PEORIA, Ariz. — The play was as routine as it gets in a spring training game, a stolen base attempt with a throw down to second base.
Right now, nothing is routine for Dee Gordon. The moment the runner broke from first, Gordon sprinted from center field and was just 30 or so feet behind the base as the throw arrived. As innocuous as the play was, it was a moment that stood out to Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais.
“He knows the value of those little things have played in the infield. He’s moving in the right spots,” Servais said. “Really happy with how this has gone early in camp with him.”
In almost any other circumstance, Gordon would be preparing for another season as a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman. But that’s not why he’s now in Seattle, creating on one of the most interesting position changes in baseball for the 2018 season.
Gordon will be the Mariners center fielder. His infielders’ glove, the one that earned him a Gold Glove in 2015, will be a permanent resident in his locker the result of being traded from Miami to the Mariners in the offseason. While there was initially hesitation on Gordon’s part about making the switch, he’s now fully invested on being the next great center fielder for the Mariners.
“When I met him, I was like this guy is all in. Early on whatever he went through right when the change happened, it happened very quickly that he said I’m going to help the Mariners be the best center fielder I can,” said first base coach Chris Prieto, whose coaching responsibilities also include outfielders. “Once he decided that, which was relatively quick, I knew that right away. He has the feel for the game. He’s a pro in everything that he does.”
It was Prieto that served as the initial liaison between the club and Gordon. While Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto were the ones to tell Gordon he was making the switch to center field, Prieto took on the responsibility of giving Gordon the baseline tools to help begin the conversion.
The transition was made easier because Gordon is a supreme athlete and one of the fastest players in the major leagues. But defensive responsibilities are markedly different between the small area at second base and the vast amount of ground to cover in center field. Gordon’s speed will make up for some of his inexperience but even little skills have felt foreign at times.
“The funny thing is it’s not about the ball in the air, the ball on the ground, the routes right now. I know I’m probably going to mess a few of them up which is totally fine for spring training,” he said. “But the big thing for me learning how to crow hop. I know that sounds elementary and I’ve been saying it for a while, but learning how to crow hop is hard when you’ve been shuffling your feet your whole life. That’s about it. When I learn how to crow hop I think I’ll be all right.”
Prieto chuckled at Gordon’s self-evaluation of what he’s lacking. Gordon has played almost daily — at least a few innings — so far in spring training just to get as many reps as possible.
“For me going to the gaps and lateral movement back relatively comes natural to him. The plays he has to understand and learn are the balls all right at him. Live drives right at him. Big swings, the guy gets beat a little bit and it’s not as far as you think. You’ve got to learn to read that ball. You’ve got to learn to turn and go on the ball directly over your head. You have to be comfortable taking your eye off the baseball and re-picking it up. Those are things he’s learning right now.”
While most of the attention will be on Gordon’s position switch, his addition to Seattle’s batting order is also significant. Godon will move into the leadoff spot, allowing Seattle to drop shortstop Jean Segura to second in the order and giving the Mariners a pair of .300 hitters at the top of lineup.
Just don’t expect Gordon to be the type of hitter to be patient and work the count. He’s at the plate to hit, a lesson he learned during the 2014 season when he struck out a career-high 107 times trying to be more patient and draw walks. Gordon said he got some advice from a former Mariners star when they were teammates in Miami.
“I end up getting traded and I end up with Ichiro (Suzuki),” Gordon recalled. “Me and (Ichiro) every day in BP hit together. And I said, ‘Ichi, how do you walk more?’ Ichi told me ‘Rake first.’ Simple.”