It’s the week before spring training, but many Mariners already are playing in Peoria

It’s looking a lot like spring training at the Peoria Sports Complex in Arizona. Camp doesn’t officially begin until Sunday when pitchers and catchers report for physical exams, but there’s plenty of activity at the Mariners’ facility.

I spent part of the day there Mo

nday, working on this story about the minor league mini-camp that appeared in today’s Herald. The Mariners invited 31 prospects to take part in a 3½-week program that gives them some intense individual instruction in all facets of the game and in life.

There’s a lot more playing in Peoria than the minor leaguers. The Mariners’ complex already is bustling with activity, with numerous big-leaguers already here working out. While waiting to talk with the minor league folks for today’s newspaper story, here’s what came of some conversations with many of the players who are here:

• Outfielder Michael Saunders stepped back into the batting cage Monday to continue an offseason that’s been more pain than gain. He began the offseason working on his swing with Triple-A hitting coach Alonzo Powell, planning to put the changes to work during the winter ball season in Venezuela. However, Saunders strained his right (throwing) elbow in an outfield collision early in the winter season and, in early January, had his appendix removed.

Saunders says he feels good now and is back to baseball activity. He also looks bigger and stronger than I remembered late last season. He said he has put on a few more pounds and hopes his endurance is better than last year, when he felt he wore down toward the end of the season.

• One of the most-watched players in camp will be pitcher Michael Pineda, the imposing 6-foot-5, 240-some pounder who’s in line for a spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation.

Heck, he’s already one of the most-watched. Pineda threw a bullpen Monday afternoon and he had a nice-sized crowd of teammates viewing a fastball that already has a lot of sizzle on it.

• Relief pitcher Josh Lueke has been throwing bullpens and doing his best to make a positive impact this year, hopefully at the big-league level with the Mariners. He’s a 6-foot-5 right-hander with a power arm that would be a nice fit in the Mariners’ bullpen if he can pitch with the effectiveness he did last year (2.08 ERA with 18 strikeouts in 17 1/3 innings at Class AAA Tacoma).

I’ve talked with Lueke a lot since last October when I met him during the Arizona Fall League, and people are really curious what kind of guy he is. To me, he’s a personable 26-year-old who’s easy to talk with and seems to get along well with his teammates. He’ll never be able to eliminate the controversy of his past – he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of false imprisonment with violence after facing rape and sodomy charges in Bakersfield, Calif., two years ago when he was a Class A player in the Texas Rangers’ system. But he seems willing to move on and make everything as right as he can as a person and as a player.

A side note on Lueke: He’s an avid outdoorsman who loves hunting, fishing and the local Cabela’s down here. He’s living in a neighborhood with several small lakes and often goes fishing after workouts. One of his latest catches was a largemouth bass on a piece of string cheese. Hmm, didn’t realize Safeway sold bait.

• Third baseman Matt Mangini says he is healthy after finishing last season with a fairly severe quad strain. He’d hurt the quad midway through the season with the Tacoma Rainiers but, being a ballplayer in the midst of a successful season both personally and for the team, he played on.

The Mariners called him up in September, when he batted .211 in 38 at-bats, and planned to have him play in the Arizona Fall League. An MRI showed the severity of the injury and Mangini spent the winter getting healthy. He says he’s fine now and, hopefully, will be able to show what he truly can do in the big-league camp.

• Reliever Brandon League arrived in Peoria over the weekend after spending most of the winter in the San Diego area. He has gone back to his native Hawaii in previous years, but his wife is from San Diego and they chose to stay on the mainland this winter. It didn’t keep League from one of his favorite offseason activities, surfing, although he had his long boards shipped from Hawaii after struggling with the short boards that are more common in California.

League goes into the season as the most likely guy to slide into the closer role until David Aardsma’s surgically repaired hip is healthy. At least, that’s the speculation because general manager Jack Zduriencik will say only that spring training will determine how the bullpen roles will shake out (remember, the Mariners have former Orioles closer Chris Ray). League said nobody has talked with him about his role this year.

• Speaking of bullpen roles, right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen is eager to win one. It would be quite a climb from where he was six years ago, out of baseball after he chose to leave the game in 2005 following a positive marijuana test and suspension in 2004. Wilhelmsen pitched well last summer with the Class A Everett AquaSox and Clinton LumberKings, then went to the fall league and continued his strong comeback.

When the Mariners put him on the 40-man roster this offseason, Wilhelmsen described the feeling as “awesome.”

“It good to see that your efforts are paying off,” he said. “It’s been an interesting road, and the journey is not over yet.”

Wilhelmsen has put on some considerable beef since last year, now weighing about 235 pounds after ending last season at 210.

Another thing he didn’t shed since October was the nasty-looking bruise on his left shin after getting drilled by a line drive in an Arizona Fall League game. He’s still got that bruise, and he said it took most of the winter for all the fluid and swelling to work its way out of his lower leg.

• Left-hander Jason Vargas also is here after spending the winter just a few miles down the road at his home in nearby Goodyear, Ariz. He said it was a fairly quiet offseason, when he worked out and hung out with his family.

It’ll also be a big season for Vargas, who went 9-12 but had a 3.78 ERA in 31 starts and goes into 2011 as an important man in a rotation with a lot of uncertainty after ace Felix Hernandez.

• And finally, in another sure sign that spring training is about to begin, the Mariners’ equipment truck arrived Monday afternoon after leaving Safeco Field on Friday.

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