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Drayer: Mariners will go to work on getting Dee Gordon, Mike Zunino to walk more in 2019

Bounce-back seasons for Dee Gordon and Mike Zunino will be crucial for the Mariners in 2019. (AP)

It is expected changes will be made with the Mariners roster this offseason. There could be sweeping changes, there could be smaller moves, but regardless of the new faces we see when the team opens the season next March in Japan, a large part of the Mariners’ success or failure in 2019 will depend on the performance of returning players.

Drayer: Mariners aren’t tearing down, but offseason could be very active

Some of the Mariners’ best adds next season could come in the form of bounce-back seasons from players already on the roster. That is easy to point out and harder to accomplish, but getting more from the players they have is part of the plan for Seattle. And it starts at the top of the order.

In his first year with the Mariners, Dee Gordon took on the challenge of playing a position that was completely foreign to him (center field) and also recorded numbers that were some of the worst of his career. His batting average and, more importantly, on-base percentage sunk to lows that required removal from the leadoff spot.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto does not expect this will be a trend moving forward with Gordon.

“There’s no reason to believe he has lost his skill set,” Dipoto said. “Dee Gordon coming into the season was about as slam dunk – a .290, .300 hitter with a .325, .330-ish on base – that you were going to find.”

A fractured toe suffered in May no doubt had some if not a large impact on what Gordon was able to do. Manager Scott Servais is not relying on health alone to get his leadoff hitter back to where he needs to be, however, which is on base. In that department, Gordon did himself few favors, declining free passes on a record pace for the majority of the season. Had he not picked up a base on balls Sept. 24 – which was his only walk in the month of September and just his ninth of the season – Gordon would have finished the season with the lowest walk rate by a qualified hitter since 1922.

The 1.5 percent walk rate was the lowest of Gordon’s career. His walk rate has always been low, and by design. As Gordon told 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny, Dave and Moore in mid-August, he believes drawing a walk is not the best or even a likely way for him to get on base in part because of his ability to cause havoc on the bases and steal.

“If you are facing me, would you walk me or would you let me hit?” he asked, pointing out that a free pass to first base leads to the good possibility he will end up on second thanks to his ability to steal. “That’s why I don’t walk. They throw me pitches in the zone and I put the barrel on the majority of them and sometimes they happen to catch them. I try to play ‘hit it where they ain’t.’ Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I have to remember the process is right. If the process is right and I get out, I’m fine with that. If I hit the ball hard, I’m fine with that. I get pitches to hit. I have good hand-eye coordination so I just try not to miss my pitch.”

From where the manager sits, the process can be refined. In-season changes to processes are difficult, especially with a player who is dealing with injury and position changes. In the offseason, Servais plans to go to work on Gordon, and he has the numbers ready to do so.

“You can teach it,” Servais said of a more patient approach at the plate. “I think any time you are asking a player to make a conscious change in their approach to their game, you have to bring them true evidence on why. I think anybody, if they have time to digest it and look at it and this is the evidence, then if they want to get the most out of their ability they need to step back and say, ‘OK, maybe this is something I need to change in my game.’ You need to show them the numbers and show them the evidence on why, this is what’s best for them in their career and what’s best for the team and hopefully they make adjustments.”

Gordon is not the only player the Mariners are looking for more walks from. Catcher Mike Zunino finished the season with a .201 batting average and .259 on base percentage. While the average is ugly, it is a number Dipoto can live with if the other number comes up.

“Mike does a lot of really good things,” Dipoto pointed out. “He handles the pitching staff well, he throws well, he’s an excellent framer, he hits for power, and he’s a generally good guy in the clubhouse. Where we are short is the bat for average, which gets muted if you take that extra walk or two. The .200 is almost irrelevant if the on-base is high. If we can get Mike into that .330 range, the batting average doesn’t matter as much. That’s just where the game is now.”

For his part, Zunino will not be satisfied with the .200 regardless of how many walks he takes. Like Gordon and others, Zunino battled injury throughout the season. The oblique strain he suffered the day before the first game of the season impacted his swing for a long time. When he returned from the disabled list, his swing was serviceable but far from optimal. A power hitter needs his core, and in his words, Zunino had to “patchwork stuff together to compete at the plate.” The ‘Zunino rules’ and daily checkpoint work he did after overhauling his swing the previous season were not possible after the oblique injury.

We saw good things after Zunino’s swing overhaul in 2017, but it’s not enough of a history to bank on going forward. That’s not to say we couldn’t see another ‘Junino’ – which in fact stretched into August and September after taking July off – however. Zunino believes in the changes that were made. Regardless, with where the game is now and the rarity of catchers who are elite defensively and strong with the bat, Dipoto appears to value what he has in Zunino.

“If Mike takes his walks and he hits his homers, and you know he’s going to hit his homers – he’s a 20-30 home run guy, he’s going to strike out a fair bit, but if he takes his walks, as I joked around back in 2016, take your walks and they will build you a statue in front of the stadium. You will look like an All-Star. Don’t take your walks and a .250 on-base isn’t particularly appealing. I think he has those skills.”

There are obstacles in the paths of both Gordon and Zunino.

With Gordon, it might not be as simple as being more selective at the plate or allowing for the pitcher to get himself in trouble. There is evidence that the league adjusted to what Gordon was doing when he was making contact. He has not had the success he saw in 2017 going the other way, but he did start to pull the ball a bit more to some success in September.

For Zunino, asking for an on-base mark of .320-.330 is no small thing. It’s well above his career average, although he did finish with a .331 OBP along with a .251 batting average in 2016 and a .318 OBP with a .207 average in 55 games in 2015.

Gordon can best help the Mariners if he can put up numbers worthy of the leadoff spot and Zunino if he can reduce his outs by getting on base more. Problems have been addressed, solutions offered. Both players will take time to fully heal, and after that there is work to be done.

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