SAN DIEGO — Other than their plan for finding a right fielder, the biggest question affecting the Mariners this week at the Winter Meetings concerns their shortstops.
The two issues, as it turns out, might be related.
Start with this: The Mariners continue to field inquiries into the availability of shortstops Brad Miller and Chris Taylor.
“There’s good interest in there,” general manager Jack Zduriencik confirmed. “There’s interest from the Seattle Mariners, No. 1. And there’s interest in them from other clubs.
“Why wouldn’t there be? It’s a difficult position to fill.”
Sources say Miller was among the players included in a proposed deal with the Dodgers for outfielder Matt Kemp before talks stalled when Los Angeles insisted Taijuan Walker or James Paxton be included in the trade.
Generally, though, the Mariners show a preference for retaining both players as they put together their 2015 roster.
“I think they both showed us things that we liked last year,” Zduriencik said. “They both went through some growing pains. But I also think there were flashes that were really good.”
Miller, 25, opened the season as the starter but struggled defensively and, while he showed flashes, never settled into a productive offensive groove in finishing with 10 homers, 36 RBIs and a .221 average.
The Mariners promoted Taylor, 24, on July 24 from Triple-A Tacoma, and he responded by batting .287 with a .347 on-base percentage in 47 games while playing steady defense.
Since Taylor started 40 of 61 games after arriving, he seemingly enters spring camp as the incumbent. But Miller figures to get a long look because, simply, the Mariners want to find a spot for him.
“I think this kid is going to hit,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “You look at what he did in the minors. That doesn’t just happen. And we’ve seen a little of that up here. He’s a good athlete. He can do a lot of things.”
Miller batted .334 in 219 minor-league games over parts of three seasons following his selection in the second round of the 2011 draft. He also posted a .409 on-base percentage and a .516 slugging percentage.
Zduriencik hinted Monday that Miller might shift to right field if the Mariners fail to fill that hole through a trade or a free-agent signing. He said the club had “some options internally” but declined to identify candidates.
“To make a public statement right now,” Zduriencik hedged, “about what Lloyd and I have been talking about, without the players being included, I don’t think is the right thing.
“They don’t want to read it in the paper. They want to hear it from us.”
And it might not happen.
The Mariners are still generally viewed as the club likeliest to land free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera and have shown interest in Kemp and Justin Upton (of the Braves), and free agent Alex Rios.
“We are going to continue to have these discussions until they exhaust themselves,” Zduriencik said. “Then we’ll go to the alternatives.
“But we certainly want to make sure we’ve touched base with guys who we like; guys who we think can come in and help us and make a difference.”
Miller could also draw duty at first base since the Mariners’ roster, as it currently projects, has only utilityman Willie Bloomquist as a backup to Logan Morrison.
“This kid (Miller) is an athlete,” one club official said. “He’s got a strong arm and good speed. The ball jumps off his bat. You want to find a spot for a guy like that. And with this kid, there are a lot of roles he could fill.”
Plus, of course, Miller could win the job at shortstop over Taylor — much like he won the job last spring over since-traded Nick Franklin. If Taylor loses out, he likely returns to Triple-A Tacoma.
“I think that will take care of itself,” Zduriencik said. “I don’t have any preconceived notions…We’ve got two pretty good ones, and we have a nice one sitting in Triple-A in Ketel Marte.”
“And we’ve got guys sitting behind him. You start looking at (Tyler) Smith and (Jack) Reinheimer. We think they’re all going to be big-league players.”
While just 21, Marte finished last season at Tacoma and was recently cited by Baseball America as the organization’s No. 3 prospect behind outfielder Alex Jackson and third baseman D.J. Peterson.
Marte batted a combined .304 at Double-A Jackson and Tacoma. While he made 31 errors in 121 games, he possesses “the easy hands and actions scouts like,” according to Baseball America.
“And we’ve got guys sitting behind him,” Zduriencik said. “You start looking at (Tyler) Smith and (Jack) Reinheimer. We think they’re all going to be big-league players.”
All the more reason, perhaps, to find another spot for Miller.
Outfielder Alex Jackson, the Mariners’ first-round pick in June’s draft, picked up his award Tuesday as Baseball America’s High School Player of the Year.
Jackson, 18, was also picked as the top prospect in the Arizona Rookie League and was recently cited by Baseball America as the top prospect in the Mariners’ organization.
“Who knows what comes next?” he asked. “I just want to go out there and play. Whatever comes along, comes along.”
Jackson was a catcher in high school, but the Mariners converted him to right field in an effort to accelerate his progress through the minors.
“You have to note that a player like this has the ability to move at a faster pace than a typical player,” Zduriencik said. “You’re cognizant of it. You have to put him in a position where he can succeed.
“It will be really interesting to watch this kid.”
Zduriencik said no decision has been made on where Jackson will open next season.
“Let him go to spring training and let it unfold,” Zduriencik said. “He might get a chance to play in a big league game, and we’ll watch how the whole thing progresses.”
Jackson said his conversion to the outfield is “going very well” despite getting hit in the face by a fly ball when he lost it in the lights in his 20th game.
“A line drive into the right-center gap,” he recalled. “I took off after it, had a play on it, and everything was going great — until I lost it in the lights.
“When I lost it in the lights, I put my head down and took a couple of more steps, trying to beat it out of the lights, but when I looked back up, it caught me right in the (right) eye.
“I broke my orbital (bone) and part of my nose. Other than that, nothing serious. I just took some time off, but I was ready to get back at it again.”
Jackson returned a month later and played four games, without incident, before the season ended.
“I just wanted to play again,” he said. “That was the last thing on my mind, my face. I just wanted to get out there, get some at-bats and play in the field.”
PLANS FOR PETERSON
D.J. Peterson, whom Baseball America ranks as the organization’s No. 2 prospect, will continue to draw play third base next season even as he accelerates what projects as a transition to first base or, perhaps, the outfield.
“The thing with Peterson, more than anything else,” Zduriencik said, “is the proper amount of (at-bats).
“Once we get him in a position where he has enough ABs, and we feel he’s fairly close to being called to the big leagues and there’s a position switch involved — and there probably will be — we’ll make that position switch at that time.”
Peterson, 22, was the organization’s co-minor-league player of the year after batting a combined .297 at Hi-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson with 31 homers and 111 RBIs in 123 games.
“You never know what could happen to Kyle (Seager),” Zduriencik said. “A twisted ankle or three weeks on the DL, and you have to look at alternatives.
“With Peterson, you want him to still be able to play that position. Then if you move him to another position, whether it be first base or the outfield, he’s getting his feet wet in the minor leagues doing that now.”
The possibility of the Mariners acquiring Kemp dimmed amid reports the Dodgers were close to a deal with the San Diego Padres for a multi-player deal that reportedly included catcher Yasmani Grandal.
Dodgers general manager Farhan Zaidi then dismissed the report by telling the Los Angeles Times: “I think the information that’s coming out there may be driven more by either what people are hearing in snippets or what people want to believe we’re willing to do than what we’re actually willing to do.”
The Mariners once appeared close to a deal to acquire Kemp in a multi-player deal, but talks stalled when the Dodgers insisted either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton be included in the swap.
Texas and Baltimore have also been linked in interest to Kemp, who has five years remaining on his contract for $107 million. Kemp, 30, batted .287 last season with 25 homers and 89 RBIs in 150 games.
PLANS FOR HULTZEN
Left-hander Danny Hultzen should be ready to break camp next spring with a full-season club — perhaps, Triple-A Tacoma — after missing all of last season while recovering from major shoulder surgery.
“I think once he gets through spring training,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said, “he’ll have all of his mound time. I suspect he’ll be ready to break with a club.”
A minor-league club.
“I can’t imagine him breaking with us,” Zduriencik said, “because he needs the innings.”
Hultzen, 25, was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and advance to Tacoma in 2013 before experiencing shoulder problems that eventually resulted in surgery to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff.
While now recovered, Hultzen will likely be on an innings limit next season after working just 35 2/3 innings in the last two years.
“We haven’t even looked at that yet,” Zduriencik said. “We’ve got to get together to see what makes the most sense.”