Q&A with Mariners skipper Wakamatsu
First-year manager talks about what it will take for turnaround
PEORIA, Ariz. -- A high-energy manager who assembled a high-energy coaching staff begins his first year as a big league skipper, and Don Wakamatsu has a track record that should serve him well.He has worked with every other American League West franchise during the past eight years so he knows the smallest division in the Major Leagues extremely well. With Spring Training winding down, and his team finally together after the three-week World Baseball Classic kept six of the Mariners out of camp, Wakamatsu sat down with MLB.com to discuss the camp and what lies ahead on his first voyage through a division that has been dominated by the Angels in recent years. MLB.com: What have been the highlights of your first Spring Training as manager? Wakamatsu: I think the highlights for me are what happens in the games after we've worked on it during practice, whether it's Ronny Cedeno pushing a bunt to the right side, or executing a first-and-third rundown play. The aggressive baserunning has been good, as have the interaction of Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. in the clubhouse. I think there is a pretty good balance right now of enjoying the game, but when the game starts, there is some intensity. It's a hard balance. When we run a team fundamental, there shouldn't be any joking around. But, you have to make it so these guys want to come in here every day and enjoy themselves, but as the same time work hard and be accountable.
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Watching Ken Griffey Jr. hit his first home run was a neat thing. Getting [Erik] Bedard back out there healthy, watching the staff interact -- you put a staff together and trust them, but to see them work and be more than pleased that you made the right decision is big for me.MLB.com: What do you see as the keys to this team's success in 2009? Wakamatsu: Health. I think the one issue we talk about is the lack of depth. That's the biggest key. The second key is focus. What I mean by that is because of the travel with the long spring, you have to manage the intensity level. I think you have to concentrate more on picking and choosing your lineup, when to give guys breaks. I don't want guys coming to the park at 11 o'clock for a 7 o'clock game and try to maintain focus for that amount of time. I would rather be real routine oriented with each guy and help them develop a routine where it's a shorter period of focus and more intense. We ran into that in Texas. Over the years it was the heat whereas in Seattle it's travel. Also, the amount of time taking batting practice on the field, as opposed to doing drill-work inside, and continuing individual defensive stuff, will be different than you might see at other places. You will see more bunting on the field during batting practice. MLB.com: The Mariners were the favorites of many so-called experts to win the AL West last season but never lived up to those expectations. Do you think it's easier to play better when expectations are lower, which certainly will be the case this season? Wakamatsu: I don't want these guys to think any further ahead than the game we're playing that day. It's difficult to do, because they are flashing scores in our division, but I think that any team that focuses on two months from now loses what they are doing today and that's the message I am trying to send. If we can get everyone on a routine and keep the intensity level up day to day, I don't care about next week, if we do that we'll finish where we should finish. You won't hear out of my mouth that we have to do this or have to do that. What we have to do is catch and throw the baseball. I want guys to go out there and enjoy the game. The hard part is when the lights go on -- we buy into that. MLB.com: How are you coming along in terms of settling on a batting order? Wakamatsu: The big one is going to be Yuni, where he's going to hit. We have a little bit of time here to see how he gets a little bit better on things we've asked him to do. I think he's making an effort. But with the batting order, I think it will depend a lot on health. If one of those goes down it changes the whole thing. I have in my mind what it would be against right-handers and left-handers and everybody gets enamored by lineups. But how many lineups do you use in a year? Some guys use 150 different lineups in all honesty. I like to break up the right-handers and left-handers, depending on the club we're playing and how good that lefty is down there in the bullpen. I like to have some versatility, but I will look at statistics, too. Not that I want to do that, but I think a lineup can change daily, just depending on how guys are swinging. The important thing is to explain why we're doing it. MLB.com: You wanted to place an emphasis on aggressive baserunning. Have you felt good about how that has gone? Wakamatsu: You look at some of the things we've done, who have we done it with? A lot of them are younger kids, and that's exciting. You want to reach the potential every player, whether it's Endy Chavez or Ronny Cedeno or Betancourt. I want them to be a more complete player. If they are doing as much to their ability, then that's it. But as a manager, I need to know who I have and what their abilities are. We'll look to manufacture runs any way we can. MLB.com: What will it take for anyone to unseat the Angels in the AL West? Wakamatsu: Consistency and to manage their injuries. If you describe that Angels club, they have depth, they are a balanced team. They have pitching and defense. They have hitting and they play sound, fundamental baseball. They are just a solid organization and a poster child similar to Minnesota, teams that I respect and something we're trying to build here. When you start to see guys like Tui [Matt Tuiasosopo] and [Carlos] Truinfel; when you can start to multiply those guys, then you get into that category of being able to compete not just for one year but year-to-year.
MLB.com: What can veteran players like Ken Griffey Jr., and Mike Sweeney mean to the team, on the field and in the clubhouse?Wakamatsu: They can set the tone. A lot of that will be up to myself and the staff, but we are going to lean heavily on those guys to manage that part of it. It's like watching Mike Sweeney runs the bases. When a guy of that caliber and that age  plays like that, no one has an excuse. It's the same thing with Junior. If Junior plays hard, he'll gain more respect than anything that comes out of his mouth. We talk about how leadership is not always vocal. The way a player carries himself on and off the field by example will set a great trend of where we are and what type of organization we are going to build. MLB.com: When a team loses 100-plus games the previous season, is the biggest obstacle mental or physical?
Wakamatsu: I think it's just not a bad year. There is no lack of physical skills. You lose 100 games for poor play, for maybe lack of talent in certain areas and the belief system. Were they a 100-loss team last season? Absolutely not. But there were a lot of deficiencies, and injuries.Those are things we have tried to manage all spring, whether it's how much to play Ken Griffey Jr., or how much to play Mike Sweeney. We are trying to manage this the best we can to eliminate things like injuries.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.