Wedge open to competition in Mariners' lineup
New Seattle manager taking open-minded approach to camp
SEATTLE -- Mariners manager Eric Wedge is headed to Spring Training in two weeks with eyes wide open, to the point where he says he has few preconceived notions on how the batting order will stack up when games begin with his new club this season.
Well, he does know Ichiro Suzuki will ultimately be his leadoff batter and Chone Figgins is destined for the No. 2 spot. But after that?
"This year is a little different," said Wedge, who has intentionally not talked yet to about half his players as he wants to gather first impressions in face-to-face situations when camp opens in Peoria, Ariz., in mid-February. "I've got an idea in my head, but I haven't penciled through lineups just yet.
"I know who the first two hitters will be and that's about it right now. I want to make sure we give it time to develop. I don't want to pre-condition my thoughts on what we're going to do."
The same is true for position battles. The Mariners have thrown things open in the middle infield by trading for Brendan Ryan to push shortstop Jack Wilson and by signing veteran Adam Kennedy to challenge either Ryan or rookie Dustin Ackley at second base.
They signed veteran catcher Miguel Olivo rather than just let Adam Moore assume the catching chores. They added Jody Gerut to compete with Milton Bradley and young Michael Saunders in left field.
The bullpen is wide open with a host of young prospects and now former Orioles closer Chris Ray being tossed into the fray.
Following the lead of general manager Jack Zduriencik, who was frustrated by the way his team underperformed last year, Wedge vows to arrive in Peoria and let the chips fall where they may.
"I'm probably more open-minded now than I've ever been," Wedge said at Thursday's pre-Spring Training media day at Safeco Field. "I think Jack's given me that luxury and I appreciate it. If he says something is going to happen, then I'm going to make sure we follow through. But if he's open-minded to it, then I'm open-minded to it because competition is a good thing.
"One thing that's not been good for the game is, because of the money and everything being wide open information-wise, people tend to pigeonhole or be afraid to open things up to competition. Because when you do that, you open yourself up for criticism. Well, we're not doing that. And if you're afraid of competition, you're not going to be a championship player anyway, so we don't want you around."
In other words, the gauntlet will be thrown down at Spring Training as Wedge looks for hard-nosed players who fit his style of play. After going 61-101 last season, a change in culture is necessary.
"I hold people accountable," Wedge said. "This will be a long spring. If you're coming to Spring Training, be prepared for some long days because we have a lot of work to do. We want good, smart, hard-nosed baseball players and the competition is going to be real."
The Mariners didn't have the payroll flexibility to make a lot of big splashes in free agency but have added some interesting veterans on low-risk Minor League deals and upgraded the catcher and designated-hitter spots with the signing of Olivo and Jack Cust.
It'll also be up to some talented youngsters like Justin Smoak, Michael Pineda, Ackley, Saunders, Moore and others to develop quickly.
"It's not all going to happen overnight," Wedge said. "But we will get better."
One of the keys to the lineup Wedge is still tossing around in his head is the middle of the order, where Smoak eventually figures to be an anchor. But like all their young prospects, the Mariners must weigh his long-term progress with their immediate needs.
Is the 24-year-old ready to hit third or fourth in a big league batting order after just part of one season in the Majors?
"You'd like to give him as much time as you can, but you still have to put out a lineup," Wedge said. "I need to get to know him as a person and baseball player and get a feel for what his level of toughness is and where his heartbeat is at and go from there."
Besides Smoak, Wedge indicated Cust and Bradley could be middle-of-the-order candidates.
"Milton can be there if he's healthy," Wedge said. "Ideally you'd like to have veteran guys in the middle, but if we have to throw a younger guy in there out of necessity, we'll make sure we take care of them and try not to overexpose them."
The same holds true with Pineda, who will be given a chance to earn a rotation spot at age 22, having yet to throw a Major League pitch. Wedge notes he first had CC Sabathia at 20 in Cleveland but again is in a wait-and-see mode on the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Pineda.
"I haven't seen him except on tape," Wedge said. "But I know talking to these guys, he's a horse, a big young guy with a lot of ability. We need to take care of him like we do with all young players. Pitchers are obviously different from position players there. We'll be slow and consistent with him and see what we see."
Those young talents, along with Wedge's energetic approach and the mixture of veteran additions have Zduriencik feeling positive.
"A few years ago when I took this job, I said we'd build an organization and foundation that would sustain us for years to come," Zduriencik said. "As we start our third year, I'm feeling good about how things have gone.
"Even with some of the lumps and bumps we've taken, we continued acquiring talent. To me, that was very important. Certainly last year was disappointing at the Major League level, but that's behind us. We're moving forward."