By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — What looms as the biggest positional battle in the Seattle Mariners’ camp is now fully engaged just four games into the Cactus League.
Brad Miller and Nick Franklin have each made two starts at shortstop.
Franklin went hitless in three at-bats Sunday in a 6-3 to Cleveland in nearby Goodyear. He went two for three with a homer in his previous start.
Miller is hitless in five at-bats in his two starts.
Franklin’s view is, “All I can do is come out here and compete.”
Miller framed the battle earlier this spring as “supporting each other” and “competing against the other teams.”
Maybe so, but don’t be fooled.
Club officials remain cautious in assessing the recovery timetables for injured pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker and offer only guarded optimism in projecting Corey Hart as a full-time outfielder.
But they show no ambiguity regarding the Miller/Franklin competition.
The winner will play regularly in the big leagues; the loser can expect a ticket to Class AAA Tacoma.
Barring a trade, of course.
“With young players,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said, “it’s very important that they play regularly.
“Their development has everything to do with gaining experience, the number of at-bats and getting the necessary defensive preparation. Then when he’s called upon, he’s ready to be the player you need.”
In short (no pun), neither Miller nor Franklin are candidates to fill a utility role.
“We brought Willie (Bloomquist) in for that reason,” Zduriencik said. “We know that Willie is a veteran guy who can play all over the place, infield and outfield. He gives you a right-handed bat and versatility.
“If you need Willie to play, he’s ready to play.”
Trade rumors began dogging Franklin, who finished last season as the starting second baseman, once the Mariners lured Robinson Cano to the Northwest with that 10-year, $240 million megadeal.
Those whispers intensified in recent days in the belief the Mariners are looking harder for a starting pitcher after learning neither Iwakuma nor Walker are likely to be ready when the season starts.
For now, though, club officials appear content to evaluate what remains on hand and show little urgency to deal Franklin — willingness, yes, but little urgency — because he has options remaining.
I.e., he can simply be sent to Tacoma if Miller retains the starting job. The same holds true for Miller if Franklin wins it.
“Where we’re at right now,” Zduriencik said, “is we’ll let this thing play out in spring training. And we’ll see. No one has to do anything. Nick Franklin and Brad Miller are both very talented players.
“We’re not making any decisions until we see what’s going on there. I don’t think you’re going to see us make any move just to make a move.”
That said, if the right offer comes along, Zduriencik indicated the Mariners won’t hesitate to pull the trigger because they believe they possess sufficient depth in their pipeline to weather the departure of either player.
“We’ve got a battle going on at shortstop,” Zduriencik said, “but we’ve also got other players sitting right there, like Carlos Triunfel. Or Gabriel Noriega, who wants to come in here and make some noise.
“Then we’ve got Chris Taylor, a young kid who everyone is impressed with. A little below that, we’ve got a young kid named Ketel Marte. We’ve got a kid named (Jack) Reinheimer who we like quite a bit.”
Triunfel, 24, saw limited big-league duty over the last two seasons but spent most of last year at Tacoma, where he batted .282, although with little pop, in 100 games.
Taylor and Noriega, both 23, are non-roster invites to big-league camp.
Noriega batted a soft .256 in 104 games last season at Class AA Jackson; Taylor provided more pop in batting .314 with a .455 slugging percentage while splitting 134 games at Class AA Jackson and Hi-A High Desert.
Marte, 20, opened last season at Lo-A Clinton before shifting to High Desert. He batted .295 but had just 23 extra-base hits in 464 at-bats.
Reinheimer, 21, was a fifth-round pick last year who batted .269 at Short-A Everett.
For now, though, the Miller/Franklin competition continues.
“I hope that’s the way it is,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “That means they’re both playing extremely well. That’s what I anticipate.”
Third baseman Kyle Seager is nursing a sore right index finger, which he jammed in last Thursday’s spring opener on a slide at third base. The injury isn’t considered serious. Seager should return to action in the near future.
Class AAA manager Rich Donnelly might not depart big-league camp this week when the Mariners open their minor-league camp.
Donnelly has been serving as third-base coach in the absence of John Stearns, who is likely to be sidelined for another month or more as he recovers from hernia surgery.
McClendon said he and general manager Jack Zduriencik continue to discuss options to fill Stearns’ vacancy on an interim basis and noted, “I wouldn’t say there’s a time frame on it.”
Minor-league pitchers and catchers report Tuesday and begin workouts on Wednesday. Other minor-league players report March 10. Full workouts begin the following day.