Spring Training Storylines

A slimmed down version of Jesus Montero off Ryan Divish's cell phone waits his turn to hit.  One of the interesting storylines of spring training.
A slimmed down version of Jesus Montero waits his turn to hit. Shared from Ryan Divish’s cell phone, Montero’s weight loss and readiness to play is one of the interesting storylines of spring training.

This morning as I was pondering this post (yesterday) and began counting on my fingers, I realized that extra bench spot doesn’t actually exist. (5 SP +7 RP + 1 DH + 4 OF + 4 IF + 2 C = 23 Bench = 2.) This probably accounts for my vocation as history teacher instead of engineer.

With the M’s ready to open camp for pitchers and catchers tomorrow, there is lots of excitement and high expectations for the Mariners. And honestly, it’s justifiable. They’ve  come off an 87 win season, lost little in the off-season, and addressed important areas of weakness.  The Mariners head to Peoria with a much better, more balanced team than any in the Jack Zdurencik era, and perhaps the most balanced, most talented since at least 2003. Last year I complained of rainbows, lollipops and wishful thinking.  There is much less of that on this team.  Still, there are some important story lines worth thinking about as the M’s leave the hot stove league behind and get down to business.

Starting Rotation

The Mariners, barring injury, likely have six players competing for five roster spots.  They look something like this:

  • Felix Hernandez RHP
  • Hisashi Iwakuma RHP
  • James Paxton  LHP
  • J.A. Happ LHP
  • Roenis Elias LHP or Taijuan Walker

The Fifth Starter.  This back end position is definitely there to be won.  My guess is that if Taijuan Walker shows consistent command of his pitchers in Arizona, he wins the job.  Walker was pretty much the last man left standing in the rotation in September. Iwakuma, Paxton, Young, even the King all faltered, but Walker looked good. But if he can’t consistently throw his fastball for strikes, McClendon won’t have it, and look for him to begin the year in Tacoma. My guess is Elias, who had a good year, and is a good pitcher becomes the ace of the Rainiers staff.

Danny Hultzen. Everybody is anxious to see where Danny Hultzen is with his recovery from major shoulder surgery.  There is no chance Hultzen breaks camp with the M’s, but he could be one of those future Mariners as we eye the seasons of age 30+ starters Iwakuma and Happ, both on the last year of their contracts.  If he’s healthy and effective, maybe we see Danny in September.

Pitching Depth

So many teams were hit hard by severe pitching injuries last year.  It’s more critical than ever to have guys down on the farm who can be called up to the big leagues. A key to the Mariners sustained success will be to plug the holes with guys who can win games if one of the starters go down. It’s hard to know how much is enough.  You can never have too much pitching.

Relief Pitching

The Kansas City Royals may have had the best trio of pitchers to close out games, but your Seattle Mariners had the best relief staff top to bottom.

  • Fernando Rodney  RHP  closer
  • Danny Farquhar RHP
  • Tom Wilhelmsen RHP
  • Yoervis Medina RHP
  • Dominic Leone RHP
  • Charlie Furbush RHP
  • Carson Smith RHP
  • Lucas Luetge LHP
  • David Rollins LHP
  • Mark Lowe RHP  non-roster invitee
  • Rafael Perez LHP non-roster invitee
  • Erasmo Ramirez RHP

The M’s lost Brandon Maurer in the Seth Smith trade to the Padres.  Lefty Joe Beimel looks like he is out.  The big question is how many relievers will McClendon carry?  Last year he made extensive use of an eight man bullpen. This year, based on statements by Zdurencik, it seems unlikely the Mariners will carry more than seven.  On this list, all the relievers except Rodney and Ramirez have minor league options.

Erasmo Ramirez is only 24 years old.  He has two seasons pitching at the big league level, and hasn’t distinguished himself enough to break into the Mariners rotation.  The M’s will  have a tough decision to make–whether to add Ramirez to the bullpen as a long man, or to try to get him through waivers to Tacoma as insurance.  He will be claimed; the Mariners will lose him.  My prediction is he becomes a long man out of the ‘pen because all the other guys-except Rodney-have options.

Catcher

Mike Zunino, barring a terrible accident or a case of ebola, is the Mariners starting catcher. Establishing himself as a first rank defensive catcher in 2014, this year all eyes will turn to the improvements he must make at the plate to make himself an All-Star.  Cutting down on strikeouts, getting on base more, while retaining his prodigious right-handed power gives the M’s an important at-bat near the bottom of the order.

The story, and honestly it’s not much of one, is who backs up Zunino 30-40 times per year. Jesus Sucre is a solid major league level defender, without much offensive potential.  The Mariners signed lefty hitter John Baker to a minor league deal as a possible platoon for Zunino.  Though a seven year major league veteran, Baker’s 2014 slash line .192/.273/.231 slash isn’t likely to scare anyone.  It will be an interesting spring training battle to see who wins the backup catcher spot.

Infield

The Mariners infield is the strength of this team.  With the exception of shortstop, it’s perfectly clear who the leading characters will be on this infield.

  • 1B Logan Morrison
  • 2B Robinson Cano
  • 3B Kyle Seager
  • SS Brad Miller or Chris Taylor

Concerns about Morrison’s ability to stay on field an entire season aside, one of the biggest concerns of the spring is Miller vs. Taylor. My impression, from all I’ve read, is that the job is Miller’s to win.  The Mariners like his upside-speed, power, natural athleticism-but he simply has to prove he can do it consistently without being a defensive liability at a key position. Though he had a solid September debut, showing some skill with the bat and making all the plays in the field, the onus will be on Taylor to show the job should be his.  Don’t let a big spring training performance influence your thinking.  Miller had a brilliant spring in 2014, emerged from Peoria winning the job and fell flat on his face.  The Mariners brain trust will be looking for more than a good batting average or some homers.when they make their decision.

Ouftield

The Mariners, unable to find an everyday player after trading away Michael Saunders, cobbled together two nice pieces in Justin Ruggiano and Seth Smith to make, what should be, a solid platoon in right field.

  • Dustin Ackley
  • Austin Jackson
  • Seth Smith
  • Justin Ruggiano
  • James Jones

Austin Jackson is the main story here.  After being traded to the Mariners mid-season, Jackson’s performance at the plate plummeted.  While Jackson has said all the right things this offseason, about the disruption of the move and his plan to return to form, it simply has to happen for him to contribute to the M’s success.  He’s the starting center fielder-there is nobody else in the M’s system at this time who can play the position well.  He’s the leadoff hitter, a spot in the order where he’s prospered. He’s one of McClendon’s boys from Detroit, and I’m sure he’ll be given every chance to succeed.

James Jones is a minor story here.  I’d love to see the Mariners have a guy like Jones on their team, who can steal a base in the late going and go in as a defensive replacement. But despite looking great his first week in the majors, Jones simply could not get on base enough to merit a roster spot.  Maybe he’ll show improvement this spring, but he looks like he’s ticketed for Tacoma.

Designated Hitter

You can write it in permanent marker

  • Nelson Cruz

It seems like a decade or more the M’s have had to pencil in a black hole in this spot.  Cruz will continue his transition away from the outfield and into this role.  There will doubtless be times when Cruz and his questionable glove will make their way into left or right, and the challenge will be limiting those occasions.

The Bench.

For the first time in ages the M’s look poised to have a meaningful bench.  The question is, how big? If the M’s go with a seven man bullpen there will be two spots plus one for reserve catcher.

  • Willie Bloomquist
  • Rickie Weeks

Bloomquist and Weeks means the bench spots won’t be held for a marginal prospect.  But there is at least one complication.

Bloomquist’s health-Willie had major season-ending knee surgery in August.  Will he be ready to go when the season begins? Because he backs up so many spots-1st, 3rd, SS, the outfield-if Willie can’t go, it may mean the M’s will keep the loser of the Miller/Taylor battle on the major league roster.

But the question mark is the most intriguing of the spring training stories. This could be the spot they plug in James Jones or someone else.  But the most dramatic story of the spring might be the potential redemption of Jesus Montero. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times wrote yesterday of Montero’s weight loss and the impact it seemed to have on his game.

The difference is pretty amazing. Watching him take ground balls, it’s obvious that he moves better. I’m not going to say it’s turned him into a gold glove first baseman, but his footwork has improved and he’s more agile for obvious reasons. As for at the plate, his swing looks much better. It isn’t quite as forced.

There is no guarantee Montero becomes the long dreamt of right-handed thumper. But with the re-emergence of an injury-free Michael Pineda as an important member of the Yankees starting rotation, the pressure may be on management to show they got something in return from that trade.  Though Montero isn’t an every day player, can he show enough to be a useful bat off the bench, a back up first baseman, an emergency catcher?  It all remains to be seen in the magic that is spring training.

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