SAN DIEGO — A twitter report suggesting friction between the Mariners and right-handed pitcher Taijuan Walker drew a quick, firm denial Wednesday from general manager Jack Zduriencik at the Winter Meetings.
“It’s so far from the truth,” Zduriencik said. “There’s absolutely no truth in it whatsoever. It’s ridiculous.”
Zduriencik’s comments came in response to a tweet by ESPN.com analyst Keith Law, who once served as a front-office official in Toronto.
Law tweeted: “Couple of execs told me that they think the Mariners have soured on Taijuan Walker's makeup, in part due to his behavior in the AFL.”
Walker, 22, made two starts for Surprise in the Arizona Fall League before opting to return home to begin his regular off-season conditioning program.
“Physically, he was throwing 100 miles an hour,” Zduriencik said. “He had given us two really good starts at the end of the (regular season), and two really good starts in the Arizona Fall League.
“It was just to a point where, `OK, it’s to the point where I need to get into my off-season program.’
“We’re very pleased with Taijuan Walker. This is a great young man, a very talented kid who is going to be a part of this thing for years to come.”
Law addressed Zduriencik’s response in a subsequent tweet: “Also think both can be true. Maybe M’s aren't down on him. Other teams believe they are b/c he’s available in trade.”
Walker entered last spring ranked by Baseball America as the organization’s top prospect before a sore shoulder forced him to open the season on the disabled list.
He didn’t make his first big-league start until June 30 and spent much of July and August at Triple-A Tacoma before rejoining the Mariners in September.
Walker finished 2-3 with a 2.61 ERA in 38 innings covering eight games, including five starts. He projects as a strong candidate for next year’s rotation.
“Quite frankly, I thought he did a tremendous job in September for us,” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “and (he) certainly has earned the right to come into spring training and compete for a starting position.”
The first steps in the Jesus Montero career-reclamation project is drawing rave reviews at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Ariz.
“He’s worked extremely hard,” general manger Jack Zduriencik said. “He’s worked on a lot of days to the absolute point of exhaustion.
“It was designed that way to try to get him in a position to go above and beyond anything he’s ever done before. I think that goal has been accomplished.”
Montero, 25, punctuated a second straight disappointing season by engaging in an on-field incident Aug. 28 with club scout Butch Baccala while on a rehab assignment in Boise, Idaho.
The Mariners responded by pulling Baccala off the road and then opting not to renew his contract. They put Montero on the suspended list and ordering him to undergo a life-changing program in the off-season.
The program addresses behavioral and weight issues in addition to stressing on-field drills in an effort to turn Montero, a former catcher, into a functional first baseman.
“My message is he has to mentally see himself as a first baseman,” Zduriencik said. “He has to say to himself, `This is where I’m going to play.’ If he’s a DH some day, that takes care of itself.
“But he has got to commit himself to being an adequate first baseman. If he can do that, the bat plays. He’s a big physical guy. It would make sense that if could play there, that would be a benefit to everybody.”
Montero was viewed as of the game’s top prospects when the Mariners acquired him nearly three years ago with pitcher Hector Noesi from the New York Yankees for pitchers Michael Pineda and Jose Campos.
The initial returns were encouraging.
Montero batted .260 in 2012 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs in in 135 games before his career spiraled downward.
A position change, an injury and a drug-related suspension turned 2013 into a disaster, and he angered club officials by showing up last spring 40 pounds overweight.
Montero spent most of last season at Triple-A Tacoma, where he batted .286 with 16 homers and 74 RBIs in 97 games.
“(Farm director) Chris Gwynn made a comment that there were times last year when he was the best hitter in Triple-A,” Zduriencik said. “But he’s got to maintain these things, and he’s had these other obstacles in his life that have prevented him from doing it.”
Now, though, the Mariners are hopeful that Montero’s career is heading back up.
“I think he views himself differently than he did a year ago,” Zduriencik said. “I think the process has been extremely painful, but I also think there are rewards at the end of this thing.
“I don’t think there’s anything any of us would want more than for Jesus Montero to become a really good citizen and a really nice baseball player. The skills are there for him to do it.”
Logan Morrison is in line for full-time duty at first base after bouncing back from a two-month absence early in the season by producing a strong performance after the All-Star break.
“Listen, I’ve always said that playing time is dictated on performance,” McClendon said, “and he performed very well. As we speak right now, I’d be very happy if things work out that he’s my regular first baseman.”
Morrison, 27, batted .284 in 60 games after the break with a .341 on-base percentage and a .448 slugging percentage. He finished with season with a .262 average, 11 homers and 38 RBIs in 99 games.
BULLISH ON BEIMEL
McClendon remains hopeful the Mariners can re-sign situational lefty reliever Joe Beimel, who resurrected his career last season by compiling a 2.20 ERA in 56 appearances.
“Yeah, I’ve made my feelings known that I like him,” McClendon said, “and I’d like to have him back. But that’s not my decision.
“Obviously, the market is going to dictate a lot of that because he has such a good year this year, and the lefties’ (market) now, it might be a little difficult.”
Two rumors making the rounds on Wednesday: Washington is showing interest interest in shortstop Brad Miller, while Toronto is canvassing the Mariners in hopes of acquiring a reliever.
The Nationals’ interest in Miller was reported by Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports on twitter. Rosenthal said Washington is offering shortstop Ian Desmond, but the talks have “yet to gain traction.”
Desmond, 29, batted .255 with 24 homers and 91 RBIs in 154 games but will make $11 million next year before gaining free-agency eligibility after the season.
*The looming trade sending veteran shortstop Jimmy Rollins to the Los Angeles Dodgers from Philadelphia appears to further diminish the likelihood of the Mariners acquiring outfielder Matt Kemp.
The Mariners once appeared close to a deal to get Kemp with a package that included Miller and outfielder Michael Saunders before the Dodgers pushed to include either Walker or James Paxton.
Getting Rollins eliminates the need for the Dodgers to find a shortstop to bridge the gap to prospect Corey Seager, who batted .349 with 20 homers and 97 RBIs in 118 games at Hi-A Rancho Cucamonga and Double-A Chattanooga.
Seager is the younger brother of Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager.
RULE 5 DRAFT
The Winter Meetings close Thursday with the annual Rule 5 Draft, which permits clubs to select eligible players from other organizations who are not on their club’s 40-man roster.
Players are generally eligible for selection after five years if they were 18 or younger when they signed their first contract. Older players are eligible after four years.
The Mariners have the 20th pick in the draft and have a roster space available if they want to make a selection. Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Houston and Minnesota have the first five picks.
“There are some things we like,” Zduriencik said. “You don’t know who is going to get to you. It’s possible someone we have our eye on could be taken before we pick. But I think we’re going to look at it hard.”
Clubs pay $50,000 when they select a player, and that player must remain on an active major-league roster for the entire following season or be offered back to his former club for $25,000.
The Mariners added three draft-eligible players to their roster prior to the Nov. 20 deadline to protect them from selection: infielder Ketel Marte, catcher John Hicks and right-handed pitcher Mayckol Guaipe.
Those available for selection include first baseman/outfielder Jordy Lara, catcher Steve Baron, outfielder Jabari Blash and right-handed pitchers Jordan Pries and Jochi Ogando.
“The negative is putting a guy on the roster before he’s ready,” Zduriencik said. “Now, a few years down the road, you’ve got roster problems because a player you put on the roster couldn’t make your big-league club.
“That’s a big part of the decision. It’s not: `Do they deserve to be on the roster?’ It’s: `Do they deserve to be in the big leagues the entire year?’”