Looking beyond the Mariners’ postseason expectations, there are many things to be determined over roughly the next six weeks, starting Friday when pitchers and catchers report to the Peoria Sports Complex.
PEORIA, Ariz. – The setting is what you’d imagine spring training is supposed to be like — bright sun, blue skies, warm days and the optimistic feeling of a season ahead. Unlike past seasons, the Mariners enter 2015 with lofty postseason expectations set by the media, their fans and themselves.
But looking beyond that, there are many things to be determined over roughly the next six weeks, starting Friday when pitchers and catchers report to the Peoria Sports Complex. Though they return key parts to a team that went 87-75 last season, the Mariners are far from a finished product.
Here are five of those story lines to watch this spring:
1. A short story
M’s key dates
Friday: Pitchers and catchers report.
Tuesday: Full squad reports.
March 4: Cactus League opener vs. Padres, 12:05 p.m., Peoria Stadium.
April 6: Reguar-season opener vs. Angels, 1:10 p.m., Safeco Field.
It’s the same story line for a second consecutive spring training: The Mariners are undecided at shortstop.
Most Read Sports Stories
- Pac-12 mailbag: Kliavkoff’s culpability, expansion options, WSU's connections and more
- UW faces stark decision in USC-UCLA fallout — leave Pac-12 or be content in declining conference
- Analysis: USC and UCLA bolt for Big Ten. So what's next for UW and the rest of the Pac-12?
- Washington State athletics bracing for ripple effect caused by UCLA, USC joining Big Ten
- What's the key for Jarred Kelenic putting Tacoma in his rearview mirror for a return to Mariners? It's in the process
Last year, Brad Miller and Nick Franklin battled most of the spring for the shortstop job. Miller eventually won the job, and Franklin was optioned to Class AAA Tacoma.
However, Miller began the season in a massive slump. He lost the starting spot midseason to Chris Taylor, and the two youngsters split time the final month.
A year ago, Miller had an advantage over Franklin, having played shortstop for 70 games in the 2013 season. But there seems to be no early leader in the competition between Taylor and Miller.
If there is, the Mariners aren’t dropping any hints.
“We have two young men that performed pretty well in spurts,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “They will be given the opportunity to battle it out in spring training, and we’ll see what happens. I don’t know how it’s all going to play out. Hell, they could both be on the team, who knows?”
With the current roster construction, including the addition of Rickie Weeks, keeping both Miller and Taylor on the big-league roster seems unlikely, unless utility man Willie Bloomquist, who is recovering from knee surgery, isn’t ready to go at the start of the season.
The breakdown between the two is simple.
“Obviously, Miller is more gifted offensively and Taylor is more gifted defensively,” McClendon said. “It’s more of a natural position for Taylor. I think the sum of the parts equals up to a pretty good combination.”
Combine them into one player, and you have an easy decision.
Instead, McClendon and the Mariners must weigh the choice between the added offensive pop of Miller vs. the steadier and superior defense of Taylor.
“They’re both capable of making the routine plays,” McClendon said. “It just looks a little easier for one than the other, but that doesn’t mean he’s better in that sense. You have to figure what your strengths are and what fits best as far as that shortstop position is concerned. That’s what spring training is for.”
What will happen to the one who doesn’t win the spot?
“I don’t have the answer to that right now, because there are so many things attached to it,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “Does someone end up at Triple-A? Is Willie ready to break camp on opening day as your utility player? How do those two players look when they come into spring training? We are really going to give Brad and Chris every opportunity to win the job. There is no favorite right now, at least in my mind. I don’t think Lloyd feels any different.”
2. The fight for No. 5
Seattle has six starting pitchers and five rotation spots. Obviously, Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have two of them.
McClendon made it clear that newcomer J.A. Happ, whom the team acquired from the Blue Jays in a trade for Michael Saunders, also has a spot.
“We didn’t acquire Happ to pitch out of the bullpen,” McClendon said. “We can put all that to rest.”
McClendon then said there was only spot up for grabs in the rotation — the fifth spot.
By deduction, it seems James Paxton has the fourth spot locked up, though McClendon wouldn’t confirm it. But it’s impossible to think a healthy Paxton won’t be part of that rotation. He’s that good. Paxton went 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 13 starts last season, including a 3-0 record with a 2.12 ERA in five starts at Safeco Field. He missed four months of the season because of a latissimus dorsi strain and shoulder tendinitis.
So if Paxton is in, that leaves youngsters Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias vying for the final spot.
“We have candidates for one spot,” McClendon said. “Competition is a good thing. You hope at the end of spring training that you have some really tough decisions to make. We’ll see what happens.”
With Walker and Iwakuma battling injuries during the spring, Elias pitched his way into the opening-day rotation, making the leap from Class AA. The bright lights of the big leagues had minimal effect on the left-hander. He went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts. He struck out 143 batters in 1632/3 innings and threw the Mariners’ only shutout. He also pitched with the swagger of a veteran.
Walker’s season was full of ups and downs that included being limited in spring training because of shoulder issues; starting the season on the disabled list; a pair of average spot starts in July; and some tough, public criticism from McClendon along the way. But he showed signs of his massive potential in September. In two starts and three relief appearances he went 1-1 with a 1.96 ERA, featuring the first complete game of his career — a 1-0 loss to the Blue Jays.
Despite having numerous offers this past offseason, the Mariners wouldn’t trade Walker. It’s easy to forget Walker is still just 22 and still growing as a player.
One thing is for certain; the Mariners will be sending a really good starting pitcher to Class AAA Tacoma to start the season.
3. Weeks of preparation
The signing of Weeks — a one-time All-Star second baseman for Milwaukee — to a one-year contract last week was bit of a surprise. The Mariners already have Robinson Cano entrenched at second base and Weeks has played only that position for his entire big-league career.
The Mariners believe that even at age 32, Weeks can become a utility/bench player for them. They list him as an infielder/outfielder, and Zduriencik mentioned the possibility of playing time in left field and serving as a backup at third base, second base and first base.
“He’ll be given the opportunity to play multiple positions,” Zduriencik said. “That’s the thing we are going to look at in spring training — to see where he fits best. He’s going to play in the outfield. He’s going to play the infield positions.”
Weeks played outfield as a freshman at Southern University over a decade ago. He’s going to be a busy guy this spring. He’ll be taking part in outfield coach Andy Van Slyke’s torturous workouts as well as working at three infield positions.
“I’m not going to say it’s going to be easy,” Weeks said. “Any time you change positions, obviously it’s going to take work. And I’m not afraid of working hard. That’s always been the case.”
But in all that work, Weeks can’t forget about his offense. That’s a main reason Seattle signed him. He is a right-handed hitter with some pop. He hit .274 with an .809 OPS in 286 plate appearances last season and has a career .834 OPS vs. left-handed pitching.
“What he helps with, he’s one of the toughest players I’ve ever been around,” Zduriencik said. “He plays the game with reckless abandon. He’ll go through a wall for you. He’s a great teammate and determined young man. He’s a winner, and his determination to bounce back from limited playing time and fill a different role is important. And his ability to hit left-handed pitching is important to us.”
4. Action for Jackson
Center fielder Austin Jackson might be one of the most important players to the Mariners’ success this season.
After acquiring the center fielder from the Tigers in a trade-deadline deal, Jackson was abysmal at the plate, posting a .229/.267/.260 slash line. That wasn’t the player the Mariners thought they were getting. In five seasons with Detroit, Jackson posted a .277/. 342/.413 line, including a 2012 season where he hit. 300 with an .856 OPS.
“Two years ago, Austin Jackson was probably the fifth-best center fielder in all of baseball,” McClendon said. “He struggled a little bit last year. It goes to show you that he’s human.”
McClendon saw a different player than the one he worked with every day as the hitting coach with Tigers.
“Offensively, he was doing some things mechanically that we need to clean up,” McClendon said. “It’s nothing major. We’ll work on that in spring training.”
Jackson knew something was wrong but couldn’t fix it on his own.
“My first four years being with Lloyd he was able to iron out some of the problems I had in my swing,” Jackson said. “He knew the key things we can go back to, to get me locked back in. I didn’t have that last year. It was kind of tough to make adjustments on the fly. I tried to find it, but I think I created some bad habits, and it was kind of tough to get out of them.”
5. More than a makeover
Will a reshaped body and reformed attitude return Jesus Montero from a bust to a ballplayer?
Montero’s reformation is one of the more-intriguing aspects this spring. The Mariners have raved about his commitment to conditioning this offseason. He’s lost 40 pounds and has done everything they’ve asked of him.
But will those physical and mental changes transform him into a viable major-leaguer?
Montero has some ability to hit. Last season, he hit .286 with 24 doubles, 16 homers and 74 RBI with an .839 OPS with Tacoma. And he hit .260 with 15 homers in 2012 with the Mariners. But that means little now.
“He has a lot to prove,” Zduriencik said. “And there aren’t a lot of expectations there right now. But he’s a guy we are going to take a look at.”
One thing they will look at is Montero’s ability to handle first base. He’s worked at the position all offseason. With the acquisition of Nelson Cruz, Seattle doesn’t have an open spot at designated hitter. For Montero to find his way onto the big-league roster, he must show he can play first base at a level where he isn’t a liability. Issues with his footwork, positioning, playing drag bunts and ability to dig balls were glaring last season.
The weight loss and improved flexibility should help his agility.
“He looks really good,” said Chris Gwynn, director of player development. “What you really notice is how easy he moves. He’s moving a lot easier. His hips are better. He can do whatever he needs to do. I’m anxious to see how well he does. There were times when he was definitely our best hitter in Triple-A last year.”
McClendon met with Montero before the winter meetings and was impressed with the change in body and mindset.
“In the short term, he’s accomplished the things I set out for him to do,” McClendon said. “We had a real good conversation a few months ago, and he’s exceeded those expectations.”
Those expectations were not baseball related.
“When I talk about exceeding expectations, they had nothing to do with the game of baseball and everything to do with the game of life,” McClendon said. “I think he’s made that progression. So now he can start concentrating on being a better baseball player. We’ll see what happens this spring.”