Mariners, Athletics get jump on hard climb ahead in AL West
Mariners and A's will start season with two-game series in Japan on March 28/29
A's traded a few young starters over winter in effort to replenish farm system
Mariners hope Jesus Montero trade bolsters a group of promising young hitters
For a week, the pop of ball-in-mitt in the bullpens alongside the ball fields of the Mariners' spring training facility in Peoria, Ariz., will be the only sounds of organized uniformed activity in the baseball world.
Seattle's pitchers and catchers will hold their first workout on Feb. 12 and the full squad joins them on Feb. 18; even that latter date is a day before any other major league club's pitchers and catchers begin their official preparations for the season.
The Mariners were granted the opportunity to start early -- as were the Athletics, though they declined to do so -- because the two overlooked members of the American League West open the regular season a week before the rest of the majors with their two-game series in Japan on March 28 and 29.
With the trip overseas (a first for the franchise) and the accompanying travel demands (days off for travel and jet lag that complicate the spring schedule), the Mariners decided to move their Spring Training start date up a week to ensure proper preparation for the season.
"A lot of guys have already rolled in here," GM Jack Zduriencik said by telephone from Peoria. "Some guys are here working out on their own. You know how players are, they're anxious and ready to get going this time of the year. I think everybody understands that, and we'll monitor it. Eric [Wedge] does a real nice job with Spring Training to give the players the consideration and make sure they're ready for Opening Day and throughout the season."
With such a young club -- 18 rookies saw major league playing time last year -- and with several non-roster camp invitees, the Mariners' development staff and major league coaches are likely salivating over an extra week of work with the would-be roster.
"We have a big camp this year," Zduriencik said. "We're going to give a lot of guys opportunities, and we're going to bring in a lot of our own players. We're bringing in 10 of own non-roster guys just to give them the experience of immersion in camp. We think it's going to benefit them in the long run."
Oakland, however, elected not to add an extra week of practice sessions. The franchise participated in the season-opening series in Japan in 2008 as well and didn't move up Spring Training then either. What the A's have done is identify their first two starting pitchers -- Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon -- and make sure those righthanders get in extra throwing before the start of camp. Otherwise, it'll be business as usual at their complex in Phoenix.
"Ultimately, I don't think it's to the benefit of the players to be out there a week early and to be on the field more days without playing games," A's assistant general manager David Forst said by phone from his office in Oakland. "These guys, in our experience, tend to go a little stir crazy the more that they're out there without actually playing Spring Training games."
The Cactus League exhibition games do not start appreciably earlier for Oakland and Seattle, who open the Arizona spring circuit on March 2, one day before everyone else.
"The way [manager Bob Melvin] put it, just because we play two [early regular-season] games, we're still getting these guys ready for 162 total, not just for those two," Forst said. "These days, so many guys are down in Phoenix early and out on the field -- it wasn't something we thought was necessary, and it worked fine for us four years ago."
Though the organizations differ on the best way to approach the season, their goal is the same: unseat the Rangers and Angels atop the AL West, where one or the other has won the last five division titles and eight of the last 10. That streak appears as if it may continue after a winter that saw the Angels add Albert Pujols and C.J. Willson in free agency and the Rangers add pitchers Yu Darvish and Joe Nathan.
Not surprisingly, Oakland is taking more serious aim a few years from now, when a new ballpark in San Jose -- it's not a done deal though recent A's transactions suggest there's optimism -- will create new revenue streams in hopes of helping the club.
In the meantime the A's traded young but established starters Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey to replenish a depleted farm system. (ESPN's Keith Law recently ranked Oakland's system No. 9 in baseball while noting that it might have been bottom-five before the trades.)
"Certainly what the Rangers and Angels have done this offseason is particularly responsible for why we took the tack that we did in trading some players away and getting younger -- resetting the clock, if you will, on our major league club," Forst said. "It's an uphill battle without a doubt, and that's been at the center of our quest for a new stadium.
" ... For the health of this franchise a new stadium is probably necessary to allow us to compete in this division. That said, we've made some moves that we think will allow us to compete better in the long term. We're battling uphill in 2012 for sure, but we do think with some of the young pitching we've created, with the extra draft picks we have this year and hopefully some of the quality that comes with the new CBA, we're set up for the long haul."
The collective bargaining agreement's new caps on spending in the amateur draft should, the A's hope, redistribute talent more evenly with fewer players able to force their way to particular teams that are willing to pay over-slot bonus money, making the draft more about selecting players "based on talent rather than dollars," Forst said.
The Mariners, on the other hand, might be a little closer to contention even if a serious run this year seems premature. They still have ace Felix Hernandez atop the rotation, and there's a wave of young pitching depth on the horizon in the form of prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez, though not all of them will reach the majors this year.
Seattle didn't keep all of its young talent, dealing starter Michael Pineda to the Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero in what Zduriencik deemed a "good old-fashioned baseball trade of talent for talent." (Seattle also acquired pitcher Hector Noesi; New York also received minor league pitcher Jose Campos.)
Zduriencik felt he could afford to trade Pineda for the offense his club so desperately needed -- the Mariners ranked last in the majors in runs each of the past two seasons -- because of that pitching depth. Montero will join other promising young hitters such as Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Kyle Seager, among others, though Zduriencik cautioned against presumptions that Montero, who turned 22 in November, will immediately be the Mariners' middle-of-the-order savior in '12.
"We have to be careful with that," the GM said. "We think eventually he'll do that, but you have to realize that as young as we were last year -- and we were a very young ballclub -- that this kid would have been the youngest player on our club."
Such decisions will sort themselves out with time, and for the young player on the young club with so much uncertainty, this year the dawning of the new season comes a little sooner.