By Bob Dutton
The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — The keenest competition this spring in the Mariners’ camp already shapes up as the three-way battle between Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman and newcomer Taylor Motter for duty as the roster’s utility player.
And there’s a kicker.
The Mariners might keep two of the three.
“More than one could (make the club),” manager Scott Servais confirmed. “They can all play all over the field. They all bring something a little bit different.
“Motter is probably the most advanced at shortstop even though O’Malley did a very adequate job for us last year. O’Malley switch-hits. Freeman might be the better left-handed bat. It’s whatever you’re looking for there.”
While the Mariners won’t open full-squad drills until Sunday, all three players are already in camp. And all three can expect to play a lot when the club swings into its 36-game Cactus League schedule.
“They’re going to get plenty of opportunities,” Servais said. “We’ll have a good feel when we leave here as to which guy we want to go with. I don’t know that there’s one who is ahead of the other right now. It’s an open competition.”
While club officials place a priority on a utilityman’s ability to play shortstop, the decision could hinge on an ability to play the outfield and first base.
Motter or O’Malley, in particular, offer a right-handed bat as an alternative in left field to Jarrod Dyson. Defensive skills at first base provide the option of a late-inning replacement for Dan Vogelbach, whose own defense remains a question.
Keeping two utilitymen could mean outfielders Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia each open the season at Triple-A Tacoma instead of having one serve as a big-league backup.
It also lessens the club’s dependence on Vogelbach. If he struggles this spring, particularly on defense, he also could open the year at Tacoma. That would position Danny Valencia for full-time duty with a utilityman serving as backup.
“We’ll just have to let it play out,” Servais said. “They all know the situation. I’ve talked to all three of them. The best man wins. They’re all good with that.”
Reliever Tony Zych should be ready to begin bullpen workouts in late February, while former closer Steve Cishek is tentatively tracking for early March. Both pitchers underwent surgeries in October.
Zych is recovering from a biceps tendon transfer and, Servais said, has reached 120 feet in his throwing program. He missed most of last year because of various shoulder problems.
Cishek’s surgery repaired a torn labrum in his left hip.
“He’s got to get his legs under him,” Servais said. “His arm is fine. He’s working his arm, but he’s not (yet) putting the whole throwing motion together because of the hip issue.
“It was a little more severe than the doctors initially anticipated. That’s why he’s a little slower in his recovery.”
— Bob Dutton, The News Tribune