What had been a remarkably quiet and routine spring training for the Mariners is ending in apprehension as they wait to get — and then evaluate — the medical reports on left-hander Drew Smyly.
Just two games remain before the Mariners break camp Saturday and head to Houston for the season opener Monday against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
No news regarding Smyly is expected before Friday at the earliest. So let’s put that speculation aside for the moment and consider what we have learned over the last six-plus weeks.
Six things stand out.
***Felix is serious: It’s been pretty much all business this spring for long-time ace Felix Hernandez, from doctoring his off-season regimen to be ready for the World Baseball Classic to erasing the sour taste that still lingers from last season.
The King is showing a new approach, too, in the way he attacks hitters. He’s concentrating far more on inducing early contact in an effort to conserve pitches rather than trying to prove he’s still one nasty son-of-a-gun to face.
"Sometimes, I try to be too nasty," he said, "and I get in trouble."
It’s a change that’s probably overdue. It’s been a while since the King could push the radar gun into the upper-90s — although he’s pitched regularly this spring at 93-94 mph, which is a significant upgrade over last year.
Plus, he’s still got a plus curveball and a killer change-up. Now add a high-level motivation created by hearing doubts for the first time in his career. It could be a potent mix.
This year will show whether Hernandez can truly commit to making the transition that nearly every power pitcher eventually needs to make. Step one is the willingness to make the attempt. This spring suggests Felix has moved to step two.
***Motter really can play everywhere: The utilityman tag is often misapplied to middle infielders who aren’t good enough to win a regular job.
Can they play the outfield in a pinch? Sure. Or slide to first base? If necessary, maybe, for a few innings.
Taylor Motter looked comfortable this spring wherever the Mariners chose to play him. More than a utilityman; a true super utilityman. That explains why club officials are willing to open the season with a three-man bench.
"Shortly after we acquired Taylor," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "we had two teams try to chase him down and they had interest in acquiring him as well. So, we really like his versatility. We like his athleticism.
"If he started at a different position every day, you wouldn’t be disappointed in what he was going to do defensively."
Even so, Motter’s versatility should truly blossom once the Mariners shift back to a four-man bench. Another reserve, particularly if it’s Shawn O’Malley, will afford manager Scott Servais with enormous flexibility.
It’s also a plus that Motter has also shown some pop at the plate. The Mariners, at minimum, see him as a legitimate bat against left-handed pitchers. He’s also an above-average runner, but it’s his defensive versatility that spikes his value.
***Segura can play short (and hit): The Mariners, from the start, dismissed any narrative suggesting Jean Segura would struggle in shifting back to shortstop after putting together his breakthrough season a year ago as a second baseman.
Segura’s spring work suggests the Mariners were right — even if his preparation was interrupted by his sabbatical to the World Baseball Classic, where he played in just two of the Dominican Republic’s six games over a 2 1/2-week span.
This doesn’t mean Segura looms as threat to Francisco Lindor’s status as the American League’s premier defensive shortstop, but Segura has shown sufficient range and arm to mute the critics.
The key point, really, is Segura projects as a defensive upgrade over Ketel Marte.
What’s more, even if Segura regresses from his career-best 124 OPS+ and 5.7 WAR (wins above replacement) rating achieved a year ago at Arizona, he still figures to deliver far more value that Marte’s 2016 numbers of 68 and 0.3.
"I don’t think a lot of people understand how good (Segura) is," one veteran rival scout said. "He’s just now growing into his skills. What he did last year at Arizona is no fluke, but it got lost because (the Diamondbacks) were so bad.
"For me, he’s better than anyone (the Mariners) have had at short since A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez)."
***What a win-now mode means: It will represent a big organizational whiff if first baseman Dan Vogelbach isn’t a key roster element at the big-league level in the near and middle-distant future.
That Vogelbach is opening the season at Triple-A Tacoma underscores the organization’s win-now message in a way that should reverberate throughout the clubhouse and the entire organization.
"He had been in a really rough stretch for two weeks," Dipoto said. "As he started pressing with the bat, in the middle of spring training, we started to see the glove suffer a little bit as a result.
"We’re going to take it slow just like we have with a couple of other guys. We will not let anybody sink, especially when we have flexible rooster options like we do right now."
Simply put, the Mariners came to believe Vogelbach is not quite ready.
"It’s a win-now league," Servais often observes, "not a try-hard league."
***What speed (and athleticism) do: The quality of measuring defensive performance continues to evolve. It’s now light years better than it was even a few years ago.
And the Mariners, like most clubs, squeeze those metrics for answers, but…
None of that is needed to see the defensive improvement in the outfield after moves over the last 13 months to add Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia.
Along with Leonys Martin, that makes five guys who can play center field.
"It’s the soft liners," Servais said. "It’s the pop-ups on the line. It’s those rangy plays that were a struggle for us at points last season. We’ve done a pretty good job with those plays.
"As expected, we’ve got athletic guys out there who cover ground. They’re confident. When the ball goes in the air, I feel very good that it’s going to get caught."
A year ago, the Mariners’ outfield rated minus-28 in runs saved above average in the Baseball Info Systems metric. Only three teams were worse. That should improve significantly.
***Haniger’s spring…is he really this good?: Mitch Haniger was easily the best player in camp and displayed a complete five-tool skill set. No other player on the roster has that. Few in the majors do.
The obvious question: Is it pyrite? Lots of spring stars fade when April arrives, but much of what the Mariners have come to like about Haniger goes beyond the numbers.
"I like what Mitch can do on the bases," Servais said. "He’s very aggressive. He’s kind of a headsy player. He knows when to put the pressure on. He likes stealing bases.
"I have no issues in hitting him up in the two-hole at some point as the season goes along."
Dipoto made it clear upon completing the Thanksgiving Eve deal with Arizona that acquiring Haniger was a key element in tandem with Segura. Not a throw-in along with reliever Zac Curtis in the trade for Taijuan Walker and Ketel Marte.
"We are confident that Mitch Haniger brings offensive skills, including power," Dipoto said. "For us, Haniger became a critical element in the trade. We like the player. We like his upside."
It’s a plus that Haniger, who still qualifies as a rookie, should have the opportunity to grow into his potential. He shouldn’t be overburdened by expectations.
The club’s run-production core is Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Segura, which means Haniger is the guy waiting once an opposing pitcher runs that gauntlet.
"Say Haniger hits .260 or .270 with 20 homers and 70-80 RBIs," one scout from a rival club said. "Maybe he does more, but that’s very doable. And if he does that then, suddenly, that lineup is as good as any around."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners