The limitations are obvious, and they are necessary.
Franklin Gutierrez doesn’t run like he used to, robbed of his durability by a nasty arthritic condition called ankylosing spondylitis. So the former Gold Glove center fielder now plays almost exclusively in left field — it’s far less taxing, physically — where he’s appeared in 26 of the 39 games he’s played this season for the Tacoma Rainiers.
There are days, too, when Gutierrez, who is now 32, fills in as Tacoma’s designated hitter, and others when he simply needs a day off to rest.
But when he plays, he plays well. Very well, so far: his .331 batting average ranks sixth in the Pacific Coast League, his .960 OPS (on-base plus slugging) ranks third, and he extended his current hitting streak to 15 games Tuesday.
And that’s likely more than anyone within the Seattle Mariners organization expected when the club signed Gutierrez to a minor-league deal in January, less than a year after health concerns forced him to walk away from a one-year big-league contract and sit out the 2014 season.
That couldn’t be the end, he decided. There had to be something left.
“He wanted to prove himself,” Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said last week. “He needed to not walk away. He needed to give it one more chance to see how his body would respond after having a year off, and he’s in the middle of that right now.”
And he’s cherishing the opportunity, even if an eventual return to the majors remains uncertain.
“I’m just glad that I’m back in baseball after a year off,” Gutierrez said during Tacoma’s most recent homestand. “Right now, I’m really just working every day, working hard, playing my hardest, enjoying just being here, and we’ll see what happens the rest of the season.”
He last appeared in a big-league game in 2013, when recurring hamstring problems limited him to 41 games and 151 plate appearances. A torn pectoral muscle — and, later, a concussion suffered thanks to an errant pick-off attempt — wiped out all but 40 games of his 2012 season. In 2011, Gutierrez played just 92 games amid a stomach issue that was eventually diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome.
Mariners fans longed for the healthy version of their star center fielder, the guy who hit .283 with 18 homers and 73 RBI in his first season in Seattle in 2009, the guy who crammed highlight reels with uncommon outfield elegance and earned the nickname “Death To Flying Things.”
Which only made the ankylosing spondylitis diagnosis more discouraging. The painful details of said condition are outlined thoroughly on the website of the Spondylitis Association of America: inflammation of spinal joints that leads to “severe, chronic pain and discomfort.” Inflammation and stiffness in hips and other joints. Bad days, known as “flares,” that occur without warning.
There is no cure. Gutierrez must combat it for as long as he lives. But during his year off at his home in Miami, he at least crafted a treatment plan that stifled the pain enough for him to resume his playing career and become one of the most productive hitters in the PCL.
“Obviously, my body feels a little different, but it’s something I’m working every day getting used to,” Gutierrez said. “Just trying to leave everything behind — what happened in the past — and just playing baseball right now and trying to feel good every day, and do the things that I can do to be on the field.”
Rainiers manager Pat Listach said there’s “no doubt” that Gutierrez still hits like a big-leaguer.
“He gives you a professional at-bat, and doesn’t swing at many bad pitches, obviously,” Listach said. “He’s (nearly) leading the league in on-base percentage, so he knows the strike zone. When he gets a good hitting count, he usually puts a pretty good pass on it. That’s all you can ask for.”
Listach said he wasn’t previously familiar with Gutierrez’s medical history, but it’s a frequent communication topic now.
“Basically, I’ve told him, ‘I’m putting you in left field every day until you tell me you can’t go. If you need a day (off), come tell me. If you think you need to DH today, come tell me,’ ” Listach said. “So the communication is there, obviously, because of who he is and where he’s been.”
But where is he going? Can he still be relied upon as a consistently productive big-leaguer? His offensive numbers indicate that it’s possible, and those stats become particularly enticing when considering how mightily the Mariners have struggled to score runs this season.
Other factors are a little murkier.
“With Franklin, it’s just about, how much can he perform?” Zduriencik said. “How many days a week can he play? And he’s proving right now that he’s giving it a really good test. He’s pushed it, he’s been able to perform, he’s stayed relatively healthy.”
Relatively. Gutierrez did miss 11 games earlier this season with a strained hamstring, and hasn’t played more than four consecutive games in left field.
Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said Gutierrez doesn’t necessarily need to prove he can play every day. But he does need to prove, McClendon said, that he can “show up every day and post up.”
“And it’s not the kid not having the desire to do it,” McClendon said. “It’s the issues from a medical standpoint that he has that prevents him from doing it. The issues come out of nowhere, when he doesn’t even know they’re going to be there the next morning. He’ll be feeling great, go 4 for 4 with two home runs the day before, and the next day he can’t play. So that’s probably a little concerning.”
But: “I think he’s moving and trending in the right direction.”
Gutierrez said he doesn’t think about when or if he might be summoned back to Seattle, deflecting that question by responding simply that “it’s not up to me. That’s something that I don’t have control over. The only thing I can control is what I’m doing here.”
He describes the Mariners organization as “like a family,” and seems to genuinely enjoy his experience in Tacoma. Gutierrez is regarded by Listach as a valuable mentor to his Triple-A teammates. Second baseman Shawn O’Malley volunteered during an interview last week that when he was struggling with his plate approach, Gutierrez offered some tips. Others simply learn by observing how a big-leaguer attacks Triple-A pitching.
“He’s a great man,” Zduriencik said. “Everybody really likes him as a human being, and everybody’s pulling for him. We hope that he does get to a point this year where he does contribute.”
For now, the Rainiers are the benefactors of Gutierrez’s comeback attempt. It’s been as encouraging as anyone could have hoped, and as a result, Listach said, “he knows there are some things still left in the tank, especially with the bat.”
There remain flashes of what made Gutierrez a Gold Glove winner, too, even if rarely displayed. Listach put him in center field exactly once this season — on April 11, in El Paso against the Chihuahuas. Abraham Almonte, the former Mariner, led off the bottom of the first inning with a drive to right-center that Gutierrez tracked down in impressive fashion.
“He made a play,” Listach said, “that was really one of the better plays we’ve seen all year in center. I knew right away what was in there.”
The consistency with which Gutierrez harnesses those reminders of yesteryear will ultimately determine whether this comeback reaches its most optimistic conclusion.
For now, the journey will suffice.
“I just enjoy coming here and being in the lineup and being with my teammates,” Gutierrez said. “And just being around baseball again.”