PEORIA, Ariz. — It was notable this week that it was a simple malady, the flu, that sidelined outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. Nothing strange or exotic. Nothing career-threatening. Just the flu.
He’s expected to return Friday to the lineup.
Gutierrez’s story is well-known among Mariners’ fans. Even he observes: “It’s not a secret what I have. I try to manage it the best way possible.”
For years now, Gutierrez has battled ankylosing spondylitis, a form of spinal arthritis, and irritable bowel syndrome. The symptoms reoccur with little or no warning. His lineup availability remains a day-to-day question.
And yet, somehow, Gutierrez is performing better than ever.
Doing more despite playing less.
A year ago, after missing all of 2014, Gutierrez batted a career-high .292 in 59 games after his promotion from Triple-A Tacoma with 15 homers in 171 at-bats. That’s one homer for every 11.4 at-bats.
No player in the American League with more than 101 at-bats hit homers at a more frequent rate. This spring, more of the same. Gutierrez has four homers in just 18 at-bats.
The power source?
“I guess I’ve just got a little more experience,” he said, “and I gained some weight and added some muscle. I’ve been working with Edgar (Martinez) in the cage, trying to stay inside the ball.”
General manager Jerry Dipoto says the Mariners “might have found the sweet spot for Franklin in the way he’s used.” Manager Scott Servais sees a player “who understands who he is.”
It helps that Gutierrez, now 33, plays primarily against left-handed pitchers. He has always enjoyed greater success against left-handers throughout his 10-year career: a .291/.346/.491 slash vs. .243/.292/.366 against right-handers.
“He’s controlled the strike zone,” Servais said. “He gets down in the count, but he is a guy who chokes up (on the bat) with two strikes to try to get the ball in play. An because he’s so strong, good things happen.”
Gutierrez points to a philosophical shift; where he once tried to pull everything, he now seeks to hit the ball to the middle and right side.
“I let the ball go deep,” he said, “and just try to make contact with the ball. I don’t know, man. But since last year, I’ve been hitting the ball to the opposite side, and I feel good going that way.
“If you stay to the middle, you can hit any ball. Normally, that’s what I do. I try to go to the other side and put a good swing on it.”
Choking up on the bat — moving the hands up an inch or more from the knob — used to be standard procedure. Now, Gutierrez is among the few players who do so.
“You can have more contact,” he said. “You feel more comfortable at the plate. You just try to throw your hands to the ball. That’s pretty much what I do.”
Another case of doing more with less.
LINING IT UP
The Mariners’ rotation is falling into place along anticipated lines.
Servais confirmed Thursday that right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is slotted to start the regular season’s second game on April 5 at Texas.
Lefty Wade Miley is the tentative choice for the series finale on April 6 against the Rangers, which positions right-hander Taijuan Walker to start the home opener on April 8 against Oakland at Safeco Field.
Servais previously identified right-hander Felix Hernandez as the Mariners’ starter on April 4 in the season opener. The Rangers, earlier this week, announced lefty Cole Hamels as their choice.
The fifth spot in the Mariners’ rotation remains a toss-up. Right-hander Nathan Karns appeared to have a slight edge over lefty James Paxton before giving up nine runs over 2 1/3 innings in Wednesday’s 13-12 loss to Oakland.
Both pitchers are tentatively lined up for two more spring starts.
The Mariners left the smallest footprint of any franchise last year in Latin America by signing just nine international players, according to statistics compiled by Baseball America.
Washington and the Chicago White Sox signed 11 players in the 2015 calendar year, which tied for the second-fewest number. The New York Yankees led all clubs with 57, followed Arizona with 48 and Houston with 46.
Other American League West teams: Texas 30, Oakland 22 and the Los Angeles Angels with 14.
BOYER IN CAMP
Former Green Beret Nate Boyer, who spent time last summer in the Seahawks’ camp as a long snapper, will address the Mariners prior to Friday’s game on performance enhancement.
Boyer is the owner, operator, and founding member of Mission 6 Zero, which is comprised of and created by decorated, combat-proven United States Special Operations Forces operators (Green Berets, Delta Force, Navy SEALs, etc.)
The group’s stated mission is to "identify, assess, and develop human behaviors to help organizations achieve optimal performance results."
Boyer, 35, signed a free-agent contract last May with the Seahawks and took part in three plays in their Aug. 14 preseason game against the Denver Broncos. He was released on Aug. 18.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners