As the Tacoma Rainiers open the 2017 season, here are five questions facing the team:
HOW WILL THIS SQUAD BE BETTER IN 2017?
It did not take manager Pat Listach very long to come up with an area — offense.
Last season, Tacoma was among the PCL leaders in runs scored (689), ranking sixth in the league. Still, down the stretch, and in the playoffs, the team struggled to score.
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The outfield production could be dynamic with two reigning MVPs — Ben Gamel in International League (Triple-A) and Tyler O’Neill in Southern League (Double-A). Add Boog Powell to the mix — his .577 spring training batting average led all Mariners outfielders — and this team could score close to 800 runs.
“It should be a pretty good mixture of power and speed,” Listach said.
WHAT IS THE PLAN FOR RECENTLY DEMOTED DANIEL VOGELBACH?
One of the biggest spring training surprises by the Mariners brass was to demote Daniel Vogelbach, who was the favorite to nab the starting first-base job with the big club.
What do they want to see out of him in Triple-A?
“Daniel will probably play first base four times a week,” Listach said. “But it is more important for him to get his everyday work in (pregame) drills — more important than game-time stuff.”
D.J. Peterson, who was expected to man first base the majority of the time, will spend time all over, including third base and both corner outfield spots, Listach said.
IS SAM GAVIGLIO THE DE FACTO STAFF ACE?
With Cody Martin still in Arizona with a balky elbow, Sam Gaviglio, the 26-year-old Oregon native, was scheduled to start on opening day and at the home opener this season.
It helps that Gaviglio is the lone familiar face in the rotation. Last season, he was 3-2 with a 3.71 ERA in 63 innings after a promotion from Double-A Jackson.
Gaviglio did not fare well in the winter league (0-2, 5.91 ERA), but he got a nice boost in spring training by making one start for Italy in the World Baseball Classic (3.86 ERA).
“I went down to the Dominican Republic and struggled, but pitching in the (WBC) was fun,” Gaviglio said. “The competition was elevated, unlike a normal spring training.”
HOW GOOD CAN THE BULLPEN BE?
One thing is for certain — the Rainiers have more experienced arms to pitch in critical late-game situations.
Right-hander Jean Machi is a proven big league arm who saved games for a pair of Triple-A clubs — Iowa (one) and Sacramento (12).
“I saw him last year, and I liked his stuff,” Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter said. “He has a good split-finger (pitch). He goes after guys. He is one of the important pieces to our bullpen, and provides depth for the big club.”
It won’t just be Machi late in games, either. Listach said former Mariners pitcher Mark Lowe, along with Nick Hagadone, Ryan Weber and Emilio Pagan, could pitch the eighth or ninth innings.
WILL NICK HAGADONE RETURN TO MLB?
Nearly two years ago, Hagadone, the former Sumner High School and University of Washington standout, suffered his second serious elbow injury in a minor league game.
In his first rehab start for Mahoning Valley (Single-A), Hagadone threw four pitches before fracturing the medial epicondyle bone in his throwing arm.
“It sounds like a terrible injury, and it was, but it was sort of one of those things that just went numb,” Hagadone said. “I am over it.”
Hagadone spent all of last season recovering from the injury. Seattle signed him to a minor league deal in January.
In spring training, Hagadone’s fastball sat in the 90-91 mph range, down from his regular 95-96 mph from a few years ago with Cleveland.
“The (velocity) is on its way back,” Hagadone said. “Up until three weeks ago, I was playing catch one day to make sure I could throw the next day. Now I can get back to long tossing with some type of purpose.”