By Shannon Drayer
ANAHEIM, Calif. — In one day we can close the book on the offseason. The picture is complete for now on paper. Twenty-five have been selected and nine will take the field Monday in Anaheim. Arms have been stretched out and swings have been found. The work has been put in and games that mean nothing have been played.
In his first spring training as Mariners manager, Lloyd McClendon was greeted in Peoria, Ariz. with a giant tumbler of puzzle pieces dumped at his feet — 68 pieces and many spaces to be filled, with some fits not obvious. For every question we who have watched the Mariners for years had, he had even more as he was seeing this for the first time. Different eyes, different ideas, and plenty to see.
We saw Felix Hernandez go about his business of getting ready for the season, the perennial calm within the Mariners’ storm, seeming to know exactly what he needed from each bullpen, each live batting practice session and each simulated game. We saw Hisashi Iwakuma stand behind Felix and watch those early sessions. He would have been throwing alongside him had his finger not been in a splint. All he could do this spring was watch and then tell Felix that the session looked good when he finished.
We saw Taijuan Walker throw two bullpen sessions with Felix and then disappear, the shoulder prompting the Mariners to slow him and eventually shut him down for a week.
We saw Robinson Cano bring the spring routine he had developed years ago in Florida to the dry fields in Arizona. We saw something we had never seen before in Peoria as he took swings with a screen placed on the outside edge of home plate. Perfect, easy swing despite the obstacle. One day we saw Justin Smoak with him attempting to take the same swing, hands forced to stay inside the ball, legs pressed into action. Weeks later there would be four Mariners joining Cano after workouts for the “net drill.” Smoak, Nick Franklin, Kyle Seager and Logan Morrison all took their turns with the drill, and when Cano stepped up to take his swings all four took a knee behind the plate and watched in silent appreciation as he made what was so difficult look effortless.
We saw Brad Miller go out and claim his position. Three months in the bigs hardly makes a big leaguer with a secure position, but Miller was not going to backtrack this spring. No, he would come in bigger and stronger, more able to get through a big-league season, lesson learned that so many have learned before him. Big-league time takes a different toll on the body.
We saw Dustin Ackley and Stefen Romero learn how to be outfielders. We saw Michael Saunders and Abraham Almonte learn to be better outfielders. We saw Andy Van Slyke build his outfielders’ arms and legs up in the first weeks, then run them hard in drills to the wall — insane popup drills, drills to push their limits of range. We didn’t see much of Corey Hart and Morrison in the outfield.
We saw Carson Smith make seven appearances without giving up a run, walking just two and striking out 11. We saw Dominic Leone almost match his performance surrendering just two runs in nine appearances with one walk and 10 strikeouts. Both will start the season in the minor leagues.
We saw Franklin taking extra work before a night game at shortstop long after his teammates had returned to the clubhouse, and the next day grabbing Saunders’ glove and heading out to shag balls in the outfield during batting practice. Franklin did everything he could to make this club but was told no. Saunders sat with him at his locker for a good amount of time after he learned the news.
We have question marks — big question marks. The rotation that needed one pitcher coming into the spring suddenly needed three. They have five starters but plenty of concern with the lack of experience and injury history of a good part of that rotation. The early anointed leadoff hitter (Almonte) did not break the .200 mark. The big right-handed bat who was brought in (Hart) has played in one A game in the last 10 days and clearly never got it going. Will the extra minor-league at-bats in the past three days get him to Opening Day ready or is there a switch that can be flipped Monday?
We saw surprises, and good surprises as well. Hart’s spot in the outfield was quickly filled by a kid who the Mariners have liked for some time but had nowhere to play him. Romero came through with the bat and showed surprising versatility in the field, making plays in right field he would not have been able to make last year.
Roenis Elias was perhaps the biggest surprise. You heard rumblings that the Mariners liked him early in camp, and he certainly got a lot of looks in the early games in relief. He wasn’t being given starter innings but he was given multiple innings. “Is this guy a candidate for the long relief role?” we wondered early. When his name popped up on the pitching probables later in camp as a starter, eyebrows were raised. Something new? Not according to McClendon, who said he had been looked at as a starter from the start. Less than two weeks later he would be on the Opening Day roster. Elias’ journey from Cuba to the big leagues was complete.
We saw great spring numbers with Miller and Ackley in the top 10 in the Cactus League in average, slugging percentage and hits, and Erasmo Ramirez and Elias in the top 10 in ERA. The team lead the American League in runs scored and tied for the lead in home runs. Spring numbers are spring numbers and not much else, but at the very least those who did well should be taking a little extra confidence into the start of the season. Better to have found it in the spring than to be looking for it March 31.
So what do we have with this group? It it far too soon to say with any certainty. We know what they are on paper. We know what they did this spring. If this were a veteran club we would have a better idea. Performances would be more predictable, but with young and hopefully developing players, players coming off injury and a new manager and coaching staff, it is best to sit back and watch for a while.
What we do have for the first time this spring is 25 players. Those 25 players (plus Iwakuma, who is on the DL) boarded the plane in Arizona and came together for the first time. There were no players fighting for positions, no extra players from the minor leagues. Just 25 players who will have jerseys hanging in lockers in the visiting clubhouse in Anaheim. Every year we see this sight. The first flight. The first time they put on the suits and board the team plane as a Mariner. New faces in old seats. This year 10 players got on the big-league plane heading for the Opening Day game for the very first time.
If the sights were different, the sounds were the same. Excitement. The long stretches without days off and the hard work behind them. Uncertainty put behind them for some, at least for a little while now. Tough decisions were made. It is now within their control. Perform and they stay.
So what’s next? It’s up to them.