Seattle Mariners look healthy and willing to try Ichiro in different slot

After a hard year, the biggest news could be that key players are healthy and ready to go. And, in the view of Manager Eric Wedge, Ichiro could be ready to go into a different spot in the batting order.

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Eric Wedge

After a hard year, the biggest news could be that key players are healthy and ready to go. And, in the view of Manager Eric Wedge, Ichiro could be ready to go into a different spot in the batting order.

It’s often “pick-your-headline” at the annual Seattle Mariners pre-spring-training media luncheon, an event tied to this weekend’s Fanfest activities at Safeco Field.

The main observation by a team official that seemed credible and critical amid the hope and conjecture projected by Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge came from trainer Rick Griffin. Early during the Thursday (Jan. 26) proceedings, the team’s three-decade resident paramedic pronounced several previously injured players to be mostly healed.

That’s a big deal given the identities of the walking wounded from last season. But Griffin said Casper Wells, Brendan Ryan, Felix Hernandez, Adam Moore, Justin Smoak, and Chone Figgins all seem to be 100 percent as the Feb. 19 voluntary-reporting deadline awaits the team in Arizona.

Oh, and there was the one other name mentioned by Griffin and repeated later by general-manager Zduriencik and field boss Wedge. Franklin Gutierrez, they gleefully agreed, has triumphed over his affliction, irritable bowl syndrome, a condition seemingly named to make those who don’t even have the disease feel worse whenever it’s mentioned.

By all accounts, the center-fielder, who in effect lost the entire 2011 season with the disease and injuries, looks and says he feels better than ever. “Gutie,” who weighed 180 when he was helped from the field while doubled up in pain from a severe oblique strain in early September, is now said to resemble Superman. In the telling of team officals, the player apparently is not just healthy and happy but has added 20 pounds, most of it muscle.

That’s good, fans will say, except that a healthy Gutierrez isn’t necessarily guaranteed every-day time in center field. That’s because the club has what seems to be an entire roster of big-league-caliber outfielders vying for playing time, leading to the second-level headline:

During just one year of the Wedge regime, Ichiro has gone from a certainty in the lead-off position to at best a "maybe.”

“It’s a big deal for a lot of people,” Wedge conceded, “but I can’t get caught up in that.”

The skipper asserted that his only lineup consideration is run production. He indicated he’ll try perennial one-hole star Ichiro either in the second or third spot, and may audition any number of players at lead-off (Gutierrez, Figgins, Dustin Ackley, e.g.) if it makes the offense any less unproductive than it’s been the past few seasons.

Wedge promises to try a lot of other stuff, which should surprise no one given that the M’s have one of the youngest, least-experienced rosters in the majors. The manager summoned nine key young position players to Seattle recently, meeting with them as a group and individually as the projected stars of the future worked out together at Safeco for two days.

The M’s would have to get better, many agree, and do it quickly because, as Wedge said and Zduriencik concurred: “A lot of people think the two best teams in baseball are in our division.”

Texas, for two years the defending American League champion, and Los Angeles each are seemingly strengthened via off-season acquisitions. Albert Pujols, perhaps the most productive offensive player in the Bigs, now and for a number of years will play for the Angels.

Meanwhile, the most significant offense upgrade made by the M’s was the recent trade of right-hander Michael Pineda to the Yankees for strapping catcher Jesus Montero. The jackals of the press crammed into the M’s interview room got to see just how strapping when the 22-year-old power hitter took the stage.

The engaging Venezuelan, also expected to help at designated hitter, seemed to charm reporters, especially when, asked about goals for 2012, he grinned and said: “300 home runs.”

That would nearly triple what the club amassed last season. Moreover, as Zduriencik and others noted, the team failed to lure Prince Fielder, whose nine-year, $214 million deal with Detroit means the M’s will be looking elsewhere for power.

Perhaps, at a great payroll bargain, the home-run muscle would come from a more familiar source. The final appearance at the Thursday press event was by Mike Carp, who took the stage with teammate Michael Saunders.

Carp, 25, is smaller (duh!) than the portly Fielder and obviously much less famous. Fielder, just 27, also is much more well-accomplished, having thumped 230 home runs since his major-league debut in 2005. Carp had 12 last year in 79 games.

But preseason baseball is about “what-ifs,” as in:

  • What if the M’s enviable pitching, even with the loss of rookie all-star Pineda, comes through again this year?
  • What if Prince Fielder puts up his 162-game average 32 dingers and 106 runs batted in?
  • What if Mike Carp, making spare change compared with Fielder’s annual haul, proves himself worthy of every-day line-up status and has 25 home runs and 90 RBI?

Such production obviously would be a great bargain for the Seattle franchise. It also would go a long way toward seeing to it that the M’s have a successful season, which, alas, in the American League West division, might mean a winning record and third place.

If you go: FanFest is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (Jan. 28-29) at Safeco Field. Tickets $10 for adults and children 15 and up,; $5 for children 6-14; free for children age 5 and under. Tickets and details here.


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