Mariners' foundation starts with man in charge
Seattle manager Wedge unafraid of making difficult decisions
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Eric Wedge understood. Sure, he knew that Chone Figgins is 34 years old and that he reached base 24.1 percent of the time last season; Wedge was the manager.
Wedge, entering his second year as the Mariners' manager, knows the iconic place Ichiro Suzuki holds in two baseball civilizations.
"I know where I want this organization going and where we want to be," said Wedge.
So when Wedge decided to return Figgins to the super-utility and leadoff role he played in his best days in Anaheim -- from 2007-09 he had OBPs of .393, .367 and .395 -- and move Ichiro out of leadoff and into the third hole following Dustin Ackley, he made it clear to the players and public, "This is my decision. This is on me."
If Figgins struggles, Wedge will be second-guessed. If Ichiro's numbers and status decline, there will be an issue, something Wedge accepts.
Oh, there may have been others in the organization who wanted this move, but Wedge knows, "Managing is a lot more complicated that it appears from the outside. It's not simply about numbers. It's about dealing with people, knowing those people and keeping them in positions where they, and the team, can best succeed."
Wedge remembers when he was hired by Mark Shapiro in Cleveland prior to the 2003 season, as the Indians were being rebuilt.
"We really were new to all this, and we flying by the seats of our pants," Wedge said. "But Mark was so great, we were able to learn together."
They went from 68 to 80 to 93 wins, then, after a downturn in 2006, they won 96 games in '07, beat the Yankees in the American League Division Series, and they led the Red Sox three games to one in the AL Championship Series ... when CC Sabathia and Fausto Carmona ran out of gas.
The Cleveland economy could not sustain the roster, and at the end of a 65-win 2009 season, Wedge was let go, and he returned home to watch two of his former starters -- Sabathia, then with the Yankees, and Cliff Lee, traded during the season from the Indians to the Phillies -- face off in Game 1 of the 2009 World Series.
Wedge interviewed several places, but he decided on Seattle because of general manager Jack Zduriencik and the Mariners' scouting acumen. He also knew that when (and if) they get their team in place, Seattle is a market that can retain the players it needs to retain.
There is a definite presence to Wedge, a comfort level he has developed in being able to make decisions and say, "It's on me."
The Mariners won 67 games last season. They were last in the American League in runs (556), on-base percentage (.292), slugging (.348) and, obviously, on-base plus slugging (.640). The only team that hit fewer home runs (109) was the Twins. And after the Rangers made back-to-back World Series, the Angels' offseason moves put them in the conversation as serious contenders.
So the Figgins move may give Seattle a leadoff hitter capable of an OBP better than the .310 Ichiro put up in 2011.
Chone said he "feels really positive" about going back to a multi-position role. He started at shortstop on Sunday and has also appeared at third base, left field and center field.
Wedge sees Ackley as a future batting star who'll produce a lot of runs in the two-hole, "Because he's going to hit a lot of doubles."
Plus, Seattle will have Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Kyle Seager in the middle of its lineup.
Now, Ackley was the only Seattle regular with an OBP above .323, but Wedge sees Smoak improving, he likes Seager's added pop this spring and is sold on Montero.
"There's no doubt he's going to hit," Wedge said of Montero. "But his catching has been pretty good. He's 22. He's a worker. He's going to be good. Anyone who says he will never catch has never caught and understood how tough it is. For now, he can catch and DH, and we have Miguel Olivo."
The rest of the lineup? Brendan Ryan is going to be at the end of the order, because the Mariners need his defense and fire. Franklin Gutierrez will eventually get back, and they hope Michael Saunders can narrow the gap between talent and performance. They have to watch Casper Wells.
On the mound, Seattle has Felix Hernandez, which is one heckuva start, and the rotation will be rounded out with a combination of Hector Noesi, Jason Vargas, Blake Beavan, Kevin Millwood and rookie Erasmo Ramirez (35-14 in the Minors). Brandon League will return at the end of Seattle's bullpen.
Can they score enough runs to get to a .500 record, especially going head to head with the Angels and Rangers? No one knows.
But Wedge sees the framing of this team as vital of the future of the franchise, because this spring, he saw the future of the Seattle Mariners, and their names are Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen. They may all open the season with Double-A Jackson, as one of the game's most hyped Minor League rotations.
Hultzen was the No. 2 pick in last year First-Year Player Draft and hasn't yet started a professional game outside of the Arizona Fall League. Paxton, who was a fourth-round pick in the 2010 Draft, has 17 pro starts, and struck out 131 in 95 innings. Hultzen and Paxton are left-handers, good for Safeco Field.
Yet it is Walker who has been the story of the spring,and a prime reason they were not hesitant to move 23-year-old right-hander Michael Pineda to get Montero and Noesi.
"It is incredible to watch this kid at at 19," pitching coach Carl Willis said of Walker. "He has the perfect, easy delivery. He hits 97 mph. Then he throws that curveball."
Another organization's baseball people were playing a game based on the following premise: After the Rays' Matt Moore, who is the best pitching prospect in baseball?
Their winner? Walker, followed by Arizona's Trevor Bauer. Walker, who will turn 20 in August, put up impressive numbers last year in Class A: 96 2/3 innings, 39 walks, 113 strikeouts. This organization believes he will blow through the Minors post-haste. This spring, Wedge and Willis pitched Walker, Hultzen and Paxton in the same games, then sent them down together.
It won't be long before Walker, Hultzen and Paxton are in Seattle with King Felix, Ramirez, Noesi and whoever else comes along. Wedge wants his kind of team in place, so they can win and take their chances with Hernandez, Walker, Hultzen and Paxton together for four or five years.
Mariners think highly of Williams
A number of Mariners players held their own game: Which of the Angels' starters would you least like to face?
The poll ended with Jerome Williams and Jered Weaver in a dead heat. Jerome Williams?
"That guy is really good, and under the radar," said one Mariners player. "He's the toughest for a lot of us."
"Except," added another player, "when it's daylight in Anaheim, and Weaver is throwing out of the rockpile background."
No prior experience might be no problem
One of the interesting aspects to this spring is that Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura have taken over the Cardinals and White Sox, respectively, with no prior managing experience.
Matheny is taking over a World Series championship team that has lost three future Hall of Famers in Tony La Russa, Dave Duncan and Albert Pujols. There is little doubt throughout the game than Matheny will be an extraordinary manager; he is very smart, tough and civil. But there are issues that are difficult for anyone, starting with making sure Chris Carpenter doesn't try to do too much too soon, per his nature.
Ventura accepted the challenge partly because he knows owner Jerry Reinsdorf is going to support him as he tries to make sense of all the players coming off disappointing seasons -- among them Gordon Beckham, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios, Brent Morel and Dayan Viciedo.
"This is what I know," said Vertura. "We'll see."
Mtheny and Ventura are both smart and have the important people-skills element.
"Managing is a job where people skills are vital," said one general manager.
And they all look at Kirk Gibson, who had no prior managerial experience, yet combines several elements that helped take the D-backs into last year's postseason. Gibson is fearless, tireless, a stickler for fundamental details, assembled a boffo coaching staff, yet is always willing to take the responsibility for whatever decisions are made.
"I'm not afraid of the heat," said Gibson.
Dale Sveum has extensive Minor and Major League managing and coaching experience, but now that he has his opportunity as the Cubs' skipper, there seems to be no question that he is what Prince Fielder and the best Brewers players knew he is -- a commanding presence. In fact, he has been one of the Cubs' best spring story lines, along with the impressive springs of Jeff Samardzija and Chris Volstad.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.