Gutierrez's winter could boost Mariners' outfield plan

Gutierrez's winter could boost Mariners' outfield plan

Gutierrez's winter could boost Mariners' outfield plan
SEATTLE -- Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez continues putting up good numbers this month in the Venezuelan Winter League, which raises an interesting question.

If the Mariners can add one more outfielder -- and speculation continues that they remain in the hunt for Josh Hamilton, Nick Swisher or Michael Bourn, three of the biggest names remaining on the free-agent market -- where would that leave Gutierrez?

Seattle already signed left fielder Jason Bay to a one-year contract for $1 million and plans to let him compete for a starting job in Spring Training. If Gutierrez is healthy, he figures as the starting center fielder and Michael Saunders can play either left or right field.

Casper Wells, Eric Thames and Carlos Peguero are the other returning outfielders, with Mike Carp projected more as a first-base contender now coming off his season-long battle with a shoulder injury.

But if the Mariners should sign Bourn, he's a premier defensive center fielder and that would figure to push Gutierrez to right field. If they sign Swisher or Hamilton, Saunders could play center or compete with Bay in left field.

In any scenario, Gutierrez comes with the major question of his health hanging overhead. The 2010 Gold Glove winner played just 40 games last season and 92 in 2011 due to a series of illnesses and injuries, including a strained pectoral muscle and then a severe concussion in 2012.

That's why the eight-year Major League veteran headed to the Winter Leagues in Venezuela, looking to get some playing time and regain his timing and confidence. After a slow start, he's hit .385 (10-for-26) over his last seven games, raising his overall average to .305 in 16 games with nine runs, four doubles, one home run and six RBIs for Leones del Caracas.

The Mariners are watching closely, happy to see Gutierrez getting some time, but cautious as well, given his recent run of injuries.

"If Franklin's healthy, he's a good Major League Baseball player," said manager Eric Wedge. "You feel so bad for him because he's been through so much. He came into camp in great shape last year, then tore the pec and had the mishap at first base on the pickoff throw. He's working hard again [and we] expect him to come in ready to go.

"He's put a lot of this behind him. He has to feel confident that everything's going to work out for him."

Where exactly does Gutierrez fit into the mix? The Mariners know only that he belongs on the field, if he proves he can stay there.

"You know what? When he's playing and he's healthy, he helps us win ballgames," Wedge said. "I think he's a great complement to our young kids."

Gutierrez, 29, has one year at $7 million remaining on the four-year contract he signed in 2010. The Mariners also have a club option for $7.5 million for 2014 or can buy out that year for $500,000.

General manager Jack Zduriencik is operating under the belief that Gutierrez is the team's center fielder but knows he can't completely count on that without a solid backup plan. Saunders proved to be an excellent replacement last year, but if he needs to shift to center again, the club doesn't want to be left short-handed in the corner spots.

"I do think right now you have to count on him," Zduriencik said of Gutierrez. "He is under contract. When he's healthy, he's a really good player. I also believe you have to consider what has happened to him the last couple years. You can't write it off totally and just say it will never happen again.

"But the positive with Guti is he's never had anything done structurally. He's had a pulled muscle, a stomach issue, the irritable bowel syndrome and then the freak accident this year getting hit in the back of the head. That could happen to anybody. It was just kind of freaky. But he hasn't had any elbow, shoulder or ankle injuries, just kind of these odd things.

"So you'd hope, especially this being his last year [on his contract], this would be a very motivating year for him. I know he felt terrible at the end of the year. He and I had a couple sit-downs. He was heartbroken how things went the last couple years and I think he's very motivated to come back."

While Gutierrez is outstanding defensively in center, Zduriencik sounded open to moving him to right field, if necessary, and noted Gutierrez played primarily in right with the Indians in his early years while Grady Sizemore patrolled center.

"I think you have to keep everything on the table," Zduriencik said. "If we were to open up today, Guti is our center fielder. But you also have to realize things happen during the course of Spring Training and a year and you have to adjust.

"We know he's a Gold Glove center fielder and that's a positive. But as you go about making your club better, no matter what position it is, we have to evaluate and the player has to evaluate where he's at and what makes the club better. If you're forced to make those decisions, you make them at that time. You don't know now what the club is going to look like on Opening Day."

Which is a fair point. It's worth remembering that after Carp was injured in Japan last year, the Mariners opened their regular season in the U.S. with a 25-man roster that had four outfielders -- Saunders, Wells, Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins.

Things change and the Mariners, with two months until camp opens in Arizona, aren't set yet.

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.