By John Boyle Herald Columnist
For baseball fans, February has always been a time for hope.
A time to hope that your team, despite last year’s struggles, can be that surprise team that goes from last place to the playoffs in only a year. A time to hope that if those youngsters can take a step forward, or if that veteran addition can rediscover his form from two seasons ago, or that a team will just magically flip a switch in a manner that only seems to happen in baseball, it could actually be a year to remember.
But for Mariners fans in recent years, the only thing as consistent as hope in springtime is the disappointment that happens once the games actually start. There are reasons to believe this team can take a pretty big leap from where it was last year, so feelings of optimism aren’t completely crazy, no matter how many times the Mariners have let people down over the past nine seasons.
Of course we ultimately won’t know whether the 2013 Mariners can be contenders or not until a good chunk of the season has been played, but with spring training kicking into gear this week — pitchers and catchers report today and Seattle’s first full-squad workout is Saturday — the Mariners have plenty to figure out between now and April. So with that in mind, here are five questions the Mariners need to answer (or at least begin answering) while they’re in Peoria, Ariz.
1 How’s this rotation going to shake out? And are any of the young guns ready?
Felix Hernandez’s extension may not be a done deal, but his status as the team’s 2013 ace hasn’t changed. Beyond that, however, the rotation is murky. Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma will have a spot, quite possibly pitching behind Hernandez.
Then what? A deal hasn’t been announced yet, but the Mariners are expected to finalize a contract with veteran lefty Joe Saunders, who will essentially serve as a Jason Vargas replacement — seriously, look up their numbers; they’re pretty strikingly similar. Right-hander Erasmo Ramirez has a good shot of being the third or fourth starter, then the No. 5 spot is potentially up for grabs, though right-hander Blake Beavan has to be considered the frontrunner. Right-hander Hector Noesi also has a chance to earn a starting spot, but his struggles last year might make it tough for him to regain manager Eric Wedge’s trust.
The other possibility, one that is certainly intriguing to fans, is that one of the touted prospects could come in and pitch so well this spring that the Mariners have no choice but to give him a spot in the rotation. The odds are good that Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer (it’s not just a Big Three anymore) will all start the year in the minors, but the Mariners will leave the door open for a youngster to steal a job.
“Do I think one of these young kids will make the club? I don’t know,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “I think they’ll be given the opportunity in spring training.”
2 How many games can Jesus Montero catch, and who catches the rest of them?
In his first full season in the big leagues, Montero was behind the plate for just 56 games last season, and there are plenty of people who believe his long-term future is at DH, not catcher. But Wedge has said repeatedly that he believes Montero can be a solid major league catcher. Even so, Montero isn’t suddenly going to catch 150 games this season, and with John Jaso and Miguel Olivo gone, that means a new face behind the plate for a significant number of games. The Mariners recently signed veteran Kelly Shoppach, and he’ll almost certainly begin the season as Montero’s backup — though veteran Ronny Paulino was also signed to a minor league deal with an invite to spring training. But the bigger question is just how long Mike Zunino, last year’s first-round pick, will be in the minors.
And this is all assuming that Montero, who was linked by a New York Daily News report to a South Florida anti-aging clinic that is being investigated by Major League Baseball, won’t be suspended this season. If that happens, the Mariners will have a lot more to figure out at catcher.
3 How will playing time work out with all of the outfield/first-base/designated-hitter types?
If he’s healthy — a huge if, I know — Franklin Gutierrez will be the starting center fielder, and Michael Saunders seems like the likely starter in right field. But when those two are in the lineup, how will Wedge sort things out between the group that plays a combination of left field, first base and DH? If Michael Morse is the slugger the Mariners hope he can be, he’ll get plenty of at bats, but if he’s in left field, is there any room for Casper Wells or Raul Ibanez or Jason Bay? If Morse isn’t capable of being an every-day outfielder, does he take at bats from Justin Smoak at first base? Does he DH, and if so how do the Mariners get Kendrys Morales in the lineup? And what about Mike Carp or Eric Thames, do they still have a role on this team?
Ultimately, Wedge hopes that having too many capable bats is a problem he’ll have to deal with. Obviously not everyone mentioned above will be happy with his role — there just aren’t enough at bats to go around — and that’s why spring will be important for Wedge to figure out who is capable of what when it comes to the logjam the Mariners have of corner-outfielder/first-base/DH types.
4 Just how long is the leash on Smoak?
Smoak, who was the main piece the Mariners got in return for Cliff Lee in the 2010 trade, has failed to live up to the potential that years ago made him one of baseball’s top prospects. But every time he struggles to the point that everyone assumes he’s a bust, Smoak seems to do just enough to give hope that he may just find his way.
Smoak finished last season strong, and according to Wedge, is in much better shape this year, which is why Wedge said, “I have every anticipation that he’s going to be our first baseman this year.” But the fact remains that Smoak has played two full seasons in Seattle with pretty unimpressive numbers to show for it. The Mariners really, really want Smoak to be the power bat they thought they were getting in that trade with the Rangers, but they can only give him so many chances before moving on.
5 What exactly do all of these new veterans have left in the tank?
If Morse can go back to being the player he was in 2011, the Mariners will have a legitimate thumper in the middle of the lineup. And if Morales can rediscover the ability he had before breaking his leg in 2010; and if a change of scenery can help rejuvenate Bay; and if Ibanez can be the late-inning hero off the bench that he was so often with the New York Yankees, then the Mariners lineup could be a whole lot better. But that’s a lot of ifs, right?
There’s very little chance that every veteran the Mariners added can go back to what he was at his best, but for Seattle to take a step forward, they’ll need more than just leadership from those veterans; they’ll need some production too. Ultimately the growth of young players like Montero, Smoak, second baseman Dustin Ackley and third baseman Kyle Seager, will make the biggest difference if the Mariners are going to be better, but getting some serious production out of their new veterans would go a long way as well.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.