By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Corey Hart is ailing again with renewed arm soreness, and Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon seems increasingly resigned to finding alternatives for regular duty in right field.
“I’m not so sure how much right field he’s going to play starting off (the season),” McClendon acknowledged prior to Sunday’s game 6-4 victory over Oakland. “We’ll see. The goal is to keep him physically sound.
“DHing is probably a better option.”
Hart hasn’t played since last Thursday because of what McClendon characterized as “a little stiffness in his forearm.” Hart isn’t expected to play until Tuesday, but McClendon sought to minimize concern.
“His at-bats are fine,” McClendon said. “Once he comes back, he’ll probably get 30 (including) minor-league games (prior to the March 31 opener against the Angels in Anaheim).
The number of at-bats is sufficient, but Hart has just five hits in 35 at-bats, including just one extra-base hit, a double, and 18 strikeouts. That includes six strikeouts in his last 11 at-bats.
Hart and the Mariners show little concern at this lack of spring production, which they attribute to a matter of finding his timing at the plate after missing all of last season while recovering from surgery on both knees.
“You always want results,” Hart insisted recently, “but I’m not far off. Comfort-wise, I’m not far off. I’m getting closer. Even though the results aren’t there, my approach is getting closer.”
Even if Hart hits, if he does so primarily as the designated hitter, it creates a domino effect throughout the roster. It would also seem to diminish whatever interest the Mariners have in re-signing Kendrys Morales.
McClendon cited Michael Saunders and Logan Morrison as the likely candidates for increased duty in right field.
Morrison is generally viewed as a better fit at DH and first base, but the Mariners appear committed to Justin Smoak at first. Morrison started Sunday in right field for the second time in four days.
Saunders and Morrison are both left-handed hitters. If the Mariners want a right-handed option, the only candidate still in camp is rookie Stefen Romero.
If Saunders gets steady duty in right, as seems likely, that virtually cements switch-hitting Abraham Almonte as the starting center fielder. No surprise there; Almonte started Sunday in center for the ninth time in 10 days.
The only alternatives to Almonte in center are Saunders and veteran Endy Chavez, who is battling Romero for what projects as the final non-pitching roster spot.
That decision could come by Tuesday when Chavez, as a Rule XX (B) free-agent signing, must be told whether he’ll make the club.
There’s nothing official from McClendon on the rotation beyond tapping staff ace Felix Hernandez to pitch the season opener.
But right-hander Erasmo Ramirez and lefty James Paxton are lined up for the second and third slots as the Mariners head into their final week of Cactus League games.
Just don’t suggest to McClendon that Ramirez, despite an 0.96 spring ERA, is a No. 2 starter.
“Well, listen, let’s not take that number lightly,” McClendon said. “A No. 2 starter is (Hisashi) Iwakuma. A No. 1 starter is Felix Hernandez. A No. 1 starter is Justin Verlander (of the Tigers). A No. 2 starter is Max Scherzer.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. (Ramirez) is a nice major-league pitcher, and he fits nicely on a major-league club. But when you start talking about No. 1s and No. 2s, those guys don’t grow on trees.
“Now, given our situation, that might be the case (Ramirez is No. 2 to start the season). But I don’t want to put too much pressure on this guy, either. … Ours (Iwakuma) is sitting over on the sideline, trying to get healthy.”
Iwakuma is scheduled to throw a baseball today for the first time since being diagnosed Feb. 10 with a strained ligament in his middle finger. A best-case scenario projects his return to the rotation in mid-to-late April.
Others in the rotation mix: Randy Wolf, Scott Baker, Blake Beavan and Roenis Elias.