Mariners agree to terms with top pick Jackson

Alex Jackson, the Mariners first-round pick in the 2014 First-Year Player Draft, has agreed to terms with the club on a deal that includes a signing bonus of more than $4 million, according to MLB.com’s Jim Callis.

Jackson was the sixth overall pick in the Draft, a spot that carries a $3,570,000 value in MLB’s current slotting system.

Jackson is being listed as an outfielder by the Mariners, though he played mostly catcher at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego. The 18-year-old was regarded by many as the top power hitter in this year’s Draft.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik has said Jackson is a good athlete who could be a quality catcher, but with 2012 first-round Draft pick Mike Zunino already at that position, Seattle will start Jackson out in the outfield and see how quickly he can advance.

The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder hit 47 home runs in his prep career at Rancho Bernardo, a traditional baseball power in the San Diego area.

With Jackson’s agreement, the Mariners have now signed their top 14 picks.

Mariners’ memories of Gwynn include final career HR

Beimel, Joe

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon remembers talking baseball for hours with Tony Gwynn.

Mariners reliever Joe Beimel (pictured) remembers the few seconds in which he gave up Gwynn’s final home run of his storied career.

And as with every Major League clubhouse on Monday, players and coaches expressed sadness and recalled of one of baseball’s greatest hitters Monday after Gwynn died of cancer earlier in the day at age 54.

Gwynn’s death hit particularly close to home with the Mariners as Gwynn’s younger brother, Chris, is Seattle’s director of player development, overseeing the club’s entire Minor League system.

“Obviously waking up to that kind of news was pretty devastating,” said McClendon, who played against Gwynn for years in the National League. “Tony was not only a person I considered a friend, but as far as hitting was concerned he was a mentor as well.

“I look back now and sometimes you take things for granted,” McClendon said. “But to think this guy took time out of his day every time we came to town or they came to town to sit down and talk to somebody like me about hitting and the game of baseball, it just blows your mind. To think we lost him at the age of 54 is really, really tragic.”

As a student of the art of hitting and a long-time hitting instructor with the Tigers, McClendon appreciates the greatness that was Gwynn.

“You can look at all his numbers and stats and talk about everything, but the one that really stands out the most to me is to think that in a 20-year career he struck out 434 times in almost 10,000 at-bats, that’s just phenomenal,” McClendon said. “That’s 20 strikeouts a year. Heck, I did that in a week. I didn’t listen enough. But what a tremendous loss for baseball. My heart goes out to his family.”

Beimel, 37, is the one Mariners player who competed against Gwynn at the end of his Hall of Fame career with the Padres. Beimel was a rookie starter with the Pirates in 2001 when he gave up Gwynn’s final career home run on Aug. 11 in a 6-2 victory for the Padres at PNC Park. It was Gwynn’s only homer his final season in San Diego and the 135th of a career that was more about his .338 batting average and eight National League batting titles.

“A couple of my friends told me it was to center. I thought it was right-center,” Beimel recalled. “I know it was a hanging slider. Before the game we were going over the scouting report and it’s my rookie year. We get to Tony Gwynn and they’re like, ‘There really isn’t a way to pitch him. He can hit everything. So maybe you should just try throwing it right down the middle.’ So first at-bat, I throw it right down the middle and he cracks a friggin’ double. I’m just like, ‘Oh man.’

“I did get him out on a lefty changeup that I’ve thrown maybe five of my whole career, then he hit the home run on a hanging slider the third at-bat. He was pretty good.”

Gwynn thus finished his career hitting .667 against Beimel as that was the only time they ever met.  Beimel says 10 years later, a friend of his put on a baseball clinic with Gwynn and asked if he remembered his last home run. And Gwynn recalled every detail of the at-bat.

Beimel hasn’t forgotten it either.

“I actually took pride that I gave up his final home run,” said the southpaw. “I kept watching the box scores the rest of the season to see if he’d have another one and when he didn’t, I said, ‘Yes!’ … It wasn’t that cool at the time. But now it’s pretty cool.”

Injured Hart takes some hacks in first BP since injury

Hart, Corey

Mariners designated hitter Corey Hart took some early batting practice Friday, his first outdoor work since going on the 15-day disabled list after straining his hamstring on May 18 in Minnesota.

The 10-year Major League veteran says he’ll likely begin some running drills on Saturday and doesn’t think he’s too far from being ready to go out on a Minor League rehab stint to get some game action in order to prepare for his return.

Hart drove the ball well in his hitting session, easily clearing the fence in left-center at Safeco Field several times before heading to the indoor cage to do some more work.

“I feel better,” he said. “I haven’t had any setbacks. I’m just doing the normal stuff. I want to make sure I don’t go backward.”

Hart missed all of last season following two microfracture knee surgeries while with the Brewers, so the two-time National League All-Star is all too familiar with the training room. He said this injury stint seems relatively tame in comparison as he figures to only be out a few more weeks, if all goes well.

“I’m used to worse things, so it’s actually going pretty quick,” he said. “It’s coming along well. I don’t see it being too much longer.”

After working all spring to regain his timing following the missed 2013 season, Hart was batting .209 with five doubles, five home runs and 17 RBIs in 37 games before hurting his leg while stealing second base against the Twins.

Jesus Montero: “I’m here to learn and get better”

Montero, Jesus

Jesus Montero, regarded as one of the top hitting prospects in baseball three years ago when he was acquired by the Mariners, was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma by the club on Thursday and said he’s ready to do what it takes to stay in the big leagues.

Montero, 24, was added to the 25-man roster after outfielder Michael Saunders went on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday night

Montero arrived in Seattle from Memphis, Tenn., on Thursday in time to suit up for their 7:10 p.m. PT game against the Yankees at Safeco Field, though the 24-year-old was not in manager Lloyd McClendon’s starting lineup against right-handed rookie Chase Whitley.

McClendon said Montero will play primarily against left-handed pitchers, mostly at designated hitter, though there’s an outside chance he might see some time at first base.

Montero was hitting .270 with 15 doubles, one triple, eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games with Tacoma with a .465 slugging percentage and .800 OPS and said he learned from his experience after failing to make the Mariners’ roster in Spring Training.

“It’s tough. It’s Triple-A and there are a lot of veteran guys there pitching,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little tough, but sometimes you’ve got a good couple games. I feel great to be here, I feel like I earned it, I feel like I learned something. Now I want to be here forever.”

What did he learn?

“The biggest thing for me was how valuable it is to be in the big leagues, how good it is to be in the big leagues,” said the youngster. “I have to respect the game, I have to do the best to be here all my life and to help the team to win.”

While Saunders is an outfielder, the Mariners have more of a need for a designated hitter at this point as they’ve been operating without a full-time DH since Corey Hart went on the 15-day disabled list on May 19 with a strained hamstring. Montero will get his chance to show now if he’s ready.

“I think he’s trying to get things back together,” McClendon said. “He’s been working hard and he’s actually been swinging the bat better than the numbers indicated down there. For me, he was the logical choice. We’ve got a 15-day DL [with Saunders] and he’s on the roster. It just makes sense to bring this young man up and give him the opportunity.”

Montero said he worked on conditioning as well as his first-base efforts while in Triple-A and will continue to do so, noting that he feels he’s improving at the new defensive position. While he’ll play mostly DH for McClendon,  he was already planning early defensive work with infield coach Chris Woodward.

“It’s getting better, a lot better,” Montero said. “I’ve been doing my early work every single day. I’ll bet today I’m going to do something with Woody. He’s waiting for me. I’m here to learn and here to get better.”

Montero expected to replace Saunders tonight

Montero, Jesus (2)

With Michael Saunders being placed on the 15-day disabled list Wednesday night with an injured right shoulder, the club is expected to add designated hitter/first baseman Jesus Montero to the 25-man roster to take his place on Thursday.

The Mariners can’t confirm that move until Montero arrives in Seattle in time for Thursday night’s 7:10 p.m. series finale with the Yankees, but the 24-year-old was not in the lineup for Triple-A Tacoma’s game on Thursday morning in Memphis, Tenn., and is believed en route to Seattle.

While Saunders is an outfielder, the Mariners have more of a need for a designated hitter at this point as they’ve been operating without a full-time DH since Corey Hart went on the 15-day disabled list on May 19 with a strained hamstring.

The Mariners have been going with an extra outfielder for the past two weeks since recalling Endy Chavez from Tacoma. Even with Saunders sidelined, they still have five outfielders in Dustin Ackley, James Jones, Cole Gillespie, Stefen Romero and Chavez.

Gillespie has been used at DH the past two games and Romero and Ackley have also taken turns there, as has backup catcher John Buck. But Gillespie and Chavez likely will split time in right field on a regular basis while Saunders is sidelined and Montero would provide a right-handed bat to a lefty-heavy lineup.

Montero was hitting .270 with 15 doubles, one triple, eight home runs and 40 RBIs in 59 games with Tacoma with a .465 slugging percentage and .800 OPS.

Montero was regarded as one of baseball’s premier young hitting prospects when acquired by Seattle from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade in 2012 and he hit .260 with 15 home runs and 62 RBIs in 135 games while splitting time between catcher and DH as a rookie that season.

But Montero lost his job as the starting catcher early in 2013 after batting .208 with three homers and nine RBIs in 29 games. He was sent down to Tacoma, underwent arthroscopic knee surgery and then was suspended for the remainder of the season in the Biogenesis scandal.

Hart is eligible to come off the disabled list as soon as he’s ready, but he’s likely to be out at least another few weeks as he’s just now starting to do some initial work in the batting cages and hasn’t begun running yet on a hamstring he injured three weeks ago.

The Mariners recently signed veteran outfielder/first baseman Xavier Nady to a Minor League deal, but he’s batted just .167 in his first 10 games with Tacoma.

The club activated Logan Morrison off the 15-day DL on Wednesday, but he’s expected to play quite a bit of first base with Justin Smoak going on the DL with a sore left quad muscle.

Smoak, Saunders both sidelined Saturday

Smoak catchJustin Smoak was out of the starting lineup for the second time in the past three games on Saturday as the Mariners first baseman continues dealing with a sore quadricep muscle in his left leg.

Veteran utility man Willie Bloomquist will take his place again at first in the 4:10 p.m. PT game at Tropicana Field. Bloomquist hadn’t started at first base since 2004 when he replaced Smoak in Wednesday’s victory in Atlanta, but he handled the position without problems.

The Mariners also lost one of their hottest hitters Friday when Michael Saunders felt his right shoulder tighten up while swinging the bat in the third inning of a 4-0 loss to Tampa Bay and the right fielder was out of the lineup for Saturday’s rematch with the Rays.

Saunders didn’t believe the injury was anything serious, but more of a discomfort. But the 27-year-old was scheduled to meet with the Rays team doctor on Saturday to make sure there’s no structural problem with what McClendon called “an impingement.”

Both players are regarded as “day-to-day” in regards to their availability.

McClendon had hoped sitting Smoak in Atlanta, combined with the team’s off day Thursday, would refresh the big switch-hitter. But Smoak struggled running to first on a ground out in his first at-bat in Friday’s 4-0 loss to the Rays and then wasn’t moving well in his second at-bat after he walked and then had to run to second on an infield single by Cole Gillespie.

Smoak stayed in the game and struck out his final two at-bats to finish 0-for-3, but McClendon had seen enough.

“His running was not good at all,” McClendon said prior to Saturday’s game. “He’s not a speedster by any stretch of the imagination, but he was really dragging it yesterday. I just didn’t like what I saw.”

After hitting .250 in the first month, Smoak has struggled the past five weeks and his average is down to .208. He’s still tied for the team lead with 12 doubles, is tied for second in home runs with seven and is third on the club with 29 RBIs.

Because he still appeared in Wednesday’s game as a pinch hitter, Smoak remains the only Mariner to have played in all of the club’s first 60 games. But his production has dipped in recent weeks and McClendon feels the strained quad has contributed to that, so he’d like to get the youngster’s legs back under him.

Smoak says the nagging injury just hasn’t improved, despite the team’s first off day in 17 days on Thursday.

“It was a little bit more of the same,” Smoak said. “I’ll give it a rest tonight and go from there. I actually felt really good yesterday during BP and before the game. Then the first at-bat, running down … it’s not something like it’s real crazy. Just a little bit of the same. It’s a little tight in there. I just have to keep trying to loosen it up.”

Seattle Mariners v Minnesota TwinsSaunders has hit .356 over his last 16 games to raise his average from .226 to .280. With six doubles, three triples and four home runs, his .448 slugging percentage is second on the team behind Kyle Seager’s .476.

He will be replaced in right field on Saturday by Gillespie, who has been on a hot streak of his own. Gillespie is 7-for-13 over his last four starts to raise his average from .217 to .333. Gillespie has played 20 games for the Mariners since being called up from Tacoma on April 24. The 29-year-old outfielder spent parts of the past four seasons with the D-Backs, Giants and Cubs.

The right-handed Gillespie has been used mostly against left-handed pitchers by McClendon, but was in the lineup Saturday against right-hander Alex Cobb.

“We’re just trying to mix and match,” McClendon said. “Righties hit this guy in the past and have had some success this year off him. I’m just trying to see what we’ve got. We don’t have the perfect lineup, so we’re just trying to mix and match and put guys in there and hopefully find a little lightning in a bottle.”

McClendon pays tribute to mentor Zimmer

Lloyd McClendon woke up Thursday with an off day in Florida and was struck by a notable absence.

Don Zimmer, his long-time friend and mentor, was not going to stop by to take him to their annual trek to the horse race track in Tampa. Zimmer, one of baseball’s beloved figures, died Wednesday at 83.

“I was getting ready to go to the track and I realized that Zim was not picking me up,” McClendon said. “[Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland] and I have been going to the track with him the last eight or nine years and I will miss that. I’ll miss him telling me that he’s out of bullets.”

McClendon went and played the ponies anyway and thought often of the man who was his manager with the Cubs in 1989 when they won the National League Central.

“I lost a lot of money in his honor yesterday, yes I did,” McClendon said with a chuckle. “I was out of bullets at the end.”

Zimmer will be honored in a pregame ceremony on Saturday at Tropicana Field after spending his final years working for the Rays.

“Zim was an institution,” McClendon said. “Somebody was saying he was the adviser for the Tampa Bay Rays and that’s true. But he was a mentor to a lot of us. He was certainly a mentor to me and I was proud he was my skipper. I learned a lot from him. I learned a lot about the horses, too. He always told me somebody has got to win the race, go bet the money.”

Zunino gets another day off; Smoak back in lineup

With a stretch of 36 games in 37 days and some difficult travel, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon continued trying to do what he could Friday to keep his players fresh.

Veteran backup catcher John Buck got the start in place of Mike Zunino for the second straight game in the 4:10 p.m. PT series opener against the Rays, which McClendon said allowed Buck to face a pitcher he’s hit well in the past in Erik Bedard while giving Zunino an extra day.

“Zunino is fine. He’ll catch probably all three day games [in the next three days],” McClendon said. “This is an opportunity to get Buck in there and at the same time, my regular catcher is going to have three days off, so he should be good and strong.

“He’s fine. He’s a big, strong kid. But they all get tired at some point and you have to be smart about how you pick and choose those days off. We’ve tried to be intelligent about this and hopefully it works.”

Buck is 4-for-7 in his career against Bedard going into Friday’s game.

Meanwhile, first baseman Justin Smoak was back in the lineup after being replaced Wednesday by Willie Bloomquist. The Mariners then had Thursday off, their first rest after 16 straight games, and now will play 20 more in a row.

“He’s had two days to rest up and get off that leg,” McClendon said. “Hopefully he’ll get back on the right path and start swinging the bat the way he’s capable of swinging.”

Smoak said he was feeling better, though noting it’s tough to tell how the leg is until testing it in a game.

“I’m just trying to fight through it a little bit,” said Smoak, who still is the only Mariner to have played in every game after he pinch hit in Wednesday’s 2-0 win in Atlanta. “Yesterday was real nice, to finally just sit back and relax a little. And now we’ve got 20 in a row. So you’ve got to enjoy it while you can.”

McClendon says rotation won’t be switched up

Lloyd McClendon didn’t specifically confirm that Erasmo Ramirez would start again in Monday’s series finale with the Rays, but the Mariners manager said Friday that his club would keep its pitchers in rotation and not move anyone up after Thursday’s off day.

The Mariners could have bumped Hisashi Iwakuma up to Monday and kept him on regular four day’s rest, but McClendon said he’ll instead give Iwakuma the extra day of rest and pitch him Tuesday against the Yankees in what figures to be a much-hyped match with Japanese rookie sensation Masahiro Tanaka.

All the other Mariners starters will remain in their same rotation going forward into the upcoming homestand, which means Chris Young and Roenis Elias facing the Yankees on Wednesday and Thursday, with Felix Hernandez getting Friday’s start against the Rangers.

McClendon was a little evasive on the specifics of Ramirez starting as scheduled on Monday, however, saying only that “we will stay in rotation.” Ramirez lasted just three innings in Atlanta after being called up to take Brandon Maurer’s spot and 1-4 with a 6.82 ERA in seven starts on the season.

There isn’t an obvious replacement for Ramirez, however. Taijuan Walker will make his third rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma on Monday and could still need at least one more outing after that, having thrown just two innings on 56 pitches in his last opportunity.

James Paxton has been cleared to start playing catch again on Monday, but remains at least several weeks away in a best-case scenario after his own rehab program was halted after one start in Tacoma by a sore shoulder.

One possible solution would be promoting veteran Matt Palmer from Tacoma as he’s been pitching fairly well after a late start to the season due to injuries. Palmer, 35, last appeared in the Majors for the Padres when he pitched three games in relief in 2012. He was 13-5 with a 4.22 ERA in 57 outings – including 17 starts – for the Angels from 2009-11 and also started three games for the Giants in ’08.

The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder has spent most of his career in the Minors (65-69, 4.05 ERA in 296 games over 13 years). He was 6-8 with a 3.84 ERA in 25 games last year for the Dodgers’ Triple-A Albuquerque club and is 1-2 with a 2.14 ERA in five starts for Tacoma this season after signing a Minor League contract last winter.

Despite allowing just two hits and one run, Palmer was pulled after three innings and 48 pitches in his last start Thursday for Tacoma in what could have been a prelude to getting him ready to come back on just three day’s rest Monday if needed. That would allow Seattle’s other starters to stay in rotation, as McClendon indicated, though Palmer would need to be added to the 40-man roster.

Or the Mariners could stick with Ramirez, who is with the team in Tampa and is 1-0 with a 3.00 ERA in three career outings against the Rays.

Mariners take San Diego power hitter with sixth pick

A Mariners team looking to add offensive punch found a perfect match in Thursday’s First-Year Player Draft, landing San Diego prep standout Alex Jackson with the sixth overall pick in the first round.

Jackson is a 6-foot-2, 215-pound right-handed power hitting catcher/outfielder from Rancho Bernardo High School who is regarded by many as the premier hitter available in this year’s Draft.

Jackson hit 47 home runs in his high school career and also has impressed scouts with a strong throwing arm. Whether he sticks behind the plate or is shifted to a corner outfield spot remains to be seen, but the Mariners already have one of baseball’s top young catchers in Mike Zunino, the No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 Draft.

The Mariners definitely have a need for right-handed power hitters, however, particularly in the outfield.

Jackson is just the second high school player selected with Seattle’s top pick since Jack Zduriencik became general manager in 2009. Four of Zduriencik’s five previous top picks were college players – outfielder Dustin Ackley (’09), pitcher Danny Hultzen (’11), Zunino (’12) and third baseman D.J. Peterson (’13).

Right-hander Taijuan Walker was the lone prep player picked first by Seattle in that span, though he didn’t go until the 43rd overall pick as a supplemental first-rounder.

Seattle has another pick Thursday, the 74th and final selection of the day, with the last choice in the Competitive Balance Round B.

The Mariners lost their second-round selection (47th overall) when they signed Robinson Cano as a qualified free agent. Seattle would have recouped a second-round selection had Kendrys Morales, its own qualified free agent, signed elsewhere.

But Morales is the only remaining unsigned player who’d received a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer. Once the first day of the Draft is over, Morales will be able to sign with any team without costing that club a Draft pick.

The Draft continues on Friday with Rounds 3-10, with the Mariners selecting sixth in each of those rounds, then wraps up Saturday with the final 30 rounds.

Here’s a video with some Jackson highlights:

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