Several pitchers still in running for spot in M’s rotation

PEORIA, Ariz. — The questions regarding the Seattle Mariners’ rotation — or any camp competition, really — tend to draw the same response from manager Lloyd McClendon.

“You keep running them out there,” he said (more than once), “and at some point, somebody will separate themselves.

“It’s been my experience that you put them out there, let them play and guys will either step up or eliminate themselves. It’s just the way it is.”

OK … when does that separation happen?

“I don’t know when that point is,” McClendon said. “We’re close. I can’t give you a drop-dead date. We’re close.”

The Mariners are roughly midway through their spring schedule. They’ve had time to adjust to injuries to All-Star Hisashi Iwakuma and top prospect Taijuan Walker; neither of whom is expected to be ready before mid-April.

All remaining candidates have made at least two appearances, but only one thing is certain — Felix Hernandez will fill the No. 1 slot and start the season opener March 31 against the Angels in Anaheim.

Beyond that, it’s suggestive, but hardly definitive, that the Mariners now have a five-starter cycle in place through Sunday in advance of the only open date in their Cactus League schedule: Scott Baker started Tuesday against the Angels, and lefty Randy Wolf will pitch tonight against the Cubs. Both are recovering from Tommy John surgery, although Baker’s procedure was nearly two years ago.

Then it’s Erasmo Ramirez, Hernandez, lefty James Paxton and back to Baker. That seems to leave Blake Beavan and Brandon Maurer, at this point, on the outside looking in.

Separation? Elimination? Here’s a possible ranking:

¦ Paxton: Has put together three strong outings after closing last season with four impressive September starts. Entered camp viewed as a strong candidate because the projected rotation was righty-heavy. A thinned group only strengthens his chances. Outlook: Hard to see, barring a complete collapse, how he doesn’t win a job.

“I’m trying to pick up where I left off last year,” he said. “I’m really just focusing on executing pitches right now. Try to get everything refined so it’s ready for game time when the season rolls around.”

¦ Ramirez: Finished last season in the rotation and, probably, needed to pitch poorly to lose a job even before the injuries to Iwakuma and Walker. Far from that, he has limited opponents to one earned run in 82/3 innings over three appearances. Outlook: Close to a lock.

“I just want to be healthy,” he said, “and I like how I feel. My arm is getting stronger. I have more control.”

¦ Baker: Had a rough ride Tuesday in allowing five runs in three innings to Angels. Also hit three straight batters at one point. That’s his mulligan. He was better in two previous outings. Outlook: Still solid but far from a lock.

“Physically, this is about as good as I’ve felt in a really long time,” he said after Tuesday’s loss. “I’m excited about that. It’s just a matter of making sure those secondary pitches are where they need to be.”

¦ Wolf: While the Mariners viewed Baker as a strong recovery candidate, they simply rolled the dice on Wolf in his bid to return from a second career TJ surgery. So far, he’s shown signs of being his old self. Initially seen more as a long-relief possibility, he might benefit most from the injuries to Iwakuma and Walker. Outlook: Positioned to win a job.

“Physically, I feel good,” Wolf said. “For me, spring training has always been about physically preparing myself. Unfortunately, in the position that I’m in, you don’t have those luxuries.”

¦ Beavan: That he pitched piggyback in his first two outings suggests he entered camp with some ground to make up. Has been solid, though, in eight innings over three outings. Battled though some poor defense Saturday against the Dodgers without letting game get away. Outlook: Still on the wrong side of the bubble but in striking range.

“(Saturday) wasn’t as easy as my first two outings,” he said, “but I feel that’s good sometimes (in spring training) to work through those innings.”

¦ Maurer: Has tools but back tightness earlier in camp slowed his preparations. Pitched well Monday against Kansas City in first start before tiring in third inning. Has ground to make up. Outlook: Could be long-relief candidate, but also might be ticketed for Class AAA Tacoma if Mariners prefer he stay stretched out as a starter.

“Not too bad,” he said after Monday’s start. Dusting off the rust a little bit. The back feels fine.”

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