Healthier Franklin Gutierrez hopes to return to better days on field
Gutierrez had a lost season in 2011 with Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but has gained almost 25 pounds and appears to be in much better playing shape.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — At first, the big buzz in Mariners camp was all about how Franklin Gutierrez looked — fit and muscular, a far cry from the waif wearing his uniform last season.
Now the focus is gradually shifting to how Gutierrez's new body, and renewed health, is translating on the field. Manager Eric Wedge is enthused enough by what he's seen to predict a big rebound year for Gutierrez. That would be a huge boost for a team that got by far the worst production in the majors from its center fielders last year.
"It's really evident at home plate. It's obviously evident in his stature, the way he's carrying himself," Wedge said of the new-look Gutierrez. "You see that confidence in his eyes again, strength in his persona. All those things that really will play into him getting back on track. I really feel he's going to have a heck of a year for us."
Gutierrez, who turned 29 on Tuesday, is ecstatic to have emerged from the painful nightmare of the last year and a half.
He was branded an emerging American League star after a 2009 season in which he hit .283 with 18 homers, and according to advanced statistics was the best defensive outfielder in baseball.
But halfway through the 2010 season — one in which he earned a Gold Glove, but declined precipitously across the board, statistically — Gutierrez got his first pangs of stomach distress.
It turned out to be a debilitating illness that confounded doctors for months before he was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) in late April. But even then, it took awhile before Gutierrez figured out how to manage the condition, and by that time, 2011 was a long-lost season.
Gutierrez hit just .224 in 92 games, but it was an exceedingly weak .224, including just one homer and a .273 slugging percentage.
As the season progressed, Gutierrez learned, through trial and error, what he could eat and couldn't eat — and when he could eat. Late-night snacks, for the most part, were out. Doctors settled on effective meds. And by this past offseason, Gutierrez was feeling good again — good enough to work out intensively all winter. He left for home in Venezuela weighing 183 at the end of last season (after getting down to a low of 175), and returned this month at a muscular 200.
"He's basically normal," Mariners trainer Rick Griffin said. "The thing last year, he ... was always sick, he didn't feel good. He couldn't lift weights. He didn't have any energy or stamina. This winter he went home, he was healthy, and he was able to do all of his conditioning."
"Guti is a completely different person," marveled teammate Mike Carp. "He's more the guy I saw a couple of years ago. I'm anxious to see him be healthy for a full season and see what happens again."
One of the most clichéd stories of spring is the player who reports to camp "in the best shape of his career." But in Gutierrez's case, it's a legitimate topic.
"It affected everything," he said of his IBS. "I didn't have the energy to play you normally have, the energy to play in the outfield and hitting. It was obvious, how skinny I was. I was battling. I missed spring training, the first two or three months of the season. I tried to get back, tried to help the team, but I couldn't do it."
"I feel great," he said. "I have no issues at all. It's going to be a new year, and I'm prepared for it. I feel completely different. I feel strong now. I feel I'm back to me again. Power line drives. Sometimes if I catch it good, I can hit it out. I'm back to me, man. I'm just really happy."
One byproduct of his struggles is a newfound appreciation for his health, which he calls "the most important thing, for your life, for your family. You have to appreciate that every day."
Gutierrez said a big part of his recovery, and continued vigor, is showing great care with his diet.
"It wasn't like I really avoided a lot of foods," he said. "It's just some foods make me feel bad."
Wedge said that at the end of last season he challenged Gutierrez to not only regain his physical strength, but to rebuild himself mentally.
"I think mentally, he was beat down a little bit," Wedge said. "I told him, 'You just can't let that happen again.' Some things were beyond his control, some things were within his control.
"I think now he's on track with himself with regard his diet and health, and he did what he needed to do this winter to get stronger. That's the one thing you can control in the offseason, to get yourself physically where you need to be. I think when you do that, mentally it comes right along with it."
Will it all translate into a rebound season for Gutierrez? He said his prime goal is to help the Mariners turn around their losing ways.
"I'm not thinking about numbers," he said. "I'm not going to say I'm going to hit 25 homers or whatever. If I'm healthy, I'm going to be in the lineup every day, I'm going to do my best and try to help the team score runs and win games."
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.