On Saturday, for the first time in 146 days, the Mariners returned to the field in an official capacity when pitchers and catchers pushed through a morning workout at the Peoria Sports Complex.
The disappointment of last season’s near-miss — falling one game shy of ending what is now a 13-year postseason drought — is receding in the rear-view mirror.
It is the nature of spring training that optimism sprouts unchecked for all clubs and under all circumstances. And why not? If not now, when?
Even so, here it is different.
“I think we shocked some people last year with how close we came,” veteran utilityman Willie Bloomquist said. “Certainly with the moves we made, there’s no reason — assuming we stay healthy — we shouldn’t be there at the end. I like our team A lot.”
The Mariners, on paper, are much improved over last season’s 87-victory club. That’s a consensus view throughout the game.
Expectations are escalating after a busy offseason in which general manager Jack Zduriencik seemed to tick off every significant item on the club’s shopping list.
“I think there’s a buzz,” he said. “They feel it. They know it. You see some of the moves, that’s exciting. That’s a motivator. The things we’ve been missing, hopefully, we’ve addressed them.”
The Mariners bolstered an often-suspect attack by adding several veteran players, most notably designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who led the majors last season in homers.
The rotation, a strength last season, should be even better because, unlike last season, everyone is healthy. Chris Young is gone after a remarkable comeback season, but the Mariners have a replacement in J.A. Happ.
The unit’s final slot projects as a battle between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias. It could be a wonderfully tough decision because both possess the potential to be top- or middle-of-the rotation arms.
The bullpen was baseball’s best a year ago and returns mostly intact. The bench, bolstered by those offseason additions, should be much improved. The defense was solid a year ago; there’s no reason to suspect a drop-off.
There’s also a handful of promising prospects in camp who could become key contributors in the future. For some, perhaps as soon as later this year.
So there’s a lot to like.
“You guys have risen the expectations so high for us that you have to be excited,” manager Lloyd McClendon said Saturday in his first spring news briefing. “My expectations were high last year.
“Listen, I’ve said this time and time again: When it comes to defining success for this ballclub, that’s my responsibility. Not your responsibility. A lot of times, guys can get caught up in that — the expectations.
“I’ve said this before, the message I’ll send to my players is preparation, not expectations. We have to prepare.”
Six-plus weeks remain before the Mariners open the season April 6 with a 1:10 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. Here are 10 storylines to track:
1. Who’s the shortstop?
This is the single biggest question in camp: Do the Mariners go with Brad Miller or Chris Taylor at shortstop? The loser likely returns to Triple-A Tacoma, although it’s possible Miller could make the club in a utility role.
Miller’s offensive potential gives him a slight edge as camp opens. (His second-half numbers last season were much better than he generally gets credit for.)
But shortstop is a defense-first position. Taylor is generally viewed as the better defensive player and, while he lacks Miller’s power potential, he showed last year that he’s no hole in the lineup.
2. Can Rickie Weeks really play the outfield?
Clearly, the Mariners think so, which is why they shelled out $2 million in guaranteed salary (with another $2 million in possible performance bonuses).
Weeks must think so. Why else would he sign with the Mariners? There’s no way he can expect to log much time at second base as long as Robinson Cano remains healthy.
But Weeks has only played second base throughout his 12 professional seasons. So he’s still got to prove he can play the outfield (along with other infield positions).
3. Who are the lefties in the bullpen?
Charlie Furbush is a lock. He finished last season with a 3.61 ERA in 67 games, but he was far better than that after a rocky first month. He had a 2.51 ERA in his final 52 games.
The problem is finding a replacement for Joe Beimel, who compiled a 2.20 ERA in 56 outings as a situational specialist. (This assumes the Mariners don’t re-sign him; Beimel remains a free agent.)
Manager Lloyd McClendon wants a second lefty and, right now, the top candidates are: returnee Lucas Luetge, veteran prodigal Joe Saunders, minor-league signee Rafael Perez and Rule 5 pick David Rollins.
4. Is Willie Bloomquist completely recovered from knee surgery?
Willie Ballgame underwent micro-fracture surgery Aug. 9. Everything points to a successful recovery, but here’s a cup of caution: Ex-Mariner Corey Hart was recovering from surgery a year ago.
If healthy, Bloomquist is a play-anywhere utilityman — anywhere includes shortstop, where the Mariners don’t have a backup if the Miller/Taylor loser heads back to Tacoma.
If Bloomquist isn’t ready to go when the season starts, the Mariners will need an alternative. One possibility is minor-league invite Shawn O’Malley.
5. Who gets the final spot in the rotation?
Injuries happen. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see Walker and Elias each end up in the rotation. If everyone stays healthy, the choice between Walker and Elias shapes up as a win-win.
6. Can Jesus Montero recapture his potential?
You’ve probably seen the slimmed-down photos of Montero, the much-troubled former super prospect. That alone speaks to a commitment level previously unseen.
What if everything else falls into place? This much is certain: Montero will be closely watched. Winning a starting job at first base isn’t likely ... but it isn’t out of the question.
7. Which right-handed relievers get a ticket to Triple-A Tacoma?
The bullpen competition figures to be cut-throat for right-handers. Just do the math. The Mariners are likely to keep seven relievers; two will probably be lefties; and All-Star closer Fernando Rodney is sure of a job.
That leaves four spots for (in alphabetical order): Danny Farquhar, Dominic Leone, Mark Lowe, Yoervis Medina, Erasmo Ramirez, Carson Smith and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Ramirez might seem a long shot — and he might be — but he’s the only one in the group who isn’t out of options. (Lowe is in camp as a minor-league invite.)
8. How does Danny Hultzen look?
Hultzen was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and was zipping through the farm system before his shoulder began barking. He missed most of 2013 and all of last season because of surgery and rehabilitation.
He now appears healthy.
If Hultzen recaptures his pre-injury potential — an enormous if — the Mariners suddenly have another top-of-the-rotation arm. Probably not this year, but in the future.
No matter how good Hultzen looks in spring, he is almost certain to open the season in the minors. And he will be closely monitored. But a best-case scenario positions him for a spot recall or possible late-season duty.
A year from now, he could be a factor ... if he’s back to his earlier form.
9. Who is the backup catcher?
This is on the list because, as camp opens, the Mariners appear to have a choice to make between Jesus Sucre and John Baker to serve as the backup to starter Mike Zunino.
While both are viewed primarily as defense-first receivers, Baker offers a left-handed bat that could provide Zunino with a break against some tough right-handed pitchers. Sucre is a right-handed hitter.
More important, perhaps, is Sucre is already on the 40-man roster, while Baker is in camp as a minor-league invite. That means the Mariners would need to make a corresponding roster move to keep Baker.
Also, once added to the roster, Baker has sufficient major-league service to decline a subsequent minor-league assignment. Clubs generally don’t like to add such players to the roster unless they see a genuine need.
In contrast, Sucre has options remaining — he can be sent down and recalled any number of times. All of this favors Sucre if the competition is close.
10. Who comes out of nowhere and makes the club?
Every camp seems to produce at least one player who comes out of nowhere and wins a roster spot. Elias did that a year ago in making the jump from Double-A Jackson to the majors.
Who will that be this year? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.