Maybe it’s been lost in the Seahawks’ post Super Bowl celebration, or overlooked with the sub-freezing temperatures the last week. But in three days, spring training opens for the Mariners at the organization’s revamped and remodeled facility in Peoria, Ariz.
Pitchers and catchers report for physicals on Wednesday. Six days later, the entire group of invited players trying to make the 2014 Mariners will take the field for full workouts.
The decreased buzz is understandable, but a little odd considering the Mariners’ offseason. They signed the top free agent — Robinson Cano — to the largest contract in club history. They added a former All-Star outfielder in Corey Hart and just reached an agreement to sign free-agent All-Star closer Fernando Rodney. There might be more. Seattle might not have had the best offseason in baseball, but it’s better than past offseasons when the likes of Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo were the key signings.
The failures of the last decade have left more than a few diehard Mariners fans apprehensive about the future. Even with the additions, the Mariners are far from a finished product. In an American League West division that features the Rangers, A’s and Angels, a postseason berth is at best a wishful goal.
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Still the Mariners’ leadership, specifically general manager Jack Zduriencik and new manager Lloyd McClendon, believe this team will be better.
“ I’m not fond of expectations, because I don’t want players to get caught up in that,” McClendon said. “But this franchise has been knocked down. We’ve been on the mat quite some time, and it’s time for us to get up.”
How can they do that?
“If you want to cross the ocean, you have to take your eyes off the shore and you can’t be afraid to look forward,” McClendon said. “Can we win? I believe we can.”
To cross that ocean, Seattle will need to decide who is manning the oars. Despite the new additions, and several “starters” returning, the Mariners’ day-to-day lineup, starting rotation and bullpen roles aren’t close to being finalized.
Trying to determine which spots are locked up, you’d come up with five. Obviously, Cano is cemented in at second base. Kyle Seager is the starting third baseman, while Felix Hernandez is the No. 1 starter, Hisashi Iwakuma is the No. 2 starter and Rodney, if he passes his physical, will be the closer.
Beyond those five players, there are no certainties. The rest of the spots are open for competition. It doesn’t matter if you’re Justin Smoak and you’ve started 386 games at first base over the last three seasons. It doesn’t matter if you’re shortstop Brad Miller and catcher Mike Zunino and you are perceived as the foundation for the future. If they don’t perform, Nick Franklin and John Buck are there to take their respective spots.
“I’m not penciling anybody in anywhere,” Zduriencik said. “Let them go out there and compete. It’s all up to them.”
There will be competition in Peoria.
While fans may think that Erasmo Ramirez and rookies Taijuan Walker and James Paxton have the spots behind Hernandez and Iwakuma locked up in the rotation, Zduriencik isn’t quite as certain.
Ramirez missed the first half of last season with arm issues. He came back and went 5-3 with a 4.98 earned-run average in 13 starts and one relief appearance. But the Mariners expect more from him.
Walker and Paxton were September call-ups who flourished in their handful of starts. Walker went 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA in three starts, striking out 12 batters in 15 innings pitched. Paxton started four games, going 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 24 innings pitched. But Zduriencik won’t be hypnotized by such a small sample size.
“If you’re basing a lot of trust in a lot of kids with a short window of success, that is risky,” Zduriencik said.
“They’re talented, but how quickly they become legitimate big-league starters is yet to be seen.”
Zduriencik signed veteran right-hander Scott Baker to a minor-league contract and might add another pitcher on a similar deal in the next few days as insurance. Baker missed the 2012 season and a large part of 2013 while recovering from elbow surgery. He pitched in just three MLB games last year. The Mariners hope he can return to the pitcher he was with the Twins where he combined to go 46-28 with a 3.92 ERA from 2008 to 2011.
The outfield situation is more confusing. The Mariners have a slew of candidates, but all have flaws or limitations. They don’t have a true center fielder. Michael Saunders is the likely candidate, but he has yet to put a full season together. The other options would be the oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez and rookie Abraham Almonte.
Dustin Ackley, who just converted to outfield last season, will vie for time in left field with Logan Morrison, who is coming off two knee surgeries in 13 months. The Mariners could use Hart in right field, but not on an everyday basis since he’s also coming off multiple surgeries and missed all of last season. Hart will have to play some first base and also DH, as will Morrison.
If the Mariners sign free agent Nelson Cruz in the next few days, which is a distinct possibility, then the outfield situation becomes more muddled.
But they have until March 31 to figure it all out.
“We need to grow, have this team jell, have these guys be the best players they can be,” Zduriencik said. “Lloyd keeps saying, ‘I don’t fear anybody.’ We have good teams in the division. So what? If we play well, we can play with anybody.”