Norton making it hard on Mariners

Norton making it hard on Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Switch-hitter Greg Norton has so much Major League experience that calling him a "surprise" this spring might not do him justice.

Then again, when he signed a Minor League contract and was invited to camp on Feb. 13 -- the day pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training -- it did not get a lot of attention.

But look at him now.

"I knew we had some versatility," manager John McLaren said, "but I think we have more than I imagined. Even Norton can play several positions."

On a team that already has multi-purpose reserves in Willie Bloomquist and Miguel Cairo, the 35-year-old Norton is making a strong bid this spring to land a spot on the Mariners' 25-man Opening Day roster.

Going into Wednesday night's Cactus League game against the Diamondbacks at Peoria Stadium, Norton was batting .306 (11-for-36) with two home runs (one from each side of the plate), eight RBIs, two sacrifice flies and was 1-for-1 as a pinch-hitter.

Norton has been one of the premier pinch-hitters in baseball since 2001, ranking among all Major League pinch-hitters in extra base hits (second with 27), home runs (tied for third with 10), RBIs (tied for fourth with 46) and hits (sixth with 63). With the Colorado Rockies in 2003, Norton led the Majors in pinch-hits (23) and RBIs (17).

"He knows how to pinch-hit, which is huge," McLaren said. "You can't just put a guy on the bench and say, 'Go be a pinch-hitter.' It's usually not a job for a young player."

One of the biggest impacts of the designated hitter rule is that American League teams don't use pinch-hitters nearly as often as National League teams. Even so, Norton jumped at the chance to join the Mariners a month ago.

"I talked to Mac a few times during the offseason and this seemed like a good fit for me," Norton said.

The Mariners traded left-handed hitting backup and pinch-hitter Ben Broussard to the Rangers on Dec. 12, creating a spot on the Seattle bench, which Norton hopes to fill.

"I know I'm on the fence, and I would be lying if I said I wasn't thinking about it," he said of his chances of breaking camp next week with the team. "But all I can really control is what I do on the field. All I can do is play hard and see how things turn out. No one has told me anything."

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He definitely is one of the busiest players in camp.

On any given morning on one of the practice fields at the 6 1/2-field complex, he can be seen fielding ground balls at first base. Come back a half-hour later and he'll be catching fly balls in the outfield. Look again and he'll be taking batting practice from the left side, then turn around and take batting practice right-handed.

"I have a lot of things to work on," he said, "and at times it's kind of a battle within me. I might neglect some things when I shouldn't. Dave Collins, the Rockies' first-base coach, told us, 'If you are not good at one thing in the game, it's because you are lazy.'

"That's not saying you should be exceptional at any one thing, but if you are below-average in something, you're not working hard enough to become average."

Even after 16 years as a professional, Norton says he occasionally feels like he's not working as hard as he should on either defense or offense.

But he admits, "There are only so many hours in the day."

"I have a routine," he added. "After the morning workouts, I'll come in, have lunch, and then go back out and do a little drill that I do."

He is banking on all the hard work landing him another job in the big leagues. He's not yet ready to retire, but it would be difficult for him to accept a Minor League assignment with the Mariners or anyone else.

"At some point, I know I will have to make that decision," he said. "I've had a good time with a great bunch of guys here. I have enjoyed watching these guys, the young guys like [Mike] Morse, [Charlton] Jimerson and [Wladimir] Balentien.

"They have a lot of talent. I would compare the young talent here to the young talent in Tampa Bay."

Norton also believes the Mariners have an excellent chance to win the AL West title and advance to the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons.

Helping them get there would be the highlight of a career that, so far, might be best known for him being one of the few players ever to hit two home runs off Randy Johnson in the same game.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.