By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
It’s nearly time for the Mariners to get a look at how their off-season roster makeover looks on the field. Yep, it’s that time of year when spring begins to beckon us away from winter’s ever-gray chill.
Pitchers and catchers report Wednesday to the club’s renovated year-round complex in Peoria, Ariz.
The first full-squad workout, for a camp roster currently showing 65 players, is Feb. 18. The 33-game Cactus League schedule begins Feb. 27 with a charity game against complex co-tenant San Diego.
New manager Lloyd McClendon is already placing emphasis on playing well in Arizona as a means to reverse the malaise of four successive losing seasons.
“You always want to be careful when you talk about changing a culture,” he said. “I’m not here to say the culture was bad. But I will say I’m here, so changes obviously had to be made.”
And, oh, the Mariners made lots of changes since closing out a 71-91 season in 2013, including the winter’s biggest shocker: signing free-agent second baseman Robinson Cano to a 10-year deal for $240 million.
“I can’t wait,” Cano said. “I’m so excited. New team. New teammates. I’m anxious to see how it’s going to be … All I can say to the fans is ‘stay with us.’ We’re going to go out there and give everything we’ve got.”
The Mariners further mined the free-agent market for All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart and utility man Willie Bloomquist.
They also acquired first baseman/outfielder Logan Morrison through a trade with Miami. And they might not be done. They are generally viewed as the best bet to sign free-agent outfielder Nelson Cruz.
For all that, there are questions as the camp opens. Many questions. But let’s focus on the seven (a lucky number?) most likely to require attention throughout the next seven weeks.
Who fills out the starting rotation?
How many clubs (any?) possess a better one-two than Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma?
So this unit brims with potential … and it could become dominant in a hurry if rookies Taijuan Walker and/or James Paxton reach their potential.
There are plenty of familiar names, too. Erasmo Ramirez, still just 23, looms as first in line among a group that includes Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan and others. But the key could be veteran Scott Baker, a free-agent signee who was 46-28 with a 3.92 ERA in 113 games for Minnesota from 2008-11 before blowing out his elbow. If he regains his form, he’ll be a big plus.
How healthy is Corey Hart?
There might be no bigger spring issue than judging Hart’s ability to return to form after missing all of last season while recovering from major surgeries on both knees.
“I’m excited to get out there,” he said. “I want to show these guys that if they want me in the outfield, I can do it. If they want me at first, I can do it. If they want me to DH, I can do that, too.”
The Mariners gambled $6 million on Hart because he’s a right-handed bopper who can help balance a lefty-heavy lineup. It’s safe to say they’d love to pay the contract’s additional $4.65 million in performance bonuses.
Right-handed pop still needed?
Yes. Even if Hart returns to form, the Mariners are still lefty dominant, which is why they continue to pursue Cruz.
Critics love to note Cruz’s many flaws, but he offers the sort of right-handed power the Mariners crave and are unlikely to find elsewhere. There’s a price at which a deal probably makes sense on both sides. Stay tuned.
How does Fernando Rodney’s addition affect the bullpen?
A proven closer changes everything in the bullpen, particularly one that suffered through 13 walk-off losses and 15 losses in extra innings. (Rodney’s track record also will minimize hand-wringing if spring games slip away.)
Adding Rodney also enables McClendon to concentrate on finding who fits best where in various roles rather than delay that process while Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen waged a battle to be the closer.
Is Robinson Cano ready for the non-blinking spotlight?
Yes, Cano spent all nine of his previous big-league seasons in New York but, as good as he is, he was never the guy. That was Derek Jeter, who handled all of the issue-type general questions as the club spokesman. That also means Cano got a first-hand look at someone who is peerless in handling that role. And there’s no reason to think he won’t be fine, but it will be different — and how he deals with it will bear watching.
“That comes with the territory,” Cano said, “and I’m going to do my best for a young team with young guys.”
What about those no-longer essential parts?
First baseman Justin Smoak and second baseman Nick Franklin, when last season ended, were still viewed as cornerstones to the Mariners’ future.
Now, it’s hard to see where either one fits.
Club officials say Smoak joins Hart and Morrison in the mix for time at first base and DH. (And what happens if they sign Cruz?) Franklin’s role is even more tenuous (Shortstop? Really?) following Cano’s arrival.
Will it all be a distraction?
Can they catch the ball?
Let’s face it, the Mariners struggled to score last season, floundered to find reliable rotation arms behind Hernandez and Iwakuma, and endured some soul-crushing bullpen breakdowns. They addressed all of those areas.
But a depressingly porous defense aggravated all other shortcomings. Many numbers confirm this. Here’s one: Minus-97 in runs saved, easily the worst in the American League.
“I really believe if you’re going to be a championship team,” McClendon said, “you can’t give teams more than 27 outs. So make the routine play.”
Too often last year, that didn’t happen. That needs to change.