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01/26/12 7:00 PM EST

Saunders ready to compete for outfield spot

SEATTLE -- Michael Saunders has been largely a forgotten man in the Mariners' plans this offseason, but the athletic outfielder says he's ready to put last year in the past and come to camp prepared to battle for a job.

Saunders, 25, hit just .149 with two home runs and eight RBIs in 58 games in a season that got off to a bad start and then turned worse with the death of his mother, Jane, who lost a long battle to cancer in early August.

"This will be first year where I can focus solely on the game and not personal matters back home," Saunders said Thursday at the Mariners pre-Spring Training media luncheon. "That is something I'm really excited about. Everything I've been through and experienced has really driven me, knowing there's so much more to life than baseball. I'm really excited to concentrate solely on the game and that's what is driving me now."

The Victoria, B.C., native moved to Denver with his wife this offseason and hired a personal batting instructor for the first time, hooking up with Mike Bard, the older brother of former Mariners catcher Josh Bard. He said this is by far the most comfortable he's ever felt heading into a Spring Training.

"We've worked very hard at cleaning some things up," Saunders said. "Spring training is always a competition. The front office has done a great job producing a lot of young, competitive players moving forward in this organization. There are a lot of talented players for only nine positions on field. I think it'll be a great competition and everyone strives for that as athletes. Everyone is coming in excited and I know I am ready to lace up the spikes and go at it."

Wedge weighing non-leadoff options for Ichiro

SEATTLE -- Eric Wedge first brought up at the Winter Meetings in Dallas in early December the idea that Ichiro Suzuki might not be his leadoff hitter any longer, and the Mariners manager said Thursday he's now "further down the road in leaning that direction to have Ichi hit somewhere else."

Speaking at the Mariners pre-Spring Training media luncheon, Wedge expanded on his thoughts, saying Ichiro could bat second or third if he's not leading off. And he mentioned Dustin Ackley, Chone Figgins and perhaps a healthier Franklin Gutierrez as candidates to fill the leadoff role.

"I haven't made any firm decisions," Wedge said. "I know it's a big deal to everybody. But my job is to communicate that to Ichiro and make sure everybody understands the options and what they're fighting for and what I'm thinking about it.

"Right now, I'm going to be very open-minded to what we're going to do, but I'll go into Spring Training leaning a certain direction and then we'll make a decision from there."

Ichiro hit .272 last season and finished with 182 hits, the first time in 11 seasons he didn't bat .300, reach 200 hits or earn either an All-Star berth or an American League Gold Glove Award. He batted leadoff all 161 games he played last season, and for his career has led off 1,720 of the 1,733 games in which he's started.

"We've talked about the three-hole, I've contemplated hitting him second, there's still a chance he might lead off," Wedge said. "What we're going to do is put out the best lineup possible to score more runs. It's unacceptable the amount of runs we've scored the last couple years. Last year I sat back and bit my tongue off more than once. But it was the right thing to do. My wife was proud of me.

"This year it's going to be a little bit different. But you don't go from zero to 60. Now we have to let it out a little bit more and raise the bar and understand."

Wedge values on-base percentage in the leadoff role and Ichiro had a career-low .310 last season, well below the .376 mark posted his first 10 years in Seattle.

Ackley had a .348 on-base percentage in his rookie season after getting a midseason promotion from Triple-A, but hit third for the Mariners last year as a needed middle-of-the-order presence.

Figgins had a .395 on-base percentage and led the American League with 101 walks in his final season with the Angels in 2009, but has struggled since signing with Seattle and hit just .188 with a .241 on-base percentage in 81 games last year.

Wedge said Figgins will be given a chance to play second, shortstop and third base as well as all three outfield spots this spring in an attempt to find either a utility spot or a place that he might fit.

As for Gutierrez? Wedge previously has talked about batting the center fielder second, but isn't ruling anything out after seeing his improved strength this offseason.

"Gutierrez is interesting to me," Wedge said. "I've had him everywhere from first to second to more of a power production at six and seven. But after seeing him this winter, I'm thinking more middle of the lineup. He looked that good."

Sturdier Gutierrez appears ready to impress

SEATTLE -- The Mariners trotted out newly acquired catcher Jesus Montero and returning outfielders Mike Carp and Michael Saunders at their annual pre-Spring Training media luncheon Thursday. They had manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik give their thoughts and trainer Rick Griffin fill in the latest health news.

But the overriding storyline of the day seemed to belong to a player who wasn't even present, with glowing reports issued from all sides on Gold Glove Award-winning center fielder Franklin Gutierrez.

Gutierrez was one of nine players who came to Seattle two weeks ago to visit Wedge and show where they were at physically about a month prior to camp. And by all accounts, the man who battled significant health and strength problems in 2011 appears poised for a bounce-back season after putting on 15 pounds of muscle.

"He looked great," said Wedge, who first managed Gutierrez in Cleveland before the Indians traded him to Seattle in 2009. "He's as strong as I've ever seen him. He was on the path when we traded him over here, and he came over and had a good year. He's had a lot of things go wrong since then -- physically, mentally, everything.

"I said, 'You know what? You're not allowed to do that anymore. You have to get back on the path. I don't care about being sick or this or that. You need to get back on the path. Go home [to Venezuela], do what you're supposed to do, and come back and be the player you should be.'

"And he looked great," Wedge said. "I mean, you'll be shocked when you see him. He's strong, he's got a twinkle in his eye and I expect great things from him. I really do."

Gutierrez, 28, suffered from stomach issues that eventually were diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome last season. But he missed most of Spring Training and opened the year on the disabled list, eventually hitting a career-low .224 with just a .273 slugging percentage in 92 games before pulling an oblique muscle in September and ending his year back on the DL.

The same stomach issues hampered him the second half of 2010, when he finished with a .245 average but still won his first Gold Glove Award. But the Mariners are hoping to see a return to the Gutierrez of '09, when he batted .283 with 18 home runs and 70 RBIs with a .425 slugging percentage.

Griffin said the 6-foot-2 Gutierrez was down to 183 pounds at the end of last season, but tipped the scale at 197 two weeks ago.

"Everything he put on was muscle," said Griffin. "He looks unbelievable -- the best he's looked in two years. He impressed everybody with his agility and strength. He's not having any issues at all with the stomach."

Griffin said a lot of dealing with irritable bowel syndrome is learning which foods a person can eat without suffering problems and that Gutierrez is now better educated on that process.

"For him to not have any of those issues and be able to work out all offseason, it's huge," Griffin said. "He couldn't eat or lift weights last year. But he's gone 10 months now with no issues. He's not having any problems. That's the biggest and best news of the offseason."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.