Having reported to camp in great shape and showing no signs of the stomach issues that had ailed him for the last year and a half, Franklin Gutierrez was looking and feeling strong. Up to a reported 197 pounds, he was hitting the ball very hard in the club's intrasquad games, too, leaving many to wonder if his offense could return to it's 2009 form. But warming up prior to Tuesday's game, Gutierrez felt something wrong and came off the field. He got an MRI in Arizona, then flew back to Seattle to be examined by team physician Dr. Edward Khalfayan.
The diagnosis was a partially torn right pectoral muscle.
The prescribed remedy for Gutierrez is four weeks without any baseball activity. In four weeks, the Mariners will be in Japan opening up the 2012 MLB season with their series versus the A's in Tokyo. Meaning Gutierrez will at least miss the opening series, with a very real possibility that he won't be ready until well into April at the earliest.
Without "Death to Flying Things" manning center field, the Mariners have a number of possible ways to go to take his roster spot, but none of them are really an ideal solution. The best defensive option is probably Michael Saunders, who filled in at the beginning of last season when Gutierrez was nursing his stomach issues. But while he did fine defensively in center for the M's, Saunders struggled mightily at the plate in what was basically a lost season for him. After making progress in many facets of his game from '09 to '10, the now 25-year-old Saunders couldn't hit anything, managing a meager .424 OPS and striking out in 31.3% of his plate appearances.
Casper Wells, who already figures to see significant playing time in left field for the Mariners, started three games in center late in the year in 2011, but he is really a better fit in a corner. While he certainly brings a better bat to the lineup than Saunders, his range and speed isn't ideal in center. And although a majority of his minor league starts have been as a center fielder, he hasn't looked completely comfortable in his routes out there as a major leaguer.
Chone Figgins, who Manager Eric Wedge has already named the leadoff hitter, has started over 200 games in center in his big league career and done decently, but his last action out there in the regular season came in 2006 when he was just 28. Now 34, Figgins got the start in center in the Mariners last intrasquad game. Wedge mentioned that he thought Figgins would be most effective if he returned to the utility role that he filled with the Angels in his early career, but he probably isn't ideal defensively as a center fielder at this point in his career.
Adding to the difficulties in making this decision is the fact that the player that figures to be the Mariners every day left fielder -- Mike Carp -- is a left-handed hitter. Ideal roster construction would have your fourth outfielder be a right-handed compliment to Carp. Wells was thought to be that man. But if Wells takes over as the primary starter in center, the M's lose a little flexibility versus left-handed pitching with any of the above options.
That leads me to the thought of Trayvon Robinson. Robinson is a bit of a forgotten man entering 2012. After bursting onto the scene with the M's with a highlight-reel catch and his first big league home run in his debut series, Robinson's '11 went slowly downhill before completely bottoming out in September. The switch-hitter managed just a .162/.203/.257 slash in 24 games in September and struck out 35 times in 81 plate appearances.
But Robinson -- a switch-hitter with good speed and decent power -- thinks he may have corrected an issue he was having in seeing the ball over the offseason when he switched from contacts to glasses at the suggestion of the Mariners. He feels like he is seeing the ball better now at the plate and in the field. He doesn't have the arm that Saunders or Wells have, but he has decent range and can hit from the right side versus left-handed pitching, which is a bonus in setting the roster. The thought all off-season was that Robinson was destined for Triple-A Tacoma this year where he could play every day, but if he is playing five days a week in this scenario the club may consider it.
Saunders last year struggled with tough personal issues in losing his mom to cancer, but he also struggled because he was forced to face a lot of left-handed pitching early in the season when he was more or less platooning with Ryan Langerhans in center. Robinson -- who has been by far a better hitter left-handed in his minor league career -- isn't an ideal right-handed matchup, but he would have the handedness platoon advantage if he were kept as the extra outfielder. That would leave Wells (R), Robinson (S) and Ichiro (L, but with no disadvantage facing lefties in his career) to start in the outfield versus left-handers and Carp (L), Robinson and Suzuki to start versus tough right-handers.
There is no ideal solution when a club loses one of its top players, but keeping Robinson as the team's fourth outfielder may be the best bet for Seattle if Gutierrez's injury isn't one that will linger too long.