Since former Cubs president Albert Spalding and manager Cap Anson hatched the idea of preparing for the 1896 baseball season in the Arkansas resort town of Hot Springs, no team has won a pennant in spring training.
A cruel correlation to the axiom is that it is possible to lose a pennant in spring training. This happened to the Mariners last year, when projected No. 3 starter Drew Smyly felt discomfort in his left elbow during a March 29 bullpen session. What first was described as a “soggy arm” led to season-ending Tommy John surgery for Smyly, who came to Seattle and left Seattle without delivering a pitch in Seattle.
A 27-year old veteran with a 3.74 ERA in 156 games, Smyly had thrown well at the World Baseball Classic and in the Cactus League. When he got hurt, the rotation tumbled with the thwack of a wooden block tower removed of a central piece. The Mariners ended up starting 15 different pitchers, many of them with names you never heard of and never will hear again.
“A tough season for us from the get-go,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said after the Mariners’ 78-84 record left them with a disappointing third-place finish in the AL West. “Dating back to spring training with the injuries, the lop-sided nature of the second half of our spring training once the players returned from the WBC, not the least of which was losing Smyly. Obviously it cascaded from there in the wrong direction.
“By mid-May, our rotation was decimated, and we were just trying to do the things we needed to do to survive.”
While a similar cascade of calamities could await the rotation this season, odds are that the baseball fates will be more generous to the 2018 Mariners than they were a year ago. If nothing else, Dipoto and Servais have been spared the headache of organizing a spring camp with WBC participants. The quadrennial tournament isn’t scheduled to resume until 2021.
And it will resume, by the way. Despite the potential of injuries to pitchers whose arms aren’t ready for high-stress situations — Smyly would qualify as Exhibit A — Major League Baseball executives were thrilled with television-demographic numbers that showed WBC viewers were 20 years younger than TV viewers of regular-season games.
The quality of play in the 2017 WBC also was a revelation. Contestants representing countries regarded as geographic rivals competed with the kind of intense emotion difficult to sustain over the course of 162 big-league games.
Commissioner Rob Manfred called last season’s WBC “a watershed” development destined to expand baseball’s international growth, which is good for the sport but small consolation to a Mariners team whose season was doomed before it started.
And so here we are, a year later, anticipating the imminent arrival of pitchers and catchers to Arizona. Position players soon will join them for exhibition games that begin Feb. 23.
Every spring camp offers story lines both old and new. For the Mariners, the old story line is best posed in the form of a question: Can former ace Felix Hernandez, who turns 32 in April, finally make the adjustment from power pitcher with reliably electric stuff to a craftsman who understands that ground-ball and fly-ball outs can be preferable to strikeouts achieved on long counts?
It’s a project easier said than done, and durability concerns — never relevant during King Felix’s prime — complicate the process. Hernandez has averaged 34 starts a season over his 13-year career, but was limited to only 16 starts in 2017, when his record sagged to 6-5 and his ERA ballooned to 4.36.
As Hernandez confronts the challenge of reinventing himself, some new story lines are rich with high hopes and deep intrigue. Foremost is the conversion of recently acquired Dee Gordon, a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman with the Marilins, into a center fielder. Gordon’s role as a base-stealing leadoff man is set, but defensive struggles have a way of corrupting a hitter’s confidence at the plate.
Gordon is a superior athlete whose transition from middle infielder to outfielder figures, in a perfect world, to be as seamless as it was for Brewers Hall-of-Famer Robin Yount. Other examples of versatility abound: Craig Biggio, another Hall-of-Fame member, arrived in the big leagues as a catcher and played all over the place. Dale Murphy also was a catcher. He went on to win consecutive MVP awards with the Braves as a Gold Glove center fielder.
And yet there’s some risk involved. The Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber, drafted as a college catcher, got moved to the outfield because he was seen as a defensive liability behind the plate. Schwarber’s potent bat keeps him in the lineup, but fly-ball routes remain an adventure fraught with the danger of a collision.
My hunch is that Gordon will do fine. A speedster with the range to chase down line drives hit into the power alleys, his response to Dipoto’s plan of a position change essentially was, “I’m all in, let’s go.”
When Gordon makes his first catch as a center fielder, presumably against the Padres on Feb. 23, Seattle fans in the stands will react with a cheer that can be translated as “whew.”
But as the 2017 Mariners proved, spring training is loaded with perils that can derail a season. My wish list for their 2018 spring camp, assembled with crossed fingers, is simple.
No outfield collisions perpetuated by novice outfielder Dee Gordon. No drama pertaining to Felix Hernandez.
Most of all, no reports of bullpen sessions cut short by soggy arms. Those things are the worst.