The Seattle Mariners Thursday held their annual luncheon for the local media at which several key members of the organization spoke briefly. Included among those were skipper Lloyd McClendon, general manager Jack Zduriencik, assistant GM Jeff Kingston, director of player development Chris Gwynn and team trainer Rick Griffin.
Left-hander J.A. Happ also made an appearance, and we even got the skinny on the new lighting at Safeco from the ballpark operations group. By the way, there will be Wi-Fi at Safeco this season, starting this weekend at FanFest.
Before I get to the notes on some of the top prospects, Griffin, McClendon, Zduriencik and Kingston added interesting thoughts on the big club, the offseason and Safeco Field. I’ll bullet-point said notes:
— Griffin noted that left-hander Roenis Elias, who was shut down late last season, is “fine” after throwing bullpens this past fall and then heading home for the winter. His flexor bundle tendonitis isn’t expected to limit him when pitchers and catcher report next month.
— Griffin disclosed that Dustin Ackley, who has had some ankle problems of late, was healthy when the season ended but did see the country’s best ankle specialist in Charlotte. That specialist’s name was not disclosed, but I suspect it’s Dr. Robert Anderson, who works out of Charlotte and has worked with athletes such as Derek Jeter, NFL quarterback Matt Schaub and running back Ahmad Bradshaw. The doctor had some recommendations as to how the club and player should go about managing the issue, which Griffin stated was in line with their previous approach.
There are no immediate indications that this will be an issue for Ackley, but it’s worth keeping an eye on this coming season.
— McClendon made a point to note the club isn’t building directly on top of their 87-win accomplishment in 2014, saying “we’re not starting from 87, we’re starting from zero.” McClendon also said they’d like to add another starting pitcher, but all indications are that anything added between now and the start of Cactus League play will be minor acquisitions. So, no James Shields or Cole Hamels.
— McClendon, in response to a question about a player, perhaps a shortstop, playing somewhere else like the outfield, said he, and presumably the club as a whole, isn’t ready to go down that road. He also hinted that such a move isn’t necessary because they “have outfielders.”
— On Austin Jackson, McClendon said the centerfielder “will probably lead off for the Seattle Mariners,” in 2015. The second-year manager also said Jackson is “dedicated to the game,” which bodes well because he needs to “clean up some things with his mechanics.”
— On left-hander J.A. Happ: “We didn’t acquire Happ to pitch out of the bullpen,” McClendon said. He also said there is one spot in the rotation open for competition, but wouldn’t say which four were virtual automatics. Likely those four are Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Happ and James Paxton, who will join The Steve Sandmeyer Show Friday afternoon. That leaves Taijuan Walker, Elias and a few others battling for the No. 5 spot.
— McClendon is concerned about who the second lefty in the bullpen will be. It sounds like he’s concerned, only because he’s unsure who it is, not that they absolutely have to go out and add an arm.
— Happ himself was in attendance and spoke about his slight spike in velocity around mid-season, which doesn’t show up in the metrics. Happ did say it was more about being able to hold his velocity later in games than an actual spike in velocity. He attributed that to dropping his arm slot.
— Zduriencik said his offseason checklist was to add a cleanup hitter, first and foremost, then add a starting pitcher. No. 3 on that list was adding an additional hitter. Knew the club’s glaring lineup weaknesses in the No. 1, 2 and 4 spots in the order.
— Kingston said Carlos Rivero is more of a third baseman than a shortstop, saying “he can stand over there” on occasion but if Willie Bloomquist isn’t ready for the season they’ll look to new minor league signee Shawn O’Malley, or obviously Chris Taylor or Brad Miller as the “other” option at shortstop. Rivero not a candidate for a utility spot, it seems.
— Zduriencik said he and McClendon exchanged texts during the Seahawks-Packers game talking about how games can be won and lost. McClendon was asked about the conversation and he said one play almost never decides a baseball game.
— McClendon added that he wants his player to think about preparing for the season and for games, not expectations.
On the prospects:
— Patrick Kivlehan: “Good athlete. Very intense, hardworking player,” Zduriencik said. “We’re going to give him at-bats,” said Chris Gwynn, who noted the former Rutgers football player will see time at first base and in the outfield. Evaluators say he looks fine at first, despite limited time there, but his foot speed and tracking skills suggest he can play left field. He will get some time in outfield in 2015, which is where he could help the Mariners the most if his bat continues to develop.
— Ji-Man Choi, 1B, is switch hitting in winter ball. “We’ll see how it goes,” Gwynn said. Choi, a former catcher, has solid plate skills and average power. If he stays healthy, he’s on a short list to fill in at first base should the club need him. Jesus Montero, however, is probably choice No. 1. Montero is down to 235 pounds, Griffin and Zduriencik said, which is where they have wanted him to be all along. Griffin even said Jesus could drop even more weight before the season starts. One area where weight can impact a hitter is hip rotation. He’ll play a lot of first base, according to Gwynn, who saw Montero recently in Arizona and said he was “ecstatic” at the shape the slugger is in right now.
— Gwynn on outfield prospect Gabriel Guerrero: “Great kid, great makeup.” Gwynn also said Guerrero likely starts 2015 in Double-A Jackson.
— Gwynn on catcher John Hicks: Has found a better mechanical balance at the plate, which explains some improvement in the production. Gwynn says Hicks has a shot to be a factor at some point in 2015 (for the Mariners).
— Gwynn on recent international signing Brayan Hernandez, an outfielder: May stay in Venezuela for 2015. Hernandez is 17 years old.
— Gwynn on Jordy Lara, 1B: May play some OF, mostly 1B in 2015. “Plus arm, swings at strikes, has some power.” Pretty basic, but the middle one is the key. If he can continue to build on his strike zone discipline, Lara might be the next regular first baseman of the Seattle Mariners. He’s at least a year away.
— If Zduriencik was willing to move Walker, Paxton, the GM said he had chances to make other moves. Matt Kemp was one of them, we learned back in December.
— Danny Hultzen, LHP, will “compete with everyone else” this spring, said Griffin. Club will monitor his work. Not on any specific limitations unique to him. Made some delivery tweaks last year. Will start the year in minors. Virtually no chance to make 25-man. Not the goal for team and player just yet.
— Walker hit the weights differently in recent months, Griffin said, focusing on flexibility and shoulder strength, rather than bulking up head to toe. One of the main knocks on Walker over the past year or so is the loss of some of the fluid athleticism within his delivery. Regaining some of that can only help him.