With Gutierrez out, Mariners lack righty outfield bats
Club's hole becomes more glaring after Gold Glove winner opts for restricted list
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Franklin Gutierrez's decision to go on the restricted list Thursday instead of dealing with another year of battling his lingering health issues opened a roster spot for the Mariners, but left the club short on right-handed-hitting outfielders.
That situation already was a question, which is why the Mariners continue to be regarded as a potential landing spot for free agent outfielder Nelson Cruz. But manager Lloyd McClendon refused to push any alarm bells Friday when asked what changes now that Gutierrez has chosen not to report.
"It's really not a lot of adjusting to do," McClendon said. "I've never had him. I understand that he's been hurt for quite some time for health reasons. I always anticipate the worst when it comes to these things, so I'm not really thrown for a loop with this one. We have some viable candidates and Jack [Zduriencik] will continue to look for other viable candidates and we'll continue to move forward."
The Mariners are heavy on left-handed-hitting outfielders, with Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and young prospects Xavier Avery, James Jones and Julio Morban fitting that role, and Logan Morrison adding to the mix if his knees are healthy enough to allow him to play more than first base.
Abraham Almonte is a switch-hitter who showed some speed and power last year as a September call-up, while free-agent signees Corey Hart and Willie Bloomquist and prospect Stefan Romero are the only pure right-handed hitters in the mix.
And Hart is coming off a pair of microfracture knee surgeries after sitting out all of last season, Bloomquist is regarded as a utility player and Romero really only began playing the outfield last season in Triple-A Tacoma after being drafted as a second baseman.
If Hart can play significant time in the outfield, it would alleviate much of the issue. But the former Brewers slugger isn't likely to be ready for that sort of running on an everyday basis. Thus, Gutierrez factored into the mix as at least a part-time solution until he informed the club his health remained a problem.
Gutierrez, 30, played in just 173 of the team's 486 games over the past three years due to a host of health issues. The 2010 American League Gold Glove Award winner became a free agent after his four-year, $19-million contract expired last year, but re-signed with Seattle in December for $1 million with a potential $2 million more in incentives. That contract is now voided by his decision to go on the restricted list.
Gutierrez was diagnosed with an inflammatory condition called ankylosing spondylitis last season and was optimistic that medication was helping him deal better with hip and joint issues, as well as the digestive problems that had hindered him. But with those problems returning, he chose this week to step away from the game for now.
"I talked to him," said Mariners ace Felix Hernandez, one of Gutierrez's friends on the team. "He's just trying to figure out what's best for his body, so he can't play. He needs to get healthy. He's frustrated."
Saunders, who played alongside Gutierrez in the outfield for the past four seasons, said the first priority is for his teammate to solve his medical concerns.
"Obviously people are familiar with the situation the last couple years," Saunders said. "It's a shame, because he's such a talented ballplayer, a great person and an incredible teammate. At this point, it sounds like it's not just about baseball, it's about getting his health back.
"The main thing is staying healthy for his wife, Vivian, and [son], Xavier, now. Baseball is so small and insignificant in the scheme of things. If he has to take 2014 off to get his health back, then the Mariners are behind him.
"He's got a lot of outlets here, a lot of friends that he can call and talk to. We're going to all miss him for what he can do on the field and what he brings to the clubhouse, but mainly our thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family."
Though Gutierrez was one of baseball's premier defensive center fielders, the Mariners moved him to right field last year in an attempt to reduce the wear on his body. That figured to be the initial plan again, but his absence now magnifies the battle for center field time.
Saunders can play any of the outfield positions, but he is the most experienced center fielder, having started 229 games there in his career and 69 last year. Ackley started 46 games in center last year after transitioning from second base in midseason, but could also play left field.
Almonte, 24, started 11 games in center for Seattle last September and played the majority of his time at that position while coming up in the Minors with the Yankees, who traded him to Seattle for Shawn Kelley a year ago.
Avery, 24, was acquired from the Orioles for Michael Morse last August and projects as a center fielder. He played 32 games for Baltimore in 2012, but spent all of last year in the Minors. Jones, 25, and Morban, 22, have played some center in their Minor League careers, but more in right field and both were primarily in Double-A last year.
Saunders lost out on playing time to Ackley in center in the final months last year, but said he's eager to let it fly this spring and see what happens.
"With the new coaching staff, it's kind of a clean slate," he said. "We have a lot of guys capable of playing two or three positions. As an athlete, you thrive off that kind of competition.
"We're all going to feed off each other's energy. It's kind of 'May the best man win.' Competition is good and it's healthy for the team and I think everything will figure itself out. The people most deserving of starting roles will show it this spring."