The trials of spring training

Robinson Cano, Felix Herandez, Nelson Cruz
Spring Training continues without three of the biggest Mariners stars. 

Don’t get me wrong, having Mariner baseball on the radio or television is always a blessing. But it’s hard to know how excited to be when the team wins or how much disappointment to feel when they lose. Ultimately it’s spring training.  The won loss records matter little, and the statistics likely matter less. If you don’t believe me riddle me this:

The Oakland A’s are 9-4 and the Los Angeles Angels are 9-5 in the Cactus League.  Does anyone think they’ll approach those numbers in April?  I’m thinking it’s not likely. On the other hand the Texas Rangers are 3-11 and the Houston Astros are 5-7.  Something inside me says they’re both going to be a little better than this.

It’s all complicated too by the players lost to the WBC..  I don’t begrudge any player the opportunity honor to play for their home country in a meaningful international tournament.  But for a team like the Mariners, with significant questions about their starting pitching, and a big change in their offensive philosophy, it’s tough to see three fifths of their rotation gone, and big pieces loaned out to other teams.

Meanwhile the team has chugged on with the pieces available to them and it’s been fun to see or hear them tough it out and come back to win some games. Here are some of the guys I’m watching.

Dan Vogelbach

I know I’ve said some unkind things about the M’s left-handed first baseman, but it is rewarding to see how he’s improved in the field.  Thursday night’s televised game against the Indians showed him make some difficult plays on hard shots.  He still doesn’t have a lot of range and isn’t tall enough to snag high throws, but he does catch well.  But, he won’t be mistaken for Jesus Montero 2.0.  He’s also hit well and taken his walks, though we haven’t seen much power yet.  It seems to me that has to make an appearance at some point.

Ariel Miranda

I was all in on Miranda at the end of 2016.  He seemed to get better with each start and I pretty much assumed he’d be the 5th guy in the Mariner rotation.  With the arrival of Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly, however, the issue was decided.  The question became Miranda in Tacoma as a starter or on the big club as a swing man.  Miranda has looked good in all of his outings.  With Rzepcynski in the ‘pen as a lefty specialist, them M’s will likely keep one more lefty, and it looks like Miranda can fill that role.

The outfield

Seth Smith, Raul Ibanez, Corey Hart, Franklin Guttierez, Nori Aoki, Nelson Cruz, Michael Morse, Jason Bay, James Jones, Abraham Almonte, Austin Jackson, Michael Saunders, Ichiro, Trayvon Robinson, Marcus Thames, Casper Wells.  Recognize these names?  They’ve populated the Seattle Mariners outfield since 2012.  Some of them were better than others.  Some retired.  Some were traded.  Some went to Japan.  Few have big league jobs today.

Welcome to the new Mariners outfield.  Yes, it’s still Leonys Martin in centerfield, but everyone else is new and trying to make this team. Jarrod Dyson has left field nailed down, and it’s pretty clear Mitch Haniger is the number one choice in right.  All are athletic and can cover a lot of ground.  Dyson wants to get 600 plate appearances, but it’s not clear he hits well enough to avoid sitting against tough lefties.  Haniger shows he can hit with power-hard to know how well given it’s spring.

With Haniger, Dyson and Martin all performing reasonably well at the plate, the real news is the battle between Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel for the fourth outfield spot. Heredia blazed out of the gate, but has fallen back a bit while Gamel has heated up after a slower start.  Surprisingly, they’ve been joined by a forgotten Mariner, Boog Powell who is having a tremendous spring, but still has time to serve on an 80 game PED-related suspension.

Chooch

I don’t give a damn about what Carlos Ruiz does at the plate.  I am completely enamored, however, with what he does behind the plate defensively and working with pitchers.  Everyone who speaks of him does so with a sense of awe and admiration.  I think that’s amazing, given the Mariners struggles at catcher over the past 12 years or so.

Walkin’ and runnin/

I know, it’s spring and it doesn’t mean a thing, but the Mariners lead all teams in OBP at .397. Part of that is their .319 team batting average, but they are also third in the league in walks.  Certainly they’ve faced some terrible pitching, but it seems like every at bat is a dog fight with a long progression of balls and strikes. Leading the parade on the well-worn path to first base is Mike Zunino (?!) with six.  Vogelbach leads the team in strikeouts with eight.

Once on the bag, the M’s aren’t waitin’ around for something to happen. They’ve swiped 21 bases which is good for second in spring training behind the Angels. Just to  be clear, the M’s had 56 steals all of 2016.  While I don’t expect pitchers to ignore baserunners as they seem to be during spring games, it is refreshing to see the willingness of players and coaches to put the game in motion with much greater certainty of success. Dyson and utilitymen Shawn O’Malley and Taylor Motter have three steals apiece.

The Clubhouse

Scott Servais has gotten a lot of attention for the clubhouse culture he is building.  It’s clearly one that allows players to be themselves at the same time it demands they commit themselves to the team.  It’s remarkable the M’s have sent players to the WBC from the Dominican Republic, Venzuela, Mexico, Canada, and the United States.  This leaves out Hisashi Iwakuma who chose not to participate in the international tournament. The M’s have a team as diverse as any in major league baseball.  But everyone who comments on environment is effusive in their praise of team chemistry.  That should mean a lot given how poisonous it seemed six or seven seasons ago.

If you have time to read just one article I highly recommend Marly Rivera’s tremendous interview with Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz on ESPN Beisbol.  It gives some solid insight into our favorite ne’er-do-wells, the challenges of being  latino, specifically Dominican players in America, and the balancing act they do as proud major leaguers and proud products of the Dominican Republic.  If you can find a few minutes more, read Isabelle Minasian’s thoughtful analysis of Rivera’s story over at Lookout Landing.

 

 

 

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