By Shannon Drayer
SEATTLE, Wash. – Yes. Seattle. It is great to be home after being away for all but three days since Feb. 17. I am not complaining by any means. Covering spring training is a great, if not exhausting assignment with long days and few days off. It is where you learn the most about the team you cover.
Despite the time spent in Arizona we still leave with a ton of questions every year. The first being: what did it all mean? What did a month and a half of what we saw day-in and day-out in Arizona actually mean in relation to what we will see the next six months? You you simply don't know at that point. There are some general assessments you can make but until you get into regular-season games – games that count, games where the focus for each one isn't working on something or taking a look at somebody or trying something out, but winning – you just don't know.
That's what makes the first week so interesting. You have ideas of what they could be as individuals or a team but you don't know. Whereas in June you may be able to predict with a good level of certainty what is going to happen in certain situations, the first weeks bring surprises. This year was no different. Some quick thoughts:
The Mariners should be 5-1. Okay, we don't know that for sure. The Mariners did not play flawless baseball Thursday in Oakland but I am fairly confident that they played better baseball than the A's and far better baseball than what home-plate umpire Sean Barber was seeing in his little world behind the plate that night. It is what it is. It happens in the sport of baseball, which is far from perfect. You have to move on from it. What I take away from it, however, is the Mariners were really only outperformed by their opponent in one game this trip. It doesn't count as a "W", but it is still a good thing.
The starting pitching has the ability to keep them afloat until Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker return. This is actually not a revelation to me. I have been saying it all spring but I will say it again. I don't think most realized how good James Paxton was or that he even had a spot in the rotation locked up coming into camp. Everyone else not named Felix Hernandez is a question mark but question marks with the ability to do good things. We know what Erasmo Ramirez is at his best and we know what he is at his worst. We saw both in a span of a week. We know that Roenis Elias has good stuff. We saw him battle a patient lineup with a umpire having a bad night and keep his cool enough to show that stuff for five innings. I feel confident that Chris Young has the ability to keep this team in games on most days. There most likely is more upside but we haven't had a good chance to see it yet.
The fear heading into the season was that the rotation was a disaster. The closest thing to a disaster we saw came Sunday in Oakland where Ramirez had to be lifted from the game in the fifth inning. One week in and the bullpen has yet to be taxed. Never mind the 1.62 ERA the starters took into Sunday's game. Will we see that next week? Probably not, but if you split the difference between that and complete disaster I think they will be okay until the reinforcements arrive. Which brings up something else of interest to watch. Who gets the permanent No. 3 spot in the rotation? We will be watching a month long audition until Hisashi Iwakuma comes back between Ramirez, Elias and Young. The rest will be depth. Hey! Where did that come from?
They brought the bats with them from Arizona. This is the biggest surprise for me. Not because I didn't think they would but because I knew there was a good possibility they wouldn't. I know better than to put any faith in spring numbers for hitters. You can get an idea of what they could do by focusing on the final 10 days of spring training, but there are still no guarantees. It is just a different ballgame once the season begins.
Put aside the individual performances and I think we see something even more encouraging. This team is putting up good at-bat after good at-bat. They are making pitchers work with no starter going more than 6 1/3 innings against them so far. Their walk rate is a healthy 9.1 percent, which is top 10, and they are fourth in swinging at strikes in the strike zone, 24th at swinging outside the strike zone. Now the bad news here is their contact rates aren't great but when they don't miss their pitch they have been doing damage with some of the best power numbers in baseball.
McClendon's in charge. There is probably no one I watched closer than the skipper this spring and first week. While the manager can't go out and get a hit for the team I do believe that with a young group at such a pivotal time for both the franchise and a number of individuals, the manager takes a bigger role. He has set a tone and an interesting one at that. One of the most curious things for me this spring was to watch the workouts, which started earlier and were more intense than anything I can remember, and to have a competitive camp with positions to be earned or lost, yet have every player I talked to tell me it was a loose camp. For some reason the players were more relaxed. McClendon said on a number of occasions heading into the camp that he thought the players needed to relax a bit and this was accomplished, but not at the expense of work or intensity. He achieved a good balance and I think he did it by establishing individual relationships early, being clear in his direction and then getting out of the way and letting them do their work and come together in the clubhouse.
Now that the season has started we have seen McClendon's impact in a number of ways. We have seen hit and runs. We have seen steals called from the bench (not a lot of green lights with this group) we saw a pickoff move called and executed beautifully by Joe Beimel. I have seen conversations with Abraham Almonte, whose talent needs to be harnessed carefully. We have seen McClendon make trips to the mound to focus pitchers, not take them out.
McClendon has come into the season with his ideas of what roles and lineups will be and it will be interesting to see how he adjusts. We have already seen one move with Hector Noesi designated for assignment. It will be interesting to see how he balances the right field/designated hitter mix and bullpen roles.
This group has come together. This is pure observation, I can't put any numbers on this but this group is together. The mix feels right. Robinson Cano is a huge part of this and no doubt you saw it on TV in the first week. Justin Smoak running to him after his first home run and Cano playfully telling him he was done teaching him anything. Cano making trips to the mound in tough situations, grabbing the rosin bag, uttering a quick word and running back to his spot. Cano in the dugout talking with Elias during his first start and taking him to dinner two nights before that start.
I saw a hitter talking to a pitcher about what he saw on a pitch that got hit and following each game in Oakland I saw pretty much the entire team sitting around two tables eating their postgame meals and talking about the game. You don't seem to have different corners of the clubhouse that might be a concern. Everybody seems to be on the same page. No one seems to be wrapped up in an individual struggle. For lack of a better word they just seem together as a group. This is how McClendon has them.
"Commitment, accountability and responsibility. That encompasses a lot of things," he said. "From being early instead of being on time to taking care of your teammates and being responsible for each other. If you try to live inside that circle, I think it takes care of everything."