Daniel Vogelbach seemed on the outside looking in at the start of this spring training.
Then he raked.
And that impressed the Mariners brass so much that they rewarded the first baseman with a spot on the 25-man roster to open the season – even if it will be temporary and with semi-sparse playing time alongside offseason pickup Ryon Healy.
“He’s come a long way. He’s come a long way,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He’s made some adjustments with his swing, but more importantly for me it was emotionally and where he’s at mentally and letting his personality come out.”
That’s different than last year when it seemed the now-25-year-old had a shot to open in at least a platoon role with Danny Valencia. But they – suddenly – optioned him to Tacoma with almost two weeks remaining in big-league camp.
“Obviously it’s a great feeling,” Vogelbach said. “It kind of makes you feel like your work has paid off.
“But obviously this is just the first step with what I want to do. Just excited to get to compete with these guys and obviously the No. 1 thing is to win. Whatever I can do to help the team win is what I’m going to do. Whatever I’m called or asked to do, I’m going to do it.”
He was a Triple-A All-Star last season and his plate discipline hasn’t been an issue. Defense was, and how much damage he could do with that swing of his since the Mariners brought him in from the Cubs in exchange for Mike Montgomery in a July 2016 trade.
And Vogelbach, a left-handed hitter, has done just about everything the Mariners could ask for this spring. He’s reached base safely in 16 of his 19 games with an at-bat. He has a .508 on-base percentage, he’s batting .388 (19-for-49), a .878 slugging percentage (1.386 OPS). His on-base percentage, slugging and OPS are the best of any hitter on any team this spring training, while he’s also hit six home runs.
Take all of that with a grain of salt – just like any spring training stats. But, still …
“He’s fitting in and he’s comfortable,” Servais said. “I think that’s important for all players. Some guys can easily transition and other guys it takes a little bit longer.
“Vogey’s situation – he spends his entire career with the Cubs and he comes over here and all the sudden the opportunity is there and when you don’t feel like you’re seizing it you’re like, ‘Oh my God, I’m screwing this up. I’m letting this opportunity just slip right through my hands.’ And, you know, sometimes you panic a little bit. I’m really happy for him and the way he’s bounced back. He’s had a great spring.”
He certainly changed some of his swing, like changing his hand placement to tap into more of his power and increase his launch angle. But more than any of that, he said the change is confidence.
“Confidence in going to the plate and confidence in myself – that I belong here,” Vogelbach said. “And I can play here. I think that was the biggest thing – proving that I belong.”
So what does his role look like?
Healy hit 25 home runs with the Athletics last season and he’s the Mariners No. 1 option at first base. And that role would increase, barring injuries, on April 11 when the Mariners need to add a fifth starter to their rotation and Vogelbach’s roster spot runs dry.
The Mariners have said they will go with 13 pitches and 12 position players, meaning their backup position players would need to be a fourth outfielder, utility infielder and a backup catcher. Vogelbach’s fits are only at first base and designated hitter.
And the last thing the Mariners want to do is take all of Vogelbach’s spring momentum and halt it by sitting him on the bench.
“We will see a lot of right-handed pitching,” Servais said. “So we’ll try to get him a start here or there early on and we certainly, depending on the matchup, could get him a pinch-hitting opportunity. But you look at our lineup and there aren’t a whole lot of pinch-hit opportunities, so I think getting him a start early would be the best thing for Vogey.
“There will be chances, but not a ton. And Vogey knows that.”
And that’s was Vogelbach’s problem when he was brought up last season was playing time. He had 31 major league at-bats last year with six hits – one for extra bases (a double).
In 125 Triple-A games with the Rainiers, Vogelbach hit .290 with a .388 on-base percentage. He hit 17 home runs and had 83 RBIs. In seven minor-league seasons he has a .390 on-base percentage.
“Like anything in life, when you are more comfortable with things you can be yourself more,” Vogelbach said. “Coming from the Cubs into the clubhouse, I was with the Cubs my whole career and sometimes when you just meet people sometimes you are kind of hesitant to open up right away. So just being here last year and being with the guys up and down really helped me to be able to be myself.”
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