Seattle hasn’t had a decent first baseman since Russell “The Muscle” Branyan in 2009. That could change this year with Logan Morrison.
In one powerful, uppercut swing, Mariners first baseman Logan Morrison reminded all witnesses Tuesday why the club parted ways with Justin Smoak after last season.
Facing Chicago White Sox RHP Jeff Samardzija, Morrison crushed a 3-2 pitch onto a grass berm about 15 feet beyond Camelback Ranch’s right-field fence. The solo home run marked Morrison’s first blast of the spring. He finished 2-for-3 with a triple, raising his Cactus League average to .320 (8-for-25) in eight games.
“He’s been doing OK for the most part,” manager Lloyd McClendon said afterward. “He struggled a bit the last three games. Any time you get positive results, it’s a good thing. I’m sure he feels good about today.”
The afternoon represented what Morrison, when healthy, does best. The hulking 6-foot-3, 245-pound first baseman has the build of an MMA fighter, and he possesses the raw power to be a force in the middle of the lineup — a left-handed thumper that can protect All-Stars Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz.
When right, he can hit the ball a long way.
But during his five-year career, he’s never played more than 123 games in a season. Never hit more than 23 home runs. Never drove in more than 72 runs. Never hit more than 25 doubles.
Part of the reason: Injuries. While in Miami, Morrison twice had right knee surgery. In 2014 with the Mariners, he hurt his right hamstring two weeks into the regular season, prompting a stay on the disabled list that lasted until almost mid-June.
When he returned, he was slow to regain his form until the final two months of the regular season, when he posted a .321/.375/.512 slash with six home runs and 20 RBIs in 49 games. He finished the year with a respectable .262 batting average but just 11 home runs and 38 RBIs in 99 games.
The Mariners are counting on the late-season version of Morrison to show up in 2015. He’s no longer playing the outfield. The hope is that less running might ease the stress on his body and keep him off the disabled list. If Morrison does that and plays at an MLB-average level, he would serve as a major upgrade over Seattle’s production at first over the past five years, when Smoak combined to post a .226/.308/.384 slash line and never had more than 20 home runs or 55 RBIs in a season.
The last time an every-day Seattle first baseman posed a legitimate offensive threat was 2009, when Russell “The Muscle” Branyan set career highs with 31 home runs and 76 RBIs on a team that finished 85-77 in the AL West. Then came the forgettable Casey Kotchman experiment (.217/.280/.336). Smoak followed when the Mariners traded ace Cliff Lee and reliever Mark Lowe to the Texas Rangers in July 2010 for Smoak, reliever Josh Lueke, starter Blake Beavan and utility man Matt Lawson.
So it was no surprise last season when the club ran out of patience and unseated Smoak before Morrison started producing consistently. Early indications show the decision to let Smoak walk was wise. There were times late last season when Morrison carried Seattle’s offense.
Smoak, meanwhile, has yet to settle in with the Toronto Blue Jays, who like him for his defensive value more than his bat. Actually, they might not even like him at all. Entering spring training, it was uncertain if Toronto even had a spot on its roster for him.
After spending most of 2014 playing third base, infielder Danny Valencia figures to play a lot of first base because the Blue Jays in November traded for third baseman Josh Donaldson.
So far, Smoak hasn’t done anything to prove he belongs.
In 10 spring training games entering Wednesday, the 28-year-old has two singles in 25 at-bats (.080 batting average).
Mariners blank A’s
Four pitchers combined for a three-hitter to lead the Mariners to a 4-0 win Wednesday over the Oakland Athletics at Peoria Stadium.
In his third spring start, RHP Erasmo Ramirez (1-0) allowed just one hit — a leadoff double in the first inning — and a walk over four frames while striking out two. RHP Jordan Pries, who is expected to start the year at Triple-A Tacoma, chipped in with three scoreless innings. He allowed two hits, one walk and fanned two. LHP Tyler Olson worked a perfect eighth inning and RHP Carson Smith did the same in the ninth.
The Mariners took a 1-0 lead in the fourth when 3B Kyle Seager hit a two-out double and OF Justin Ruggiano singled. Seattle tacked on three in the eighth with RBI singles from outfielders James Jones, Stefen Romero and Patrick Kivlehan.
The Mariners improved to 7-7-1 in Cactus League. Seattle plays Thursday night at 7:05 p.m. PT at Peoria Stadium against the Cleveland Indians. RHP Taijuan Walker (1-0, 0.00 ERA) makes his fourth Cactus League start as he continues his three-way competition with Ramirez and LHP Roenis Elias for the fifth spot in the rotation. RHP Carlos Carrasco (0-0, 3.00 ERA) gets the nod for the Indians (ROOT Sports, 710 ESPN radio).