M’s Notes: Jackson, Kivlehan, Hultzen & Elias

 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.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

14 Comments

  1. I am regular reader, how are you everybody? This article posted at this site is really pleasant.

  2. If Bloomquist is healthy, he is the backup SS, and the loser of the SS battle between Taylor and Miller goes to AAA.

  3. What is the likelihood Elias makes the team as the second lefty/long relief out of the bullpen? I doubt the M’s will go with 3 lefties in the starting rotation (Happ, Paxton and Elias). And while traditional thinking would indicate keeping Elias stretched out in AAA he might have better stuff than any of the lefty bullpen candidates. With Wilhemsen in fold, the team doesn’t necessarily need an emergency starter in AAA.

  4. Im guessing the fourth starter was Elias.

  5. Oh, btw, great report, Jason. Best I’ve seen regarding the reporter’s luncheon.

  6. I don’t think there is any value to retaining Miller and Taylor, on the 25-man roster. They both need everyday at bats. There are utility options, while not perfect, will keep both swinging the bat, while in their prime developmental ages. Like making Hultzen a reliever, there is no long-term value in trying to develop a utility player. That only should occur, after it’s clear that they cannot start 80% of the games. It’s too soon to know what either Miller or Taylor are.

    A key component in player development is the mental aspect. I’m hoping that Montero now realizes that he can’t see his work as playing a game, but now understands it a job, one that requires constant work to develop. He has great hitting skills, but those are worthless, without the proper work ethic. Let’s hope he now understands it’s not a game, it’s his job.

  7. Spoke directly with Jack Z. (as I have several times in the past) and asked him about a Taylor/Miller platoon. He said that they STRONGLY prefer to have the same 2B-SS duo out there every day and that he was not expecting that to happen!

  8. I’m just stoked that Montero has lost 40 pounds and the front office are saying things like “He’s finally figured it out”. Everyone knew the kid could hit, it was always his mental game that led him astray. If he truly has finally matured and “figured it out” then I think we might have an ace up our sleeves here.

  9. Doc,

    You’re going to push this Hultzen to the bullpen thing until the cows come home but not only is it NOT happening, it SHOULDN’T. Because he needs to be monitored, day-in and day-out, the big club cannot be asked to rely on him. In a pure relief role as you are suggesting, there will be numerous 2-3 day periods where he will be unavailable, which is clearly not ideal and downright detrimental to McClendon/Waits and their bullpen usage. Besides, it’s asking him to do something he’s never done. Now is the worst time to ask him to change roles, even if it’s just for the year. He’s NEVER prepared that way. If he was in the MLB pen to start the year, but needed to sit for 2-3 days because the team sees something, the club suffers because of his unavailability. If they start him in the bigs and have to send him down for whatever reason, they waste an option on a player that may need the options because of the nature of his injuries and the lack of knowledge about the recovery.

    Not to mention Hultzen’s stuff isn’t conducive to situational work and that he’s working with some mechanical alterations for which he’ll need time to perfect. Triple-A is where he belongs so he can do that, and continue to ramp up the arm strength at the right pace. The Mariners have this handled perfectly.

    Paul,

    I’m with you on Bloomquist. He doesn’t bring a single thing to the table that the club doesn’t have ion someone else. Shortstop? Miller and Taylor both are better, offensively and defensively. Outfield? Well, there’s the four no-brainers — Jackson, Smith, Ackley, Ruggiano — and Jones is BETTER than Bloomquist.

  10. Any chance Seattle cuts their loses with Bloomquist? He had a serious injury, is 37, and wasn’t that good before the injury. I realize the Mariners have been reluctant to cut players with big salaries (see Hart just last year) but do we really want to waste a roster spot on him? Maybe he starts the season on the 60 day DL and we see what Taylor or Montero do before cutting him? I could see a nice platoon at SS with Taylor/Miller or Montero getting some at bats at DH and First Base.

  11. Lots of possibilities for improvements, more depth than for many years, it’s going to be a fun season baring bad luck on injuries. There will probably be some surprises, good and bad.

  12. I completely disagree on Hultzen. You want Hultzen as a starter in the majors eventually and you don’t accomplish that by sticking him in the bullpen to pitch 60 innings over 6 months. They used the kid gloves with him on his recovery, now he needs to simply pitch to continue to build arm strength and get his command where it needs to be. I would imagine they would limit his pitch counts, more than innings, early in the year as a way to mitigate against injury as he recovers.

  13. Love the news. It is almost baseball season.

  14. Hultzen should be given every opportunity to with LHP role in the pen in 2015. Pitching a full season out of the pen could do more than pitching 100 to 120 innings in the minors and then being shut down. Look at how the White Sox handled Sale. Sale went from 71 IP in 2011 to 192 IP in 2012 as a starter. Relievers are throwing most every day, not just in games but frequently the warm up and don’t get in the game.

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