Inbox: Is Walker reunion in Mariners' future?
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SEATTLE -- Tick, tick, tick. Mariners pitchers and catchers are less than two weeks away from reporting to camp. But no worries, we still have time to get to your questions in the latest Mariners' inbox.
Are the Mariners still looking into signing Taijuan Walker? Or if not, are they actively pursuing anyone else?
-- Phil C., Blaine, Wash.
The door is definitely still open for Walker to return to Seattle, though the Mariners clearly aren’t the only team interested in the 27-year-old as he looks to find the right landing spot after being released by the D-backs. Walker will be a free agent next year, so he’s undoubtedly seeking the best situation to rebuild his value, having pitched just 14 innings over the past two seasons due to shoulder issues.
Seattle certainly is one of the teams that can provide opportunity, and the Mariners could allow him to work back at his own pace, while also offering a familiar situation and a generally favorable pitcher’s park. Having veteran lefty Wei-Yin Chen agree to a Minor League deal this week didn’t eliminate their interest in Walker, though there doesn’t appear to be any other remaining free agents who fit their plans.
With Mitch Haniger out, will Jerry Dipoto add any more outfielders or just go with the kids?
-- Ron D., Bellevue, Wash.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Mariners sign one of the remaining free-agent veterans to a Minor League deal, given Mallex Smith is the lone outfielder with more than 18 games of Major League experience. How about a Leonys Martin or Jarrod Dyson reunion? But for the most part, Haniger’s sports hernia surgery opens increased opportunity for rookies Jake Fraley and Braden Bishop, since fellow rookie Kyle Lewis was already penciled into left field.
The Mariners also just extended a late invitation to big league camp to Eric Filia, who hit .301 with a .401 on-base percentage in 45 games in the Dominican Winter League. The 27-year-old missed 100 games last year after being suspended for a failed test for a drug of abuse, but batted .331 in 35 games after returning to Triple-A Tacoma. Filia doesn’t hit for power, but he’s hit for average and been an on-base machine everywhere he’s been, so he’ll be another one to watch this spring.
Any tips for a first timer to Spring Training?
-- Mike A., Edmonds, Wash.
You mean besides bringing sunscreen?
My “other” biggest advice for fans at Mariners camp in Arizona is to make sure to come to the morning workout sessions at the team’s Peoria Sports Complex and not just limit yourself to the afternoon or evening Cactus League games.
Once the games begin on Feb. 22 (through March 24), the team typically spends about two hours a day on the practice fields as players stretch, take batting practice, work on drills or throw in the bullpens. It’s a great chance to get close to players and occasionally interact, or just hang out in a relaxed setting with baseball all around. While players can’t sign while they’re working, many stop for autographs as they leave the fields.
Those sessions are free to the public and usually run from about 10 a.m. to noon prior to 1 p.m. day games, though that can change depending on away or night games. I try to update fans each morning about workout times on my Twitter account at @GregJohnsMLB, so make sure to follow along there.
• Mariners 2020 Spring Training ticket/vacation packages
Are the Mariners planning on having opener-like shortened starts for Justin Dunn or Yusei Kikuchi, or are they not planning on any openers now that Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc are gone?
-- Nico E., Salt Lake City, Utah
The one-inning opener experiment appears on hold for now, at least heading into camp -- though I didn’t foresee that happening last season, either, until Milone and LeBlanc wound up pitching behind relievers from June through most of the remainder of the season.
It’s more likely you’ll see traditional starts for the most part this season, though Dunn -- and perhaps Kendall Graveman, as he returns from Tommy John surgery -- could be paired with a long reliever and limited to four-inning type starts initially.
With the new three-batter minimum rule for relievers (unless they finish out an inning), there’ll be an increased emphasis on finding pitchers capable of longer stints out of the bullpen, and the Mariners will carry more “swingman” or long-relief types who can soak up multiple innings as necessary.
Looking at Kikuchi's splits from 2019, he got worse as the year progressed and was one of the worst starting pitchers in the American League. I understand the roster spot, but why not long relief to hopefully build up his confidence?
-- Terry B., Queen Anne, Wash.
The Mariners want to give the 28-year-old Kikuchi every chance to show if he can learn and grow from his initial season in the Majors, when he was adjusting to a new league and new country as well as the different style of ball used in MLB.
Kikuchi showed signs of being the power pitcher the Mariners envisioned when they signed him out of Japan -- he was 3-1 with a 3.43 ERA through 11 starts and threw a two-hit shutout in Toronto in August -- but indeed, his overall season raised many questions. No one doubts that Kikuchi’s work ethic and desire are great, but there is a feeling that he tinkered far too much with his arm angles and throwing motion -- both over the course of the year and even during games -- and needs to get back to just being himself and letting it rip as he did when he first arrived.
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He’ll definitely get an opportunity to do that as a prominent member of the rotation to begin the season, as that is where the Mariners feel his best upside and value lies. As with many players, finding out exactly if and where Kikuchi fits in the long-term plans for the club is one of the primary goals this year.