The idea that Nelson Cruz would be almost strictly a designated hitter for the Mariners is quickly changing and manager Lloyd McClendon said Saturday he’s always been comfortable with having the big slugger in the outfield.
Cruz has been penciled in as the starting right fielder in three of Seattle’s first five games, with Rickie Weeks starting twice there and Seth Smith getting the call on Saturday as he returned from a tight groin muscle that had sidelined him since Opening Day.
The 34-year-old Cruz has started 802 games in the outfield in his 10-year Major League career and 119 at designated hitter, so he’s certainly no novice with the glove.
“Really, right field is his position,” McClendon said. “He played right field quite a bit in Texas and DH’d in Baltimore because of their outfield situation. I don’t have any second thoughts or trepidations about putting him in the outfield at all. I just need to be smart about when I put him out there and make sure he stays healthy throughout the year. I’ll use the DH spot to do that.
“But to say he’s our full-time DH, I never said that and never committed to that,” said McClendon. “And he’s not. I like the idea of being able to rotate that DH spot to give guys a day off and when somebody is nicked up like Smith. Cruz will play his share of outfield.”
Even last year with the Orioles, Cruz played 70 games in the outfield and 89 at DH. That combo seemed to work just fine as he led the Majors with 40 home runs and Baltimore won the American League East at 96-66.
McClendon feels Cruz is best in right field, where he spent most of his eight seasons with the Rangers.
“He’s fine out there,” McClendon said. “I’ve always known he’s a good outfielder. Having said that, he’s not a Gold Glove outfielder. He’s not going to run in the gaps and make diving catches. But he catches the balls he’s supposed to catch and every now and then he’ll mess one up. He’s an adequate outfielder.”
Smith will play right field a lot against right-handed pitchers, but McClendon wanted to be careful with him Saturday as he returns from the sore groin. Justin Ruggiano will also see playing time in right field this year against lefties, but he’s also capable of playing center or left field.
— Jesus Sucre became the last Mariner to get into the lineup when he was penciled in at catcher for Saturday’s game. McClendon said he’d like to play starter Mike Zunino about 130-135 games this season, which means Sucre will start about once a week.
— McClendon said he’s not concerned about his team after Friday’s 12-0 defeat left the Mariners 1-3 out of the gate.
“My team is fine,” he said. “We didn’t look good last night. You usually don’t look good when you lose 12-nothing. They’re fine. They’ll bounce back. They’re resilient and they’ll be ready to play today.”
Since his sensational debut for the Mariners on Opening Day, right fielder Seth Smith has been sidelined by a tight groin muscle. But the 32-year-old said Friday he’s feeling better and manager Lloyd McClendon indicated he’d like to have Smith back in the lineup Saturday for the second game of a three-game set with the A’s.
Smith went 3-for-3 with a triple and two doubles in Seattle’s first game of the season on Monday, the first Mariner in club history to record three extra-base hits on Opening Day. But he awoke the following morning with some tightness and hasn’t played since.
“He’s doing better,” McClendon said prior to Friday’s series opener at O.Co Coliseum. “My hope is he’ll be able to play tomorrow.”
Smith wouldn’t likely have been in the lineup Friday regardless, given the A’s were starting southpaw Drew Pomeranz. He’ll be used primarily in a platoon role against right-handers and Seattle faces righties in its next three games.
“I think we’re good,” Smith said after hitting in the cage Friday afternoon.
The eight-year Major League veteran said the soreness affects more than just hitting.
“That specific area, everything you do is incorporated in it,” he said. “Whether it’s running, throwing or hitting, you just have to see where you feel it and where you don’t. Right now, I don’t feel it, so it’s looking good.”
Smith was back at O.Co Coliseum for the first time since spending two seasons with the A’s in 2012-13, making the postseason both years. Now playing for his fourth Major League club after being acquired in December from the Padres for reliever Brandon Maurer, he said it’s a fun part of the big-league journey.
“I’ve been back to Colorado. I’ll go back to San Diego [this year],” Smith said. “It’s fun to come back. No big deal. You miss people, so you say hello and then play a baseball game. I had great memories here.”
— Rickie Weeks will make his first Major League start in left field in Friday’s game after playing DH the previous two games. Weeks worked in left field all spring after playing second base for 11 years in Milwaukee.
— McClendon also had Willie Bloomquist at shortstop on Friday, his first action of the season, and indicated Jesus Sucre would likely start at catcher on Saturday. Sucre is the only position player who has yet to start a game.
“You don’t want them to sit too long,” McClendon said. “My feeling is all your work in Spring Training goes down the drain if you sit too long. You lose your timing and everything else.”
Here’s the full lineup for Friday’s series opener:
Smith went 3-for-3 with two doubles and a triple in his Seattle debut on Monday’s Opening Day victory, but didn’t play on Tuesday and was again out of the lineup for the series finale.
“We’ll give him another day,” McClendon said.
The Mariners have Thursday off to travel to Oakland, where they’ll begin their first road series on Friday. McClendon said he hoped Smith would be available to play against the A’s, though Oakland is starting southpaw Drew Pomeranz on Friday so the left-handed hitting Smith likely won’t be in the lineup that game regardless since he was acquired primarily as a platoon option against right-handers.
The A’s do have right-handers scheduled to start Saturday and Sunday.
Smith wasn’t expected to play on Tuesday either when the Angels had lefty C.J. Wilson on the mound, but he was noticeably absent when Seattle faced right-hander Matt Shoemaker on Wednesday.
McClendon instead went with right-handed hitting Nelson Cruz in right field, with fellow right-hander Rickie Weeks taking Cruz’s spot at designated hitter. So essentially Weeks took Smith’s place in the lineup while Cruz moved into his spot in the field.
“It’s the old saying, ‘Next man up,’” McClendon said.
Smith, 32, was acquired from the Padres in a December trade for reliever Brandon Maurer after hitting .266 with 31 doubles, five triples and 12 home runs in 136 games for San Diego last season.
As the Mariners prepare for their second game of the season tonight against the Angels, the big story line figures to be left-hander James Paxton as the 26-year-old takes the hill in the No. 2 spot in the rotation.
Paxton has loads of talent and could be a key figure in Seattle’s success this season, but he’ll need to prove he can stay healthy and be consistent over the long haul. He’ll certainly face a familiar foe in tonight’s 7:10 p.m. start as of his 17 career starts, four have come against the Angels.
Paxton was 2-1 with a 2.59 ERA vs. the Halos last year, including two wins the first seven days of the season before he went on the disabled list for nearly four months with a shoulder issue.
“We know each other pretty well now,” Paxton said. “Then it becomes baseball. It’s the game within the game now, the chess match. They know what I’ve got. I know what they’ve got. So it makes it fun.”
Paxton has never lost at Safeco Field, where he’s 5-0 with a 1.69 ERA in seven starts over the past two years. He’s now slotted into the No. 2 spot in the rotation as manager Lloyd McClendon wants to give opposing hitters a different look by breaking up right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma with the lanky lefty.
“I’m just going to go out there and pitch whenever he gives me the ball,” said Paxton. “I kind of saw the way it was shaping up. They had room to make changes and stuff, so I didn’t know for sure. I was just going to be ready whenever he gives me the ball.”
Paxton got a late start to spring due to a bruised forearm and then went 1-2 with a 7.84 ERA in three Cactus League starts. But Hernandez didn’t have good spring numbers either and Paxton said he’s not concerned with his Arizona outcome.
“I didn’t get the results, obviously,” he said. “But I felt like I got myself ready. I feel like my arm is where I need it to be to take that next step up here. I know it didn’t look like it, but I felt like I threw some good pitches and my stuff is where I want to be right now. Once I get out on the mound and it’s for real, it’ll change a little bit.”
Outfielder Alex Jackson, the Mariners top-ranked prospect by MLB.com and the team’s first-round Draft pick last June, will begin the season with Class-A Clinton, while 2013 first-round pick D.J. Peterson opens the year in Double-A Jackson as the club announced its Minor League rosters on Tuesday.
Jackson, 19, played 23 games in the Arizona Rookie League last year after signing as the sixth overall selection as a high school senior out of San Diego.
Peterson, 23, split last year between High-A High Desert and Jackson and will open this year with the Double-A club. He’s the Mariners’ No. 2 ranked prospect on the MLB.com rankings. Also on the Jackson squad is outfielder Gabby Guerrero (No. 5), the 21-year-old nephew of Vladimir Guerrero. He spent all of last season with High Desert.
The Triple-A Tacoma roster is loaded with top prospects and Major League veterans. Infielder Ketel Marte (No. 3) and infielder/outfielder Patrick Kivlehan (No. 4) will open the season with the Rainiers, both getting bumped up after ending last season with Jackson.
Among the Tacoma players with Major League experience with the Mariners are left-handers Roenis Elias, Lucas Luetge and Joe Saunders, right-handers Dominic Leone and Mark Lowe, outfielders James Jones, Stefen Romero and Franklin Gutierrez and first baseman/DH Jesus Montero.
Catcher John Baker, an eight-year Major League veteran, also will start the year in Tacoma, along with top catching prospect John Hicks.
Left-hander Danny Hultzen, who missed all of last season following shoulder surgery, will open the season on the disabled list as he continues getting work in extended Spring Training in Arizona. The plan for Hultzen is to continue building his arm strength before assigning him to a Minor League club. Veteran lefty reliever Joe Beimel is also pitching extended Spring Training after re-signing with Seattle last week.
The four Mariners full-season Minor League squads – Tacoma, Jackson, Bakersfield and Clinton – open their seasons on Thursday. Bakersfield has replaced High Desert as the Mariners’ High-A affiliate this year. The short-season A Everett squad opens in June, along with the Arizona Rookie League club and Dominican Summer League squad.
Mariners reliever Dominic Leone, one of the key members of last year’s outstanding bullpen, was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma on Friday in a surprising move after it appeared the right-hander had made the final roster.
Carson Smith, another right-hander who was optioned to Triple-A last Sunday, was recalled to take Leone’s place.
Leone, 23, was 8-2 with a 2.17 ERA in 66 1/3 innings in 57 appearances last season as a rookie. But he struggled this spring and had a 12.86 ERA with 17 hits allowed in seven innings over nine outings and was hit hard in his most-recent appearance on Wednesday.
“I’ve had a lot better days, I’ll tell you that,” Leone said after exchanging hugs with many of his teammates as he packed up his locker. “This is one of the toughest days I’ve had. Last year was different because I kind of came in not expecting anything and when they optioned me down, it was disappointing. But not like this. Not after the season I had last year.
“I understand I didn’t have the greatest of springs, I’ll always have stuff to work on. But it’s tough when it kind of blindsides you like that.”
Leone started last year in Tacoma as well, but was called up before ever pitching in a game with the Rainiers to replace Hector Noesi the first week of the season. Thus he understands things can change quickly, both for good and bad.
“That’s just the decision they made and I will obviously respect it,” he said. “I’ll go down and I’m going to work my tail off even harder than I did last year and hopefully come back up to a team that is on a streak, kicking butt, and I can just jump right back in that ‘pen.”
Manager Lloyd McClendon said the decision was made to bring back Smith after Leone continued struggling this past week. He gave up three runs on four hits and a walk while getting just two outs on Wednesday against the White Sox.
“I think the world of the young man,” McClendon said. “He just wasn’t throwing very well. He needs to get some things straightened out. In good conscious, I just couldn’t take him north with me.
“There are a lot of things that go into it. This isn’t something that just happened overnight. As a manager, you have a certain amount of loyalty to players, particularly when they pitched so well for you the year before. But it just was such a rough spring that we felt we had to make this move.”
Smith, 25, was outstanding for the Mariners as a September call-up last season when he didn’t allow a run in 8 1/3 innings over nine outings with 10 strikeouts and just two hits and three walks. He put up a 4.15 ERA this spring in 8 2/3 innings with nine hits, five walks and eight strikeouts.
Beimel was 2-1 with a 2.20 ERA in 45 innings over 56 appearances as a lefty specialist in 2014, proving to be one of the better comeback stories in baseball after not pitching in the Majors since 2011 due to elbow issues.
He couldn’t come to a contract agreement to return to the Mariners last winter, however, and signed instead with the Rangers several weeks into camp on March 6. But Texas released him on March 23 after Beimel allowed 13 hits and 14 runs (11 earned) in three innings of Cactus League work in four appearances.
By agreeing to a Minor League deal, Beimel doesn’t count against Seattle’s 40-man roster and he’ll be able to see if he can regain his form at Triple-A Tacoma.
“I’m beyond excited to be back in the organization,” Beimel said. “After all the events that transpired this spring, I felt like it was destiny that brought me back.”
The Mariners spent much of the spring trying out lefty relief candidates for Beimel’s former position as the No. 2 southpaw behind Charlie Furbush and appear to have settled on rookie Tyler Olson, who didn’t allow an earned run in 12 2/3 innings this spring while striking out 15 with no walks.
Olson is a non-roster invitee who pitched Double-A ball last year and hasn’t been added to the Major League roster yet, but he is one of just seven relievers remaining in camp and that move appears a formality by the Sunday noon PT deadline to set 25-man rosters.
Beimel, 37, is a 12-year Major League veteran with a 4.07 ERA in 623 career appearances with the Pirates, Dodgers, Rockies, Twins, Rays, Nationals and Mariners. He started his career with the Pirates in 2001 when current Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon was the skipper in Pittsburgh.
Beimel signed a Minor League deal with the Mariners last year and wound up making the squad and spending the full season in Seattle while earning $850,000.
Seattle also announced Friday that left-hander Mike Montgomery has been optioned to Triple-A Tacoma. Montgomery was acquired from the Rays on Wednesday in a trade for right-hander Erasmo Ramirez.
Lloyd McClendon didn’t want to make any big official pronouncement about his final 25-man roster on Wednesday. But after the Mariners traded right-hander Erasmo Ramirez to the Rays on Tuesday night, the pieces of the puzzle were all in place.
“Look at the board,” the second-year skipper said, nodding toward an office wall showing Taijuan Walker among his five starters and rookie Tyler Olson as the last name in the bullpen.
“Write what you see,” McClendon said. “I like my team.”
It’s been a foregone conclusion that Walker earned the fifth starter role since Roenis Elias was sent down to the Minors last week, but McClendon refused to finalize that news as long as Ramirez remained in the picture. But once Ramirez was dealt to Tampa Bay for left-hander Mike Montgomery, there was no hiding the inevitable.
With one start remaining on Saturday, Walker has gone 3-0 with a 0.36 ERA in six Cactus League games. Opponents have hit .111 against him and he’s struck out 24 with just four walks in 25 innings. Clearly the 22-year-old pitched his way onto the team with a dominant spring.
“Sure he did,” McClendon said. “He performed extremely well. The rotation’s not set, but he’s on the club.”
The rotation order won’t come for a few more days, but Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ and Walker are lined up to pitch in succession, each on five day’s rest at this point. Regarded as one of baseball’s up-and-coming right-handers for the past several years, Walker will be with the club on Opening Day for the first time in his young career.
“Obviously it feels good,” Walker said. “But now it pretty much starts all over again. I’m still competing, because Elias is going to be down there waiting for his turn to come up the moment I slack off. I just have to make sure I stay focused.”
Olson’s status is still a little tenuous. Since he’s not on the 40-man roster, the Mariners haven’t finalized his promotion. When they do, it’ll be a huge moment for a 25-year-old who has never pitched above Double-A ball. He’s set to become the only non-roster invitee to crack the 25-man group that will head to Seattle for Monday’s Opening Day.
Like Walker, Olson did everything possible this spring as he’s yet to allow an earned run in 12 2/3 innings over 10 appearances with eight hits, four walks and 15 strikeouts.
“He’s shown a lot of poise and the ability to get left-handers and right-handers out,” McClendon said. “He holds runners, works fast, throws strikes, fields his position. He’s done a great job. I’ve said every year I’m looking for surprises and he’s a surprise. Obviously we haven’t broke camp yet and he’s a non-roster guy, but he’s done a nice job.”
Olson, who grew up in Spokane, Wash., and was drafted out of Gonzaga University in the seventh round in 2013, isn’t taking anything for granted. As of Wednesday morning, he’d yet to tell his family that they’ll be able to drive the four hours from eastern Washington to see him pitch to start this season.
“I haven’t told anyone,” he said. “I’ve been hoping and working hard for this for a long time. So being able to call the parents and hopefully confirm that it is true and things are working out is going to be a lot of emotions.”
In other Wednesday news:
• While the Mariners are off Thursday, Hisashi Iwakuma will make his final spring tuneup in a 7 p.m. PT game against the Padres Triple-A club on the Padres’ back field at the Peoria Complex.
McClendon said it will be a relatively short outing for Iwakuma, with the same situation for J.A. Happ on Friday night and Walker on Saturday against the Rockies.
• McClendon took the same approach with Hernandez’s 47-pitch outing when he lasted just 1 2/3 innings on Tuesday against the Indians.
“I could easily have sent him to the bullpen to throw more, but I didn’t want to,” McClendon said. “It was hot out, he was out of whack. It would serve no purpose. He’s ready to go. He could throw 100 pitches come Monday and it made no sense to send him out there.”
• Seth Smith is back in the lineup for Wednesday’s game with the White Sox after sitting out three games with a sore ankle. Here’s the full lineups for the 1:05 p.m. game at Peoria, which will be televised live by ROOT Sports and MLB.TV.
Mariners right-hander Erasmo Ramirez was traded to Tampa Bay on Tuesday for left-hander Mike Montgomery as Seattle acquired a former first-round Draft pick in return for a pitcher who was out of Minor League options.
Ramirez, 24, was one of Seattle’s top pitching prospects in 2012 when he was first called up and he’s started 35 games for the Mariners over the past three years, but has struggled with his consistency the past two seasons.
Montgomery also was a well-regarded prospect for the Royals as a first-round selection in 2008 as a prep pitcher out of California. The 25-year-old was dealt to the Rays in 2013 as part of the Wil Myers-James Shields blockbuster and has yet to reach the Majors.
Montgomery was on the Rays’ 40-man roster and still in Major League camp competing for a relief role. He has one Minor League option remaining.
The 6-foot-4, 200-pounder was 10-5 with a 4.29 ERA in 25 starts for Triple-A Durham last year, where he was a mid-season All-Star and helped lead the Bulls to the International League Championship Series for the second consecutive season.
Montgomery was rated by MLB.com as one of the top 50 overall prospects in baseball as recently as the 2012 season and was currently rated the Rays’ No. 27 prospect.
Montgomery was used as a reliever for the first time this spring. He pitched six games out of the bullpen for the Rays in Grapefruit League action this spring, posting a 2.38 ERA with three earned runs, two walks and nine strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings.
Ramirez put up a 3.36 ERA in 16 games, including eight starts, with Seattle as a 22-year-old rookie in 2012 and opened 2013 in the starting rotation. He went 5-3 with a 4.98 ERA in 14 games (13 starts) that year, then was 1-6 with a 5.26 ERA in 17 games (14 starts) last year.
The Mariners had no opening for Ramirez in their deep rotation and bullpen this spring and risked losing the Nicaraguan hurler if they sent him to the Minors since he was out of options and thus would have been exposed to waivers.
Ramirez’s departure leaves the Mariners with five starters in camp — Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, J.A. Happ and Taijuan Walker.
The Rays have been hit with several injuries in their rotation and have been seeking starting help.
Mike Zunino has caught more games and innings than any catcher in the Cactus League this spring, but manager Lloyd McClendon says both the 24-year-old and his pitching staff is benefitting from the early work load.
“He came in in great shape and there’s some things we wanted to see him do this spring and he’s starting to do them,” McClendon said Tuesday. “Taking charge of the staff, running that staff, getting them to do the things he needs them to do to be successful during the course of a game. Sometimes you have to pull the whip out. He’s done all those things. I think it’s taken him the whole six weeks to get all of that out of the staff. That’s why he’s played as much as he’s played.”
Zunino, who turned 24 last week, continues to impress both at the plate and behind it. The third overall selection in the 2012 Draft has hit seven home runs, second to the Cubs’ Kris Bryant among all Major Leaguers this spring and has the highest slugging percentage in either the Cactus or Grapefruit League at .896.
A year ago he hit two home runs and batted .239 with five RBIs and a .478 slugging percentage in 46 Cactus League at-bats. Going into Tuesday’s game against the Indians, Zunino was batting .354 and also leading the team with 13 RBIs in 48 at-bats.
McClendon said the youngster will get Wednesday’s game off before the entire team is off Thursday prior to Seattle’s final two Cactus League games. The skipper said his young catcher has made huge strides and handled the heavy load without issue.
“I don’t think he was ready to do it last year. He was trying to get his feet wet his first full year in the big leagues as well,” McClendon said. “I think he’s learned this staff. He knows he can be successful in this league and the maturation process has brought him to this point in his career.
“He’s been on the fast track from the start and he hasn’t disappointed,” said McClendon. “It’s mind blowing, if you really think about it, to think how far he’s come so fast.”
In other news Tuesday:
• Right fielder Seth Smith worked out and took batting practice Tuesday, but didn’t play in the Cactus League game for a third straight day as he recovers from a sore right ankle that he twisted sliding into home plate on Saturday. McClendon said it’s just precautionary and he has no concerns about Smith being ready.
• The Mariners have Thursday off, but Hisashi Iwakuma will throw in a Minor League game against the Padres Triple-A club that day in his final tuneup for the regular season. The game will be on the Padres’ side of the Peoria Complex.
James Paxton is starting Wednesday against the White Sox in Peoria, J.A. Happ makes his final spring outing Friday night against the Rockies in Peoria and Taijuan Walker will close out Cactus League play on Saturday against the Rockies at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
• The Mariners will fly to Seattle on Saturday night and have a workout planned for Sunday evening at Safeco Field prior to Monday afternoon’s opener with the Angels. The Sunday workout is not open to the public.
• Willie Bloomquist slid awkwardly at second base in Monday’s game against the Angels, but got up and dusted himself off and remained in the contest in another challenge for his right knee. Bloomquist says he’s fully recovered from microfracture knee surgery last August and McClendon has seen enough this spring to agree.
“He’s fine,” McClendon said. “He’s passed all the tests. In my mind, he’s a go.”
• Rickie Weeks is slated to start Tuesday afternoon’s game against the Indians at first base, his first time in a game at that position in his Major League career. McClendon is looking for backup options to Logan Morrison and said Weeks has worked well at that position the last week in practice.
Here’s today’s full lineups at Goodyear for Felix Hernandez’s final spring outing. The game will not be televised.