Wilkerson's hopes are sky high
Mariners right fielder ready to prove he's back to full strength
PEORIA, Ariz. -- It would be asking way too much for Brad Wilkerson to put on a pair of spikes figuratively worn by Jose Guillen and spend a summer trying to be a copy cat.So the Mariners' new right fielder is being asked to just be Brad Wilkerson. "I don't expect him to come in and put Jose Guillen numbers up," manager John McLaren said. "I don't expect him to try to be Jose Guillen. That would be unfair. I expect him to be Brad Wilkerson and give his best effort every day. That's what I expect. "What I've seen of Brad, I like. He's a professional player. You can tell he's a veteran. He's been there. He's got a great attitude. I don't think he's going to be the quote guy that Jose was, but I like what I've seen of Brad. I like him a lot. I think he's going to do a real good job for us." How good of a job Wilkerson does for the Mariners this season could have a lot to do with how well the team does. But don't expect him to bat .290, hit 23 home runs and drive in 99 runs. Those are the numbers Guillen accumulated last season and the Mariners are looking for ways to replace a large chunk of that offense. "I'm not going to tell Brad we're expecting 99 RBIs from him," McLaren added, "but I know he's a professional hitter. He's had some strikeouts, we know that too. We know he can hit the ball out of the ballpark, and from the left side of the plate in our ballpark, it's good. That's where the ball carries. "We feel if we get Richie [Sexson] going again, it'll take some pressure off Brad. With the normal progress of some of our young players who should be getting better, Ichiro [Suzuki] being Ichiro, and everyone swinging at some better pitches this year collectively as a group, we'll be a lot further on down the road." Right field has been a busy place since the end of last season. After a new contract with Guillen never materialized and he entered the free-agent market, it opened the door for Adam Jones, the organization's top prospect, to move in. But before the furniture arrived, Jones was traded to the Orioles for left-hander Erik Bedard. Nine days before the blockbuster trade, and with far less fanfare, the Mariners signed Wilkerson to a one-year contract. "Even if the trade didn't go through, I thought it was a great opportunity for me to come in here and try to win a job in right field," Wilkerson said. "If [the trade] didn't happen, I would still get at-bats throughout the outfield when guys were getting days off. It was a good opportunity for me, starter or not."
An up-close look at the club as we approach Opening Day
Stephen Bradley Wilkerson is 30 years old, bats left-handed, played for the Gold Medal-winning USA team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, has a wife and two daughters, went to the University of Florida and played in the College World Series twice in his three seasons with the Gators. His bio in the Mariners media guide tells us he has had four hits in a game six times, hit three home runs in a game once -- against the Angels last season -- has a pair of 10-game hitting streaks and has four grand slams, the most recent coming on May 30, 2006, against the Mariners.In smaller print, it also is noted that he has struck out 879 times in 868 Major League games, stolen just 50 bases in 88 attempts and has a .228 career batting average in 214 American League games. But what it does not say is he never was 100 percent healthy during the two years he spent in the AL. "The last couple of years have been kind of rough," he said. "But it's a new year and I have a new lease on life. I feel as healthy as I've been since the start of the '05 season." That was the year after he hit .255, slugged 32 home runs and knocked in 67 RBIs for the Montreal Expos. The franchise moved to Washington after the season and he was temporarily moved to first base when Nick Johnson was injured. One play still stands out. "I reached across my body for a throw that was up the [first-base] line and collided with the runner," he said. "The collision jammed my [right] shoulder, and that's when it all started."
Wilkerson tried to play through the pain, but one pain led to another. His forearm began hurting. Then his hand started hurting.Wilkerson eventually said "uncle" and gave in to the pain, which eventually led to surgery. The recovering period was more than a year. "Midway through last year, I was getting back to where I was before I got hurt," he said. "The last half of the season showed what I'm capable of doing. The offseason was more about getting ready for the season instead of rehabbing." So his health is good, his mood is calm and his hopes are sky high. McLaren has anointed Wilkerson as the starting right fielder, period. "That sounds great," Wilkerson said. "It's exciting. I think we have a real legitimate chance of winning this division." Eddie Rodriguez, the Mariners' first-base coach, knows Wilkerson better than anyone in the Seattle organization. He met Wilkerson when the 2000 Olympic team was assembled and they were together again with the Expos and Nationals. "He brings a lot to the table," Rodriguez said. "Brad plays the game the right way. He loves to play the game. He plays it hard and loves to win. I would call him an old-school player, getting down and dirty. That's his type of game." "If I stay healthy, this team will allow me to have 85 to 90 RBIs, just because of the lineup we have," Wilkerson said. Wilkerson has played a lot more games in left field (418) and center field (227) than right field (57), but moving to right field should not be a problem at all. "I played a little right field in college and here [in the Major Leagues]," he said. "I think it's more important to make accurate throws than strong throws, and the key for me will be to charge the ball and get rid of it quickly." Wilkerson has been working with former Gold Glove outfielder Jay Buhner this past week in Spring Training. "I can't teach him anything about playing right field," Buhner said. "The only thing I can do is reassure him. He's a guy who likes to pinch the gaps and that's good because you can't defend the line anyway. I told him, 'Anything to your right, don't give up on it, but know that Ichiro is pretty much going to take everything he can get to.' It's like [Ken Griffey Jr.] and I used to do. There are a lot of similarities between Brad and Ichiro and me and Junior." Except that Wilkerson is left-handed and his glove hand is on his right, which should help him in communicating with Ichiro. "His glove side is the same as Ichiro's and that will help," Buhner said. "The outfield is the outfield," Wilkerson said. "As long as I can hear [Ichiro], we'll be fine." As for the offensive part of the equation, Wilkerson says that will not be a problem either. He probably won't make up for the loss of Guillen all by himself, and it's good to know that no one expects him to.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.