Presence of new veterans bring buzz to Mariners
Morales, Morse, Ibanez, Bay add powerful reinforcements to young core
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's not difficult detecting how things are different with the Mariners as manager Eric Wedge embarks on his third season at the helm.
A team that has struggled to score runs in recent years is leading the Cactus League in home runs and slugging percentage this spring with a group of new veterans and returning youngsters that have produced an intriguing blend in camp.
Carrying that over to the regular season when games begin Monday in Oakland is the clear challenge, but consider this in regard to the Mariners' transition. A year ago, they opened the season with Ichiro Suzuki batting third in a desperate attempt to put a veteran presence in the middle of their lineup. And two years ago, Milton Bradley and Jack Cust were the Nos. 3 and 4 hitters on Opening Day.
W: Hernandez L: Anderson SV: Wilhelmsen
It remains to be seen how the new veterans produce over the course of a full season, but early indications are all positive for heart-of-the-order candidates Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse, as well as new additions Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay.
The proven producers in the middle of the lineup have allowed up-and-coming youngsters like Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley to breathe a little easier, knowing they're not carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders when it comes to generating runs.
Just ask shortstop Brendan Ryan, who joins Smoak as the only returnees still around from the 2011 Opening Day lineup.
"It's not even close," Ryan said. "It really isn't. The vibe is just so much better. It's so much more fun coming into the clubhouse every day.
"The additions we've made with the position players, it takes pressure off me, even in the nine-hole. It takes pressure off Kyle having to get another two-out RBI today. You throw in guys like Kendrys and Morse and Ibanez and Bay, they've all done it before. It's not anything new to anyone. It just brings more balance."
The Mariners made strides last year despite their lack of veteran production, improving by eight wins with a 75-87 record in the tough American League West and finishing the season at 39-36 after the All-Star break.
They were last in the AL in scoring for a fourth straight year, yet ranked fifth in the league in runs and home runs in road games. Thus it'll be interesting to see how much impact the decision to bring in the fences at Safeco Field makes this year and whether one of the league's better pitching staffs maintains its success in the new environment.
With Felix Hernandez secured to a new seven-year, $175 million contract, the rotation is anchored at the top. Hisashi Iwakuma and free-agent southpaw Joe Saunders bring a veteran presence to a starting staff that has also features youngsters Blake Beavan and Brandon Maurer, with premium prospects Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker not far off as well.
But pitching has never been a problem for Seattle in recent years. And Montero, who will step up as the everyday catcher now in his second season since being acquired from the Yankees, is one of the right-handed hitters excited about the left-center power alley being moved closer at Safeco.
The 23-year-old sensed a new feeling in the clubhouse this spring even before the club got anywhere near its revised ballpark.
"We've got veteran guys now and everybody knows it's going to be different," Montero said. "Nobody has been talking about us, but we're fine with that. We're quiet, now we have a nice team. Everything is coming together. We've got power, we've got hitting, we've got pitching. It's going to be different."
One of the differences is that young hitters like Montero, Smoak and Seager no longer will need to bat third or fourth. Morales and Morse will occupy those power positions, which likely allows Seager to slide into a more-suitable No. 2 slot and Smoak and Montero to hit lower in the lineup. The same holds true for Ackley, who was hitting first at the end of last year, but now could bat seventh or eighth as Wedge looks at Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez to share leadoff duties.
Wedge, who opened last year with Chone Figgins as his leadoff hitter, feels better about the lineup one through nine this spring. Morse has replaced Ichiro as a true power bat in a corner outfield spot. With Montero now at catcher, Morales becomes the designated hitter. So Morales essentially takes the place of Miguel Olivo offensively.
If Gutierrez can stay healthy, that's another solid veteran presence. Add in Ibanez and Bay as a left-right combo off the bench or pinch-hitting options and the Mariners have a different feel than the group that hit .234 in 2012.
"We were not a team built to come from behind," Ryan said. "We were built obviously to try to win those one-run games, keep teams to minimal runs scored on the other side, execute the small ball, run the bases intelligently. Those things haven't changed, we've just added more gunpowder to the lineup."
Of course, all the Cactus League explosions will mean nothing once the regular season begins. But the Mariners say this past five weeks of games means something to them as they've begun the process of banding together.
Morse comes from a Nationals team that made the playoffs last year. Morales was a rising star for the Angels before shattering his ankle in 2010 and just now appears to be regaining full strength. Bay and Ibanez are former All-Stars and postseason veterans.
Backup catcher Kelly Shoppach has playoff experience with the Indians and Rays. Utility infielder Robert Andino played for the upstart Orioles last year and says he sees similarities with these Mariners.
These are veteran voices and presences, both in the lineup and in the clubhouse, and their impact has been felt from Day One of camp and throughout a very productive Cactus League season.
"You can say it's spring or whatever, but you still have to hit the ball and play the game," Morse said. "I think half of the way we're playing is because guys are relaxed and confident and they're believing in their abilities. It's something we have to remember, bottle up and carry over to the season."
"We have a young group here starting off, but we're all happy, we're all working together, we're all united," said Morales, acquired from the Angels over the offseason. "So we'll just see what happens out on the field. I'm not familiar with the other [Mariners] teams in the past, but we've got a good group here."
Ibanez has been part of playoff teams the past four seasons with the Phillies and Yankees. One of the big reasons he was brought to Seattle was to provide the kind of veteran leadership lacking in recent years.
And from what he's seen, the ingredients are in place for an interesting year.
"I think what we have here is a bunch of guys who are having a really good time playing baseball," Ibanez said. "There's a great feeling in here. Guys are believing in themselves and believing this is a new season and this is a different moment and that this is our time. When you have guys believing that, playing that way and feeling those things, it's bound to manifest itself on the team."
- 1. CF: Franklin Gutierrez
- 2. 3B: Kyle Seager
- 3. DH Kendrys Morales
- 4. LF: Michael Morse
- 5. 1B: Justin Smoak
- 6. C: Jesus Montero
- 7. RF: Michael Saunders
- 8. 2B: Dustin Ackley
- 9. SS: Brendan Ryan
- SP: Felix Hernandez