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Originally published February 21, 2011 at 5:20 PM | Page modified February 22, 2011 at 1:20 PM

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Mariners' Jack Wilson takes steps to remain healthy

Mariners's Jack Wilson knows full well he is subject to criticism for being injury-prone, but he's ready to change.

Seattle Times staff reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — Oft-injured shortstop Jack Wilson knows all about the betting pools as to when he'll go down again.

He's fully aware his inability to stay on the field longer than a few weeks at a time since joining the Mariners midway through 2009 has become a running joke among fans. That even his own team now says it's taking steps to cover itself just in case Wilson is back on the disabled list before the season is even a month old.

Some players would be muttering angrily at the thought of their very ability to earn a living being made into such a spectacle. But Wilson says he not only understands all the comments and jokes, he actually finds them quite funny because of their accuracy

"I mean, they're 100 percent right," said Wilson, who appeared in a career-low 61 games last season because of a strained hamstring and broken hand. "The fact is, I have been hurt all the time. If I were them, I'd be wondering the same thing."

But Wilson's health isn't exactly a laughing matter, especially to him after a season in which many were questioning whether he wanted to stay in baseball. So he's done something radical about it.

Wilson couldn't do anything about the hand fracture, but figured the easiest way to stay on the field was to take the load off of aching hamstrings that have plagued him the past two years. Not just the usual spring cliché weight loss, where players report to spring training 5 or 10 pounds lighter, but a serious attempt at reconfiguring his body.

"It's just something I came up with on my own," he said. "I figured out that my hamstrings weren't handling me at the size that I was. So, I decided that if I got smaller and made my legs stronger, it might change some things."

Wilson embarked on a lower carbohydrate eating plan, involving healthier foods, while also cutting out all sodas in favor of water.

And perhaps most important, he stopped trying to bolster his upper body through workouts and instead pounded leg weights with a personal trainer like never before.

The result was that Wilson reported to camp weighing 177 pounds, down from the usual 195 to 200 pounds on a frame that wasn't all that huge to begin with. It's the most svelte he's been in a decade and Wilson hopes it keeps him injury-free, gets him to balls quicker and restores his reputation as one of the game's premier defenders.

And that latter part is important because Wilson, 33, entering the final season of a two-year, $10 million contract, says he wants to play another three to five years.

"I feel like I'm a better fielder now than I was five years ago," Wilson said. "Just with the things you pick up through experience and some of the pointers that the coaches give you over time. And now, with my body the way it is, I'm expecting that this will be my biggest year ever. Just because, now, I think I've finally found a way to be healthy again and I intend to stay that way."

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Wilson's comments came a day after manager Eric Wedge said Brendan Ryan will be worked out at shortstop this spring just to give the team options in case Wilson goes down again. It's possible the Mariners might also trade Wilson to a contender in July if he does stay healthy, meaning Ryan, who played shortstop in St. Louis, would have to be ready to take over at that position full-time.

"Jack's had some issues staying healthy," Wedge said. "He's got to show us we can count on him physically. And Jack might even take some reps at second base."

Wilson greeted the comments just as he does the over-under jokes by fans about how many weeks he'll make it through this season without a DL trip.

"How can I possibly argue with that?" Wilson asked. "Look, I know it's true. I haven't been able to stay on the field. It's been a problem for the team. I know that it's been a problem and I've taken steps to fix it. Believe me, I don't want to keep going like this, either. But I can't blame them for being worried."

At least one thing looked different about Wilson on Monday and it had little to do with him taking turns at second base during a double-play drill, practicing flips to Ryan at shortstop. It came during live batting practice when Wilson, who has hit just one home run since his July 2009 arrival in Seattle, drove a Garrett Olson pitch well beyond the left-field wall, drawing howls of amusement from stunned teammates.

"It's funny," Wilson said afterward. "But one of the things with being this light is that everything seems quicker. I can move quicker to get after balls and my bat feels quicker, too."

Some folks figured Wilson might be ready to put his bat away for good last season when he mused openly about whether his body could continue to handle the rigors of major-league baseball.

"It wasn't smart to say it, but there are a lot of things that are said in frustration that mean absolutely nothing," Wilson said.

He added that his comments were not about him wanting to retire. Just questioning how much longer he could keep preparing himself each winter, only to be disappointed by yet another injury once the season starts.

"It has nothing to do with retirement," he said. "It means, if you do all this work, like I have now, and something happens, you've got to start wondering — how long am I going to spend 2 ½ months busting my butt in the offseason, coming out here and feeling great and then having this happen again."

Wilson rarely had such injury problems until very late in his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. So he has never felt the need to do the heavy-duty conditioning he gave his legs this past winter.

It's not exactly the kind of thing a guy puts himself through if he's planning to hang them up at season's end.

"That's not me," he said. "That's not the type of player I am. I love this game. I want to keep playing it. And I want people to see that."

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

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