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Originally published Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 9:17 PM

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Franklin Gutierrez injury problems put strain on Seattle Mariners

Franklin Gutierrez's health issues are now impacting other Mariners players, coaches and front office personnel in a 2013 season off to the worst start possible.

Times staff reporter

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HOUSTON — As he suited up for what could be his final Mariners game for a long while, Franklin Gutierrez offered rare insight into his frustration level.

"I know it's been really tough on me the past two or three years," Gutierrez said this week. "I'm just trying to be positive and focus on the things I need to do to be on the field. Because nobody wants to have an injury. I don't want to be that guy. I want to be an everyday player. Be ready to play every day."

Hours later, Gutierrez, 30, would strain his right hamstring and go on the disabled list for the fifth time in two years. He'd also been slowed the final two months of 2010 with a mysterious stomach ailment and battled knee tendinitis that limited him during the second half of his inaugural 2009 campaign with the team.

Gutierrez's health issues are now impacting other Mariners players, coaches and front office personnel in a 2013 season off to the worst start possible. His inability to play has exposed the risks taken in several roster decisions, caused the Mariners to use some veterans far more than they wanted and could eventually start costing people their jobs.

And that's why, as sympathetic as some are to Gutierrez's health plight, they remain equally frustrated by it as well.

"There have been players who have just been snakebit before," said Mariners manager Eric Wedge, who first had Gutierrez as a player in Cleveland in 2007 and 2008. "And I do think he's one of the most unlucky guys I've had the fortune of being around."

Gutierrez's latest injury came as he was coping with a pelvic problem that cropped up in spring training. It impacted his hamstrings, groin and hips to the point where the Mariners struggled to play him multiple days in a row.

Wedge said Gutierrez will try to deal with the pelvic problem more permanently while he's recovering from the hamstring strain.

"Everybody's trying everything under the sun to try to help him be able to stay on the field more," Wedge said. "So, whether it's body type or bad luck or whatever it may be. Or, playing center field and having to react to every ball. There's a lot to be said for that, so there's nothing that hasn't been looked at with him. It's just unfortunate."

And it's unfortunate for the Mariners as they stumble through the fifth year of a rebuilding plan still struggling to take shape. The Mariners and general manager Jack Zduriencik banked much of their offseason planning around Gutierrez staying healthy enough to play every day, despite his history.

"He's healthy for the first time in years and we feel he can have a really big year for us," Zduriencik said heading into spring training. "We're real excited about seeing what he can do because we've all seen how he played before all of this started."

Zduriencik is now in the position of having guaranteed $20.25 million over four years to Gutierrez before the 2010 season only to see him appear in just 300 games since. He appeared in 92 games in 2011 after his stomach problems from 2010 weren't treated seriously enough over the winter and carried over into the next season.

Then, after a torn oblique muscle ended his 2011 season three weeks early, Gutierrez added several highly-visible pounds of muscle on his upper torso over the winter. But in spring training, he promptly tore a pectoral muscle during a routine throwing drill and was sidelined more than two months.

He began the 2012 season last June, only to soon be struck on the side of the head by an errant pickoff throw. A concussion and subsequent inner ear imbalance limited his season to just 40 games.

The idea Gutierrez could stay healthy was one reason the Mariners passed on free-agent center fielder Michael Bourn, 31, now hitting .333 with a .975 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) for Cleveland after a four-year, $48 million deal that was less than expected. Bourn went on the DL last week as well, but only because his finger was accidentally stepped on and lacerated.

Bourn is the same age as Gutierrez and could have given the Mariners a longterm center field and leadoff option. Instead, they don't have a permanent leadoff man and had to move Gutierrez's backup in center, Michael Saunders, into a more regular role up the middle.

Saunders going on the DL last week exacerbated the situation. Raul Ibanez was forced into an everyday corner outfield role that, at age 40, has severely tested his defensive limits while his batting average has plummeted to .148.

Ibanez saw only 70 percent of his plate appearances last season as an outfielder, while being used as a designated hitter and pinch-hitter the other times. This season, he's seen 85 percent of plate appearances while playing the outfield.

The injury to Saunders also has the team scrambling its roster. Back in spring training, the Mariners designated Casper Wells for assignment and kept Jason Bay, knowing they were giving away a third major league center fielder in the process.

But they rationalized it by signing Endy Chavez to a Class AAA deal and would have him as a worst-case-scenario center fielder if both Saunders and Gutierrez got hurt. Unfortunately for the team, that worst-case unfolded just two weeks in.

And even though it was only Saunders who initially went on the DL, Gutierrez's inability to play daily forced them to call up Chavez sooner than they ever wanted.

Doing that forced the Mariners to take minor-league pitcher D.J. Mitchell off the 40-man roster and he opted for free agency. Now that he's here, Chavez, 35, out of minor league options, can't be returned to AAA or he might get claimed on waivers. His on-base percentage has now dropped to .282 in the leadoff spot as he continues to play more regularly than anyone wants.

Some of that will be alleviated when Saunders returns. But with no MLB-caliber center fielders in the minors, the Mariners could be forced to carry Chavez all season as insurance and will have to drop another outfielder when Gutierrez returns.

The loss of Gutierrez and Saunders has wiped out much of the team's speed, hitting and defense, and losses are piling up. Zduriencik and Wedge could soon have to answer for why a team pegged at .500 or better is threatening the Astros for last place.

This winter, the Mariners face another decision on whether to pick up a $7.5 million team option on Gutierrez or buy him out for $500,000. Some might see a player who this season hit .259 with an OPS of .823 when on the field and suggest he's still worth it.

But the Mariners, fresh off the latest headaches, might finally decide enough is enough.

That is, assuming those now calling the shots are still around.

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

On Twitter @gbakermariners

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