PEORIA, Ariz. — Carl Willis has never had more pitchers in a spring camp than this year, when the Seattle Mariners take a look at 35 of them in 39 days before flying to Japan.
Twenty-five of those pitchers weren’t in camp with Seattle a year ago.
“It’s going to be a challenge to see everybody,” the pitching coach said. “We’ve already set up three intra-squad games, and they’ll each be eight or nine innings – and we might add a fourth game.
“Once we get through the first bullpen sessions and they each throw in batting practice, I’m going to tell them: ‘Be ready.’
“Whether it’s a 10:30 a.m. game against your teammates or a 1 p.m. game against the Colorado Rockies, they’re going to be being evaluated.”
Mariners manager Eric Wedge, team front office personnel and the coaching staff will be seeing a cross-section of talent in the next six weeks.
There are such heralded youngsters as Dan Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez. There are well-traveled veterans new to the team, such as Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and Shawn Camp, along with George Sherrill who is making his second tour with Seattle.
Willis will talk and work with each of them.
“The priority will be getting Felix (Hernandez) stretched out and ready for the opening game in Japan, and we don’t want to leave here with him only having thrown 75 pitches in a game,” Willis said.
“But I know what Felix can do. We’ll fine-tune him toward the end. Getting everyone here seen is going to be a challenge. We have a model in place for the camp, and we’ll adjust as we need to.”
With five games in Japan – three exhibitions and two to open the regular season – the Mariners’ plan is to take the entire five-man starting rotation – in part as a precaution.
“You have to cover yourself,” Willis said. “If we take Felix and (Jason) Vargas over to start the first two games and leave the other starters here, what happens if somebody comes down with a tight back? Those games count.”
Before a pitch had been thrown in camp, the candidates for the rotation – behind Hernandez and Vargas – included Hisashi Iwakuma, Hector Noesi and two young pitchers who finished last season in Seattle, Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush.
“Then you’ve got those kids and Kevn Millwood, who brings a lot to the table,” Willis said. “That’s a lot of guys to get innings.”
The bullpen has incumbent closer Brandon League, setup man Tom Wilhelmsen, some veteran additions – left-handers Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo and righty Shawn Camp – and strong-armed candidates such as Shawn Kelley, Chance Ruffin, Steve Delabar and Forrest Snow.
“There’s a little more time to get relievers ready because you’re not trying to stretch them out, have them throw a lot of pitches in an outing,” Willis said.
Willis has seen almost all 35 pitchers in camp throw, either in person or on video. That doesn’t mean he knows them, or that they know him. That will change as quickly as he can make it happen.
Take Japanese right-hander Iwakuma, for instance.
“He has a history of the way he’s gone about preparing for a season, and we’ll talk daily,” Willis said. “I want him on a program he’s comfortable with.
“For the first six days here, everyone will throw every other day. With Iwakuma, though, we’ll talk. If he wants to have a light session the day after a bullpen, that’s fine. If he wants to take two days between bullpens because that’s what he’s done, we’ll work that out.”
A year ago, the Mariners had 31 pitchers in camp, though at least two were on rehab schedules.
“With the numbers we have, if someone isn’t ready yet, we have people who can bridge the gap until they are,” Willis said.
The Mariners figure to get through Japan, but then have to return to Arizona for five more exhibition games before re-starting the 2012 season.
“After Japan, it gets trickier,” Willis said. “Felix will pitch the opener (March 28), then start the first game in Oakland (April 6), so he’ll need a little work between those games. And we’ll have to keep the other starters ready because our No. 4 and No. 5 starters won’t pitch until the second series of the year.”