Catching up with the Mariners in Peoria
By Shannon Drayer
We will hear from Eric Wedge a bit later but I will give you some quick first impressions I got on my first day with the team.
Clubhouse felt good but I can’t imagine otherwise this early. The younger players seemed more comfortable now that they have a little big-league time under their belts.
I was stunned by the sight of Franklin Gutierrez in his workout gear this morning. He is much bigger, especially in the upper body and not only looks healthy but strong. He also looked relaxed, which I don’t think we ever saw last spring as he dealt with his stomach issues and his father-in-law’s accident.
Justin Smoak looks good and ready to get on with things. Last year was tough on him with losing his father and dealing with injuries. One thing people overlook with Smoak is that last offseason was tough for him, too. His father was not doing well and that had to have taken a toll. This offseason he was able to devote all of his time to getting ready for baseball. While Gutierrez looks more relaxed after putting his adversity behind him, Smoak seems more energized than he did the past two years.
The pitchers look like they are ahead of the game, which they need to be with the trip to Japan. Felix Hernandez is trimmer and as vocal as ever. Ichiro looks different in the batting box like I noted earlier. I chatted with him briefly after today’s practice and he told me that he enjoyed his offseason much more than the actual season. Understandable. He also said he spent much more time in Japan this year than in years past. He, along with everyone else, is enjoying the presence of Munenori Kawasaki, whose constant patter in various forms of English, Japanese and Spanish has lightened the mood.
Kawasaki is a huge fan of Ichiro and the resemblance from a distance is stunning. He has many of the same mannerisms as Ichiro as well as the same posture. He wears his uniform in the exact same way. When the first hitters group took the field for dead-arm BP he walked in with Chone Figgins. I assumed it was Ichiro. It wasn’t. Which led to another thing that jumped out at me.
Ichiro was in the middle-of-the-order batting group. When Smoak, Mike Carp and Gutierrez took the field for BP Ichiro was in the same group. His stance was completely different, more spread out and the leg kick was gone. He was following through with all of his swings and not chopping anything into the ground. Now, Ichiro has always put on brilliant batting practices so it is too soon to say that he will indeed take this into games, but it is very worth noting that it is very different. The question remaining is, did he make the change in reaction to what he did last year or did he make the change in preparation for this year. Is he looking for a different result, a result other than a hit? Will he try to drive the baseball on a consistent basis? Something to watch for.