Three issues to watch in the final two weeks of spring training

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Through the hazy 90-degree heat of the Arizona desert, the shimmering sight of opening day can be spotted in the distance. No, it’s not a mirage rising from the mind-numbing workouts and meaningless games that define spring training. Opening day is finally getting close.

The Mariners open the 2017 season 14 days from Monday at Minute Maid Park in Houston. An interminable spring training lengthened by the World Baseball Classic will come to an end. Seattle returns all but one of its remaining players absent from big league camp because of the WBC on Tuesday and will begin the push to prepare for a season with postseason expectations.  Barring injury, the roster seems basically set.

But with two weeks left in spring training, there are still some things that must to be done and decided before that first pitch against the Astros.

Here are a few observations from spring training to this point.

First things first

Mariners infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia takes batting practice during spring training. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Mariners infielder/outfielder Danny Valencia takes batting practice during spring training. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

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Any skepticism surrounding the production of the platoon of Daniel Vogelbach and Danny Valencia at first base hasn’t been assuaged this spring. Neither has looked particularly astute in the field, and perhaps more surprising, they’ve both struggled at the plate.

Valencia is the better athlete of the two and is about “average” or just under at first base per an opposing scout. The Mariners had hoped the constant work this spring would result in rapid improvement given his past experience and coming up as a third baseman. But there are still signs of a player not completely at ease with the responsibilities of the position.

Meanwhile, he has struggled at the plate this spring with his timing. He’s tinkered with his leg kick trying to find some consistency, but hasn’t looked comfortable in 70 percent of his at-bats. He’s hitting .186 (8 for 43) with two doubles, a homer and four RBI. He’s got 11 strikeouts and six walks. The Mariners are right in not worrying too much about Valencia. He has a proven “track record” as manager Scott Servais likes to say. Over his last three seasons — a timeframe that general manager Jerry Dipoto likes to use — Valencia is a .281 hitting with a .785 OPS. It’s also instructive to remember that he will likely be used in a platoon role and face mostly left-handed pitching, something he hasn’t done this spring.

Vogelbach has looked better than expected in some ways at first base. He’s not afraid to play off the bag and has looked decent on balls hit to him. He’ll never have the range of Eric Hosmer at first base. He’s looked most uncomfortable and less confident on throws in the dirt or plays involving a throw near the runner and the bag. He might not be a liability, but the routine big league plays aren’t a given to be made.

While Vogelbach’s defense is an understood work in process, he also hasn’t been particularly productive at the plate. He’s hitting .226 (12 for 53) with a .305 on-base percentage, .321 slugging percentage, two doubles, a homer and five RBI. But it’s the 18 strikeouts that are of some concern.

Servais hinted that Vogelbach might be pressing a little in trying to make the team. But it’s always been assumed that Vogelbach had a spot locked up coming into spring.

Could that change?

It seems unlikely. The Mariners decided on this plan of giving Vogelbach an opportunity in the offseason, much to the surprise of some in the baseball community. A slow spring from isn’t going to change that thinking.

But it’s something to monitor in the first month of the season. If Vogelbach were to struggle early, would they be forced to make a change and possibly play Valencia there full time?

Getting the right (handed) help in the bullpen

Mariners reliever Steve Cishek pitched for the first time at Mariners spring training, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. He threw a total of 25 with trainer Rick Griffin, at left. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Mariners reliever Steve Cishek pitched for the first time at Mariners spring training, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. He threw a total of 25 with trainer Rick Griffin, at left. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Coming into spring training, the overall depth of the Mariners’ relief corps was considered a vast improvement over last season. And for the most part, that assessment was true due to how thin the group was a year ago. But it only took a slow recovery from injury from one reliever and an unexpected issue from another to take an important chunk of that depth away for at least the first month of the season.

While Steve Cishek wasn’t expected be ready for opening day in his recovery from offseason hip surgery, the progress to get him back on the mound hasn’t been quite as expedient as first hoped. Cishek has yet to throw off the mound. The hope is that will come in the next week to 10 days. Still, with an un-hurried progression to build up that pushes his return to possibly late April.

When Shae Simmons left the game on March 11 with forearm stiffness, it complicated matters further. While the issue turned out to be only a muscle strain and no structural damage, which was a good thing, Simmons has yet to resume throwing. That will force him to start his throwing program over from its early stages, putting him on similar track as Cishek. With a high mid 90s fastball and nasty slider, he was expected to be a key component late in games.

If you were to project the Mariners’ five right-handers in the bullpen, it would be closer Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Nick Vincent, Evan Scribner and Casey Fien joining lefties Ariel Miranda and Marc Rzepczynski. The group of righties lacks the third power arm in the absence of Simmons with only Diaz and Altavilla throwing mid to upper 90s.

It makes the recovery of right-hander Tony Zych that much more intriguing. Zych, who is coming off offseason shoulder surgery, will throw in a Cactus League game later this week, according to Servais. Zych seemed destined to start the season with Class AAA Tacoma, where he could build up at a controlled progression while getting back some of his feel and command after basically missing all of last season.

But with Simmons and Cishek down, Zych and Thyago Vieira are the only two other right-handed relievers on the 40-man roster. Even if Zych’s innings progression wouldn’t make him ready for opening day, he could be needed in that first month to cover innings. He’s also one of the few remaining power arms at the upper levels of the Mariners system. Of the non-roster right-handed relievers in camp, none have really pitched to a level where they would be considered for the opening day roster or a first call-up once the season starts.

Servais also hinted that he might carry an eight-man bullpen to start the season. Could the extra spot go to lefty James Pazos? He’s looked strong at times, flashing a mid-90s fastball. But also had one awful outing where his lack of command reappeared. He will get tested in the final weeks of Cactus League games against big league hitters to see if that’s a possibility. Non-roster invitee Nick Hagadone, a local star, has been outstanding this spring, not allowing a run in six appearances and seven innings pitched. But after missing almost two seasons, the Mariners may want to see if he can produce similar results in Tacoma before putting him in the big league bullpen.

A Motter of trust

Taylor Motter during Mariners spring training, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Taylor Motter during Mariners spring training, Monday, Feb. 20, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

If the season started today, it looks as though Taylor Motter would win the battle for the utility infielder over Shawn O’Malley. Motter played well of late this spring and has looked better than average at the multitude of positions he’s played. Motter is more than just a great head of hair. He brings more power than O’Malley and might be better at multiple positions defensively while also being an above average baserunner.

If Servais decides to go with an eight-man bullpen to start the season, Motter would make the team and Guillermo Heredia — the projected fourth outfield — would go to Tacoma. Motter played six innings of left field on Sunday and a few innings of first base. He’s shown he can play second base, shortstop and third base at a solid level. He’ll likely see more time in left field in the coming games to see if going with a short bench is even a viable possibility at least to start the season.