Full-squad workouts are through their first weekend at Mariners’ camp, and the first Cactus League game is a few days away. It is that time of year when talk of competition and winning a job predominates.
That’s true in all camps. Not just on the southwest side of the Peoria Sports Complex along the P-83 corridor.
But look closer.
How many jobs, barring injuries, are truly up for grabs as the Mariners work their way through a 33-game spring schedule before opening the regular season on April 4 at Texas?
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It might be only two.
▪ Lefty James Paxton vs. right-hander Nathan Karns for the final spot in the rotation.
▪ Jesus Montero vs. Dae-Ho Lee to serve as a right-handed hitting partner to Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter, at first base.
Let’s look at those two spots, first.
Paxton, at 27, appears to have a greater upside, but he’s missed much of the last two seasons because of injuries. Karns, 28, came from Tampa Bay in a November trade after a rookie season in which he compiled a 3.36 ERA in his final 22 starts.
“When there is competition that is very close, like that, you have to go by what your eyes are telling you,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “What are you seeing every day in spring-training games? And not so much the results.
“More important is how the ball is coming out of his hand? Is he able to make adjustments? Is he making pitches? Is he ahead in the count? Those types of things play into it.”
Paxton and Karns each have options remaining, so the odd-man out probably pitches for Triple-A Tacoma in its April 7 opener against Albuquerque at Cheney Stadium and awaits a call to return to the big leagues.
The Montero/Lee battle is different in that the loser is unlikely to remain with the organization. Montero, 26, is out of options, although it’s possible he could clear waivers and be sent to Tacoma on an outright assignment.
Lee, 33, agreed Feb. 3 to a minor-league contract after a standout career in South Korea (11 years) and Japan (four years). But his deal contains a late March opt-out clause that permits him to become a free agent.
“It’s this simple,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “We’re going to keep the best one. And don’t forget Gaby Sanchez with his numbers against left-handed pitchers.”
Sanchez, 32, had a .291/.382/.481 slash against left-handers in seven big-league seasons before struggling last year while playing in Japan. His minor-league deal also has an opt-out clause, but it’s not triggered until a few months into the season.
But if the Mariners open the season with Sanchez as Lind’s partner, that probably means they’ll lose Montero and Lee. That makes little sense from an personnel standpoint unless they see Sanchez as a far better option.
“It’s usually not that hard to figure out the roster,” a longtime general manager once said. “Just look at the inventory implications. Teams really hate to lose inventory in spring training or for the first few months of the season.”
With that in mind, everything else already appears reasonably set — again, barring injuries. Even one injury could set up a chain reaction that affects several spots. Two or more could create a wild scramble for jobs.
For now, though, Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger will be the catchers. Clevenger is out of options. Mike Zunino will spend a development year at Tacoma.
Four infield spots are set with Lind, second baseman Robinson Cano, shortstop Ketel Marte and third baseman Kyle Seager.
There are no openings in a five-man outfield rotation: Nori Aoki and Leonys Martin will start in left and center. Seth Smith and Franklin Gutierrez will platoon primarily in right, but also play some left field.
Nelson Cruz will split time between DH and right field.
The rotation lines up with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley and Taijuan Walker in front of either Paxton or Karns. Walker has options and could pitch his way out of the rotation, but that seems unlikely.
Three spots are already locked down in a seven-man unit: Steve Cishek will be the closer, while right-hander Joaquin Benoit and lefty Charlie Furbush are slotted as the primary setup men.
Right-handers Evan Scribner and Justin De Fratus are out of options. So unless the Mariners want to punt some of Dipoto’s prized depth and flexibility — inventory! — prior to opening day, they’re a good bet to make the club.
The final two spots are less defined, but Dipoto and Servais already speak highly of Tony Zych’s potential. Now, Zych has options — three, in fact — so he’s vulnerable in a deep field of alternative right-handed candidates.
But the chalk, at this early point, favors Zych to make the club.
“We have depth,” Servais said. “Even if the guys don’t break with us, there will be a number of guys who we have confidence in who will be in (Triple-A) Tacoma. If there’s an injury or if somebody struggles, we have other guys.”
That leaves room for one other lefty in Dipoto’s preferred five-righty/two-lefty mix. Here, too, there is already a heavy favorite in Vidal Nuno, who offers multi-inning flexibility with a proven record of success against left-handed hitters.
Nuno has an option remaining. So like Zych, he needs to pitch well, but the Mariners have fewer left-handed alternatives. David Rollins, Danny Hultzen and Paul Fry all likely need more time in the minors.
The only other current possibility is Mike Montgomery, and then only if the Mariners choose to shift him to the bullpen — he is out of options — rather than risk losing him in a waiver claim.
Competition could surface in identifying a utility infielder, but there is already a clear favorite.
Dipoto and Servais each stress the need for any utilityman to be a viable alternative, at least defensively, for Marte at shortstop. That weakens the argument for Shawn O’Malley, a switch-hitter who otherwise probably profiles as the best true utility option.
Luis Sardinas and Chris Taylor have solid shortstop skills, and both can play second base whenever the Mariners want to rest Cano, now 33, or shift him to designated hitter.
But only Sardinas has experience at third base, which gives him an edge over Taylor. That could change. Look for Taylor to spend time this spring at third. If he plays well, he could emerge as a viable alternative to Sardinas.
Then again, the Mariners are shopping for a veteran utility player. Also, keep in mind this disclaimer from Servais:
“We sit here and try to map it out,” he said. “You pencil the names in. Who might break camp? Very seldom does it ever happen to play out that way.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners