PEORIA, Ariz. — Free-agent signee Nelson Cruz started to make the transition last year, while playing in Baltimore, from outfielder to designated hitter. He also led the majors with 40 home runs.
Look for that positional trend to escalate this season. The Mariners shelled out $57 million in a four-year deal to Cruz because they wanted — needed — an impact bat for the middle of their lineup. Not a suspect glove.
Cruz’s outfield time will be limited, primarily, to those days when manager Lloyd McClendon wants to ease the workload on Robinson Cano or Kyle Seager by having them serve as the DH.
Otherwise, the outfield shapes up as Austin Jackson in center and lots of options for the corners. Left fielder Dustin Ackley returns, but the Mariners have veteran newcomers in Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks.
The tentative plan points to Smith and Ruggiano serving as a platoon in right, and Weeks battling Ackley for time in left — if Weeks proves he can play the outfield.
Smith and Ruggiano, if needed, can play corner; Ruggiano is also viewed as a viable backup to Jackson in center. Weeks might also draw duty in right field.
So McClendon has lots of choices.
What the Mariners need most is a return to form by Jackson, who proved a massive disappointment last year after arriving from Detroit in a July 31 deadline deal: a .229/.267/.260 slash in 54 games.
If Jackson approaches his career norms (.274/.336/.402), he figures to be a catalyst to what should be a much-improved attack.
WHO IS IN CAMP?
On 40-man roster (8)
Non-roster invites (4)
THE LOCKS: Cruz, Ackley, Jackson, Smith and Ruggiano are all locks. Count Weeks, too, although we slotted him earlier this week among the infielders.
SPRING BATTLES: Attention will focus on Weeks’ ability to make a smooth transition to the outfield after spending all 12 of his professional seasons solely as a second baseman.
If Weeks succeeds, it ratchets up the pressure on Ackley to avoid the extended slumps that plagued him in the past.
Ackley delivered a .274/.313/.463 slash last year from July 1 through the end of the season. Similar production should keep him in the lineup — at least against right-handed pitchers.
HELP IF NEEDED: The Mariners armed themselves with veteran depth by re-signing Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez. Both will be in camp on minor-league deals.
Chavez is likely the first option if an opening occurs. Gutierrez didn’t play last year because of ongoing gastrointestinal issues and has lots to prove in terms of health and on-field play.
Signing Weeks also put a serious crimp in any chance for James Jones or Stefen Romero to break with the club. Both played a lot last year but figure to be on call at Tacoma.
Pat Kivlehan and Jordy Lara are each in big-league camp for the first time after producing breakout seasons in the minors. Both should get a long look in the first few weeks.
Kivlehan is more advanced and sufficiently versatile to play the infield and outfield corners. He spent most of last season at Double-A Jackson and, if he continues on pace, could warrant a big-league call this year at some point.
KEY SPRING DATES
Friday: Pitchers and catchers report to camp.
Saturday: First workout for pitchers and catchers.
February 24: Infielders and outfielders report to camp.
February 25: First full-squad workout.
March 4: Cactus League opener vs. San Diego at Peoria Stadium.
April 4: Cactus League finale vs. Colorado at Salt River Fields.
April 6: Regular-season opener vs. Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field.
TNT SPRING PREVIEW SERIES
Monday: Starting pitchers
Tuesday: Relief pitchers