Let’s take the James Paxton approach.
One week remains before the Mariners open the 2018 regular season at Safeco Field against the Indians so it’s time to do what Paxton says he’s doing – dialing in and ramping it up.
Over the next few days we’ll project what the Mariners’ Opening Day 25-man roster will look like. But before we get into it, I enlisted some help for this series from my esteemed predecessor on this beat, recently retired Bob Dutton. He’s got more than 30 years of ballwriting to his record, including the past four seasons covering the Mariners.
So let’s kick this off with the outfield.
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The question isn’t how it looks the first game of the season. That seems cemented.
The real question is what happens when Ben Gamel returns from injury? We’ll get to that.
Here’s we’re projecting for the Mariners’ on Opening Day next week against the Cleveland Indians:
CF DEE GORDON
2017 (Marlins): 158 games, .308/.341/.375, 60 stolen bases
2018 spring training (through March 21): 16 games, .348/.362/.630. (16-for-46)
RF MITCH HANIGER
2017: 96 games, .282/.352/.491, 16 HR, 47 RBI
2018 spring training (through March 21): 9 games, .148/.233/.259 (4-for-27)
LF ICHIRO SUZUKI
2017 (Marlins): 136 games, .255/.318/.332
2018 spring training (through March 21): 4 games, .000/.125/.000 (0-for-7).
OF GUILLERMO HEREDIA
2017: 123 games, .249/.315, .337
2018 spring training (through March 21): 14 games .200/.359/.300 (6-for-30)
Heredia and Suzuki should be platooning there in left field, though manager Scott Servais has said it won’t be a straight left-right platoon because last year Ichiro hit .340 in 47 at-bats against left-handed pitchers and .231 in 143 at-bats against right-handed ones. They’d platoon more based on the individual pitcher that day.
But what about Gamel?
He’s two weeks removed from straining his oblique and that’s typically a 6-8 week recovery.
“And look at Mitch Haniger last year,” Bob pointed out. “They said it wasn’t too bad, but look how long that lingered.”
Haniger’s scorching start last season was derailed when he suffered what was thought to be a minor strain on April 25 – but he then didn’t return until June 11.
So I’m with my former colleague on this one. Bob says they could bring Gamel back slowly and then use up about all of his 30 days of a minor-league rehab assignment to delay his return until they have to make a decision. Maybe by that point one of those outfielders is struggling. Haniger and Heredia both have minor league options.
But what if it’s Ichiro doing the struggling?
He’s a franchise icon. But he’s also a hindrance if the 44-year-old isn’t producing while taking up a roster spot that could be used to further develop these young outfielders. Last year, Gamel, Heredia and Haniger became the first rookies in the history of baseball to make at least 95 starts in the outfield in the same season.
So if Ichiro is struggling while the other outfielders are healthy, his stay here would be short – with the caveat that a lot can happen by the time this decision would have to be made.
“You’d have to cut him,” Bob said. “You would. And they knew that coming in. Signing Ichiro made perfect sense when they did it if they are going to treat him like an aging outfielder who is plugging a gap as a backup outfielder. But if they are treating him like a franchise icon, then that wouldn’t make sense, even though he might get the loudest cheers of anybody on Opening Night.
“But say Ichiro has played 25 games and he’s hitting .188 – I’m not sure you’d get much blowback for cutting him.”
Maybe the most interesting part about all of this is we haven’t yet even talked about Gordon – who has never played an inning of outfield in a major league game but is now being asked to make the change to the Mariners’ full-time centerfielder.
Gordon has looked so much the part so far in spring training. The former Gold Glove second baseman even threw out the Angels’ Justin Upton who was trying to score from second base on a single to center during Sunday’s Cactus League game. He’s shown range, arm and he’s even caught a few balls near while running toward the warning track without fear of the wall.
Servais said Gordon has been all the Mariners could ask out there so far.
TNT PICK TO CLICK
His spring has been impressive all-around. He’s hitting .348 (16-for-46) with a couple of stolen bases, and expect that to be an electric dimension to the top of the Mariners lineup. He had an MLB-high 60 stolen bases in 2017.
But most impressive is how quickly he’s seemed to adjust to his switch from Gold Glove second base to center field. And that’s a testament to how dedicated he’s been to working at it, starting with his first days as a Mariner this offseason drilling with Mariners coach Chris Prieto.
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY: 7 DAYS
Here is the schedule for the rest of spring training up to the opening day, when the Mariners host the Indians at 7:10 p.m., March 29, at Safeco Field.
Thursday: vs. Texas Rangers (6:40 p.m., Peoria)
Friday: At Chicago White Sox (1:05 p.m., Glendale)
Saturday: vs. Chicago Cubs (6:40 p.m., Peoria)
Sunday: vs. San Diego Padres (12:10 p.m. at Peoria)
Monday: Off day
Tuesday: at Colorado Rockies (1:10 p.m. at Talking Stick)
Wednesday: Off day
March 29: Mariners open season against Indians at Safeco Field (7:10 p.m.)
April 5: Tacoma Rainiers open Triple-A season at Cheney Stadium (7:05 p.m.)