KERRY EGGERS ON SPORTS
SEATTLE Observations from Thursday's Seattle Mariners' pre-spring training media briefing at Safeco Field
New general manager Jerry Dipoto's angular face has a little Jim Carrey in it.
There is also no doubt that Dipoto looks much younger than his 47 years.
But Dipoto has 27 years of pro baseball experience as a player and front-office executive, including 3 1/2 seasons as GM of the Los Angeles Angels, from 2011 until his July 1, 2015 resignation after repeated disagreements with manager Mike Scioscia.
Dipoto makes it clear he will settle for nothing but an end to the Mariners' major-league-long 14-year playoff drought when the dust settles on the 2016 campaign in early October.
"I have high expectations," said Dipoto, who previously worked for Arizona and was a scout with Boston when the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. "I like to play in the postseason. I've had the opportunity to do it a handful of times in the past, and it's a blast. I believe this club is as well-suited as anybody to compete in the AL West."
Dipoto ticked off reasons why all of Seattle's competitors -- Texas, Houston, the Angels and Oakland -- are worthy AL West title contenders, too. But the former major league reliever with Cleveland, the New York Mets and Colorado thinks the Mariners can win the division.
"Our goal is to get out of the chutes with the idea we're going to get to the mid-80s (in terms of victories)," Dipoto said. "If you can get into that 85-to-86 zone and then let the chips fall where they may, it's amazing how frequently you're going to wind up winning a lot more games than that."
Seattle finished a disappointing 76-86 and 12 games behind the AL West-champion Rangers a year ago. Ownership cleaned house, firing GM Jack Zduriencik in August and manager Lloyd McClendon shortly after the season.
In their place are Dipoto and new manager Scott Servais, who retained only one member of the previous staff -- hitting coach Edgar Martinez.
The core of the 2015 team -- pitcher Felix Hernandez, second baseman Robinson Cano, right-fielder Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager -- remains.
The Mariners added some important pieces in the offseason, acquiring pitchers Wade Miley, Nathan Karns and Mike Montgomery, center fielder Leonis Martin and first baseman Adam Lind via trades and left fielder Nori Aoki, catcher Chris Ianetta and closer Steve Cishek through free agency.
"I think we have a lot of talent," Dipoto said. "Our starting pitching is as deep as any in the division. Our lineup one through nine is as strong as any in the division. And our marquee players -- Felix, Robby, Nelson and Kyle -- there is star value in that group. We did a fair amount of heavy lifting to surround those players with a capable bunch.
"We want to play meaningful games in September and go from there. That's the goal."
Servais, 48, played 11 years (1991-2001) with four teams in the majors, mostly as a backup catcher. He worked for Dipoto in the Angels' front office after six seasons as the Rangers' director of player development. This is Servais' first crack at managing at any level.
Servais' philosophy -- and the ongoing philosophy of the organization -- is to develop strong communication with the players.
"If there's one thing we failed in last year, it was in having consistent communication with the players," said Jerry Kingston, the one front-office executive who remains from last season, serving again as assistant GM. "We need to do a better job with that as an organization."
Servais said he intends to let the core players and other veterans participate in leadership of the team.
"The game is about the players," he said. "My thought is to let them be involved in the process. Why not? Get them a voice in what's going on here. Let them be who they are, show a little of their personality."
Servais will place a premium with on-base percentage of his hitters.
"To win, you have to pitch," he said. "To have good pitching, you have to defend. We got a lot better there (with acquisitions), especially in our outfield defense.
"We're going to play a high number of one-run games. In this ballpark, it's hard to blow people out or get blown out. You're going to play tight games. So the ability to get on base and create consistent opportunities to score the more athletic you are, the better chance you have of that happening. And I like our athleticism."
Added Dipoto: "If we follow our theory, we should create traffic on the bases. If we have traffic, with Robby and Cruz sitting in the middle of the lineup, we should score runs."
The starting pitching should rank among the best in baseball, with right-handers Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top.
Left-hander Miley -- who won 45 games the previous four seasons, going 11-11 with Boston a year ago -- is the likely No. 3 starter.
The final two spots in the rotation will come from a battle between holdovers TaJuan Walker (11-8 with a 4.58 ERA in 2015) and James Paxton, who missed most of last season with a finger injury; Karns, 7-5 with a 3.84 ERA with Tampa a year ago, and Montgomery, who pitched at Triple-A Tacoma much of last season.
"We'll have great competition there," Dipoto said. "Our depth in starting pitching should be as good as anybody's."
The bullpen is perhaps the biggest question mark.
Among the candidates for middle relief are Joaquim Benoit, Ryan Cook, Justin De Fratus, Charlie Furbush, Danny Hultzen, Evan Scribner, Joe Wieland and Tony Zych.
The likely closer is Cishek, a 6-6, 215-pound right-hander who was 2-6 with four saves in 59 appearances with Miami and St. Louis last season.
"The thing that makes you look good is a real good bullpen," Servais said. "I think we're going to be just fine."
The infield is set, with Seager at third base, Ketel Marte at shortstop, Cano at second base and Lind at first base.
Marte, 22, batted .283 with eight stolen bases in 57 games for the Mariners as a rookie last season.
Lind, a 6-2, 195-pound southpaw, hit .277 with 20 home runs and 87 RBIs for Milwaukee a year ago.
Martin, a slick fielder who hit .219 with Texas last season, will start in center.
Aoki, who hit .287 for San Francisco in 2015, will play left field.
Cruz, who made his Seattle debut by hitting .302 with 44 homers and 93 RBIs a year ago, will play right and designated hitter.
Others who figure in the outfield picture are returnees Franklin Gutierrez, who hit .292 in 2015, and Seth Smith (.248).
The catcher will be the veteran Iannetta, who batted .188 with 10 HRs with the Angels last season.
Veteran trainer Rick Griffin provided an update on the Mariners' injury situation.
Catcher Jesus Sucre, who suffered a broken right fibula earlier this month, underwent surgery and is expected to be out at least six months.
Cano had "core muscle" surgery in October, is progressing well and should be ready for the start of spring training. Griffin said he suffered the injury on July 28, missed three games and then toughed it out the rest of the season.
"I don't think too many people could have played through what he played through," Griffin said.
Griffin said the 6-4 Paxton has lost 20 pounds since last season. "He's much more athletic now," the trainer said.
Iwakuma failed a physical with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Mariners re-signed him to a one-year contract with options in 2017 and '18.
"I feel 100 percent good" about Iwakuma's health, Griffin said. "No concerns, or we wouldn't have brought him back."
Gutierrez had a bounce-back season in 2015 after two years of dealing with multiple conditions ankylosing spondylitis and irritable bowel syndrome.
"The condition is not going away," Griffin said. "There are going to be some days he can't play. There are going to be some days when he feels great. We'll try to take advantage of those days."
Two former Oregon State players are competing for roster spots.
Outfielder Stefan Romero is on the 40-man roster. Romero hit .190 in 13 games with Seattle but .292 with 17 homers and 79 RBIs in 116 games with Tacoma last season.
"We've talked about Romero as a contender for a role that could involve some first base," Dipoto said.
Tyler Smith is one of 14 non-roster invitees. OSU's shortstop from 2011-13 hit .271 for Double-A Jackson last season.
"He's a shortstop by trade, but he can move around the infield," Kingston said. "He has a career .377 on-base percentage (in the minors). We're going to reward our players who control the strike zone."
Added Dipoto: "We need a shortstop to spell Marte. He's not going to play 162 games."
The Mariners haven't given up on catcher Mike Zunino, who hit .174 with 11 homers in 112 games with Seattle before finishing last season at Tacoma.
Dipoto believes Zunino was promoted to the big leagues too early in his career. Zunino had 364 career minor-league at-bats before getting the call from the Mariners at age 22 in 2013.
"Catchers get fewer at-bats, but with other positions, the optimal number is about 1,800 (career minor-league at-bats)," the Seattle GM said. "This season is going to be about what is best for the career of Mike Zunino. We know it's in there. We've seen it periodically in the big leagues. Now we need to tap it full time."
Zunino seems likely to start the season at Tacoma, and he could finish it there.
"He's just on the first chapter of writing his book," Kingston said. "There are a lot of chapters left for him."
THIS AND THAT: Pitchers and catchers report to spring training camp at Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 19, with position players beginning on Feb. 24. The Mariners' first exhibition game is March 2 against San Diego. The regular season begins with a three-game series at Texas starting on April 4. The Mariners' home opener is April 8 against Oakland. Servais said the batting order will be adjusted as spring training progresses. A likely order would begin with Aoki batting leadoff, Marte at No. 2, Cruz and Cano at Nos. 3 and 4 and Seager at No. 5. Aoki struck out 25 times in 392 plate appearances for the Giants last season. "He's the toughest player to strike out in baseball," Dipoto said. "That's a fact." Expect no more major additions to the Seattle roster. "We're probably done making significant moves," Dipoto said. The Mariners will start the season with 12 pitchers and 13 position players. Spring training will determine the final one or two spots in the bullpen," Dipoto said. "It's going to be a brawl between guys who have a legitimate opportunity."
Servais was asked if he ever faced Dipoto in the major leagues. "I think I got hits my first three-at bats against Jerry," Servais said. "Then one night in San Francisco, (manager) Dusty Baker sent me up to pinch hit. Jerry's best weapon was his slider. He threw me about eight in a row. Then he threw me one that didn't break and I missed. He got the last laugh." Cruz played 90 games in right field last season; Servais said he'll likely get more time at DH this season. "Nelson is a big piece of our lineup," Servais said. "We'd like to get him out there 155 times. He'll get plenty of time in the outfield, but we want to keep him as fresh and as healthy as possible." The Mariners now have 17 area scouts, up from 15 last season. Kingston, on his role in the front office this season: "My job is to make my new boss (Dipoto) look as smart as he can possibly look."