March 21, 2012 in Sports

Seattle faces higher expectations from within

Tim Booth Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Mariners’ Ichiro Suzuki has made subtle changes in his batting stance in anticipation of moving to third in the order.
(Full-size photo)

M’s hammer Reds

Kevin Millwood pitched five strong innings on Tuesday, leading the Seattle Mariners to an 8-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz.

Millwood pitched for the Red Sox, Yankees and Rockies last season. The 37-year-old is competing for the fifth spot in the Mariners rotation with Hisashi Iwakuma. Millwood allowed a run on four hits.

Carlos Peguero homered and singled, driving in four runs. He hit his fourth homer of the spring off Jeff Francis, who is trying to win a spot in the back of Cincinnati’s rotation. Francis gave up seven hits and three runs in five innings. Luis Rodrigues had two singles and a sacrifice fly for Seattle.

Associated Press

SEATTLE – During his first season on the reclamation project of the Seattle Mariners, Eric Wedge knew he couldn’t snap with frustration or disappointment even when it probably was warranted.

Biting his lip became part of what Wedge decided he needed to in his first year with a new organization, especially with a roster that included so much youth and inexperience as Seattle’s 67-95 season played out.

Year 2, there won’t be any holding back in what Wedge expects out of his players.

“No one’s going to take away what we’ve already established here. But ultimately, it is a different message this year. It’s about expectations,” the manager said. “It’s not just about breaking kids in, although we’re probably going to do some of that this year. Not as much as last year. It’s about expectations, performance and production. Performance and production lead to wins.”

For Wedge, those increased expectations are strictly pointed at the Mariners’ offense. A year ago, it was among the worst in baseball history since the implementation of the designated hitter. If the Mariners are to improve, the hitters have to do better.

The pitching staff is solid, led by ace Felix Hernandez. Even with an offseason trade that sent All-Star Michael Pineda to the New York Yankees, the arms are OK. But ultimately it’s the offense where the majority of Seattle’s questions lie after the team hit just .233 and scored a mere 556 runs, by far the lowest total in the American League.

Four key questions

1 Can Ichiro Suzuki successfully make the transition from being one of the best leadoff hitters in recent history to batting third, where his slap-hitting style of the past won’t fly?

2 Will Chone Figgins finally prove worthy of the $36 million, four-year deal he signed before the 2010 season? He’ll try to restart his career with another opportunity as an everyday player, and he’ll get the initial shot at taking over the leadoff spot.

3 Are Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp able to carry their impressive debuts from 2011 into their sophomore campaigns?

4 And will Jesus Montero, the centerpiece of the January trade with the Yankees, handle the expectations of being the Seattle’s power-hitting offensive savior despite just a handful of major league games?

“I feel this should be the year we really take a significant step forward offensively. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t,” Wedge said. “I don’t really worry about that, because I’m very confident we will do that. That’s how confident I am in our young people. That’s how confident I am in our plan, that’s how confident I am in the foundation we have here. That’s the faith I have in our kids individually. I’ve as much as told them that.”

Off and running early

The Mariners get an early start, opening against the Athletics on March 28 with a two-game series in Tokyo. They’ll get a week off after that, and resume April 6 at Oakland.

The overseas trip made for a condensed spring training, with decisions made more quickly. Players were told to report regular-season ready and not use camp as their prep.

The trip to Japan will mean a whirlwind of attention for Ichiro, that nation’s most successful and known baseball export. He’s coming off his most disappointing major league season in 2011 when he hit a career-low .272 and failed to reach 200 hits for the first time.

“It’s a new experience and it’s definitely a different year,” Ichiro said through an interpreter. “It’s new for me. It’s new for the team. This is something we’ll have once in a lifetime. I look forward to that and hope to take advantage of it.”

Because of the early start, Wedge tried to ram home the point of taking the offseason seriously. In January, he brought many of his young, expected everyday starters to Seattle to view for himself just how their training was going.

“I had never heard of anything like that,” Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan said. “It was good to rub shoulders again and get reacquainted, and it was a heads-up.”

The switch at the top of the batting order will face the most scrutiny at the start of the season. Ichiro hasn’t hit anywhere but first since arriving in the majors in 2001. Anticipating the move, he made subtle changes in his batting stance this spring.

Still a gap in center field?

One of the potential solutions to Seattle’s offensive problems was the hoped-for return of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to the form he showed in 2009, when he hit 18 homers and batted .283 with the Mariners.

But Gutierrez is likely to miss the first month of the season with a pectoral injury.

Gutierrez’s early absence adds more flux to the Mariners’ outfield. Michael Saunders and Casper Wells will likely get chunks of time in center field with Gutierrez out.

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