If you look at the Mariners’ roster, the players’ contracts and service-time situations, it’s easy to narrow the race to two — Montero and Lee.
PEORIA, Ariz. — During a Mariners spring training with few roster spots up for grabs, the battle for the backup first-base job and right-handed-hitting platoon partner to Adam Lind is something of interest.
Yet it’s a competition with fewer contestants than thought after a first glance.
The role is vital, because Lind doesn’t hit left-handed pitching well, and the Mariners’ 25-man roster could be heavy on left-handed hitters.
Manager Scott Servais has his standards for the spot.
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“It’s more than just the bat,” he said. “I think everybody looks at this guy has to be the complement and take some of the load off Adam Lind against left-handed pitching. But when you look at the makeup of your club and your bench players, when you put the guy out there the defense and what that brings there, do you feel good about the defense? Do you trust it? What kind of at-bat are you going to get against one of the premier left-handed relievers in our league, which there are some pretty good ones.
“There’ll be a lot that goes into that, more than just what their batting average is in spring training.”
On the surface it appears four players — Jesus Montero, Stefen Romero, Dae-Ho Lee and Gaby Sanchez — are vying for that spot.
But if you look at the Mariners’ roster, the players’ contracts and service-time situations, it’s easy to narrow the race to two — Montero and Lee.
Montero was feel-good story last spring. The former prospect, who had been suspended twice and seemed indifferent to his career being flushed away with no personal accountability, finally realized that baseball was a privilege, not an entitlement. He lost 40 pounds and reformed his attitude and work ethic.
At Class AAA Tacoma, he hit 355 with an .830 on-base plus slugging percentage. But it did not click in the big leagues in limited duty. Against left-handed pitchers, Montero hit .205 (10 for 56) with a .576 OPS.
Questions about his swing being too long and the swing trigger being a hindrance led scouts to wonder if Montero, 26, can hit quality big-league pitching, particularly fastballs above 94 mph, without guessing.
“It’s a loud bat,” Servais said. “When he squares it, the ball jumps off it. He’s had a ton of success at the Triple-A level. … It’s more about not the batting average, but what kind of at-bat are we getting? Is it walking up there mindless, first-pitch hacking? Or is it actually looking for your pitch, putting a good, solid at-bat when you feel good about getting the guy in from third?”
Montero is out of minor-league options. If he doesn’t make the opening-day roster, he would have to be designated for assignment and be opened up to waiver claims. Montero’s roster spot would go to Lee if he won the job.
Lee, 33, has shown flashes of the bat that made him one of the bigger hitting threats in Korean and Japanese professional baseball. Lee crushed a fastball more than 400 feet on Monday for his first Cactus League home run.
Though the Mariners and other teams believe Lee can hit MLB pitching, questions about his defense persist.
“It looks OK in the drills,” Servais said. “You have to see the ball off the bat. It tells a lot in how he reacts and gets things going. And making all the plays, being able to start the 3-6-3 double play, the bunts and all that stuff.”
In Tuesday’s Cactus League game against Cleveland, Lee made the routine plays and beyond, throwing out a runner at the plate, trailing a runner for an out at second and making a diving stop.
Lee has an opt-out clause in his minor-league deal in late March, meaning if he’s not going to be placed on the opening-day 25-man roster, he can become a free agent.
And the remaining two competitors?
Sanchez, who signed a minor-league deal in the offseason, hasn’t been much of a factor. Opposing scouts have noted diminished bat speed and weak contact.
Romero, like two years ago, is off to a hot start this spring. What hurts him is he has a minor-league option. It means the Mariners can put him at Class AAA Tacoma and have him play every day. And have him as insurance if Lee or Montero doesn’t work.