The final spot in the Seattle Mariners’ rotation appears to belong to right-hander Taijuan Walker after the club optioned lefty Roenis Elias on Sunday to Triple-A Tacoma in a series of roster moves.
Walker would complete a five-man unit headed by right-hander Felix Hernandez and offering a right-left balance with lefty James Paxton, righty Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty J.A. Happ.
“Those things have not been talked about yet from an official standpoint,” Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon said, “but Taijuan has thrown the ball extremely well.”
McClendon stopped just short of confirming Walker’s spot in the rotation by noting the camp roster still contains six starting pitchers — but that sixth starter is Erasmo Ramirez, who has not pitched well.
At issue for the Mariners is that Ramirez is out of options, which means he can’t be sent to the minors unless he clears waivers.
The Mariners also optioned right-handed reliever Carson Smith to Tacoma, which positions rookie lefty Tyler Olson to win a roster spot. Olson would need to be added to the 40-man roster.
Olson, 25, pitched last season as a starter at High-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson but has yet to allow an earned run this spring in 102/3 innings over nine relief appearances.
“I’m still waiting for them to hit a ball hard (against him),” McClendon said. “He’s very poised. He fields his position. He commands the strike zone and throws from different angles. There’s a lot to like.”
Smith became the odd-man out in the fierce competition for jobs in the bullpen.
“Listen, it was a very difficult decision,” McClendon said. “We knew the decisions would be tough. We just felt the other guys threw a little bit better.
“It’s just like starting pitching. You’re going to need help. One thing I impressed upon him was to go down and be doing well when that time comes. Don’t get caught up in not being here for the start.”
In all, the Mariners trimmed 10 players in reducing their camp roster to 28 with less than a week remaining before they break camp after Saturday’s game against the Colorado Rockies.
Eight players were reassigned to minor league camp: catcher John Baker, infielders Shawn O’Malley and Carlos Rivero, outfielder Endy Chavez, and pitchers Kevin Correia, Mark Lowe, Jordan Pries and Joe Saunders.
Effectively, that leaves the Mariners with just one decision: Do they keep Olson as a second lefty in their bullpen or hang onto Ramirez as a long reliever rather than risk losing him in a waiver claim?
All clubs must reduce their roster to 25 players by noon on April 5.
Walker, 22, has long been regarded as one of the organization’s top prospects and will carry a streak of 18 scoreless innings into his scheduled start Monday against the Los Angeles Angels at Peoria Stadium.
Elias, 26, was 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA last season as a rookie who made the jump from Double-A Jackson, but he gave up 12 runs and 26 hits this spring in 142/3 innings in five appearances.
“He hasn’t pitched well this camp,” McClendon said. “He needs to go down and get his innings. Get consistent. The one thing I impressed on him is I’m a big Elias fan.
“I pushed hard for this young man to be on this club last year, but he’s got to get better. ... At some point, he has to be prepared to come back here and help this club. But at the same time, he’s got to be pitching well.”
While 28 players remain in camp, two are likely to open the season on the 15-day disabled list. Players can be backdated five days on the disabled list from the start of the season.
Shortstop Chris Taylor is recovering from a broken right wrist suffered March 13 against Milwaukee. Lefty reliever Edgar Olmos is battling a sore shoulder and has yet to pitch in a spring game.
Taylor was initially expected to miss four-to-six weeks, but he is already taking ground balls, doing some light throwing and taking dry swings with a bat (i.e., just swinging the bat).
“He’s doing real good,” McClendon said. “His hand strength is coming back. It’s not quite there.”
Chavez, Correia and Saunders qualify as Rule XX (B) free agents, which means they must be returned to the active roster by Tuesday, released from their minor league contract or be paid a $100,000 retention bonus.
If retained and paid the bonus, those players also have a June 1 opt-out date in which they can unilaterally choose to become a free agent.
Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who was reassigned on March 20, also qualifies as a Rule XX (B) free agent.
The Mariners are expected to release all four players but offer to re-sign them to minor league deals not covered by the Rule XX (B) status. If so, that would provide all four players with a day or two to consider their options.
The Mariners’ tentative rotation through the end of camp also appears to confirm Walker’s spot in the rotation: Monday, Walker vs. Los Angeles Angels in Peoria; Tuesday, Hernandez vs. Cleveland Indians in Goodyear, Arizona; Wednesday, Paxton vs. Chicago White Sox in Peoria; Iwakuma will pitch a simulated game on an off day Thursday; Friday, Happ vs. Colorado Rockies in Peoria; and Saturday, Walker vs. Colorado in Scottsdale, Arizona.