Robinson Cano looks at Nori Aoki atop the Mariners’ lineup and sees Johnny Damon.
“I see his background,” Cano said, “and he’s a guy who takes a lot of pitches. He works deep into counts. That’s what you want. You want a guy to go to the plate and show you what the pitches are.”
Cano cites Damon, who ended an 18-year career in 2012, as the prototype for a veteran leadoff hitter.
“I learned when I was in New York,” Cano said, “that you always need a good leadoff guy. A .280-.290 guy who got on base a lot. (Damon) knew how to play the game. When to steal. When he has to bunt.
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“When you have a leadoff hitter who knows how to play the game, he can help the whole lineup. He can show them what the pitcher has, what he’s throwing.”
The Yankees’ only World Series title in the last 15 years came in 2009, when Damon was their leadoff hitter. He also was part of a World Series championship team in 2004 as the leadoff hitter for the Boston Red Sox.
Damon had a .284 career average with a .352 on-base percentage while averaging 3.90 pitches per plate appearance.
Aoki, at 34, is entering his fifth major-league season after eight years in Japan and has a .287 big-league average with a .353 on-base percentage while averaging 3.75 pitches per plate appearance.
“Also, when you have a guy who can steal bases,” Cano said, “you let him steal bases. You move him over, and then you’ve got two more outs (to get him in).”
Damon averaged 22 steals in his age 30-33 seasons; Aoki averaged 20.
The Mariners targeted Aoki as a priority on the free-agent list because they saw much of what Cano cites. They signed Aoki on Dec. 3 to a one-year deal for a guaranteed $5.5 million that includes a vesting option for 2017.
“This was about as simple a fit as there was in this year’s free-agent class,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “Nori fit exactly what we were looking for — a catalyst at the top of our lineup and an everyday outfielder in some capacity.”
Club officials marveled at Aoki’s consistency: batting averages of .288, .286, .285 and .287 over his four big-league seasons, with on-base percentages of .355, .356, .349 and .353.
“He’s a tough out,” manager Scott Servais said. “He’s a guy who pitchers don’t like to see out there because it’s foul ball after foul ball. It’s a battle. It’s always a good at-bat.”
Cano said those extended at-bats have a ripple effect throughout the lineup.
“If you can see, from the dugout before your first at-bat, what the pitcher has,” he said, “it’s a plus. Because now you go to the plate and, (for example), you know about his breaking ball.
“Say he has a slider, you can see if he’s throwing it for strikes. You know that, and it’s a different game.
The Mariners’ bullpen is showing some early signs of attrition as right-handers Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook are battling strained back muscles — specifically the latissimus dorsi muscle.
Strained lats often turn into six-week recoveries, but the Mariners say they believe they caught Scribner’s injury in time to aid a quicker recovery. Perhaps two weeks.
But club officials are bracing for longer absence for Cook, who pitched one inning in last Wednesday’s 7-0 victory over San Diego in the Mariners’ spring opener. Scribner has not yet pitched in spring games.
While Scribner, if healthy, is all but ensured of a big-league job, Cook faces longer odds.
The Mariners acquired Scribner in a Dec. 8 trade with Oakland for minor-league pitcher Trey Cochran-Gill. Scribner, 30, is out of options and avoided arbitration in January by agreeing to a one-year deal for $807,500.
Cook, 28, agreed Jan. 7 to a one-year, nonguaranteed contract that pays him $1.1 million if he’s on the big-league club. He has an option remaining and will make $300,000 if sent to the minors.
With Mark Buehrle apparently retired, Mariners lefty Wade Miley ranks as the fastest-working pitcher in the game, according to www.Fangraphs.com.
Miley averaged 17.5 seconds per pitch a year ago while playing for the Red Sox before a Dec. 7 trade brought him to the Mariners.
Miley said he adopted a “get it and go” approach while pitching collegiately at Southeastern Louisiana. While hitters occasionally try to disrupt his pace, he said the tactic rarely works.
“There are some guys (who try to slow it down),” he said. “But they have a little time clock; the umpires are griping at them. So for the most part, it doesn’t bother me too much.”
Miley’s pace has been speeding up. He had been around 19 seconds in his four previous seasons before trimming it a year ago. (Buehrle led all pitchers last year at 15.9 seconds while at Toronto.)
The Mariners have four of the 15 fastest workers among 268 pitchers who logged at least 60 innings in 2015: Vidal Nuno ranked sixth at 18.1 seconds, Taijuan Walker was 10th at 18.4 and James Paxton was 14th at 18.7.
They also have the slowest-working pitcher among the 268: reliever Joaquin Benoit at 28.4 seconds. (Point of comparison, former Mariners closer Fernando Rodney, who could seemingly grind games to a halt, clocked in at 22.7 seconds.)
Others worth noting: Nathan Karns was 143rd at 22.1 seconds last year at Tampa Bay; Felix Hernandez was 174th at 22.8 seconds and Hisashi Iwakuma was 209th at 23.6 seconds.
COMPETITION AT FIRST BASE
Servais offers a cautionary note in assessing the competition to determine a right-handed complement to lefty-hitting Adam Lind at first base.
“It’s more than just the bat,” Servais said. “I think everybody looks at this guy (as) having to be a complement and take some of the load off Adam Lind against left-handed pitching.
“But when you look at the makeup of your club and your bench, when you put the guy out there on defense, what does that bring? Do you feel good about the defense? Do you trust it?”
Jesus Montero and Dae-Ho Lee are generally viewed as the leading contenders to be Lind’s partner, but the Mariners also are looking at Gaby Sanchez, who started Sunday, and Stefen Romero.
Montero is out of options, which means he can’t be sent to the minors without clearing waivers. Lee and Sanchez are in camp on minor-league contracts but can become free agents through opt-out clauses. Romero has an option remaining.
The Mariners recently signed Efren Navarro to a minor-league deal, but he is a left-handed hitter and, barring an injury to Lind, is likely to open the season at Triple-A Tacoma.
Servais said the candidates will be judged on the quality of their at-bats.
“What kind of at-bat are you going to get,” he asked, “against a premier left-handed reliever in our league? There are some pretty good ones. There’s going to be a lot that goes into that (decision) beyond their batting average in spring training.”
Lefty reliever Charlie Furbush is getting closer to testing in a game his recovery from biceps and shoulder problems. He is tentatively scheduled to throw batting practice on Monday and could make his spring debut by the end of the week. His last game action was July 7. … The Mariners begin their second cycle through the rotation Monday when James Paxton faces Arizona at Peoria Stadium. The workload for starters will increase to three innings and 45-50 pitches. … Lefty Mike Montgomery returned to the mound Sunday in a bullpen workout. He missed time last week after having a cyst removed from his neck. ... The minor-league minicamp concluded Sunday. All minor-league pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report Monday. Their first official workout is Wednesday.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners