PEORIA, Ariz. – The trade that brought Franklin Gutierrez from Cleveland to Seattle came when the outfielder was playing winter baseball in Venezuela, and his first impressions weren’t overwhelming.
“The Indians called and said I’d been moved. I said, ‘Where?’ and they said ‘Seattle,’” Gutierrez recalled. “My first thought was, ‘Oh no, that’s too far …’”
Another telephone call changed that thought, and it came from Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was then two months into the job.
“Jack called me the next day and told me how happy he was to get me. He said, ‘You’re going to be my center fielder.’ And that changed things a little bit,” Gutierrez said. “My wife, my father – they’d always thought I’d get a chance. They were jumping up and down, they were so happy.”
Zduriencik’s faith in Gutierrez was as stunning as the 10-man trade that made him a Mariner. During the 2007-2008 seasons, combined, Gutierrez had started 13 games in center field.
What followed was a spectacular first year in Seattle, where center fielders are compared to Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Cameron. Thrust into spacious Safeco Field, Gutierrez led all big-league outfielders in putouts.
And using subtle changes to his stance suggested by hitting coach Alan Cockrell, Gutierrez batted .283 with 18 home runs, 70 RBI and a .339 on-base percentage.
What was it Zduriencik and his front office team saw that Cleveland obviously didn’t?
“I’d seen him in the Dodgers minor league system,” Zduriencik said. “When we were talking about trying to acquire a center fielder, (assistant general manager) Tony Blengino brought Franklin’s name up.”
Blengino, the Mariners sabermetrics guru, quickly put together a detailed report on Gutierrez and his defense. That, with what Zduriencik had seen with his own eyes, was enough.
For Gutierrez, 27, the confidence shown first by Zduriencik, then manager Don Wakamatsu, was enabling.
“The trade changed my life. This team gave me more confidence by giving me the chance, by believing in me – not for a month but for the whole season,” Gutierrez said. “I got to play every day.
“In one year, everything changed. They appreciated me. They said they’d been watching me. They said, ‘Kid, you can play center field!’ I thank Jack for watching me over the years and believing in me.”
The rest was up to Gutierrez.
“You get an opportunity, you have to take advantage. Sometimes, you get more than one. Sometimes, you only get one,” he said.
With the Dodgers organization, Gutierrez was a skinny outfielder with speed and power. He was named their Minor League Player of the Year in 2003, when he hit .287 with 24 home runs and 20 stolen bases.
The next April, Gutierrez was traded to Cleveland – for Milton Bradley.
Gutierrez became a corner outfielder, negating much of his speed and range and frustrating him. Worse, he was a corner outfielder who was platooned.
“In 2008, I thought he was hurt,” Chone Figgins said. “We’d play the Indians, and he wouldn’t play. I figured he had to be hurt.”
A year ago, Gutierrez said, Wakamatsu and his coaching staff put all that behind him.
“Don and the coaches, they always talk to you, and you do feel part of something here,” he said. “Don told me he wanted me to be myself. He said, ‘This is a family. We don’t want you do more or try harder. We want you to play your game.’
“When the season started and I was in center field, I was relaxed. It was a position I knew I could play.”
It didn’t take him long to show it.
Gutierrez homered in Seattle’s win on opening day last year, then might have saved the Mariners’ second win two days later with a spectacular first-inning catch that robbed Alexi Casilla of extra bases in what became a 2-0 victory.
“It was one of my best catches, ever. I was in right-center field, he hit the ball into left-center. I ran a long way, dove and got the ball at the last second,” Gutierrez said. “I don’t like to show emotion, but that catch meant a lot to me.”
It meant something to Zduriencik, too.
“All through spring training, he’d made catches and he was so graceful, he made things look easy,” Zduriencik said. “But to do it when it mattered, with a game on the line? Oh, my God! It was confirmation of everything we’d believed he could be.
“It was like watching a high draft pick get on the field and do what you thought he was capable of. When we made the trade, Franklin was our center fielder of the future. We’d already done our talking – now you let other people talk about it.”
Flash forward to this spring, and the Gutierrez in camp today is more talkative – with his teammates and the media. He laughs easier, smiles more often but, his coaches say, works just as hard.
An offseason contract extension has him signed through 2013 with an option for another year. Gutierrez is a center fielder at peace.
“This season, I want to do better. You always want to do better. I won’t talk too much, but I can do a lot of little things – bunt, run, take pitches,” he said. “I’ll try to improve my offense.
“All the years I’ve played, I’ve come to camp having to try to win a spot. This is much better – I have a spot. It’s what every player wants. What’s my best? I don’t know yet. I know in the outfield, I want to catch every ball. That’s my first job.”
blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners '09 By the numbers
18 Home runs
70 Runs batted in
.339 On-base pct.
445 Putouts, most in the majors
16 Stolen bases
85 Runs scored