SEATTLE — Right around the first of the year, Eric Wedge placed a call to a select number of Seattle Mariners telling them to get to the Pacific Northwest in the dead of winter.
Wedge wanted to see firsthand if this select group had followed through during the offseason in getting themselves ready for the upcoming season in the way Wedge and his staff asked.
It wasn’t the first time in Wedge’s managerial career that he’d made such a request of a few players. But for him it was important to confirm that the lessons from a trying first season took hold and to make sure they all understood there were new expectations for production and personal responsibility going into Year 2.
“It wasn’t by mistake they were all position players, I can tell you that much,” Wedge said. “To a man, I felt they all had something they needed to accomplish over the course of the winter, whether it be physical, mental or fundamental. I felt to a man, I need more. I expect more. I want more. You’re capable of doing more. Let’s go.”
Wedge will get the first look of any manager in baseball at how the offseason went when the Mariners open spring training in Arizona this weekend. Pitchers and catchers report on Saturday, with the first workout scheduled for Sunday. Seattle gets a jump because the Mariners open the season earlier than anyone else with two games in Japan on March 28 and 29 against the Oakland A’s.
The trip will create some logistical headaches for the Mariners — mainly the fact they’ll play two exhibition games in Japan, two regular season games and then return to Arizona for the final days of spring play. The Japan trip, along with the visit to Seattle in early January to meet with Wedge, also made the offseason tick by quicker.
“I thought it was a great idea. I thought it was really cool,” Seattle shortstop Brendan Ryan said of the January meeting. “I had never heard of anything like that.”
From an outside perspective, Seattle’s offseason revolved around whether the Mariners could land the big bat — namely, Prince Fielder — that could be the answer to the offensive woes that have plagued the club in recent years. Fielder ended up in Detroit and the Mariners went a different route to try to address its offensive problems by continuing to rely on youth and trading for slugging prospect Jesus Montero of the Yankees. The price, having to give up All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda, was steep, but it was the easiest way for the pitching-rich Mariners to address offensive issues.
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik believes other areas of concern were addressed as well.
Depth was added to the bullpen with the additions of George Sherrill, Shawn Camp and Hong-Chih Kuo, who was an All-Star in 2010 before injuries and anxiety problems derailed his 2011 season.
The starting rotation was bolstered with the signing of Japanese import Hisashi Iwakuma, the acquisition of Hector Noesi as part of the Montero trade and the signing of veteran Kevin Millwood to a minor-league deal with a camp invite.
Seattle is also going to give its trio of young star prospects — Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker — a chance to make the squad out of spring training, although the expectation is they will begin the season in the minors.
Among the position players, Seattle signed Japanese middle infielder Munenori Kawasaki and veteran Carlos Guillen to minor-league deals in the hopes they can bring depth. Wedge plans to play Chone Figgins in a variety of spots to see if that can jumpstart what so far has been a flop of a $36 million investment.
“I don’t think we made the huge splash unless you consider the last trade a big splash, and it was a big splash, but I think people were looking in another direction and thinking we would sign a free agent,” Zduriencik said. “But I do think we addressed all of our needs. … All of the real specific things we wanted to do we actually accomplished.”
Two of Wedge’s tasks early in the spring will be figuring out how to shuffle a logjam in left field and determining where Ichiro Suzuki will hit in the lineup. Wedge acknowledged in late January that he was leaning toward moving Suzuki out of the leadoff spot he’s occupied since arriving in Seattle before the 2001 season, but questions remain about who takes over at the top and where Suzuki lands.
In left field, Mike Carp proved to be a viable major league hitter last season and is the likely incumbent there, but Seattle also wants to get a strong look at Casper Wells, who came from Detroit in a midseason trade. Wells was troubled by balance issues late last season.
Guillen, Figgins, Trayvon Robinson, Carlos Peguero and Michael Saunders are also options at that position.
“To earn that spot, it takes performance and production. That’s what it takes, and the best of the best survive,” Wedge said. “For us to be one of the best, we need to have the best players. We feel we have a lot of them here right now, and all of them aren’t here yet.”