Marco Gonzales is only a few years removed from arriving at spring training hopeful he could carve out a role in the back end of the Seattle Mariners’ rotation.
Since then, the names ahead of him – Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Mike Leake to list a few – have disappeared from the roster. Gonzales turns 28 next month, but the former first-round draft pick out of Gonzaga has taken on a role of elder statesman on a Seattle squad in the midst of a pronounced youth movement.
“It’s a unique situation,” said Gonzales, who threw a career-best 203 innings over 34 starts as the team’s ace in 2019. “I would say it’s taken some time to get used to. It’s taken me a second to really understand what my role can be with this team.
“Going forward, I’ve always considered myself to be the underdog. I’m always looking to improve myself. It’s gotten me this far in my career, and I don’t want to stop that now.”
Gonzales was back in Spokane on Wednesday taking part in the Mariners Care Community Tour, which visits communities around the state during the offseason. He joined teammates Austin Nola, Dylan Moore and Matt Festa, as well as longtime broadcaster Rick Rizzs, to sign autographs and provide instruction for youngsters at The Warehouse Athletic Facility near the Gonzaga campus.
The Mariners’ pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Peoria, Arizona, on Feb. 12, four days before Gonzales’ birthday. Gonzales said he is focused on his health as the season approaches.
“Last year I threw the most innings I’ve ever thrown in my life for a season,” he said. “First and foremost, I have to give my body a chance to reset and rest a bit. I’ll try to ease into some throwing and try to get my strength up a little bit, and I’ll just try to be healthy. I’ll try to find a good routine and stick with it.”
Gonzales said he met a goal last year when he took the mound for every scheduled start. He has positioned himself as a cornerstone piece of the Mariners’ rebuild, and he doesn’t shy away from the responsibilities that bears.
“Now going forward I think I can build on my durability, be accountable, just go out there and set the example for what that looks like for our team and our young guys. I’m going to be a leader on this team, and I need to step up to that role.”
Gonzales noted Nola’s leadership traits, too, which undoubtedly had some effect when Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto elected to trade Omar Narvaez to Milwaukee last month to create playing time for Nola behind the plate alongside Tom Murphy. Nola bounced around a lot last year, spending time at first base (59 games), second base (15), third base (four), left field (one) and right field (one). He played only seven games – four starts – at catcher.
Gonzales said he and Nola served as battery mates one time last year, but he said, “Austin is a very gifted receiver with very, very soft hands.”
Nola’s utility role for the Mariners in 2019 led to a limited amount of time behind the dish, but he said he still prepared to be the catcher every day.
“I try to work hard at each position, but catching obviously takes most of my time because I have to be prepared for that the best that I can,” said Nola, 30. “I played all those positions, but that doesn’t take as much preparation as the catching position. Even last year I kept preparing at catcher just to stay fresh.
“I believe if you prepare at catching, you get better at the other positions, too. Mobility, flexibility, quickness – you need that for other parts of the infield.”
Nola’s emergence with the bat made Narvaez and his capable swing expendable. The Mariners should have some pop from the position this year with Nola (.269 batting average, 10 homers) and Murphy (.273, 18).
Nola credited Murphy and the Mariners’ staff for providing an environment conducive for learning. He wants to take an active role creating the culture the organization is trying to foster.
“I want to be a spark, and I want to help the team win in any way,” Nola said. “You’re front and center behind the dish. Everybody sees you, and you’re viewed as the leader. It takes an energy, it takes an enthusiasm, it takes preparation because the rest of the team is going to ride off your energy.”
Seattle will not be projected to win the American League West in any preseason prognostications, but Nola expects a successful season.
“A successful season is a winning season,” he said. “When a team wins, it means you did well individually. Showing up every day, helping the guy next to you and being a leader is successful.”
Gonzales acknowledged that the widespread roster turnover last year was a challenge, and he hopes for more stability this season.
“We’re growing a culture,” he said. “Understanding who we are, finding our identity, tuning out the noise – the moment we can close the clubhouse doors and say this is the group we’re going to battle with, that’s when we’re going to see some success.”
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