Notebook from Mariners pre-spring training luncheon: Position battles, injury updates
The Mariners held their annual pre-spring training luncheon for the media Thursday at Safeco Field and there are a number of news items, notes and quotes of interest that came from the over two-hour question and answer session with members of the front office, manager Scott Servais and head trainer Rick Griffin. We’ll start with what jumped out at me as items of note.
• Jerry Dipoto said that Taijuan Walker, Nate Karns and James Paxton will battle it out for the final two spots in the rotation. Of bigger note, he offered up the possibility that the odd man out could go to the bullpen. I saw him saying this much more as an intriguing option for them than something we might actually see. In order for this to happen: A) Everyone would have to stay healthy through spring training and the choice would actually have to be made; B) They would have to feel good about their sixth option at Triple-A Tacoma, who would most likely be Joe Wieland or, if by some miracle he was still with the team, Mike Montgomery; and C) They really don’t like what they are seeing from their relievers in camp.
• James Paxton has lost 23 pounds.
• The Mariners will carry two lefties in the bullpen. Montgomery is coming to camp as a starter but could easily be moved to relief if the Mariners think they could use him in that role.
• The Gabby Sanchez signing to a minor league contract is now official. Travis Ishikawa is not signed as of yet, but that could change. Sanchez enters the competition to be Adam Lind’s right-handed compliment at first base along with Jesus Montero, Ed Lucas and Stefen Romero. Romero is of special interest as he can play infield and outfield.
• Ketel Marte will most likely hit second or eighth in the order, according to Servais. He is considering hitting Kyle Seager second.
Rick Griffin, Mariners senior director of athletic training, took the podium first and gave medical updates on a number of Mariners.
• Catcher Jesus Sucre, who suffered a fractured fibula and a sprained right ankle sliding into second base in a winter league playoff game, had surgery last week and will miss a minimum of six months.
• Second baseman Robinson Cano is going about his normal offseason routine after muscle core surgery at the end of last season. Griffin does not anticipate any problems with him going forward.
• Left-handed reliever Charlie Furbush is a bit of a question mark, and an important one at that, coming off a shutdown last season due to shoulder tendinitis. A question mark because a pitcher never knows until they get back up on the hill, and he has yet to do that, which is not unusual for this time of year. Furbush has spent the offseason in Seattle rehabbing the injury, and according to Griffin has been throwing well with no discomfort. They will go slow with him in spring training. “He’s not having any issues and no setbacks. We are moving forward,” Griffin said.
• Griffin was asked if there was any truth to Andy Van Slyke’s comment in his Robinson Cano radio rant earlier this offseason that Felix Hernandez had been pitching with a torn elbow ligament. “It’s about 25 percent torn and has been for the last couple of years – but he keeps pitching,” said Van Slyke. Griffin’s reponse: “I don’t know the exact percent. All pitchers, especially after they have 2000 innings, I think everybody has got some kind of damage in their ligament, but he’s not missed a start because of his elbow the entire time he has been with us. We do everything we can to keep him on the field and we concentrate and focus on all different areas. I don’t know how the 20 percent came.” The Mariners training staff is highly regarded throughout the league and their work with pitchers has been noted by others. Griffin noted, while knocking on wood, that over the last ten years they have had only one Tommy John surgery at the big league level. “The pitchers buy into it,” he said of their maintenance programs. “We actually had a couple that we recently signed tell me that was one of the reasons why they came over here, because we can keep pitchers healthy. That’s something we try to do.”
• Paxton’s fingernail, which was removed down to the cuticle, is now completely grown out. “His finger is fine,” said Griffin. “So is his lat from 2 years ago. He’s in a really good position to go to spring training and compete and hopefully have a really good year.”
• While the Dodgers may have balked at what they saw in Hisashi Iwakuma’s physical, Griffin has no such concerns.
“I don’t have any concerns and neither does our orthopedist and physicians or we wouldn’t have got him back,” he said. “I don’t know what happened there, I’m not going to speculate. We know his body, we know him very well. We know what we need to do to try to keep him on the field. I think everything will be fine.”
• Franklin Gutierrez has had a good offseason and is weighing in from 212-215 pounds. He is controlling his Ankylosing Spondilytis very well, with the proper medication and dosage. “What he has he has,” said Griffin. “It’s not going away. It’s just something that has to be monitored. It is something we can work with. There’s going to be some days when he can’t play and there’s going to be days where he feels great, so we will try to take advantage of those days.”
• Danny Hultzen has been playing catch in Arizona and will report to camp as a reliever. It is not yet known if that is the best spot for him coming off a very serious shoulder injury, but they will find out. “It just depends how he accepts that and how he reacts,” said Griffin. “You won’t know until that happens. Some guys do better in a reliever role if they can bounce back, but if they can’t it’s better to be a starter. But there’s the additional load of being a starter with more pitches. It’s just going to be a process to see where he is.”
Spring training invites
The following non-roster players have been invited to spring training.
• Casey Coleman
• Paul Fry
• Danny Hultzen
• Brad Mills
• Blake Parker
• Donn Roach
• Adrian Sampson
• Marcus Littlewood
• Benji Gonzalez
• Ed Lucas
• Tyler Smith
• Mike Baxter
• Dan Robertson
• Dario Pizzano
Assistant GM Jeff Kingston gave his thoughts on a couple of the invitees and why they were invited.
“A lot of what you have heard Jerry and Scott talk about is the importance and emphasis of control of the strike zone. In keeping the camp smaller, some of the young hitters that we have invited are ingrained as in how they control the strike zone,” Kingston said. “That’s one of their strengths. Tyler Smith fits that mold. Tough out, he has a career .370 plus on-base percentage. Him along with Dario Pizzano have more career walks than strikeouts. These guys you are going to see us reward and emphasize our players that control the zone.”
A couple of months ago I wrote that Jerry Dipoto said that there were a perhaps a couple of less known names on the pitching side that could possibly help at the big league level in 2016. Kingston brought up two pitchers of interest who are likely the pitchers Dipoto was talking about.
“Adrian Sampson, local guy, acquired at the deadline for J.A. Happ. Does well controlling the zone, pounds the zone. His walk rate is one of the lowest we had in the minor leagues. He’s continuing to develop his change up, he’s got three pitches that he throws for strikes.
“Paul Fry, left-handed reliever came out of nowhere last year, had a nice run in Bakersfield and then dominated in Double-A. Control the zone guy, huge strikeout numbers. I was comparing his numbers to the likes of Carter Capps, the Stephen Pryors, the Carson Smiths that came through our system a few years ago, and Paul Fry’s strikeout-to-walk numbers are actually better than all those guys. 91-93 fastball, with a good slider, deceptive, has no fear. We’re excited to see what he can do this year as he competes with our other left-handers.”
Kingston sees Fry as more than just a left-handed specialist.
“I think he proved last year,” he said. “You don’t strike out 40 percent of the hitters you face in Double-A if you are only a left-handed specialist. He’s got enough deception he can throw his fastball by left-handers and right-handers.
Dipoto spoke for almost 40 minutes. Here are some of the highlights.
• His expectations for 2016: “I have high expectations of any club I am ever with. I like playing in the post season. I believe this club is as well suited as anybody to compete in the West. It’s a tough division. The Astros are coming back and a very gifted young team with high upside. The Rangers are defending champs. They haven’t made any significant offseason changes, but the full season of Cole Hamels is not going to hurt and I am sure Yu Darvish is going to return at some point. Obviously I have experience with the Angels and I know what they are capable of, and never undersell the Oakland A’s. I think they have got one of the smartest groups of people in the league from the dugout to the front office and they will end up putting good products on the field more often than not.
• Position battles: “We’re going to have a couple of spots in the bullpen, at least one, maybe two. It’s going to be a brawl with a handful of guys that really have a legitimate opportunity. Guys like Ryan Cook and Justin De Fratus that can come in and compete with guys like Tony Zych. Vidal Nuno is going to factor into our 12-man pitching staff in a positive way. I think there is going to be a great competition for the fifth spot in our starting rotation. The fact that we have minimum six and up to eight or nine legitimate candidates for the back of a Major League rotation is excellent. The fact that our fifth or sixth starter might be as physically gifted as most people’s two or three, that’s exciting for me.”
• On Mike Zunino “We’re not holding him back from accomplishing whatever he can accomplish. Our ogoal is we have the opportunity to start him in Tacoma and watch his season develop. He’s 23, you will go through ups and downs with young players as they try to transition to the big leagues but it is paramount that we understand that we are here for that player. This season is going to be about what is best in the career development of Mike Zunino and we are going to make sure that happens. If Mike Zunino needs two months, four months, if he needs a season at Triple-A to cultivate the offensive approach that we saw at the University of Florida, we know it is in there. We saw it in the first half of his minor-league journey, we’ve seen it periodically in the big leagues, now we need to tap into that full-time. We hope Mike to be a very big part of what we are doing not only in 2016 but going forward. This season is going to be about what is best for him.”