Chavez sign Minor League deals with camp invite

GutiCageLooking to add some outfield depth to their organization, the Mariners officially signed veterans Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez to Minor League contracts on Monday and extended invitations to next month’s Major League camp.

Neither addition was a surprise as Gutierrez (pictured) and Chavez both have long histories with Seattle and agreed to Minor League deals that don’t require opening a spot on the 40-man roster unless they make the Major League squad at some point.

Gutierrez will be rejoining the Mariners after a year-long absence, having spent 2014 away from the game while dealing with an inflammatory nerve condition called ankylosing spondylitis. The 31-year-old Venezuelan was a 2010 American League Gold Glove center fielder for Seattle, but had trouble staying healthy the following three seasons due to problems he now attributes largely to the then-undiagnosed nerve issue.

Gutierrez returned to action for 10 games in the Venezuelan Winter League in December, hitting .222 with five doubles, two home runs and four RBIs while playing center field for Leones del Caracas.

Gutierrez signed a one-year, $1 million Major League deal with Seattle last season, but then told the club he didn’t feel healthy enough to compete shortly before the start of Spring Training and spent the year on the unpaid restricted list.

When healthy, Gutierrez was a defensive standout and he hit .283 with 18 home runs, 70 RBIs and a .764 OPS in his first season with Seattle in 2009. Injury issues limited him to 92 games in 2011 and just 40 and 41 games the following two years before sitting out 2014 completely.

In his nine-year MLB career with the Indians and Mariners, Gutierrez has hit .256/.306/.391 with 67 home runs and 279 RBIs in 762 games.

Chavez, 36, has been a productive player the past two seasons with Seattle after signing similar Minor League deals and then being promoted to the 25-man roster during the season.  Chavez posted a .276/.317/.371 line last season, with two home runs, 23 RBIs and 22 runs in 80 games, including 57 starts. He played 97 games in 2013 while hitting .267/.290/.327.

The 13-year Major League veteran has played with seven different clubs, including an earlier stint with Seattle in 2009, and owns a career line of .270/.308/.364.

Both veterans offer insurance and depth in Seattle’s outfield, but face a tough number’s situation going into spring. The Mariners traded for Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano during the offseason and have returning starters Dustin Ackley and Austin Jackson, as well as youngsters James Jones and Stefen Romero returning.

Nelson Cruz, who signed a four-year, $57 million free-agent deal, will play mostly designated hitter, but he’s also capable of filling a corner-outfield spot. Cruz started 70 games in the field last year for the Orioles and has made 800 of his career starts in the outfield compared to 117 at DH.

The Mariners Spring Training roster is currently at 57 players (40 roster and 17 non-roster invitees), including 12 outfielders. Four of those outfielders are non-roster players, with Chavez and Gutierrez joining Minor Leaguers Patrick Kivlehan and Jordy Lara in that category. Here’s the current 40-man roster.

Here’s your look at the new alternate uniforms

SundayUni_2The Mariners unveiled a fresh look with some old-school trimmings on Friday as new slugger Nelson Cruz and pitchers James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Charlie Furbush served as models introducing the club’s new alternate uniforms.

The alternate jerseys will be worn on Sunday home games only. The Mariners already have their regular road whites and home gray uniforms, along with an alternate “Northwest Green” jersey that is worn only for Friday games.

The new jerseys and pants are a cream color and feature oversized numbers and no names on the back, a nod to baseball’s past. The uniform also includes striped stirrups for players who wear their pants high, a feature displayed by Furbush and Walker at the unveiling.

“I’m digging it,” said Furbush. “I’m feeling like I’m looking pretty fresh. And these are great caps. It really brings back the history of the Mariners. It’s good. I like it.”

Alt_01The lettering and logo are the same as the current uniforms, but in the original Mariners colors. The “Mariners” lettering is royal blue with gold trim outlined in royal. The button placket and sleeves are trimmed in royal, and there is a Mariners nautical “compass rose” patch in royal and gold on the left sleeve.

The caps are royal blue with gold Mariners “S” and compass rose baseball logo, matching the color of the socks.

“The royal blue and gold colors of our franchise’s inaugural uniforms are blended with the lettering and logo of our current identity in a unique design that pays homage to our club’s history,” said Kevin Martinez, Mariners vice president of marketing. “This new alternate uniform is perfect for sunny Sunday afternoons at Safeco Field.”

The Mariners are happy to have Cruz in their uniform any day of the week after signing Major League Baseball’s 2014 home run leader to a four-year, $57 million deal in December. The new designated hitter made his first public appearance at the unveiling and will be at FanFest both Saturday and Sunday at Safeco Field as well.

“I think the uniforms are great,” Cruz said. “I’m excited for every Sunday to wear these. I like everything about these uniforms.”

Walker, the club’s prize 22-year-old pitching prospect, was equally impressed.

“I love fashion,” said the young right-hander. “So anything new is good for me.”

Alt_12

In addition to the new alternate Sunday uniforms, the Mariners also announced minor changes to the lettering of their home and road jerseys. The words “Mariners” for home whites and “Seattle” for road grays in navy letters will be trimmed in silver outlined in Northwest green.

“We’ve simply reversed the order of the silver and green,” said Martinez, “The change is subtle, but the modified color arrangement presents a much stronger and crisper on-field look.”

The new hats and jerseys are available now online at Mariners.com, at Mariners Team Stores and will also be sold at this weekend’s FanFest, which runs Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. PT at Safeco Field.

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