By Bob Dutton The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s back to work today for the Seattle Mariners, after a rare camp open date, for what projects as a whirlwind two-week sprint to determine a 25-man roster for the March 31 opener in Anaheim.
“The intensity level, the execution, our mental approach,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “everything changes. When you start building those last 8-to-10 days, you pick it up a little bit.”
The camp roster still lists 40 players, although that includes pitchers Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, who each figure to open the season on the disabled list.
Reliever Stephen Pryor, recovering from a torn back muscle, is also unlikely to be ready for major-league duty when the bell rings. That still leaves 12 guys who need to go.
Attention in coming days will intensify on the competition between Brad Miller and Nick Franklin at shortstop, the final spot or two on the bench and the jobs at the back of the rotation and bullpen.
The Miller/Franklin battle, which remains close, profiles as a winner-take-all competition between two players who closed last season as lineup regulars.
“(Miller) has played extremely well,” McClendon said, “and he’s competed well. It’s been interesting. And Nick has played well. It’s been a lot of fun watching them.”
Any separation yet?
“We’ve still got a lot of time to go yet,” McClendon said. “So we’ll see.”
The loser likely heads to Class AAA Tacoma, although McClendon suggested Sunday it’s possible that both make the club.
Miller is generally viewed as the favorite because of defensive skills he’s flashed regularly in spring games. That’s also why Franklin remains the subject of trade rumors.
The Tigers, Orioles, Mets and Rays have middle-infield needs, and all have been cited as having interest in Franklin. But the Mariners show no inclination to deal unless they get value in return.
“We think Nick Franklin is a talented young player,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said recently. “I don’t think you’ll see us make any move just to make a move.”
Similarly, the Mariners remained linked to free-agent Kendrys Morales.
Privately, club officials appear mixed. Some see value in Morales’ bat; others argue he’s a DH-only talent who doesn’t fit the current roster mix.
All seem to agree on this: Morales only makes sense, at this point, at a cut-rate price. Nothing close to the $14.1 million qualifying offer he rejected from the Mariners in becoming a free agent.
And nothing remotely close to the big multi-year deal that agent Scott Boras continues to seek for his client. Many club officials would prefer Morales signs elsewhere in order to reap the compensatory draft pick.
Tellingly, perhaps, Morales appears to be drawing no interest from other clubs. The Mariners, meanwhile, appear content to move on in their evaluations.
“It’s important (time) for anyone who is competing from this point on,” McClendon said. “We need them to separate or eliminate. It’s starting to get to that point.”
Let’s crunch some numbers:
McClendon indicated he’s likely to keep a seven-man bullpen, which means 12 pitchers overall and a four-man bench. He also tends to hedge his comments on the tight battles, but here’s what gamblers call the chalk:
Mike Zunino is the starting catcher with veteran John Buck as the backup.
Three infield starters are set: Justin Smoak at first, Robinson Cano at second and Kyle Seager at third. Add Willie Bloomquist as the utility infielder.
Logan Morrison projects as the likely designated hitter, although he could also draw some time at first base and on a limited basis in the outfield.
Dustin Ackley is the left fielder, and Corey Hart will play right field as much as his surgically-repaired knees permit. Early signs are encouraging, but he’s a wild card. His time might come at DH or first base.
The uncertainly surrounding Hart means the Mariners are likely to keep an extra outfielder.
Michael Saunders is a virtual lock because of his versatility, while Abraham Almonte has drawn steady time in center field and as the leadoff hitter. The next two weeks will determine whether Almonte stays there.
Now, add the Miller/Franklin winner, and that leaves just one spot.
The Mariners like Stefen Romero’s power potential and, as a right-handed bat, he’s just what the lefty-heavy lineup needs. A converted infielder, he spent most of 2013 in left field, but he’s now drawing some time in right.
“He’s been impressive this spring,” McClendon said. “He’s certainly in the mix. I think we all know our need and our desire for right-handed bats throughout our lineup.”
Two other possibilities remain in camp, and both are non-roster invites:
Endy Chavez and Cole Gillespie. Chavez is a Rule XX (B) signee, which means he must be told by March 25 if he will make the club.
Chavez, 36, is also a known quanity, although his once-strong defensive skills dipped in recent years.
Gillespie, 29, seemed little more than organizational depth when signed Jan. 2 after closing out last season as a reserve on the Cubs’ bench. He’s probably bound for Class AAA Tacoma.
But Gillespie batted .317 over the last four years in the minors, mostly at Class AAA, against left-handed pitchers. He also generally draws serviceable marks from scouts for his defense in the corners. He could fill a need.
What works against Gillespie is he’d need to be added to a 40-man roster that currently has no vacancies. With a couple of strong pitching candidates in the same situation, his chances are really slim.
The pitching staff remains in flux as the Mariners continue to scramble to compensate for injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker, an All-Star and the organization’s top prospect.
Neither is expected to be ready for the rotation before mid-to-late April.
Long-time ace Felix Hernandez remains the only lock for the starting five, but it’s hard to see how rookie lefty James Paxton, after four mostly strong outings, doesn’t get a spot.
Erasmo Ramirez finished last season in the rotation and has also pitched well in four appearances. So he, too, looms as a strong candidate.
The other two jobs remain a battle between two veterans in camp on minor-league contracts (Scott Baker and Randy Wolf), returnee Blake Beavan and a Cuban defector (Roenis Elias) making a strong push.
Brandon Maurer entered camp as a possibility but ongoing back soreness effectively torpedoed his chances. He’s not expected to begin throwing again until the weekend.
“Not good,” McClendon agreed.
Elias made another strong statement Sunday by limiting the Angels to one run and two hits in five innings.
“He’s still here,” McClendon said. “He threw a lot of strikes. I thought he showed a lot of poise. He’s down in the zone … pretty good.”
All have pitched well at times, but keep this in mind: Baker (like Chavez) must be notified by March 25 if he will make the club. That figures to be an early indicator of what the Mariners are thinking.
The losers seem more likely to head to Tacoma rather than serve as a swingman/long man in the bullpen.
“Look,” McClendon said, “you’re going to need during the course of the season, if you’re lucky, seven or eight starters. Somebody has to be there and ready to step in.”
A projected seven-man relief corps has five locks or near-locks in veteran closer Fernando Rodney, former closers Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar, lefty Charlie Furbush and hard-throwing Yoervis Medina.
The preference for a second lefty should benefit Lucas Luetge or non-roster invite Joe Beimel, which leaves just one spot: long reliever.
If the losers in the rotation competition head to Tacoma, that positions Hector Noesi and Zach Miner as top possibilities. Miner has pitched better, but he would need to be added to the 40-man roster.
Noesi, in contrast, is out of options. That means he can’t be sent to the minors unless he clears waivers. Is he worth keeping for the sake of inventory even if he isn’t the most-deserving candidate?
That question, and lots of others, still need to be answered.