Issue No. 1 for the Mariners this spring regarding their infield will be an updated assessment on second baseman Robinson Cano, the six-time All-Star who underwent surgery last October to repair a sports hernia.
All reports indicate Cano is fully recovered, but he’ll be put to the eye test. There is also the now-yearly check on his skill level. He’s now 33, and his wretched start last year set off alarm bells.
But Cano returned to being Cano last season over the final four months, including the final two months when he played through the pain and limitations of that sports hernia.
So concerns, at this point, are minimal — but still exist; because if Cano tanks, this lineup is in trouble.
Elsewhere, the Mariners have a steady performer in third baseman Kyle Seager, who looks bankable for about 25 homers, 80 RBIs and an average in the upper .260s while playing sparkling defense.
New first baseman Adam Lind represents one of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s many incremental upgrades. Lind should provide similar power to what the Mariners got from Logan Morrison while getting on base at a far higher rate.
Switch-hitting shortstop Ketel Marte grabbed a starting job last year by flashing upside potential over the final two months. But he’ll be watched for signs of a sophomore jinx. That’s why the Mariners stocked up on utility candidates.
Dipoto and manager Scott Servais say they want a utilityman with proven shortstop skills, which seems to position Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas as the top candidates.
Down the line, Cuban defector Dayner Moreira looms as a possibility. But he’s played little over the past year and will open the spring in minor-league camp in an effort to work his way back into playing condition.
The other infield camp battle is at first base, where the Mariners want a right-handed hitter to complement Lind. The leading candidate projects as Jesus Montero because he is out of options.
But the Mariners recently signed Dae-Ho Lee and Gaby Sanchez as minor-league invites. Lee has long been a star in Korea and Japan, while Sanchez is a former All-Star (2011 at Florida) who spent last season in Japan.
WHO’S IN CAMP?
22 Robinson Cano (Bats left, throws right, 6 feet, 212 pounds, age 33 on opening day): Still one of the game’s premier players. All the Mariners want is a healthy Cano who plays to the form he displayed last season over the final four months. Option status: Not applicable.
26 Adam Lind (L-L, 6-2, 195, 32): Acquired in Dec. 9 trade from Milwaukee to be the regular first baseman. A 10-year vet who seems to be getting better; compiled a .291/.361/.478 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) over the past three years. Option status: Not applicable.
4 Ketel Marte (S-R, 6-1, 165, 22): Much depends on him taking a step forward as a starting shortstop (or, at minimum, not regressing) after an encouraging 57-game debut last year over final two months. Option status: Two remaining.
10 Jesus Montero (6-3, 235, 26): He’s out of options, so it’s now or never for the big guy. Made tremendous strides last season in his personal conduct. Now, he must prove he can be a productive player. He’ll get every chance. Option status: None remaining.
36 Shawn O’Malley (S-R, 5-11, 175, 28): A utility candidate who had some fine moments after Sept. 1 promotion from Triple-A Tacoma. Suspect shortstop skills might force him back to the minors. Option status: Three remaining.
16 Luis Sardinas (S-R, 6-1, 182, 22): Just two years removed from being viewed among the game’s top prospects while with Texas. A leading candidate for duty as club’s utility infielder. Option status: One remaining.
15 Kyle Seager (L-R, 6-0, 210, 28): There’s a sense that he slipped last season, but his slash numbers were remarkably similar to his breakout All-Star 2014 season. An ironman who is also one of the game’s elite defensive third basemen. Option status: Not applicable.
1 Chris Taylor (R-R, 6-1, 190, 25): Blew chance last year to establish himself as fixture at shortstop because his punchless bat made him unplayable. Steady glove makes him a top candidate for utility job. Option status: Two remaining.
54 Benji Gonzalez (S-R, 5-11, 160, 26): An organizational-depth guy who can play second, short and third. Spent most of last year at Double-A San Antonio in the San Diego system, where he batted .246 in 49 games. He figures to play late innings early in camp before getting reassigned to the minors.
56 Dae-Ho Lee (R-R, 6-4, 250, 33): An intriguing early February signing who is a longtime star in Korea and Japan. A power-hitting first baseman, he’ll get a long look as a right-handed complement to Adam Lind.
5 Ed Lucas (R-R, 6-3, 210, 33): A 12-year journeyman, he also projects as organizational depth and figures to open the season at Triple-A Tacoma. A possible option if an injury sidelines third baseman Kyle Seager.
35 Gaby Sanchez (R-R, 6-1, 235, 32): Looking to return to the big leagues after spending last year in Japan, he will join Jesus Montero and Dae-Ho Lee in the battle for duty as the club’s right-handed-hitting first baseman.
71 Tyler Smith (R-R, 6-0, 195, 24): His invite speaks to the organization’s new emphasis on on-base percentage; Smith had a .361 mark last year at Double-A Jackson and is at .377 for his three-year career.
3 THINGS TO WATCH
1. Is Robinson Cano still Robinson Cano? Not just at the plate, but is he moving better at second base? It was on defense, which prioritized the need for a quick first step, that his sports hernia most affected his play.
2. The position battle at first base between Jesus Montero, Dae-Ho Lee and Gaby Sanchez to determine a right-handed-hitting partner for Adam Lind.
3. The position battle for duty as the utility infielder. Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas enter camp as the top candidates, but Shawn O’Malley could force his way into the competition.
Barring injuries, the infield’s four starting spots appear set with Adam Lind at first base, Robinson Cano at second base, Ketel Marte at shortstop and Kyle Seager at third base.
Marte isn’t an absolute lock. While unlikely, he could play his way out of the lineup — particularly if Chris Taylor and/or Luis Sardinas perform well. What’s more likely is Taylor and Sardinas will battle for the utility job.
The Mariners’ decision to sign Dae-Ho Lee and Gaby Sanchez indicates club officials aren’t sold on Jesus Montero as their right-handed platoon bat at first base. (That Lee and Sanchez signed with the Mariners indicates they see opportunity.)
But Montero is out of options, while Lee and Sanchez are in camp on minor-league deals. That means Montero enters camp with a big advantage.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners
Mariners’ spring training preview