MESA, Ariz. – Given the organization’s plan of playing the young kids to generate big-league experience and looking at the 40-man roster and projected opening-day roster, the concept of camp battles for roster spots has been largely nonexistent this spring.
As long as they remain healthy, the five starting pitchers are in place.
The four starting infield spots have been locked in since Evan White signed his eight-year, $24 million contract extension. The two catchers were chosen when Omar Narvaez was traded in December.
Even with Mitch Haniger injured and out indefinitely, you can project the three starting outfield spots.
The bullpen? Well, that’s not so much a battle for a spot, but a time. Because it sure seems like at least 25 different pitchers will make relief appearances for the Mariners at some point this season.
But there is genuine competition for the last two of the bench spots on the roster.
Dee Gordon will take one of the bench spots, serving as the backup middle infielder for second base and shortstop. Austin Nola will work as the backup catcher, while also being an option at first base and designated hitter.
That leaves two spots — one would presumably go to a utility player and the other to a fourth outfielder.
Upon first glance, it might be easy to determine Dylan Moore and Braden Bishop for those respective spots.
Moore served as the utility player all last season, appearing in 113 games and playing every spot on the field other than catcher. He slashed .206/.302/.389 in 282 plate appearances with 14 doubles, two triples, nine homers, 28 RBI, 11 stolen bases, 25 walks and 93 strikeouts.
Bishop missed most of last season with a ruptured spleen and the surgery to repair it, but he’s been considered the Mariners’ best overall defensive outfielder and more importantly the best defensive center fielder, which would normally give him the edge.
But neither of those spots is a given. Moore, who has been sidelined by a concussion, has competition in the form of Tim Lopes. With Moore expected to return to game action Wednesday, manager Scott Servais said the evaluation of that competition will pick up.
“Now that we’re into March, everybody’s played a few games and are going to kind of start sorting it out a little bit,” he said. “The focus on what those guys can do that are in those competitions, moving them around to different positions, all of that other stuff plays into what’s going on here the next 10 days or so.”
Lopes has been the Mariners’ best hitter this spring. With his RBI single Sunday, Lopes has seven hits in 13 at-bats with five doubles and seven RBI.
He actually hit fairly well last year in his call-up, posting a .270/.359/.360 slash line in 128 plate appearances with seven doubles, a homer, 12 RBI, 15 walks and 29 strikeouts. He might be one of the best fastball hitters on the 40-man roster.
“The thing with Lopes is where does he fit in the field?” Servais said. “And he’s got work to do at a number different positions. He’s played the most at second base. I thought he’s done a decent job in the outfield for never having done it before. We just fired him out there last year. It’s the old saying: ‘If you can hit, you’ll play, they’ll find you a spot.’ He knows he can swing it. It’s finding him spots he’s comfortable in. We aren’t looking for Gold Glove defense.”
With Gordon available, there isn’t the need to handle shortstop like for most utility players. And offense could be of more importance.
“I think it’s how do you get in the game,” Servais said. “There has to be some offense tied to it. Otherwise the guys don’t play unless you just need the defensive-switch, pinch-run thing. Obviously, Tim Lopes has had a really good camp so far. He swung the bat well for us last year. Dylan Moore has made adjustments over the winter. You can certainly see that he’s changed a few things. Getting these guys in the lineup, keeping them going, you can’t just be the guy who has a good glove and you can stick him anywhere. I think those days are kind of gone as far as a utility player is concerned. I like what I’ve seen out of all of those guys that are competing.”
Given that Lopes and Moore both play the outfield at adequate levels – Moore being the better of the two – could the Mariners keep both players on the opening-day roster instead of a fourth outfielder?
A fourth outfielder isn’t a requirement.
“You don’t have to,” Servais said. “Those players can play the outfield, too. Both of those guys do a decent job in the outfield, so you could do that, too.”
And yet …
“There is a way they could all make it, but again it depends how our outfield lines up versus what we have for the backup infield spots,” Servais said. “And also you just don’t want to put guys on the team — like what is their way into a lineup? It’s not just, ‘OK, if this guy sprains his ankle or pulls his hamstring it’s how do you keep that guy going and get him into the lineup.’ You’ll see some of our infielders back in the outfield for a bit here over the next 10 days and just make sure we get all the bases covered on what they can and can’t play. What they’re most comfortable at. Hopefully they keep swinging the bat like they have.”
It would seem likely that the Mariners go with a fourth outfielder if possible.
Bishop notched his first hit of the spring Sunday, a crisp RBI single. He had struggled in earlier plate appearances, looking overwhelmed at times. He’s had a small sample size of minimal success at the MLB level.
The addition of Jose Siri on a waiver claim represents a direct challenge. Siri is just as adept in center field as Bishop, one of the team’s fastest runners and has a power profile that Bishop lacks. He’s also a right-handed hitter, which would be useful for balance.
Seattle signed veteran Carlos Gonzalez this offseason as some insurance, but his bat has looked slow and his presence just doesn’t seem to fit with the Mariners plan.
Based on what has transpired thus fair, it seems likely the competition for both spots won’t be decided until the last day of spring.