Having a healthy Hisashi Iwakuma in camp from Day One figures to be a significant difference for the Mariners this spring, but that doesn’t mean they’re in a hurry to push the veteran before the calendar even reaches March.
While most of Seattle’s hurlers are now firing live batting practice to hitters, Iwakuma instead threw his third bullpen session of the spring on Friday. But manager Lloyd McClendon said there are no health concerns with the right-hander who missed all of Spring Training and the first month of 2014 with a torn finger tendon.
“This is by design,” McClendon said. “We’re just stretching him out a little more. Kuma is A-OK and everything is fine. He has no issues at all. I don’t think he needs the live BPs. The guy is such a technician, he gets more done in a bullpen session than he would in a live BP.”
Indeed, Iwakuma is ready and rarin’ to throw as he prepares for his fourth season with Seattle. The 2013 American League All-Star has been one of baseball’s most underrated starters during his time in the Majors, posting a 38-20 record and 3.07 ERA in 91 games.
The 33-year-old went 15-9 with a 3.52 ERA last year in a season sandwiched by his late start and a rough finish when he believes he wore down due to his lack of spring conditioning. So Iwakuma is pleased to be back on a normal schedule in 2015.
“I’m very excited,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “It’s a different year compared to where I was last year. I’m very motivated. I look forward to the season and I’m looking forward to a good Spring Training.”
Iwakuma was 12-6 with a 2.57 ERA in his first 21 starts last season, then 3-3 with a 7.88 ERA in his final seven outings.
“I kind of ran out of gas there,” he said. “It wasn’t like I was very, very tired. I was just fatigued mentally and physically and that’s something I need to work on in Spring Training.”
In other news Friday:
— Although right-hander Erasmo Ramirez is out of Minor League options and facing a tough challenge to make the starting rotation, McClendon said he’s not looking at the 24-year-old as a potential reliever at this point.
“We’ve got some talented arms in that bullpen,” McClendon said. “The competition may be even stiffer down there.”
— Former Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks continues his transition to a utility role with Seattle by focusing strictly on the outfield for now.
“He’s going to have to get his reps out there,” McClendon said. “But I’ve watched Rickie the last three days and I’ve been fairly impressed with the way he’s moving around out there.”
— The Mariners have no plans for any ‘B’ games at this point, with McClendon feeling Monday’s intrasquad game and two split-squad situations during the spring are enough to get everyone their needed work. “I don’t want to make Spring Training a grind. If we need the reps with somebody, we can send them to a Minor League game.”
Felix Hernandez throws his first bullpen session of the spring, with Mike Zunino behind the plate.
Felix is a man of many faces, including this one while talking to Zunino and trainer Rick Griffin after his throwing session.
Manager Lloyd McClendon appears to have the Mariners pointed in the right direction this spring.
Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins is competing for a job as a left-handed reliever.
Nelson Cruz talks to infield coach Chris Woodward during batting practice.
Danny Farquhar returns as part of the American League’s best bullpen from 2014.
With the Mariners, there’s not a lot of drama when it comes to announcing who’ll be on the hill at Safeco Field when the season kicks off March 6 against the Angels. Hernandez is 5-0 with a 1.52 ERA in his first seven Opening Day starts and it would take some bad news to sidetrack him from what would be his seventh straight opener.
Knowing he’s lining up for April 6, the Mariners have already plotted out his full spring schedule, starting with Thursday’s initial bullpen. Hernandez is the last of the Mariners hurlers – except for injured lefty James Paxton – to take the mound, but he’s long been approved for his own schedule.
“I trust my veterans,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “They’ve been through it, they know what they’re doing. It’s still my job to monitor and make sure they’re moving in the right direction. But I don’t have any issues. They go at it the right way and their track record speaks for itself.”
Nobody’s track record is better than Hernandez’s. He’s been remarkably durable as his streak of six straight seasons with 200-plus innings and 200-plus strikeouts is fourth longest in Major League history behind only Tom Seaver (nine) and Roger Clemens and Walter Johnson (seven each).
So, yes, there is some flexibility with his work program. But, no, there is nothing left to chance by Hernandez, who knows his routine as well as anyone.
“I talk to the pitching coach and Lloyd, we count the days back from Opening Day and figure out how many starts I’ll do in Spring Training and when I want to throw the first bullpen and live BP,” Hernandez said. “We have everything figured out. It’s definitely a plan.”
Hernandez’s schedule is the least of McClendon’s concerns.
“He’s traditionally a slow starter in Spring Training. Actually I think this is probably a little early for him,” McClendon said. “But he’s feeling good.”
Hernandez will throw another bullpen later this week, then begin tossing live batting practice next week.
In other news:
— Cactus League play opens March 4 when the Mariners face the Padres at Peoria Stadium, but the club will play an intersquad game on its main practice field on Monday as a warmup.
— McClendon said Willie Bloomquist will likely see more time as the backup first base candidate than Rickie Weeks, who will concentrate more on learning the outfield this spring. That leaves Chris Taylor and Brad Miller focusing strictly on the shortstop competition.
“They both saw significant time last year and only one of them can play short as this team shapes up,” McClendon said. “I like both guys. They both bring a lot to the table. I think Chris is probably a little bit ahead of the game defensively and Brad is probably ahead of the game offensively. It’s a nice combination and let’s see what happens. … If we don’t have injuries, I doubt that we can take them both.”
— Left-hander James Paxton continues rehabbing his bruised left forearm and is “progressing fine,” according to McClendon. “He feels good. They just want to wait until the first of the week to have him throw.”
— Versatile prospect Patrick Kivlehan brought three gloves to camp – an infield, outfield and first base mitt – and is waiting to see how things play out. Though he’s been listed as an outfielder by the club, Kivlehan worked at first base in the first full-squad workout.
Wednesday was the first full-squad workout and that meant the arrival of Nelson Cruz. Here the team’s new slugger hangs out with Kyle Seager behind the batting cage. The two figure to be a nice middle-of-the-order tandem during the season.
The “heated” battle at shortstop between Brad Miller (left) and Chris Taylor doesn’t seem to be bothering the two youngsters, eh?
Robinson Cano works out during infield drills, looking like he’s in excellent shape as he reported 13 pounds lighter than last season.
A little veteran wisdom is never a bad thing. Alvin Davis, aka Mr. Mariner, was working at first base with Logan Morrison during the infield session. Davis is serving again this year as a roving instructor in the organization.
Willie Bloomquist bounces a ball in the air while waiting his turn at the batting cages. In other words, Willie Ballgame is playing a little ball game.
Dustin Ackley and his beard are game ready.
Forget what you’ve been reading and hearing. It’s time to start preparing and playing.
“I don’t usually share my messages,” McClendon said when meeting with reporters prior to the first workout. “But I will share this. Expectations are very high and that’s OK. I understand it. But we can’t get caught up in expectations. We’ve got to get prepared and get ready for the grind of a 162-game schedule and it starts today. If you want to be a champion, it doesn’t start in April, it starts in February. And I think they’ll be up to the task.”
The addition of Major League home run leader Nelson Cruz to a team that went 87-75 last year despite considerable offensive shortcomings has pushed Seattle into prominence among many prognosticators. McClendon agrees this is a better club on paper after a productive offseason by general manager Jack Zduriencik.
“Good players win championships and Jack has gone out and provided us more talent, to give us a better opportunity to get that done,” said McClendon. “Having said that, it just doesn’t happen. I caution a lot of people that we’re not starting at 87 wins, we’re starting at zero. You’ve got to prepare and work.
“Everybody is hopeful this time of year. Everybody is thinking about winning a World Championship. I know this: It’s not always the most talented club, it’s the club that works the hardest and stays the healthiest that has a chance to win championships. That’s what we want to set out to try to do.”
If the Mariners are going to make a run in the American League West, they’ll need their pitching to replicate last year’s success, while adding offensive punch from Cruz and fellow veteran newcomers Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks.
That group was scheduled to take the field for the first time Wednesday a 10 a.m. MT, joined by the nucleus of returners built around Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager.
“It’s always nice when you get all your players into camp,” McClendon said. “That’s probably the official start of Spring Training. The pitchers and catchers is a grind because you’re going through the same thing every day and it’s a little monotonous. It’s always exciting when you see your position players again.”
In other news Wednesday:
— With full-squad work beginning, the pitchers had a light day scheduled before live batting practice begins Thursday. Only two pitchers were scheduled to throw bullpen sessions Wednesday. Tom Wilhelmsen will throw off the mound for the first time this spring after being held back following his arbitration hearing in Florida last weekend and Danny Hultzen will throw his second bullpen. Hultzen was given an extra day between his throw sessions as he returns from shoulder surgery.
Coaches will throw batting practice to hitters on Wednesday, with live batting practice beginning Thursday. Every pitcher is scheduled to throw at least two bullpens and two live BPs before Cactus League play begins March 4. Felix Hernandez won’t start his throwing for a few more days as he follows his usual slower spring routine. James Paxton (bruised forearm) is the only other pitcher yet to toss off a mound.
— McClendon said Weeks will spend most of his outfield time in left field, working alongside Dustin Ackley. He said that wasn’t a message to Ackley, but merely a move to improve the team by adding another veteran right-handed hitter.
“We’re trying to get better and Rickie Weeks is a good player that can help us win ballgames,” he said. “I think the combination of both those guys out there should produce a very productive left field. When you have a combination of 20-25 home runs and 100-plus RBIs, now you’ve got something.”
— Ruggiano will see some time in center as well as right field, with McClendon saying it will be important to give center fielder Austin Jackson some rest at times to keep him sharp. James Jones provides further depth as he’s capable of playing all three outfield positions.
— I get a lot of questions about the Mariners broadcast schedule for spring. You can see the full TV/radio slate here.
Lucas Luetge is among the large group of left-handers competing for a spot in the bullpen.
Reliever Yoervis Medina (right) and Fernando Rodney pass the time while waiting their turns in fielding drills.
Tyler Marlette, who split time between Class-A and Double-A last year, is one of several young catching prospects in camp.
Justin Germano, a nine-year Major League veteran, is among the non-roster invitees in camp looking to find a home for the upcoming season.
Andy VanSlyke, who has assumed duties as the team’s second hitting coach this spring, chats with catcher Mike Zunino during batting practice.
Paxton, expected to be a key component in Seattle’s rotation, will be held out at least a few more days, according to general manager Jack Zduriencik. An MRI and x-rays revealed nothing more than bruising, so the lanky southpaw is just behind held back now as a precaution.
“He actually hurt both arms,” Zduriencik said. “He fell and grabbed himself. His left arm is a little sore and his right arm, we’re not that concerned about. But both of them, he kind of braced himself and jammed it. So no sense pushing it. We’ll let him get treatment, let it quiet down and get him out here as soon as he’s ready.”
Paxton, 26, missed three months as a rookie last season with a strained lat muscle behind his left shoulder, but when healthy was outstanding. He went 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 13 starts and is 9-4 with a 2.66 ERA in 17 outings over the past two seasons for the Mariners.
“It’s sad because he had a great winter, he stayed in Seattle and worked out every day and was outstanding,” Zduriencik said. “He’s saying he feels good. But we’re not going to make him come out throw until it’s completely quieted down. It doesn’t make sense this early.”
Paxton said he’d done the same footwork drill a thousand times before and has done it again since, without issue, but just caught his foot on the artificial turf in the workout area at the team’s Peoria complex and landed awkwardly in what he called “an unathletic moment for me” on his first day after arriving in Arizona.
“You get here and ‘C’mon, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” he said. “I busted it getting ready for this and now something like this happens. It’s putting me back a little and it’s frustrating, but I just have to take it one day at a time and get ready to go for when it matters.”
In addition to my daily series of Spring Training stories on Mariners.com, I’ll be packing a camera around the Peoria practice fields the next few weeks and sharing some of the better photos here on the blog. So check in regularly here for scenes from spring!
All-Star closer Fernando Rodney wasted no time getting his game face — and cap — properly aligned as pitchers went through fielding drills.
Catcher Mike Zunino oversaw things in the bullpen as work got underway for the 28 pitchers in camp.
Returning starter Roenis Elias listens to new catcher John Baker, who will challenge for a backup spot as a veteran non-roster signee.
Among the interested onlookers during the bullpen throwing sessions: Minor League coordinator Chris Gwynn and manager Lloyd McClendon.
Center fielder Austin Jackson is among the many position players already in camp working out on their own before the full-squad workouts begin Wednesday.
A slimmed-down Jesus Montero drew considerable attention with his new physique, but now must carry that over into camp as he works at first base.
John Hicks, one of the club’s top prospects, takes in some wisdom from Mariners Hall of Fame catcher Dan Wilson. Wilson will be helping coach catchers throughout the organization this season.
Jesus 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.”
— “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.’”
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.