Isn't there at least a little bit of humor in the Mariners opening their second consecutive spring training with a battle for the starting shortstop job? I mean, we just did this. And not only that, but a big reason Brad Miller won last year, and was the favorite going in, was because he was the more natural defender at the shortstop position. Now that's the reason he might lose it.
I don't know about everyone else, but I'm excited for Ketel Marte's June call-up and look forward to him eventually battling Chris Taylor for the 2016 starting shortstop gig on the back of his defensive repertoire.
But that's a ways off, and the shortstop position has been discussed enough. Heading into spring training, there are a few key storylines that are obvious and loom above the rest. The shortstop battle is likely the most prominent, with the competition for the last stop in the rotation—between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias—right behind it. Then, of course, there's a fight for the second lefty spot.
All of those storylines have been discussed quite a bit, and most people generally know the basics. As you can likely surmise from the headline, this post is not about those. No, there are more than a few storylines worth watching that, while less impactful than the ones above, are still quite meaningful. And while spring training numbers ultimately mean very little, if not nothing, spring training as a whole can still tell us quite a lot.
Here are a few worth watching.
Hey, Danny Hultzen
Remember him? There are no expectations for the former third overall pick entering 2015. No pressure, no nothing. He's not being depended on in any capacity, and the most we can ask of him is just to get healthy and pitch. And that's what we're going to see him do right out chute of the chute in spring training.
When we last heard of Hultzen, he was making a 25-pitch outing in an instructional league game and Zduriencik was feeling quite good about where he was at. Spring training will be the first time he's faced good—major league level, most likely—competition in a very long time. And not only will we get some (meaningless) results, but as it's spring training, there will be a chunk of pitch f/x data as well, so we'll have readings on velo, release point and so on.
Again, the Mariners aren't counting on Hultzen for anything, but he's still a wild card worth watching.
Can Willie Bloomquist play shortstop?
When the Mariners signed Rickie Weeks, Zduriencik was adamant that this didn't have anything to do with Bloomquist—because their skill sets are different. And that's true. Bloomquist is more of a true utility guy as he's shown the ability to play shortstop, and did 16 times for the Mariners last year. Weeks cannot.
But Bloomquist is coming off microfracture surgery, the same surgery Corey Hart had (two of) last year, leaving him roaming the diamond like a ginger seventy-six-year old. If Bloomquist is still recovering from the surgery, one he had a mere six month ago, and cannot play shortstop in a major league game, he and Weeks are basically the same player. And if that's the case, the shortstop battle between Miller and Taylor doesn't mean a thing, as the team will be forced to carry both of them while choosing one of Weeks and Bloomquist.
Rickie Weeks learns the outfield
As about everyone's aware, we around here like the Weeks signing. In theory, it gives the Mariners a proven—though still iffy—righty bat and a great deal of defensive flexibility. And now, that theory gets put to the test.
Weeks is bound to see a chunk of time at first base, but my guess is that his primary role is going to be as Dustin Ackley's platoon partner in left. This organization can see the same splits we can, and knows Ackley is extremely vulnerable to southpaws. So, can Weeks play out there?
Our own Eric Blankenship put together a phenomenal and enlightening piece on Brad Miller potentially playing the outfield, and in doing so, studied other middle infielders who made the transition. The key line: "a shortstop with plus range typically becomes an outfielder with plus-plus range." But Weeks isn't a shortstop, he's a second baseman with poor range. The hope: a second baseman with poor range translates to an outfielder with average range. It isn't impossible, and Andy Van Slyke has shown the ability to work magic with former second basemen before.
Can anyone hit the ball the other way?
In spring training, we're not looking for numbers, but for skills. Who's doing something they've never done before? The key example is that one spring training where Michael Saunders showed up with the newfound ability to cover the outside half of the plate and, in doing so, line extra base hits into left centerfield. Those types of things can translate.
Mike Zunino has already said he plans to alter his approach such that he's focusing more on driving the ball the other way, but he isn't the only one who could benefit from it. Some suspected that a good deal of Brad Miller's 2014 struggles were caused by a bit of a pull-happy tendency. Then, look at Kyle Seager, he of the two career opposite-field home runs. If he developed the ability to really drive the ball to all fields, he could take what's already an all-star level game to new highs.
The minor leaguer who shows something
Here's a quick excerpt from a post I wrote on James Jones early in spring training last year, so I don't have to write it again:
...there's bound to be at least one minor leaguer who comes into camp and impresses. It may, and probably won't be, enough to earn him a spot on the major league roster because he started too far back but when they do eventually make the trip up I-5 from Tacoma, we'll look back fondly on spring—when he fully entered our collective conscious.
If I were to pick a favorite for that role right now, I'd go with Patrick Kivlehan. If you missed our primer on the former Rutgers football player, here that is.
Kivlehan is fresh off a torrid 2014, one that saw him rake in High Desert, Jackson and then the Arizona Fall League. In the AFL, he won the Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award, "which is annually distributed to the Arizona Fall League player who best exemplifies teamwork and leadership." So he has that going for him, which is nice—and bound to play well with the coaches.
Also, hey, DJ Peterson. It's very likely the soon-to-be first baseman and former twelfth overall pick sees some time in Seattle in 2015, and after a good-not-great 2014, it's going to be interesting to see how he looks against major league pitching.
Oh my god please stay healthy
This is the most important story, by far. Not even close. For the first time in what seems like forever, the Mariners don't have serious question marks as they enter spring training. But, of course, that doesn't mean they won't have question marks once Opening Day gets here.
On paper, they have one of the best teams in baseball. If that paper remains untattered come Opening Day, we should all be doing backflips. Or drinking beers—but we'll be doing that anyway.
And that isn't the end of the list either. Hell, remember Franklin Gutierrez? Oh, and then there's John Baker. Erasmo Ramirez is still trying to make this club. Nelson Cruz might play a little bit of outfield. Justin Ruggiano might play in center. Hey, it'd be great if Austin Jackson didn't look hopeless.
There's a lot going on, and some of it matters.
There are a lot of people out there who hate spring training. I can, partially, understand why. Between now and Opening Day, the Mariners will play 32 (thirty two!) meaningless baseball games. Yes, it's going to drag on a bit.
But this is where the story starts. This is where we crack open that fresh hardcover and take a look at the title page. Oh, this is the font they're going with? That's the perspective they're going to use? I didn't think there'd be so much of that.
Spring training is meaningless, and it isn't. There are things worth watching, things that will mean something once the regular season starts. There's even more than that doesn't, but that's not so bad either.
For the next month, we get to watch Mariners baseball and worry not about what the performances mean, and what a win or loss means in the standings. So, embrace it now—because after this month, we've got the most meaningful baseball season Seattle has seen in a long time.