PEORIA, Ariz. – Now that the Seattle Mariners know Franklin Gutierrez won’t be their opening day center fielder, they must answer one question: Who is?
As the Cactus League started Friday, and with their March 28 season-opening game in Tokyo in sight, manager Eric Wedge and his staff will have to fill center field with Plan B.
On Friday against Oakland, the answer was Michael Saunders. Before long it could be Chone Figgins, who played there in one of the Mariners’ intrasquad games.
Casper Wells is a corner outfielder with center-field range, Darren Ford is something of a defensive specialist, Trayvon Robinson played center briefly late in 2011, and Ichiro Suzuki has been there a number of times in his career.
The candidate with the most center-field experience? Saunders, the left-handed hitter, has the most experience at the position but has a career .196 batting average.
Figgins has played the outfield, but mostly left field.
“In the corners, you worry about the ball that’s pulled,” Figgins said. “In center, it’s the overspin – how far the ball will carry. There’s a lot more territory to cover.”
By losing Gutierrez to a partially torn pectoral muscle, the Mariners lost the rarest of center fielders, one with a Gold Glove for defense. Gutierrez hasn’t made an error in an American League record 279 consecutive games.
That’s defense Seattle pitchers will find difficult to replace until he returns, probably some time late in April.
Ichiro has played center field, in Japan and Seattle, but is an unlikely starter this season. The team is already asking him to make a transition at the plate – moving him from first to third in the lineup.
Having him cover the most outfield ground at age 38? The team probably won’t ask.
Bottom line: If Gutierrez has no setbacks and misses only the first month of the regular season, the Mariners can get by with what they have on hand – a loose rotation of Saunders, Figgins and Wells.
Should Gutierrez not return early in the season, the team will almost certainly find his glove and bat irreplaceable within the organization.
The City of Peoria has called a Monday morning news conference to “discuss the future of the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres using the sports complex facilities.”
Since Mariners team president Chuck Armstrong will be among those on hand, expect an extension of Seattle’s 20-year lease with Peoria – and the city modernizing a complex built in 1992.
Going with a decidedly young lineup, the Mariners got five home runs and beat the Oakland Athletics, 8-5, in the Cactus League debut for both teams.
The long balls came from Saunders, Jesus Montero, Carlos Peguero, Johermyn Chavez and Luis Rodriguez.
Blake Beavan started and went 2 innings, and Matt Fox got him out of a third-inning jam with a double-play ground ball. Chance Ruffin and Sean Henn shut out the Athletics the final two innings to preserve the win.
Rookies James Paxton, Dan Hultzen and Taijuan Walker aren’t scheduled to pitch in any of the first four Cactus League games.
All three will work in Monday’s ‘B’ game against the Cincinnati Reds in Goodyear, Ariz.
Saunders’ home run was impressive for what preceded it – five pitches fouled off before he got the one he hit out. The Mariners agreed to 2012 contracts with six players Friday, bringing everyone on the 40-man roster into the fold. Those signing: pitchers Tom Wilhelmsen and Cesar Jimenez, outfielders Robinson, Saunders, Wells and Mike Carp. While teammates were enjoying their lone off day of the spring Thursday, ace Felix Hernandez threw 38 pitches to catcher Miguel Olivo in a simulated game. That likely clears him for about 50 pitches in his first Cactus League appearance Tuesday. With 67 players in camp and the Mariners’ minor league camp opening Monday, expect a few cuts early next week.
Seattle hosts Oakland today in a noon (PST) Cactus League game that will be broadcast on 710-AM. Probable starting pitchers: Tyson Ross vs. Hector Noesi.