PEORIA, Ariz. – Try finding pictures of Dan Vogelbach smiling last spring. His pearly whites didn’t get much exposure to the Arizona sun.
Pressure consumed his mornings, frustration his afternoons – the bubbly first baseman everyone had heard about was unrecognizable.
After spending the first part of his career backing up Anthony Rizzo in Chicago, Vogelbach finally had an opportunity to rake when the Mariners traded reliever Mike Montgomery for him toward the end of the 2016 season. But instead of thinking, “Let’s do this,” he thought, “Don’t blow it.”
What ensued was everything he feared.
“I put a lot of unneeded pressure on myself to have a huge spring and lost sight of who I was,” said Vogelbach, who hit .228 with one home run in 54 at-bats in the Cactus League last year. “Playing relaxed is when I play my best. I like to laugh – just like I’m playing in the backyard.”
Vogelbach, 25, insists the only source of pressure came from himself, but you couldn’t fault him if outside circumstances contributed. In a year in which the Mariners were in playoff contention with two games left, GM Jerry Dipoto’s trading of Montgomery did not go without criticism.
Montgomery had become a seventh-inning staple for Seattle – a southpaw who logged a 2.34 ERA on the year for the M’s before helping the Cubs win the World Series. Vogelbach was a minor-league masher that had proven zilch on the big-league level.
Still, Dipoto seemed smitten with the former second-round draft pick. He pointed out the raw power that netted “Vogey” 23 home runs in Triple-A in 2016.
But in 12 big-league at-bats with the Mariners that same year, he managed just one hit with six strikeouts. In his final 24 at-bats the following spring, he had one hit and 10 strikeouts.
Is it possible Vogelbach simply isn’t equipped to handle major-league pitching? Sure. Before the Mariners make that determination, though, they’d at least like to see him perform with a clear head.
“He was not himself (last spring). You hear what he was like when he came over from the Cubs – he knew that this was kind of his shot and he didn’t handle it well,” M’s manager Scott Servais said. “I thought his attitude when we called him back at the end of September was a lot better – just a happy-go-lucky guy. Sometimes he takes himself too seriously.”
The Mariners hope Vogelbach’s rediscovered effervescence translates into productivity, because the first-base battle is suddenly wide open. With hand surgery expected to sideline Ryon Healy for the next few weeks, Mike Ford and Vogelbach each have a shot to start at the position on opening day.
Vogelbach suffered a minor setback when a fastball to the foot forced him to miss a couple of games last week, but in six at-bats, he has tallied two hits, including a double. Not a noteworthy sample size but not a discouraging start, either.
Obviously, there is still much to be learned about what Vogelbach can achieve on baseball’s grandest stage. He has seven hits and 15 strikeouts in 40 MLB at-bats, but that’s a sliver of a sliver of a season.
As Grant Bronsdon of Lookout Landing pointed out a few days ago, Vogelbach’s Triple-A stats resemble those of a 24-year-old Nelson Cruz, who also struggled in his early years in the majors. Bronsdon nixed the idea that Vogelbach is the second coming of Cruz, but the point was that three dozen-plus at-bats reveal very little about a player’s long-term potential.
So what’s next for Vogelbach? No one can say for sure. But if he is to be believed, any shortcomings this spring won’t be the result of fear.
“I’m not going to be scared to make a mistake. I’m not going to be telling myself, ‘I can’t do this or I might not make the team,’ ” Vogelbach said. “I’ve been myself at every level. I’ve been an outgoing, vocal person, but when I got here and had this new team environment, I wasn’t that person. I don’t know why. But it’s not that way anymore.”
So Vogelbach, it seems, had a good head on his shoulders. The next step is getting good wood on the ball.
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