The sprint to the finish effectively started Friday when the Seattle Mariners sent 11 players to minor league camp. The club now has less than two weeks to determine its 25-man roster.
“We’re running out of innings for guys, yeah,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “It’s just that time of year.”
One key competition ended March 13 when Chris Taylor suffered a broken right wrist on a foul ball. Taylor is expected to miss another three to five weeks, effectively making Brad Miller the starting shortstop.
Miller might have won the job anyway, but he now gets all of April to prove he deserves to keep it.
“It’s easier said than done,” he said, “but I try to have the same approach and the same mind-set regardless of (whether) I’m a 12-year veteran or I’m a rookie, whether it’s the World Series or spring training.”
Miller has three errors this spring, but two came in the first few games. He is 9 for 24 with four doubles and two homers in 11 games after two doubles and a sacrifice fly Saturday against the Cubs in Mesa.
“He seems to be in a better place this spring with himself from a mental standpoint,” McClendon said. “He’s not as uptight about things. I think his game is better as a result.”
That leaves four spots still, to some extent, up for grabs: fifth starter, backup catcher, second lefty reliever and fifth right-hander reliever.
Let’s break them down:
Fifth starter: McClendon has taken to saying there are two spots available in the rotation, which is a strange walk-back from his previous statement that only one opening exists unless James Paxton’s job is viewed as being as risk.
That’s a reach because Paxton seems a likely candidate, from the way the spring rotation is lining up, to start the second game of the season. So let’s assume Paxton is in.
That gets us back to the presumed spring launch point of a choice between right-hander Taijuan Walker and lefty Roenis Elias.
Right now, the numbers say it’s Walker’s job to lose — but not so fast.
“My evaluation is probably a little different from yours,” McClendon said. “I don’t worry about the numbers per se … They both need to be consistent, particularly in the strike zone. Continue to show poise.”
Each has pitched four times. Walker has yet to allow a run in 12 innings, while Elias has given up six in 11 2/3 innings. Walker has allowed four hits; Elias has allowed 18.
Elias points out the club “knows what I did last year at the major-league level,” which is true. It’s also true that Walker shows growing signs of harnessing the gifts that made him the organization’s top pitching prospect.
“Everything feels good,” Walker said. “Everything feels strong.”
That’s how it looks, too. So when do we get a decision?
“I don’t think it’s fair to make it the last day,” McClendon said. “I don’t think that’s fair to anybody. I would say by the last week of the spring, we got to have things pretty much narrowed down.”
Backup catcher: John Baker was signed in late January to a minor league dealto provide veteran insurance if anything were to happen to starter Mike Zunino, whom McClendon plans to start 130 times.
Baker is a left-handed hitter, which complements Zunino’s righty bat, but defensive stalwart Jesus Sucre, who is already on the 40-man roster, remains a heavy favorite to win the backup job.
“He shuts down the running game,” McClendon said, “and he’s very adept (at calling a game).”
Second lefty reliever: The Mariners, unhappy with the talent on hand, signed veterans Rafael Perez and Joe Saunders to minor league deals just prior to camp to boost competition.
Turns out, they needn’t have bothered. Neither Perez nor Saunders have pitched well, while two guys with one combined game of experience above Double-A have delivered one shutdown outing after another.
All things equal, David Rollins likely gets the nod over Tyler Olson simply because Rollins is a Rule 5 pick who can’t be sent to the minors unless he clears waivers and Houston rejects the chance to reacquire him for $25,000.
Olson can simply be reassigned to minor league camp.
Perez and Lucas Luetge were among Friday’s cuts. While Saunders is still around, he has allowed seven runs in 4 1/3 innings — although six runs came in one disastrous inning March 8 against the Reds.
“I know veterans tend to come later in the spring,” McClendon said. “So you have to be patient with your evaluation. To jump to conclusions right off the bat is just not good. You learn to be patient and let things play out.”
Saunders might have until March 31, which is when the Mariners must notify him whether he will make their 25-man roster.
Fifth right-handed reliever: This requires some presumptions. First, that two lefty relievers will be part of what projects as a seven-man bullpen.
All-Star closer Fernando Rodney is a lock, of course, and while Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen all have options, it would be a surprise if they don’t make the club.
If that’s all true, the last right-hander job shapes up as a battle between Dominic Leone, who compiled a 2.17 ERA last season in 57 games, and Carson Smith, a potential closer who is extra tough on right-handed hitters.
Both have been inconsistent this spring.
Now, throw in a wrinkle named Erasmo Ramirez, who is out of options. The Mariners are likely to try to sneak him through waivers, but scouts from opposing clubs contend Ramirez is unlikely to go unclaimed.
A trade is possible, but the Mariners have little leverage because, as other clubs realize, their alternative is losing him to a waiver claim.
Ramirez has also been linked to Japanese clubs. Such a move would require that he clear waivers but, generally, clubs don’t interfere if a player has an agreement in place with a Japanese club.
If all of that falls through, it’s possible — not likely, but possible — the Mariners keep Ramirez as their long reliever rather than simply surrender him through a waiver claim.
Doing so, though, would likely force both Leone and Smith to the minors. The Mariners don’t want to do that.