Seattle Mariners

Mariners notebook: Gutierrez cites communication as key to continued success

Mariners starter Nathan Karns delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Padres on Thursday. Karns struggled a bit in a 22-pitch first inning, but sailed through the second on 10 pitches. Seattle won, 6-5.
Mariners starter Nathan Karns delivers a pitch in the second inning against the Padres on Thursday. Karns struggled a bit in a 22-pitch first inning, but sailed through the second on 10 pitches. Seattle won, 6-5. The Associated Press

It shouldn’t be surprising that, when looking ahead, Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez prefers to take a short-term view.

The health issues that forced him to miss all of 2014 and much of the three preceding seasons, while under control, are still a threat to derail his career.

“It’s not a secret what I have,” Gutierrez said. “I try to manage it the best way possible. They know how to put me in play. I think the best part of it right now is the communication that we have.

“That’s going to be very important through the whole season.”

It was that communication, and Gutierrez’s comfort with the Mariners’ medical staff, that enabled him to resurrect his career a year ago while playing on a part-time basis following his June 24 summons from Triple-A Tacoma.

Gutierrez batted .292 in 59 games and had 15 homers in only 189 plate appearances for a 7.9-percent ratio that topped American League players with at least 120 plate appearances.

So when he became a free agent after last season, the last thing that Gutierrez wanted, at 33, was to start over again somewhere else. He agreed Nov. 12 to a one-year contract with the Mariners for $1.5 million.

“I think we might have found the sweet spot for Franklin in the way he’s used,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said in announcing the deal. “This was a no-brainer for us. We love his makeup. We love what he brings to our clubhouse.”

Gutierrez’s contract includes performance bonuses that kick in at 200 plate appearances. If he gets to 550, he can earn another $4.25 million. That seems unlikely since he projects to play primarily against left-handed pitchers.

But 300 plate appearances should be within reach, if he remains healthy, and that would double his salary to $3 million.

Mostly, though, there is the comfort level of remaining with the Mariners, who understand his battle with ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that primarily affects the spine.

“It’s huge, man,” Gutierrez said. “I think this is my seventh year with the team. It’s amazing when you have the opportunity year after year to play again. This is another year, man. I’m really glad to be here.

“I’m really glad to be with my friends again.”

Gutierrez was, at one time, one of the game’s premier defensive center fielders. He won a Gold Glove for defensive excellence in 2010 and, most metrics suggest, probably should have won one the year before.

But last season, Gutierrez said he no longer felt capable of playing center field.

“It’s a very demanding position,” he said. “I found myself playing well on the corners. That’s where I’m able to play.”

But the Mariners, as the 25-man roster currently projects, have no backup for center fielder Leonys Martin. Left fielder Nori Aoki is the likeliest candidate, but he hasn’t played center since leaving Japan after the 2011 season.

Manager Scott Servais, asked this week, didn’t dismiss Gutierrez as a possibility to log time in center field. Tellingly, perhaps, Gutierrez didn’t dismiss it, either.

“That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know. It just depends on how my legs feel.”

Like everything else with Gutierrez, it’s a matter of comfort.

CANO BATS THIRD

Look for Robinson Cano to return this season to the No. 3 spot in the lineup. He batted third in Wednesday’s spring opener and again Thursday and, well, that’s the plan going forward.

It doesn’t matter that, last year, Cano had far more success while batting fourth (behind Nelson Cruz) or that a growing belief within MLB contends that a lineup’s best hitter should bat second.

“From an analytics point of view,” Servais conceded, “they say you should hit your best hitter second. (Pause) I think Robby Cano should hit third. That’s where I think he’s comfortable, and we don’t want to get out ahead of ourselves too far.”

Servais acknowledged Cano’s shift last season to cleanup appeared to aid his recovery from an early-season slump. (Cano posted a .336/.392/.531 slash in 66 games when batting fourth; he was .254/.297/.386 in 79 games at No. 3.)

But Servais says the Mariners are “built differently,” which changes the lineup’s dynamics.

“We’ve got some guys who can hit at the top,” he said. “Multiple guys who can hit at the one, two spots and also on the back side at eight and nine to create a nice flow and create more opportunities for the middle of our lineup.”

CRUZ UPDATE

Plans call for Nelson Cruz to make his spring debut Saturday as the designated hitter against the Los Angeles Angels at Peoria Stadium.

Cruz has been slowed in camp by a sore leg, although club officials maintain their go-slow approach is simply a precaution. Servais said: “No issues with Cruzie.”

FIRST LOOKS

The Mariners aren’t wasting time with the two new arrivals. Efren Navarro played Thursday against the Padres and Guillermo Heredia is likely to see action by the weekend. Both joined the camp roster Wednesday.

Heredia, 25, is a center fielder who defected from Cuba in 2015 and needs to shake the rust of not playing competitively for the last two seasons. He reached an agreement Feb. 22, but the paperwork wasn’t completed until this week

“Obviously, he moves real easily in the outfield,” Servais said after a first-look assessment. “Talking to Edgar (Martinez) a little bit, the hitting guys have seen him in the cage, there’s bat speed there.

“He just hasn’t played a competitive game for a while, but we’ll probably get him in there in the next day or two. Get him some reps in the outfield.”

Navarro, 29, is well-known to Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto from his time with the Angels. A first baseman and left fielder, Navarro agreed Wednesday to a minor-league contract.

“He has a long history of hitting in the (Triple-A Pacific Coast League),” Servais said. “He’s spent a lot of time there. He’s gotten a couple of different cracks at the big-league level.

“More than anything, Efren knows our situation. The chance for him to help us, if there is an injury or somebody has an issue, then we can fire him in there, and we won’t miss a beat defensively at first base.”

ALL SIGNED

The Mariners announced Thursday that all prearbitration players on their 40-man roster had agreed to contracts.

Players not yet eligible for arbitration have little negotiating leverage and generally must accept contracts at or slightly above the major-league minimum salary of $507,500.

The Mariners have 24 such players:

Jonathan Aro, Steven Baron, Steve Clevenger, Mayckol Guaipe, Guillermo Heredia, Nathan Karns, Ketel Marte, Cody Martin, Jesus Montero, Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno, Shawn O’Malley, James Paxton, Boog Powell, David Rollins, Stefen Romero, Luis Sardinas, Evan Scribner, Jesus Sucre, Chris Taylor, Taijuan Walker, Joe Wieland, Mike Zunino and Tony Zych.

SHIFTING SUCCESS

Like most clubs, the Mariners chart their success rate when employing defensive shifts — and they were plus-three in Wednesday’s 7-0 victory over San Diego in their Cactus League opener.

“In the shift, they hit into it all three times,” Servais said. “There will be days when we have minus (numbers), when they will beat the shift. We’re just playing the odds and put our guys in the spots to make more plays.”

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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