Wedge, Mariners full of promise for new season

Wedge, Mariners full of promise for new season

Wedge, Mariners full of promise for new season
SEATTLE -- As Mariners manager Eric Wedge embarks on his second campaign at the helm, two things he'd like to avoid are the 18 rookies and 17-game losing streak that accompanied his debut season in Seattle. Wedge knows his club will be young again, but he sees promising things on the horizon.

And in Wedge's world, there's not a lot of patience to wait for that horizon to come to him, so he'll be pushing hard to raise the expectation level and performance of his youthful charges as they open camp this weekend, the first Major League team to hit the field due to its early regular-season opener in Japan next month.

"I'm sticking my neck out, but I think this should be the year we take a significant leap forward offensively and I'll be disappointed if we don't," Wedge said. "That's how confident I am in our plan and these young kids."

The Mariners' offensive vision focuses firmly on up-and-coming youngsters Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Jesus Montero, the latter obtained in an offseason trade with the Yankees for pitcher Michael Pineda.

If that quartet can get adequate support from veterans Ichiro Suzuki, Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins, then the Mariners should begin shaking loose from the offensive doldrums that have plagued the team for three straight seasons.

Add in further youngsters like Casper Wells, Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Trayvon Robinson and the Mariners certainly have some pieces -- and Spring Training questions -- to sort through in the coming weeks in Peoria, Ariz.

Pitching hasn't been the problem, but there will be plenty of processing there as well as Wedge prepares his troops for the early start, with two regular-season games March 28-29 in Tokyo against the A's a week before the rest of the Majors gear up.

That's why Seattle is the first team reporting this spring and Wedge has already scheduled three intersquad games just to give more opportunities to the 66 players who'll be in camp. Not to mention, the skipper figures every day counts with a young team on fast forward.

Pitchers and catchers report

February 11

Full squad reports

February 17

First Spring Training game

Away vs. A's, March 2 at 12:05 p.m. PT

Opening Day

In Tokyo vs. A's, March 28 at 3:10 a.m. PT

Home opener

April 13 vs. A's, 7:10 p.m. PT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Where will Ichiro bat and who leads off?
Wedge has made it clear he'll take a different approach in his second season in Seattle, and among his changes will be using Ichiro differently if he feels it'll help his team score runs and win games. Wedge is considering taking Ichiro, 38, out of his familiar leadoff role after a difficult 2011 season during which his on-base percentage dropped to a career-low .310.

Wedge thinks it might help to have Ichiro bat second or third in the order and will likely give Ackley and Figgins a look in the top spot this spring. Figgins was an excellent leadoff hitter for the Angels prior to signing with Seattle in 2010, but will need to rebound sharply just to find a spot anywhere in the lineup after two tough years. Ackley, one of the Mariners' emerging standouts, will bat somewhere in the top three spots and has the on-base skills and speed to be a potential leadoff man.

2. Where does Jesus Montero fit in?
The Mariners' biggest offseason acquisition was Montero, the 22-year-old catcher who cost a high price in Pineda. Wedge doesn't want to thrust the youngster immediately into the starting catching role, but he'll have a lot of eyes on him as everyone watches to see whether he looks like he can play that position at the Major League level.

Wedge knows it takes time for any catcher to learn the craft, but he will be counting on Montero to provide offensive impact at designated hitter on days he's not catching. Whether he is ready to jump right into the heart of the order will be one of the key questions in camp.

3. Who fills out the starting rotation?
Felix Hernandez stands strong atop the Mariners' rotation and Jason Vargas returns as the early No. 2 candidate, but things will need to shake out quickly this spring for the other spots. Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma figures to land one spot if he proves healthy and veteran addition Kevin Millwood was a favorite of Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis from their time in Cleveland.

Hector Noesi, acquired in the Pineda trade, will get a shot at a back-end slot, competing with last year's rookies Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush. Top prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez will get a chance to show how close they are as well.

2011 record

67-95, fourth in the AL West

Projected batting order

1. 2B Dustin Ackley:
  .273 BA, .348 OBP, .417 SLG, 6 HR, 36 RBI in 2011
2. RF Ichiro Suzuki:
  .272 BA, .310 OBP, .335 SLG, 5 HR, 47 RBI in 2011
3. LF Mike Carp:
  .276 BA, .326 OBP, .466 SLG, 12 HR, 46 RBI in 2011
4. DH Jesus Montero:
  .328 BA, .406 OBP, .590 SLG, 4 HR, 12 RBI in 2011
5. 1B Justin Smoak:
  .234 BA, .323 OBP, .396 SLG, 15 HR, 55 RBI in 2011
6. CF Franklin Gutierrez:
  .224 BA, .261 OBP, .273 SLG, 1 HR, 19 RBI in 2011
7. C Miguel Olivo:
  .224 BA, .253 OBP, .388 SLG, 19 HR, 62 RBI in 2011
8. 3B Kyle Seager:
  .258 BA, .312 OBP, .379 SLG, 3 HR, 13 RBI in 2011
9. SS Brendan Ryan:
  .248 BA, .313 OBP, .326 SLG, 3 HR, 39 RBI in 2011

Projected rotation

1. Felix Hernandez, 14-14, 3.47 ERA in 2011
2. Jason Vargas, 10-13, 4.25 ERA in 2011
3. Hisashi Iwakuma, 6-7, 2.42 ERA in 2011-a
4. Kevin Millwood, 4-3, 3.98 ERA in 2011 -b
5. Blake Beavan, 5-6, 4.27 ERA in 2011
a -With Rakuten in Japan
b-With Colorado Rockies

Projected bullpen

Closer: Brandon League, 37/42 saves, 2.79 ERA in 2011
RH setup man: Tom Wilhelmsen, 3.31 ERA in 2011
LH setup man: George Sherrill, 3.00 ERA in 2011-c
c-With Atlanta Braves

The new guys

C-DH Jesus Montero: The 22-year-old was acquired from the Yankees in the Pineda trade as the Mariners sought answers for their struggling offense. Montero has been one of the top hitting prospects in baseball the past few years. Now he'll get a chance to show what he can do on an everyday basis in the heart of Seattle's lineup.

C John Jaso: Looking to add to his depth behind the plate, GM Jack Zduriencik added Jaso in a December trade with the Rays for reliever Josh Lueke. Now, it's not as clear where Jaso fits in after the Montero addition, though he is regarded as a decent left-handed hitter and will likely make the team as a third catcher.

SS Munenori Kawasaki: The eight-time Japanese All-Star agreed to a Minor League deal, but will get an opportunity to make the team as a utility infielder and backup to Ryan at short. Considered an excellent glove man, Kawasaki needs to show he can hit at the Major League level with an approach that is said to be similar to his good friend Ichiro at the plate.

RHP Hisashi Iwakuma: Iwakuma, 30, could fill a critical role in the Mariners' rotation, but he needs to prove he's healthy and able to adjust to the Majors after a decade as one of Japan's top hurlers. Iwakuma had elbow problems last year and missed several months in midseason. The deal he signed is similar to the one for Erik Bedard last year, a $1.5 million base with up to $3.4 million in additional performance bonuses if he pitches well.

RHP Hector Noesi: Acquired in the Pineda-Montero trade, the 25-year-old will get a shot to make the Mariners' rotation and could land a job there with a strong spring. Noesi pitched mostly in relief for the Yankees last year as a rookie, but came up as a well-regarded starter and did start two games for NY in 2011.

LHP reliever George Sherrill: Sherrill makes his return as a free agent five years after being traded to the Orioles in the Bedard swap. The 34-year-old has developed into one of the game's better lefty specialists and had 32 strikeouts and just one walk in 78 at-bats against southpaws last year for Atlanta.

LHP reliever Hong-Chih Kuo: Kuo was an NL All-Star in 2010 and one of the better relievers in baseball from 2008-10, but struggled last year with control and anxiety issues. If he can get square with Seattle, the Mariners strengthened their bullpen considerably. If not, he agreed to a $500,000 deal that rises to $1 million if he makes the 25-man roster and then has incentives that can add another $2.25 million if he's productive.

RHP reliever Shawn Camp: The 36-year-old could fill a similar role to Jamey Wright a year ago as a veteran who has been a workhorse for the Blue Jays in recent years. Camp signed a one-year, $750,000 contract this week.

Prospects to watch

LHP Danny Hultzen: Hultzen advances to his first Major League camp without having yet pitched in the Minors after being drafted with the No. 2 overall pick last June out of Virginia. He did pitch well in limited duty in the Arizona Fall League and it seems only a matter of time before he gets a shot in Seattle, though presumably the Mariners will want him to get a little seasoning before that happens.

LHP James Paxton: Paxton had about two weeks in camp last spring after ending a year-and-a-half holdout from the pros, then dominated in Class A and Double-A ball before getting shut down in August. He's another top-tier prospect who could get his chance sometime this year.

RHP Taijuan Walker: The team's top Draft pick in 2010 was the Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year after an outstanding campaign for Class A Clinton and will get a look in his first Major League camp at just 19. Realistically, he's probably headed for Double-A ball, but everyone who has seen Walker say his stuff is electric.

RHP Erasmo Ramirez: Just 21, Ramirez might be the most ready of the top prospects in the Mariners' system, having pitched a half season of Triple-A ball last year for Tacoma after rising quickly through the system. The Nicaragua native has been overshadowed a little by Hultzen, Paxton and Walker, but he threw very well in the Venezuela Winter League and might surprise some people this camp.

On the rebound

CF Franklin Gutierrez: The 2010 Gold Glove winner endured a difficult 2011 season, missing most of camp and the first few months of the season while figuring out a lingering stomach and digestive issue, and then strained an oblique muscle that wiped out his September. Gutierrez has put on 15 pounds of muscle this offseason and could be poised for a return to the standout performer the Mariners need at his position.

1B Justin Smoak: Smoak was one of baseball's top first base prospects when acquired in the Cliff Lee deal in midseason of 2010, but has yet to put it all together at the plate. After a nice start last season, he dealt with nagging injuries to both thumbs as well as the death of his father. The Mariners say he's lost about 20 pounds and added strength this offseason and they're hoping the combination adds up to strong 2012 campaign.

RF Ichiro Suzuki: Nobody knows if Ichiro just had a rare down season last year or if Father Time is catching up with him now at age 38. Ichiro didn't reach 200 hits, make the All-Star team or earn a Gold Glove for the first time in 11 years in the Majors. Wedge is talking about taking him out of the leadoff role and he might not play every day for the first time in his career, but the Mariners could certainly use a bounceback effort from the veteran in his final season of an $18 million a year contract.

3B Chone Figgins: Figgins has had two straight subpar seasons since signing a four-year, $36 million deal with Seattle. Last year was downright miserable (.188 in 81 games), but Wedge will give the 33-year-old a chance to regain a role as a utility player and potential leadoff hitter if he can find a spot in the lineup.

Long gone

RHP Michael Pineda: It wasn't easy giving up a 22-year-old power pitcher who established himself as a quality starter last year as a rookie, but the Mariners need to add offense and sacrificed Pineda for the promising bat of Montero.

INF Adam Kennedy: The veteran filled a key role in the clubhouse and also provided a decent bat in the first half of last year, but lost playing time when the Mariners brought up Ackley and then Seager. He signed a free-agent deal this offseason with the Dodgers.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.