Wakamatsu recognizes challenges
Several Mariners likely to play in World Baseball Classic
LAS VEGAS -- The timing could be a little better for a first-time Major League manager, but you won't hear Mariners skipper Don Wakamatsu complaining about the unique challenge he faces during Spring Training.Several of his key players might be unavailable for Cactus League games played while the World Baseball Classic is being played from March 5-23. So his entire team might spend as little as two weeks together before the regular season begins. As the only rookie manager in the American League this upcoming season, Wakamatsu is the only one starting from square one with a new team.
"I think every manager in his first go-around would like his whole team there to start building relationships," Wakamatsu said on Wednesday, "but I think we'll be fine. Spring Training has been extended just a little bit, and how deep certain players go into the WBC will be a factor."But it also gives us plenty of time to work with other players." Among the Mariners expected to play for their respective countries in the 16-team event are pitchers Felix Hernandez (Venezuela) and Ryan-Rowland Smith (Australia), right fielder Ichiro Suzuki and catcher Kenji Johjima (Japan), second baseman Jose Lopez (Venezuela), third baseman Adrian Beltre (Dominican Republic) and outfielder Wladimir Balentien (The Netherlands). Player-restriction rules used in the inaugural World Baseball Classic stated that no more than 14 players from any organization and 10 players on the club's MLB active or disabled list as of Aug. 31 of the previous year would be allowed to participate, unless the MLB club submitted in writing that it had no objection to allowing such additional players to participate. Teams also were protected from using too many players from a particular position. Spring Training has been lengthened this time to give World Baseball Classic players more time to play games with their Major League teams. Wakamatsu and his all-new coaching staff have a lot of work to do in Peoria, Ariz., and getting to know the players is just the beginning. In his session with the media Wednesday afternoon during the Winter Meetings at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino, Wakamatsu said, "No. 1" when asked how far down the lineup he could go. That would be Ichiro Suzuki. Other starters, but in no particular batting order, figure to be: Beltre, 3B; Yuniesky Betancourt, SS; Lopez, 2B; Russell Branyan, 1B; Johjima, C; and Jeff Clement, DH. Wednesday night's blockbuster trade that landed the Mariners pitcher Aaron Heilman, outfielders Frankie Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, along with first baseman Mike Carp, makes the battles for roster spots this spring even more interesting. The Mariners are trying to bounce back from their shocking 101-loss season, which led to numerous changes on the field and in the front office, including new general manager Jack Zduriencik. Wakamatsu, who served as the A's bench coach last season, isn't predicting a 101-win season, but he expects to see significant improvement from one of the most underachieving teams in the Major Leagues last season. "I believe in our pitching staff, No. 1," he said of a rotation led by right-hander Hernandez. "Can we tighten up our defense? Can we run the bases better? Those will be things we work on, starting in Spring Training." Wakamatsu said he has seen the Mariners play enough games over the past few years to know there is much more talent than what showed in 2008. "I've seen lot of these guys play at certain levels, and there is a lot there," he said. "To get a chance to take this over is very exciting, because of the potential." Between now and the beginning of Spring Training, Wakamatsu will gather with his coaches in Seattle to formulate a game plan for camp. The plan is to be as cerebral as physical. "The biggest challenge is a two-way street of trust," Wakamatsu said. "If we don't establish that, players tend to move away from you a little bit more, or do their own thing. There has to be a trust -- not only from myself, but a trust in my staff from the players. "It's paramount for them to understand we are in this together. Being honest with the players is crucial. We need to establish in themselves accountability for the team and the community. But you have to establish relational bonding before you can ask them to do certain things." The most important thing is to mold a cohesive unit that plays sound, fundamental baseball. It is still too early for Wakamatsu to know what kind of team he will have come Opening Day on April 7 in Minneapolis. Seattle ranked near the bottom in several offensive categories last season, which put more pressure on the pitchers -- especially the starters -- and a team expected to challenge the Angels for the American League West title struggled from start to finish.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.