PEORIA, Ariz. — On Saturday, for the first time in 146 days, the Mariners returned to the field in an official capacity when pitchers and catchers pushed through a morning workout at the Peoria Sports Complex.
The disappointment of last season’s near-miss — falling one game shy of ending what is now a 13-year postseason drought — is receding in the rear-view mirror.
It is the nature of spring training that optimism sprouts unchecked for all clubs and under all circumstances. And why not? If not now, when?
Even so, here it is different.
“I think we shocked some people last year with how close we came,” veteran utilityman Willie Bloomquist said. “Certainly with the moves we made, there’s no reason — assuming we stay healthy — we shouldn’t be there at the end. I like our team A lot.”
The Mariners, on paper, are much improved over last season’s 87-victory club. That’s a consensus view throughout the game.
Expectations are escalating after a busy offseason in which general manager Jack Zduriencik seemed to tick off every significant item on the club’s shopping list.
“I think there’s a buzz,” he said. “They feel it. They know it. You see some of the moves, that’s exciting. That’s a motivator. The things we’ve been missing, hopefully, we’ve addressed them.”
The Mariners bolstered an often-suspect attack by adding several veteran players, most notably designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who led the majors last season in homers.
The rotation, a strength last season, should be even better because, unlike last season, everyone is healthy. Chris Young is gone after a remarkable comeback season, but Mariners have a replacement in J.A. Happ.
The unit’s final slot projects as a battle between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias. It could be a wonderfully tough decision because both possess the potential to be top- or middle-of-the rotation arms.
The bullpen was baseball’s best a year ago and returns mostly intact. The bench, bolstered by those off-season additions, should be much improved. The defense was solid a year ago; there’s no reason to suspect a drop-off.
There’s also a handful of promising prospects in camp who could become key contributors in the future. For some, perhaps as soon as later this year.
So there’s a lot to like.
“You guys have risen the expectations so high for us that you have to be excited,” manager Lloyd McClendon said Saturday in his first spring news briefing. “My expectations were high last year.
“Listen, I’ve said this time and time again: When it comes to defining success for this ballclub, that’s my responsibility. Not your responsibility. A lot of times, guys can get caught up in that — the expectations.
“I’ve said this before, the message I’ll send to my players is preparation, not expectations. We have to prepare.”
Six-plus weeks remain before the Mariners open the season April 6 with a 1:10 p.m. game against the Los Angeles Angels at Safeco Field. Here are 10 storylines to track:
1. Who is the shortstop?
This is the single biggest question in camp: Do the Mariners go with Brad Miller or Chris Taylor at shortstop? The loser likely returns to Triple-A Tacoma, although it’s possible Miller could make the club in a utility role.
Miller’s offensive potential gives him a slight edge as camp opens. (His second-half numbers last season were much better than he generally gets credit for.)
But shortstop is a defense-first position. Taylor is generally viewed as the better defensive player and, while he lacks Miller’s power potential, he showed last year that he’s no hole in the lineup.
2. Can Rickie Weeks really play the outfield?
Clearly, the Mariners think so, which is why they shelled out $2 million in guaranteed salary (with another $2 million in possible performance bonuses).
Weeks must think so. Why else would he sign with the Mariners? There’s no way he can expect to log much time at second base as long as Robinson Cano remains healthy.
But…Weeks has only played second base throughout his 12 professional seasons. So he’s still got to prove he can play the outfield (along with other infield positions).
3. Who are the lefties in the bullpen?
Charlie Furbush is a lock. He finished last season with a 3.61 ERA in 67 games, but he was far better than that after a rocky first month. He had a 2.51 ERA in his final 52 games.
The problem is finding a replacement for Joe Beimel, who compiled a 2.20 ERA in 56 outings as a situational specialist. (This assumes the Mariners don’t re-sign him; Beimel remains a free agent.)
Manager Lloyd McClendon wants a second lefty and, right now, the top candidates are: returnee Lucas Luetge, veteran prodigal Joe Saunders, minor-league signee Rafael Perez and Rule 5 pick David Rollins.
4. Is Willie Bloomquist completely recovered from knee surgery?
Willie Ballgame underwent micro-fracture surgery on Aug. 9. Everything points to a successful recovery, but here’s a cup of caution: Ex-Mariner Corey Hart was recovering from surgery a year ago.
If healthy, Bloomquist is a play-anywhere utilityman — anywhere includes shortstop, where the Mariners don’t have a backup if the Miller/Taylor loser heads back to Tacoma.
If Bloomquist isn’t ready to when the season starts, the Mariners will need an alternative. One possibility is minor-league invite Shawn O’Malley.
5. Who gets the final spot in the rotation?
Injuries happen. So it wouldn’t be surprising to see Walker and Elias each end up in the rotation. If everyone stays healthy, the choice between Walker and Elias shapes up as a win-win.
6. Can Jesus Montero recapture his potential?
You’ve probably seen the slimmed-down photos of Montero, the much-troubled former super prospect. That alone speaks to a commitment level previously unseen.
What if everything else falls into place? This much is certain: Montero will be closely watched. Winning a starting job at first base isn’t likely…but it isn’t out of the question.
7. Which right-handed relievers get a ticket to Triple-A Tacoma?
The bullpen competition figures to be cut-throat for right-handers. Just do the math. The Mariners are likely to keep seven relievers; two will probably be lefties; and All-Star closer Fernando Rodney is sure of a job.
That leaves four spots for (in alphabetical order): Danny Farquhar, Dominic Leone, Mark Lowe, Yoervis Medina, Erasmo Ramirez, Carson Smith and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Ramirez might seem a long shot — and he might be — but he’s the only one in the group who is out of options. (Lowe is in camp as a minor-league invite.)
8. How does Danny Hultzen look?
Hultzen was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and was zipping through the farm system before his shoulder began barking. He missed most of 2013 and all of last season because of surgery and rehab.
He now appears healthy.
If Hultzen recaptures his pre-injury potential — an enormous “if” — the Mariners suddenly have another top-of-the-rotation arm. Probably not this year, but in the future.
No matter how good Hultzen looks in spring, he is almost certain to open the season in the minors. And he will be closely monitored. But a best-case scenario positions him for a spot recall or possible late-season duty.
A year from now, he could be a factor…if he’s back to his earlier form.
9. Who is the backup catcher?
This is on the list because, as camp opens, the Mariners appear to have a choice to make between Jesus Sucre and John Baker to serve as the backup to starter Mike Zunino.
While both are viewed primarily as defense-first receivers, Baker offers a left-handed bat that could provide Zunino with a break against some tough right-handed pitchers. Sucre is a right-handed hitter.
More important, perhaps, is Sucre is already on the 40-man roster, while Baker is in camp as a minor-league invite. That means the Mariners would need to make a corresponding roster move to keep Baker.
Also, once added to the roster, Baker has sufficient major-league service to decline a subsequent minor-league assignment. Clubs generally don’t like to add such players to the roster unless they see a genuine need.
In contrast, Sucre has options remaining — he can be sent down and recalled any number of times. All of this favors Sucre if the competition is close.
10. Who comes out of nowhere and makes the club?
Every camp seems to produce at least one player who comes out of nowhere and wins a roster spot. Elias did that a year ago in making the jump from Double-A Jackson to the majors.
Who will that be this year? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.
THE REST OF THE NEIGHBORHOOD: SIZING UP THE AL WEST
Los Angeles Angels
Last year: 98-64, first place, lost to Kansas City in AL Division series.
What’s changed: Not that much, really, although the trade that sent Howie Kendrick to the crosstown Dodgers created a big hole at second base.
Biggest question: Can RHP Garrett Richards regain the form that made him a budding ace before knee surgery ended his season in August?
Last year: 88-74, second place, lost to Kansas City in AL Wild Card game.
What’s changed: General manager Billy Beane engineered a complete overhaul after a second-half collapse and another postseason disappointment. Five All-Stars from last year are with new clubs, while newcomers include super UTL Ben Zobrist, 3B Brett Lawrie and DH Billy Butler.
Biggest question: Who fills out the rotation after Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir? Possibilities include Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz, Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt, Kendall Graveman, Sean Nolin and Barry Zito.
Last year: 70-92, fourth place.
What’s changed: Lots of new faces, including manager A.J. Hinch. The Astros added SS Jed Lowrie, C/OF Evan Gaddis, OF Colby Rasmus and RPs Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek. Not many significant deletions.
Biggest question: Are OF George Springer and LHP Dallas Keuchel merely the vanguard in a deep pool of young talent stockpiled through the pain of 416 losses over the last four years?
Last year: 67-95, fifth place.
What’s changed: There’s a new manager, Jeff Banister, and many new faces, including one-time Milwaukee ace Yovani Gallardo, but a healthy roster — at this point, anyway — is the key difference.
Biggest question: Can players such as 1B Prince Fielder, OF Shin-Soo Choo, RHP Yu Darvish and LHP Derek Holland return to pre-injury form?
TOP SPRING QUESTIONS ELSEWHERE
Detroit (90-72): Will 1B Miguel Cabrera (ankle) and DH Victor Martinez (knee) be in top form after off-season surgeries? They need to be to compensate for the departures of RHPs Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello.
Kansas City (89-73): Can they sustain the momentum of last year’s magical October run? It might hinge on whether RHP Edinson Volquez proves a viable replacement for departed staff ace James Shields.
Cleveland (85-77): Were last year’s disappointing seasons from 2B Jason Kipnis and OF Michael Bourn an aberration? If not, the Tribe could be in trouble after a quiet off-season.
Chicago (73-89): On paper, what’s not to like? Adding 1B Adam LaRoche and OF Melky Cabrera should boost an often-anemic attack. Adding RHPs Jeff Samardzija and David Robertson aids an already-strong rotation and a suspect bullpen.
Minnesota (70-92): Are Twins fans willing to wait at least one more year? There’s lots of young talent here and in the pipeline, but it will have to develop in a hurry to prevent another last-place finish.
Baltimore (96-66): Can C Matt Wieters, 3B Manny Machado and 1B Chris Davis return to form after missing large portions of last season — and will it be enough to offset the free-agent departures of OFs Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis?
New York (84-78): Even if they can weather the circus surrounding the return of 3B Alex Rodriguez, do they really expect Didi Gregorious to replace SS Derek Jeter?
Toronto (83-79): Adding 3B Josh Donaldson and C Russell Martin should goose the lineup, but what about the bullpen? It struggled last year, and RHP Aaron Sanchez is in line to be the closer.
Tampa Bay (77-85): Can the still-strong rotation compensate for franchise-overhauling off-season? It might depend on how LHP Matt Moore performs when he return, probably in June, from elbow surgery.
Boston (71-91): Can they repeat their last-to-first resurrection from 2012-13 after a series of splashy off-season moves netted OF Hanley Ramirez, 3B Pablo Sandoval and pitchers Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson?
Los Angeles (94-68): Much depends on the new double-play combination. 2B Howie Kendrick was a steady performer for eight years with the Angels…but can ex-Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins find a Wayback Machine?
San Francisco (88-74): World Series hero Pablo Sandoval is gone, but Casey McGehee seems as viable replacement at 3B. Bigger issue: Is RHP Matt Cain healthy again?
San Diego (77-85): A dizzying off-season netted OFs Justin Upton, Matt Kemp and Wil Myers, C Derek Norris, 3B Will Middlebrooks and a staff ace in RHP James Shields. Will it all come together?
Colorado (66-96): They bolstered their bullpen and added a veteran C in Nick Hundley, but…can they get healthy, productive years from SS Troy Tulowitzki, OF Carlos Gonzalez and 1B Justin Morneau?
Arizona (64-98): This sure looks like a club in transition with a new front office and manager (Chip Hale). There are holes everywhere. Is 3B/OF Yamani Tomas, the high-priced Cuban defector, someone they can build around?
St. Louis (90-72): Might be one of the surest bets in either league. Acquiring OF Jason Heyward from Atlanta should offset the tragic loss of Oscar Tavaras in an auto accident. Biggest issue: Can they stay healthy?
Pittsburgh (88-74): They proved last year that their breakout 2013 was no fluke. They’re just not as deep or well-rounded as the Cardinals. Can re-acquired RHP A.J. Burnett recapture his 2012-13 form after losing 18 games last season at Philadelphia?
Milwaukee (82-80): They pretty much stayed the course this winter after a massive late-season collapse. Is OF Ryan Braun healthy and can he, with new 1B Adam Lind, resuscitate an attack that often struggled to score?
Cincinnati (76-86): They must restock the rotation after trading RHPs Mat Latos and Alfredo Simon, but a healthy Joey Votto would cure a lot of ills. But is he healthy after missing the last three months because of a knee injury?
Chicago (73-89): There’s lot of excitement in Wrigleyville after snatching manager Joe Maddon away from Tampa Bay and signing LHP Jon Lester. They also added C Miguel Montero, CF Dexter Fowler and others. But is it enough to overcome being the Cubs?
Washington (96-66): They were, likely, the best team last year in either league, and they just added RHP Max Scherzer. They’re in what might be the weakest division in either league. Can they get over their October yips?
Atlanta (79-83): Had trouble scoring last year and then traded away three of their top hitters in OFs Justin Upton and Jason Heyward and C/OF Evan Gattis for little in immediate impact. There’s a plan here?
New York (79-83): Adding OF/1B Michael Cuddyer should help the attack, but the key issue is whether RHP Matt Harvey recaptures his All-Star form in returning from Tommy John surgery.
Miami (77-85): A team to watch. Already loaded with lots of young talent, they added several proven veterans. It all hinges, however, on whether OF Giancarlo Stanton, newly armed with a $325 million deal, shows no lingering effects from getting hit in the face with a pitch in September.
Philadelphia (73-89): They’re in a full rebuilding mode — i.e., the Phillies a mess. Can they accelerate the process by trading away veterans such as LHP Cole Hamels, RHR Jonathan Papelbon and 1B Ryan Howard?