Struggling Almonte benched on Saturday

Almonte, Abraham

Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon has been firm in his support of Abraham Almonte since the start of Spring Training, but the patience may be running out as Almonte was replaced again in center field by Michael Saunders for Saturday’s game against the Astros.

Almonte is hitting .198 with a .248 on-base percentage and McClendon moved him to the No. 9 spot in the order Friday. But the 24-year-old went 0-for-3 with a walk and committed two errors, including a costly miss of a high fly in the third inning that led to an unearned run by Felix Hernandez in what turned out to be a 5-4 loss in 11 innings.

Thus Saunders was in the leadoff spot for a third straight game Saturday, even against left-handed starter Dallas Keuchel, and McClendon went with right-handed hitting Cole Gillespie in left and Stefen Romero in right as the switch-hitting Almonte sat out.

McClendon has given Almonte 26 games and 106 at-bats while continually saying he was willing to live with the growing pains because of his belief that the youngster has a high upside, but he acknowledged Saturday that patience has a limit.

“That’s why he’s sitting, because it’s not working,” McClendon said. “It’s that simple. I don’t try to sugarcoat anything. He’s not playing because he’s not producing. He’s not playing up to his capabilities. I said earlier, there’s one of two ways you can do it. You can play ‘em or you can bench ‘em.”

Almonte hit .264 with two home runs and nine RBIs in 25 games last year as a September callup, but has struggled to duplicate that success while being thrust into a key leadoff role in 2014.

“Listen, it’s not easy at this level for any young kid,” McClendon said. “I’ve been there and I know it can get tough. Particularly when you’re not producing the way you’re capable of producing. I’m sure he’s not feeling good about things right now.”

The next question will be whether the Mariners decide to send Almonte down to Tacoma to work on things, a decision McClendon didn’t want to talk about on Saturday.

“I don’t know what that point is,” he said. “When I know, you guys will know.”

Is it close to that point?

“I don’t know,” he said. “I didn’t say that. I just don’t know.”

Saunders had a leadoff bunt single in the sixth inning Friday to kick off a two-run inning as Seattle took a 4-3 lead, but McClendon said it’s going to take more for the Mariners to get where he wants offensively.                  

“Bunting is nice, but I need guys driving in runs, hitting a three-run homer,” McClendon said. “When you outscore the other team, you win. It’s not bunts. That’s all part of it, but I need runs.”

Iwakuma to rejoin rotation Saturday in Houston

Iwakuma w-splint

Though the Mariners haven’t made anything official yet since he’s still on the 15-day disabled list, All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma will make his regular-season debut on Saturday against the Astros during Seattle’s three-game set at Minute Maid Park.

Iwakuma will need to be added to the 25-man roster prior to Saturday’s 1:10 p.m. PT game in Houston. The 33-year-old missed all spring after spraining a tendon in his middle right finger. He threw four innings in a Minor League rehab start last Sunday for Triple-A Tacoma and now will rejoin the Mariners rotation a month into the season.

Iwakuma’s addition will be a big boost for a Mariners rotation that also has James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Blake Beavan on the disabled list. Iwakuma was third in the American League Cy Young voting last year after going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts.

Iwakuma will slot in behind Felix Hernandez, who’ll pitch the opening game of the Houston series after having his Thursday start against the Yankees pushed back by a Wednesday rainout in New York.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said he considered starting Hernandez Thursday, given his outstanding history against the Yankees, but instead kept the rotation in order with rookie Roenis Elias getting the nod in the series finale in the Bronx after his Wednesday start was postponed.

“I wanted to give him an extra day and it also gives Elias an extra day. It just made sense,” said McClendon. “Felix has been taxed quite a bit and has pitched on regular rest for quite a while. This is an opportunity to get him where we need him to be. His last two outings have not been sterling outings, I think we’d all agree. So this is a chance to freshen him up and get him back on the right track.”

Hernandez was 3-0 with a 1.91 ERA with three walks and 39 strikeouts in his first four starts of the year, but 0-1 with a 3.46 ERA and four walks and eight strikeouts in back-to-back losses to the Astros and Rangers his past two outings.

The tentative pitching plan for the Mariners calls for Brandon Maurer to follow Iwakuma on Sunday in Houston. The Mariners would then head to Oakland and throw Chris Young on Monday, Elias on Tuesday and have Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez pitch in Wednesday’s doubleheader. Ramirez currently is with Triple-A Tacoma.

M’s-Yankees rained out, will resume Thursday night

With heavy rain in the forecast all night, Wednesday’s game between the Mariners and Yankees was postponed early in the afternoon and the two teams will attempt to resume play Thursday night as scheduled.

Since the Mariners aren’t slated to return to New York this season, they’ll need to make a special trip back to the Bronx now to make up Wednesday’s game.

A mutual off day on June 2 is a potential make-up date. The Mariners are scheduled to fly to Atlanta that day to begin a six-game road trip from June 3-9, but instead could begin that trek in New York for one game before heading to Atlanta and Tampa Bay.

The Yankees have an offday in the middle of a homestand on June 2.

The two teams could have attempted a doubleheader to complete the three-game series on Thursday, but forecasts call for rain showers to continue through the morning and early afternoon.

The Mariners also already have a doubleheader scheduled for the final day of their cross-country trip next Wednesday against the A’s, with eight games still remaining in the next seven days in New York, Houston and Oakland before returning home for another seven straight games prior to their next off day.

Rookie left-hander Roenis Elias will now pitch Thursday’s 7:05 p.m. ET game for Seattle as the Mariners are just pushing their starters back a day. The Yankees will skip Wednesday starter David Phelps and stick with Thursday starter Hiroki Kuroda.

Felix Hernandez, originally slated to go Thursday for Seattle against the Yankees, will instead face the Astros on Friday in Houston.

The Mariners previously had left Friday’s game in Houston open with the potential of bringing All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma off the disabled list for that start, but now have more time to decide on that plan.

Iwakuma has thrown just one Minor League rehab start after missing all of spring with a sprained tendon in his right middle finger.

The heavy rain began falling midway through Tuesday night’s 6-3 series-opening win for the Mariners, which was played in bone-chilling conditions with a brisk wind that left many players calling it one of the toughest weather games they’d ever played in.

“Real bad,” said Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon. “It was very cold, very wet, and windy on the field.  It was pretty tough.”

He got no argument from the players on either side.

“It was rough,” said Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. “It was cold, it was windy, it was raining. It’s tough conditions. I don’t know what the temperature was but the wind was blowing circles. You can’t do anything about the weather. It was like that for both teams, but it was not ideal conditions.”

“It was cold and wet,” said Mariners pitcher Chris Young, who picked up his first Major League victory since 2012 with 5 2/3 innings of two-run ball. “It’s like that for both teams, so I’m going to put it out of my mind and not worry about it. But I felt like every inning I had to get re-loose again. It wasn’t like I could keep my sweat. Every inning I went back out there in the wind and rain and cold temperatures. But look, we all play in the same environment, both teams, and you have to find a way to get it done.”

The two teams should find conditions much better by Thursday night, with the forecast calling for temperatures in the upper 60s instead of the low 40s with a steady 15-20 mph wind and heavy rain that blew through on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Will return to NY ignite the Cano Show for Seattle?

Cano, RobinsonThe big question around Robinson Cano’s return to New York seems to be whether or not he’ll get booed by his former Bronx fans when he makes his first appearance in Yankee Stadium wearing a Mariners uniform in today’s 4:05 p.m. PT  game.

Not to spoil it, but I can tell you the answer there will be a resounding yes. Yeah, most fans in New York will boo the heck out of Cano. He’s getting booed in Anaheim and Oakland and other visiting cities, apparently just because he took a lot of money to play for one of their rivals.

So New York fans, jilted by one of their own in the prime of a great career? Yeah, I’m assuming it’ll be A-Rod-returns-to-Safeco type treatment for Cano.

But the real question, for me, is how Cano handles the next three days on the field. Certainly Cano is a hit in New York – making appearances on The Tonight Show and doing an MTV spot yesterday on the Mariners’ off day in the Big Apple. But will Cano hit in New York? Will he use this Yankee Stadium appearance to start unleashing some of the expected power production the Mariners are paying $240 million for over the next 10 years?

Cano has been fine so far. He’s hit a team-leading .301 and put up 11 RBIs in his first 24 games with Seattle. But he has just one home run with five doubles and his .387 slugging percent is well below the .504 career mark he averaged in nine seasons in New York.

It’s surely not time to draw overwhelming conclusions about Cano’s tenure in Seattle. One need look back only to 2012 when Cano was hitting .255 with one home run, eight doubles and four RBIs with a .367 slugging percentage after his first 24 games with the Yankees.

That turned out to be one of Cano’s best years – he finished with a career-high 33 bombs and hit .313 with 48 doubles, 94 RBIs and a .550 slugging percentage. So, yeah, one month – particularly a cool April – does not make a season for any player.

The big question is whether Cano has enough help with the Mariners to force teams to pitch to him on a consistent basis. He acknowledges that teams aren’t giving him a whole lot to hit most at-bats, keeping the ball away for the most part and conceding singles to left rather than sharply-pulled balls to his power side. But Cano can drive the ball the opposite way as well as anybody in baseball and he’s begun to hit a few more doubles down the left-field line the past week.

If he keeps making teams pay for pitching him away consistently and gets around better on those offerings that are in his wheelhouse, the power production will come. For Cano, that doesn’t mean 40 home runs. He’s never been a 40-homer guy and he’s not likely to become one playing half his games at Safeco Field.

But he is more than a .740 OPS player, as he’s put up the first 24 games. He’s more than a one homer a month player. He’s a 40-plus double guy, a run-producing No. 3 hitter who can impact games more than he has to date.

It would be interesting if more of that impact started to surface in Yankee Stadium, with the eyes of New York on their former star. Should be a fun series, weather permitting. Ironically, while the sun is busting out in Seattle over the next few days, it’s chilly with rain in the forecast much of the next three days here in New York.

So Cano can feel at home either way in his old home. And the Mariners will see if — even with clouds overhead — their new star can shine bright on the big stage as they continue to find out just what $240 million does buy you these days in Major League Baseball.

By the way, if you missed it, Cano’s appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last night was epic. Here’s the clip.

Gillespie starting in left field tonight

Gillespie_Cole_2014

Looking to add some balance to his lefty-dominated lineup, Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon wasted no time getting new outfielder Cole Gillespie into action as the former Oregon State standout replaced Dustin Ackley in left field for Friday’s series-opening game against the Rangers.

Gillespie was called up Thursday after hitting .362 in 16 games for Triple-A Tacoma and McClendon immediately penciled the right-handed hitter in against southpaw Robbie Ross Jr.

“We have a lot of lefties coming up and obviously it gives us a little better balance,” McClendon said prior to Friday’s game. “He had a good spring, he’s been playing well down there. We’re just trying to balance out that lineup a little more.”

The 29-year-old hit .433 with seven RBIs in 17 Cactus League games, but was sent down when the Mariners opted to go with youngsters Abraham Almonte and Stefen Romero along with veterans Corey Hart, Michael Saunders and Ackley in their original outfield group.

But Hart has played mostly designated hitter, leaving Romero and the switch-hitting Almonte as the only right-handed outfield options. With the team looking to get regular playing time for Nick Franklin, the 22-year-old infielder was sent down and Gillespie got the call.

“He swung the bat extremely well this spring,” McClendon said. “The numbers caught him a little bit and we just didn’t have the room. Right now we’re trying to play with the roster and get the right fit. This guy was swinging the bat well down there, so hopefully he’ll continue to stay hot up here.”

Gillespie has had brief Major League stints with the D-backs, Giants and Cubs over the past four years, hitting .225 in 78 games. He signed a Minor League deal with Seattle in January.

“When I signed, the roster was pretty left-hand oriented,” Gillespie said. “I knew talking with them they’d probably go out and try to get some right-handed bats, but at the same time I felt this was going to be a good spot for me. Being from the Northwest and growing up in Portland, all things being equal with another team, I was going to choose the Mariners. So far it’s working out.”

Ramirez, Franklin sent down; Gillespie coming up

Franklin-ErasmoRight-hander Erasmo Ramirez was optioned to Class-A High Desert and infielder Nick Franklin was sent to Triple-A Tacoma as the Mariners made a couple roster adjustments on their Thursday offday.

With another day off coming Monday, Ramirez will be skipped in the rotation and given a chance to stay on schedule to rejoin the Mariners if needed when the club opens a nine-day, 10-game road trip at the conclusion of this weekend’s home series with the Rangers.

General manager Jack Zduriencik said Ramirez will start for High Desert in Stockton, Calif., on Sunday, which is the same day Hisashi Iwakuma is making a rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma. Ramirez will then join Tacoma in Sacramento and accompany the Rainiers back to Tacoma for his next start May 2 against Las Vegas.

“We didn’t want to send him to Double-A Jackson in Mobile, Ala., for one start,” Zduriencik said. “This works out timing wise and keeps him on the West Coast instead of flying all over the country.”

Seattle faces the A’s in a doubleheader in Oakland on May 7 and Ramirez would remain on schedule to pitch that day if needed.

Zduriencik said the club is looking for Ramirez to get some work and regain the form he showed earlier this spring.

“We just want him to be consistent, that’s all,” Zduriencik said. “We’ve always liked Erasmo and think he’s a pretty good pitcher. He’s had some struggles here, but pitchers and players go through that. He just needs to get back on track. He pitched pretty good after the second inning the other day and that was encouraging. That was a good step.”

Ramirez, 23, won his season debut with a seven-inning, two-run effort in Anaheim, but has gone 0-3 with an 8.47 ERA over his last four starts to put him at 1-3, 6.75 for the season.

The Mariners rotation could have some more options in the near future with Iwakuma close to rejoining the club after missing all spring with a sprained tendon in his right middle finger.

James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have also been cleared to begin throwing in the next few days as they attempt to return from injuries. For now, the club tentatively is lined up to start Roenis Elias, Felix Hernandez and Brandon Maurer this weekend against the Rangers, then come back with Chris Young, Elias and Hernandez in New York following Monday’s off day.

Gillespie, 29, gives the Mariners a more-experienced backup outfield option. Franklin made his first start in right field in Wednesday’s 5-3 win over the Astros, but he’s been an infielder his entire professional career since being drafted in the first round in 2009.

Gillespie was hitting .362 with five doubles, one triple, five home runs and 14 RBIs in 16 games for Tacoma. The former Oregon State standout will join the team Friday and be available for the opening game of the Rangers series at 7:10 p.m. at Safeco Field.

Gillespie has batted .225 in 78 Major League games with the Diamondbacks (2010-11), Giants (2013) and Cubs (2013). He was originally selected by the Brewers in the third round of the 2006 Draft after leading Oregon State to the College World Series title.

“He’s been doing a nice job down there and is a very steady player,” Zduriencik said. “We’ll give him a shot.”

The Mariners’ 25-man roster is currently at 24, so one more player will be added prior to Friday’s game. That addition likely will be a reliever to help out an overtaxed bullpen. One possibility is left-hander Lucas Luetge, who wouldn’t be eligible to be recalled until Friday, which would be the required 10 days after he was optioned to Tacoma after opening the season with the Mariners.

Franklin is headed to Las Vegas to rejoin the Rainiers after hitting .125 (2-for-16) in seven games for Seattle after being recalled on April 16. He started four games at four different positions (second base, third base, right field and designated hitter).

Zduriencik said that move was simply to get Franklin regular playing time.

“We wanted to make sure Nick is getting at-bats every day,” he said. “He’s a young player who is very talented. We can move him around down there, but primarily he’s a middle infielder and will play some other positions, too.

“More than anything else, we just want him playing seven days a week. He’s very inexperienced as an outfielder, so we couldn’t commit to that every day.”

Franklin hit .395 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 11 games for Tacoma to start the season before being brought up to Seattle when outfielder Logan Morrison went on the 15-day disabled list.

Nick Franklin headed back to Triple-A

Franklin, Nick

Nick Franklin’s return to the Mariners turned out to be brief as the young infielder was told after Wednesday’s 5-3 victory over the Astros that he’s been optioned back to Triple-A Tacoma.

Franklin broke the news himself on Twitter, writing “Las Vegas here I come!”

Tacoma opens a four-game series in Las Vegas on Thursday.

Franklin hit .125 (2-for-13) with a triple in six games for the Mariners after being called up on April 16.

After seeing one start at second, one at shortstop and one at designated hitter, he started his first game in right field on Wednesday, going 1-for-3 with an infield single. He made one routine catch in right field, but threw wildly and missed the cutoff man on a two-run double into the corner earlier in the game.

The 23-year-old hit .395 with four home runs and 13 RBIs in 11 games for Tacoma to start the season after losing out on the starting shortstop battle with Brad Miller in Spring Training. The 2009 first-round Draft pick played 102 games last year as a rookie second baseman, but lost that job when the Mariners signed Robinson Cano.

The Mariners haven’t announced the move yet, but a source indicated that Cole Gillespie, a more-experienced outfielder who is hitting .362 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 16 games for Tacoma, will likely get the call up.

Gillespie has played 78 games in the Majors with the D-backs, Giants and Cubs over the past four years with a .225 average in 169 at-bats.

He signed as a Minor League free agent with the Mariners over the offseason and had an extremely productive spring in the Major League camp before continuing that with the Rainiers.

Iwakuma moving closer to return after sim game

Iwakuma, Hisashi

All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma threw 58 pitches in a four-inning simulated game against Mariners teammates on Tuesday afternoon as he moved a step closer to rejoining Seattle’s rotation.

The 33-year-old originally had planned to make his first Minor League rehab start Tuesday night for Triple-A Tacoma, but the threat of rain led the Mariners to keep him at Safeco Field and throw under the roof prior to Tuesday night’s game with the Astros.

Iwakuma said he felt much sharper than in his first simulated outing last Friday in Miami and there’s some chance he could be ready to join the Mariners after a rehab start in Las Vegas this Sunday for Tacoma.

If all goes well, he could be in line to return at some point during Seattle’s nine-day, 10-game trek to New York, Houston and Oakland from April 29-May 7.

Manager Lloyd McClendon said Iwakuma will throw about 75 pitches in the Las Vegas outing, but continued to stress caution as the Japanese standout builds his arm strength up after missing all of Spring Training with a sprained tendon in his right middle finger.

“We’ll see how it goes,” McClendon said. “You have to be patient because we’re talking about a guy that isn’t a one-year wonder. I plan on this guy being around a long time because I plan on being around a long time. I want to make sure I take care of him.”

Iwakuma looked strong pitching to Stefen Romero, Willie Bloomquist, Nick Franklin and Logan Morrison as he worked all his pitches, including his trademark splitter and what pitching coach Rick Waits said was a surprisingly sharp curveball.

“Nasty,” said catcher John Buck after working the four innings behind the plate.

“It felt a lot better,” Iwakuma said through translator Antony Suzuki. “The feel for the game is coming back gradually. I felt a lot better than the last time we did the sim game in Miami. Everything is moving forward. The ball jumped out of my hand pretty well. I feel pretty close now to the regular season.”

Waits said the 33-year-old continues to have no problems with his finger and the focus now is strictly on building up his arm strength and conditioning.

“The main thing is he’s getting better each time, from each bullpen to each sim game,” said Waits. “The thing I was most impressed with today was in his fourth inning he still had great arm strength. That’s what I was looking for. He wasn’t tiring. He probably needs to work a little more from his full windup to get his timing, but all four pitches were working.”

Iwakuma finished third in the American League Cy Young voting last year after going 14-6 with a 2.66 ERA in 33 starts and would be a welcome boost for a Seattle rotation that also has James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Blake Beavan on the disabled list.

Hart getting first start in right field

Hart throw2With Robinson Cano lined up to play designated hitter against the Rangers in today’s 11:05 a.m. PT game for the Mariners, Corey Hart went to manager Lloyd McClendon and said he was ready to play right field.

Hart hadn’t played in the outfield since July 21, 2012, while with the Brewers, prior to his two microfracture knee surgeries that wiped out all of 2013. But Hart worked in the outfield this spring and told McClendon he was ready to give it a run after starting at DH in 10 of Seattle’s first 14 games.

“He told me he’s feeling good and his knees are fine,” said McClendon, who had indicated earlier in the week that it would be a while before he played Hart in the outfield. “I’ve got to go with my player, too, he said he’s feeling pretty good. But we’ll watch him. We’ll keep an eye on him.”

Hart is no stranger to the outfield, with 793 career starts there while with the Brewers. Only in the past few years was he shifted more to first base. The Mariners hoped to play him there after signing him to a one-year deal in free agency, but a sore biceps in spring limited his work and McClendon doesn’t want to push his knees too quickly either.

“I’d much rather play in the field then not play in the field,” Hart said. “My arm hasn’t helped that issue, but you’ve got to start somewhere. So I’ll go out there and give Robbie a break and hopefully not have any issues.

“I’ve just been doing regular BP stuff in the outfield. Other than that, not a ton. But I’ve been out there before. I don’t think he’s expecting me to win any awards out there right now. He just wants me to catch it when it’s hit my direction.”

McClendon said Hart definitely wouldn’t play the outfield in the more-spacious right field in Miami this weekend, but there is a possibility he could play a game at first base when the Mariners lose the designated hitter in the interleague series.

Walker shut down; Beavan goes on DL

TaijuanBulllpen

With fill-in starter Blake Beavan going on the 15-day disabled list with right shoulder tendinitis and top prospect Taijuan Walker shut down for at least two weeks after tests showed a “shoulder impingement” on Wednesday, the Mariners are searching again for a starter for Sunday’s upcoming interleague series finale at Miami.

Beavan started in place of injured left-hander James Paxton on Tuesday, but lasted just four innings in a 5-0 loss to the Rangers after his shoulder wouldn’t loosen up in a 63-pitch outing.

Walker, the No. 6 rated prospect in baseball by MLB.com, was a consideration to return from his own shoulder issues by Sunday, but he had his own rehab start with Triple-A Tacoma wiped out Tuesday when his shoulder felt tight before he even began throwing.

General manager Jack Zduriencik said Walker had an MRI on Wednesday in Seattle that showed the impingement.

“We’re going to back him off for two weeks and treat it and eventually work him back to the mound and start the progression again,” Zduriencik said.

Walker was slowed at the start of spring by shoulder soreness and was shut down completely for a week in early March before working his way back through a pair of Minor League rehab starts. He was scheduled to throw Tuesday in Tacoma, but never started warming up after feeling some tightness in his shoulder.

“I think it is the same general area,” Zduriencik said. “He just wasn’t comfortable. So we sent him for tests and now we’ll back him off and treat it and see where we’re at.”

The Mariners have been hit with a series of pitching issues, with Danny Hultzen, another premier prospect, already lost for the year following rotator cuff surgery and All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma still a couple weeks from returning from a sprained tendon in his finger.

“It’s amazing,” Zduriencik said. “Everybody in baseball seems to be going through the same type of things, but ours is a little more severe than most. Nevertheless, this will give others an opportunity.”

Among the current Tacoma pitchers, left-hander Anthony Fernandez, 23, is the one healthy starter who is on the Mariners’ 40-man roster. Brandon Maurer is another possibility and he has Major League experience, but Maurer is just returning from back problems and hasn’t pitched more than 3 1/3 innings this season.

Beavan also is going to be out at least two weeks now, which is a frustrating situation for the 25-year-old right-hander after he’d just been recalled after Paxton strained his left oblique muscle in his third start of the year.

Beavan said he essentially has “dead arm” from a knot in his shoulder that isn’t allowing him to throw freely.

“I just had no life on my ball,” he said. “It’s just frustrating because I had a great opportunity to help these guys and fill the void of other guys being down. Now I’m in the same situation, but hopefully it’s something where in the next 10 days we can get out of there and slide back into the action and help us win some ballgames.”

Beavan is flying back to Seattle on Thursday to begin rehab treatment with trainers in Seattle.

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