Hickey: Injuries create outfield asset -- speed

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on April 26, 2012 at 10:30 AM

This wasn’t the outfield the Mariners were supposed to have.

In the plan that general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge sketched out before spring training, the Mariners looked much different from left to right.

Franklin Gutierrez, finally healthy, was going to be in center field. Mike Carp, who gave a glimpse last year that he could produce some of the power the Mariners so desperately need, would be in left field.

That combination may happen in a couple of months. But Gutierrez has missed almost two months and has yet to begin a rehabilitation assignment after his pectoral muscle injury. Once able to play, he may need all of the 20 days allotted for rehab because he didn’t get game action in the Cactus League this year.

As for Carp, he played all spring and started the opener in Tokyo, but sprained his right shoulder in the first game. He is slowly playing his way back with Triple-A Tacoma, but asked out of Monday's game, citing fatigue from rehab.

Their absences meant the Mariners started Chone Figgins in the outfield, either in left or center, for 17 consecutive games after being at third base for the opener. Michael Saunders started the opener in center and has been there for 14 of the 18 games.

The result, when you factor in right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, is perhaps the fastest group of regular starting outfielders in franchise history.

“I don’t think there’s an outfield in the major leagues that has the speed that we do,” Figgins said.

How fast? Ichiro led the AL in steals as a rookie in 2001, is annually among the league leaders in steals and has been the toughest out in baseball getting down the line on infield choppers. Figgins led the league in steals in 2005 and also can be counted on to rank among the league leaders.

Saunders looks too big (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) to be in that kind of company, but make no mistake, the man is a flier.

“When it’s the three of us out there, I feel like there aren’t many balls that we can’t run down,” Saunders said. “We cover a lot of ground.”

Of course, speed isn’t everything. Gutierrez isn’t as fast as Figgins or Saunders, but assuming he returns in May or June, he’ll be the regular in center. No one tracks a ball better than Gutierrez.

And neither Saunders nor Figgins possesses Carp’s power, so when he’s ready to go, he’ll be in left field with some regularity.

For now, the speed Wedge has at his call is formidable.

“These guys can go and get just about anything,” reliever Tom Wilhelmsen said. “As a pitcher, you learn to appreciate that really quickly.”

Wilhelmsen had an extra appreciation Tuesday. With none out and two on, Delmon Young hit a ball that Ichiro ran down in right-center, preserving a 6-4 lead in what would turn out to be a 7-4 win.

“That was in the air for like two hours,” Wilhelmsen joked to media after the game. "I just looked up and saw Ichi make the grab. It was like, 'Thank God he’s out there.'"

Offensively, none of the three is off to great starts.

Figgins comes into Wednesday’s game in Detroit having the struggles that Mariners fans have become used to – a .206 batting average. But since moving to the leadoff spot, he’s back to taking more pitches. He has eight walks and eight runs scored in the first 18 games. In his first 18 games last year as the No. 2 hitter, he had four walks and seven runs scored.

Saunders played himself out of a job last April. But he’s a bigger, stronger hitter now, as was shown with the two doubles and three RBIs he produced Tuesday in Motown. He’s hitting .229, but he’s more involved in the offense.

As for Ichiro, his three hits Tuesday has him up to .297, but that’s not as important as the fact that he’s the team’s co-leader, with Jesus Montero, in RBIs with nine as the team’s new No. 3 hitter.

“Ichiro’s done an outstanding job,” Wedge said about the lineup makeover. “I told him to make the (three spot) his own. And he has.”

None of the three has shown their speed that much on the bases. Ichiro has two steals, as does Saunders. Figgins has one.

Wedge has been slow to let his best base stealing threats run free. But don’t be surprised if the Mariners run more on the 10-game road trip through Detroit, Toronto and Tampa Bay.

It’s a major asset, one that can perhaps help neutralize the power deficit the Mariners are facing – 12 homers hit against 21 homers yielded.

The 15 hits Tuesday were a rare glimpse at hitting prowess. Runs saved by speed are a less appreciated way to win.

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