PEORIA, Ariz. – Well before most of the pitchers and catchers had filtered in for their physicals, a group of Mariners position players was suiting up for some work in the indoor cages.
Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and others don’t have to report to the Peoria Sports Complex for nearly another week. But they are all here early, gearing up for a critical season of growth for the Mariners when it comes to their younger players.
The Mariners are coming off a winter in which they made one big trade – acquiring catcher Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi from the Yankees for Michael Pineda and Juan Campos – along with some smaller signings. But this will very much be the same team that finished the 2012 season with 95 losses and then cut payroll by what looks to be at least $10 million over opening day of last year.
“I think guys are just looking forward to the season,” said Smoak, trying to rebound off a difficult, injury-plagued first full season last year in which he hit .234 with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in. “Everybody talks about Texas and Los Angeles and what they did this winter. We’ve got to show that we’re a core group of young guys and that we’re excited about what the future can bring.”
The Mariners have opened camp a week before any other team, hoping to get a head start on a spring that will see them leave for Japan a few weeks into March and open the season early there against the Oakland Athletics. Position players aren’t required to show up until Friday, followed by the first full-squad workout Saturday.
Shortstop Ryan, who will be limited in his early throwing as he returns from an upper-back and neck injury that severely curtailed his final two months last season, said a January meeting in Seattle between several regulars and manager Eric Wedge set the tone for what’s to be expected.
“I think half of why that was done went unsaid,” Ryan said. “Half of it was just getting back around each other, getting reacquainted. You’re a family and in that situation, there’s no pressure at that time. You’re not worrying about going 0 for 4 in the game or stuff like that. Then, there’s the other part, the obvious side of the expectations he has for us. And him being closer to having determined what our roles will be.”
Ryan isn’t surprised so many players showed up early to camp after that meeting. “When I was in St. Louis as a young guy, I was told by my agent, ‘Just get out there, go be seen.’ It doesn’t hurt. It’s good to be out there showing yourself, that kind of thing.”
In order for the team to claim progress on more than just the cost-savings front, the younger players will have to step up this season and give an indication this plan can succeed. Besides the position players, the Mariners are also counting on pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to make minor-league strides this season, with perhaps one or more getting a big-league taste later this year.
There are only a handful of open spots in the rotation and bullpen and a whopping 35 pitchers among the 66 players attending camp. That means any pitcher hoping to make an impact can’t afford to take his time.
“We want them to understand that every time they raise their arm, or face a hitter, they’re being evaluated,” Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis said.
The M’s have intrasquad games scheduled for Feb. 24, 26 and 28, and Willis said serious evaluation will begin there. Seattle has Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas penciled in for the top two rotation spots with newcomer Hisashi Iwakuma considered a safe bet for No. 3.
After that, a plethora of arms including holdovers Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush as well as newcomer Noesi and veteran Kevin Millwood will be fighting it out for spots. The team added bullpen veterans George Sherrill, Hong-Chih Kuo and Shawn Camp to a crew that includes closer Brandon League and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Hultzen had a chance to get used to the home clubhouse when he participated in the Arizona Fall League.
Hultzen spent the remainder of the offseason hanging out at his home in Maryland and at his alma mater, the University of Virginia, where he recently made a $100,000 donation to the school’s baseball program. He also spent time training in Florida, where his grandmother lives.
The clubhouse he walked into Saturday saw orange T-shirts placed in each locker stall bearing the name of Greg Halman and his No. 56. Halman was stabbed to death last November in the Netherlands and his brother remains in custody as the lone suspect in the case.
Halman’s friend and teammate, Carp, had them made.