SEATTLE -- While the most noticeable change to Safeco Field is the mammoth new video board in center field, the biggest difference for ballgames will be the new dimensions of the outfield with the shorter fences in left field.
As they prepared for Monday night's home opener against the Astros, Mariners hitters were interested to see how that will affect things over the course of time, particularly the left-center gap, where the fence is as much as 17 feet closer at one point.
"Without a doubt, I think it'll make a difference, not only for us but anybody who comes in here," said Mariners outfielder Michael Saunders. "Everyone around the league knows this is notoriously a pitchers' park. With the fences coming in, it's probably at the very best going to play fair."
Mariners assistant general manager Jeff Kingston has said studies of previous seasons estimated that about 40 more home runs would carry out over the course of the 81 games for both teams. The Mariners hit 56 home runs at Safeco last year, so an additional 20 would have put them at 76.
They hit 93 homers on the road in 2012, so that estimate still makes Safeco a tough park. And that doesn't surprise anyone who has played in Seattle for any length of time.
"It's really due to the weather we have, being right on the water," said Saunders, a native of Victoria, British Columbia. "It's cool and damp and the ball just doesn't carry very well. But it also depends on what kind of summer we have. Last year we had a great summer and the ball obviously carries better during those months.
"But ultimately, as a psychological point it's going to help us as hitters take a foot off the pedal, if you will, and not feel like we have to muscle up 500 feet. It's probably going to play more fair now. And as an offensive guy, I'd be lying if I said I didn't care about that."
First baseman Justin Smoak hit only four of his 19 home runs at home last year, but 10 of his 15 2011 homers came at Safeco. So he knows things even out over time with any park and different times of year.
"It's still early," Smoak said Monday. "Once it heats up, it'll be a little different. It's still chilly, so it'll play pretty much the same. But hopefully a couple of those flyouts to the warning track will be a little different, maybe off the wall or a homer.
"At the same time, we lose some ground out there so there could be balls that could be caught that used to get over guy's heads. But I think for us, it's all psychological. It's the fact you might not fully get one, but it still has a chance to go out. You add that to getting two-three RBIs for your team and it changes the whole ballgame."
One guy not that worried about it is manager Eric Wedge.
"I'm not that curious about it, quite frankly," Wedge said. "You still have to go out and play the game. It's more of a fair ballpark now. But the changes you'll see in our ballclub this year are within the players themselves. Even if the fences were the same, we were going to be a better offensive ballclub."
Vastly improved Morse returns to Seattle
SEATTLE -- Michael Morse returned to Safeco Field on Monday for the first time as a Mariner since Seattle traded him to the Nationals in 2009. He comes back a different player, having hit more home runs (5) in his first week with the Mariners than he hit in his first four seasons combined in Seattle (3).
For Morse, the color and pageantry of the home opener meant a little more than normal.
"It goes a little deeper than just the game," said the 6-foot-5, 245-pound left fielder. "When I first got a callup here in 2005, I was a young kid and this was the biggest stadium I'd ever been in. There were a lot of 'oohs' and 'ahhs' coming from me.
"I feel like there's so much history here. I was turning double plays at second with Bret Boone, that's one of the greatest memories I've got. Besides all that, I get to come back here and now I have a role, a bigger part, and I get to try to help this team become a championship ballclub."
Morse was tied with Atlanta's Justin Upton for the Major League lead in home runs after the first week, so you'd figure he'd be more interested than anyone in Safeco Field's shorter outfield dimensions. He does recall hitting a ball against the Yankees' CC Sabathia in his first tenure in Seattle that clanked off the yellow line on the center-field fence.
"I swear that was the hardest ball I'd ever hit," he said with a smile. "I remember it stayed in, yeah."
But the big man has hit some bombs this year, including a 446-foot blast to dead center in Oakland, and the size of the park shouldn't matter if he gets hold of a pitch. Morse hit his fifth long ball in Sunday's 4-3 loss to the White Sox, but was more concerned about the four strikeouts that followed.
That is why he said he wasn't concerned about testing the new fences in batting practice on Monday.
"I'm not worried about that kind of stuff," said Morse. "But I'll try to hit some ground balls up the middle. Those score runs."
Gutierrez still in time share in center field
SEATTLE -- Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez played in all seven of the team's games on its season-opening road trip, but in two of those he came off the bench for one at-bat and to play defense in the later innings.
Gutierrez is off to a good start, hitting .304 with two home runs and six RBIs going into Monday's home opener, but manager Eric Wedge said he's still not ready to commit to starting the 30-year-old every day due to his history of health issues.
Gutierrez played just 40 games last season and 92 in 2011. When will he get the full go this season?
"I can't give you a straight definition with it, but it's watching him play and having conversations," said Wedge. "I do feel like he's moving around better and getting better. I think we're on a good path right now.
"I don't want to get complacent with it. I want to make sure we take care of him. It's evident we're a better ballclub when he's in the lineup. But as you guys have seen, he hasn't done a whole lot of that in the last 2 1/2 years. So we want to be smart with it."
Gutierrez was in the lineup on Monday, batting second behind Michael Saunders. That's the top of the order Wedge will go with against right-handed starters, with the two flip-flopping against lefties.
But Wedge will also work Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez into the lineup at times to keep them sharp and to keep Gutierrez fresh.
"We have other players we feel can help us win ballgames," said Wedge. "So we'll keep moving forward with it and when it's time to push it a little more, that's what we'll do."
• Morse had at least one hit in each of the Mariners' first seven games, the first Seattle player to do so since Gutierrez opened with an eight-game hit streak in 2010.
• The Mariners went into Monday's game with home runs in six straight games after not going long in their opener in Oakland. The team had only two streaks of six-plus games with a homer in 2012.
• The Mariners have not made a move with outfielder Casper Wells, who was designated for assignment on March 31. The team has until Wednesday to either trade, release or option him to the Minors if he clears waivers.