The Mariners' new star

Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez manages something extraordinary almost every game
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Franklin Gutierrez, the Mariners' exciting center fielder

Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez manages something extraordinary almost every game

Franklin means 'ꀜfree man.'ꀝ Gutierrez means 'ꀜson of Gutierre.'ꀝ Gutierre means 'ꀜbattle and sword.'ꀝ Franklin Gutierrez means the Seattle Mariners have one of the most exciting players in baseball and one of the most promising.

The M'ꀙs center fielder seems to manage something extraordinary or significant every outing: a winning home run one game, a double and a couple of runs batted in the next, a savvy throwing play the next, a sensational catch and a couple of rally-time singles and two runs scored the next.

That'ꀙs what happened during the 46-42 M'ꀙs pre-All Star Game series with Texas. The M'ꀙs won three of four, losing July 10, but without their emerging star center fielder they might have been 0-4 and out of the pennant race by now. Instead, the 5-3 win on Sunday leaves the M'ꀙs in the thick of the fight with the Rangers and the other rival, the division-leading Los Angeles Angels.

The book on Gutierrez after he was acquired (or 'ꀜstolen,'ꀝ as it now seems) from the Cleveland Indians in a fortuitous three-team off-season deal was upside potential at the plate, downside potential in the field. Why downside? Because Gutierrez, at 26, already plays his position as well as anybody in the game. He could only get worse, which scarcely seems likely to many who have seen some of the highlight reel of great grabs from the 82 games he'ꀙs played for Seattle.

Yeah, the guy has three errors so far. So does Ichiro. But total errors scarcely comprise the key stat for outfielders. Judging the position is more of an empirical exercise: observing how an outfielder manages to get to balls most of his peers never would reach. When Gutierrez breaks for a ball there'ꀙs a growing appreciation among fans that he'ꀙs going to get to it. I'ꀙve only seen him break wrong on one ball all season. On that occasion he started forward then reversed direction and caught a line drive that might have eluded many outfielders who hadn'ꀙt broken in the wrong direction to begin with.

But it'ꀙs his upside that has fans praising Jack Zduriencik and, if they could, already nominating him for post-season laurels such as general manager of the year.

Gutierrez came to Seattle as a .260-batting-average-type prospect without a lot of long-ball pop. Prior to the All-Star break he instead hit .295 (going two for four Sunday) with 10 home runs. Last year he had just eight long balls in 134 games. He'ꀙs on a pace to hit 16 through 134 games this year, 19 if he plays the remaining 75 times. He also has almost equaled his runs-batted-in totals from 'ꀙ08 while improving in just about every other offensive category.

But his fan appeal also has to do with the star quality he projects. It doesn'ꀙt hurt that he looks like a GQ model and it helps immensely when he displays the public-relations presence to remain humble even after delivering the most memorable game-winning hit of the season (the July 9, two-out, three-run eighth-inning clout that led to a come-from-behind ninth win for All-Star righty Felix Hernandez).

The Mariners have gone through seemingly more personnel changes this year than the federal government. The only consistent position play has come from Ichiro, Gutierrez, and first-sacker Russell Branyan, another great get by G.M. Jackie-Z.

That the M'ꀙs remain competitive after having had to sub so many position players means the above-mentioned trio must be assumed to be a solid ongoing core. It means that, if pitching holds up, the next 75 games could lead to a memorable pennant race for Seattle fans. It means there is a prevailing 'ꀜupside potential'ꀝ here, and that phrase, of course, is synonymous with "Franklin Gutierrez."


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