Bay must prove himself with Mariners

Whenever I see Michael Morse, he likes to “make a call” on a teammate he thinks is on the verge of doing something big.

I asked Morse on Wednesday for a prediction on one of his new Seattle Mariners teammates, and he surprised me with his answer.

“Jason Bay,” he said. “Sleeper.”

Jason Bay? The guy who batted .165 with a .536 OPS in 70 games for the New York Mets last season? The guy who averaged only 96 games because of injuries the past three years?

Bay, 34, shook his head and smiled when I informed him that Morse had jumped on his bandwagon. Actually, Bay already seemed to know.

“Guys were saying that in New York for the last two years and it didn’t work out,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s true.”

A lot of people in baseball would love for it to happen. Bay is one of the game’s most well-liked players, and after three ill-fated seasons with the Mets, badly needed a fresh start.

The Mariners offered him one, signing Bay to a one-year, $1 million contract after the Mets granted his release in exchange for his deferring a portion of the remaining $21 million on his contract.

Bay hardly is assured of a job with the Mariners, who likely will start Morse and Michael Saunders on the outfield corners and Franklin Gutierrez in center. Raul Ibanez also is in the mix, and Ibanez and Kendrys Morales figure to get most of the at-bats at DH.

Thus, Bay could end up competing with Casper Wells, another right-handed hitter who is six years younger, for the team’s final outfield spot. Wells has power and is not yet eligible for arbitration. A lot of Mariners would like to see him get a legitimate chance.

The competition, then, is real — and to Bay, welcome.

“I like that. I’m at a point in my career where I’m comfortable with that,” he said. “I don’t feel I should be given anything.

“I had the chance to go places where I probably would have gotten more guaranteed at-bats. But at the same time, I didn’t want to be in a place where I was just given at-bats. I wanted to be in a place like this, where it was a good fit. And I wanted to be where I deserved those at-bats.

“I’m at a point in my career, if I’m not playing, it’s not because of my contract or my situation or anything else. It’s because I’m not performing. I’m very comfortable with that.”

Such comments are typical of Bay, who never made excuses for his struggles in New York — struggles that began after he suffered a concussion crashing into the left-field wall at Dodger Stadium in 2010, the first year of his four-year, $66 million free-agent contract.

Bay sat out the final two months of that season, missed the first three weeks in ’11 with a strained ribcage muscle, then suffered a fractured left rib and another concussion in ’12.

While he acknowledged that the concussions might have prevented him from getting into an offensive rhythm, he insisted that they “never hampered my performance.”

Might Bay be more relaxed coming home to Seattle, where he, his wife and three children live only 15 minutes from Safeco Field? Bay again declined to rationalize, saying: “I never felt in New York that I wasn’t relaxed.”

“I just got into a rut over there,” Bay said. “It wasn’t for lack of trying. I kept trying to push forward, trying to find a way.

“It was one of those where you felt like you were digging that hole deeper. Water’s getting on you faster than you can get rid of it. You’re trying, but it keeps coming.”

Well, he’s back in the American League now, on the West Coast instead of the east, trying to make it with a new team.

It’s early; the Mariners have yet to play their first Cactus League game. But Bay said he feels good, and manager Eric Wedge said he looks good, too.

“It was noticeable to me when I saw him this winter when we signed him — he’s in great shape,” Wedge said. “He’s moving around good. His bat is getting through the zone good.

“He looks normal to me. When I say normal, I saw him both in Pittsburgh and Boston — when I was in Cleveland, we played Pittsburgh every year. He looks really good.”

Bay, though, gave the Mariners a scare on Tuesday when he crashed into the left-field wall during drills. The play was eerily reminiscent of the one three years ago at Dodger Stadium, but Bay banged only his left calf, not his head.

“I had a bead on a ball. Next thing you know, I had a bead on a chain link as well,” Bay said.

“I took a good ribbing for that one. Everyone was kind of looking at me like, ‘Oh my God.’ I was like, ‘I’m OK.’ Then they wore me out — once they knew I was OK.”

He’s OK. Finally, he’s OK. And maybe, at 34, he can make Morse seem like a prophet and revive his once-stellar career.

“By no means is it over,” Jason Bay said.