PEORIA, Ariz. — The thawing relations between the United States and Cuba already has Mariners left-hander Roenis Elias, a 2010 defector, planning a trip back to his homeland to visit his family.
“I’ve got a visa,” he said. “I’m looking to go down there to visit family at the end of December. That’s going to be big to be able to see my father and my grandmother.
“Seeing them is going to give me more motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Elias’ immediate goal this spring is to hold a job in the Mariners’ rotation. One of the camp’s key storylines is his projected battle with right-hander Taijuan Walker for the No. 5 spot.
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A year ago, Elias, now 26, took advantage of spring injuries to Walker and Hisashi Iwakuma to win a big-league job after pitching the previous season at Double-A Jackson.
Elias then went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts as a rookie before a sore elbow ended his season in mid-September.
“It was a little scary,” he said, “because I’ve never really had an arm injury. But I feel good. I got to rest this off-season. I got to spend time with my family — my wife and my son.
“So I’m ready to go and to help the team make the playoffs.”
Left-hander Danny Hultzen took the next step Sunday in his comeback from major shoulder surgery by throwing his first official bullpen workout.
“My arm hasn’t felt this good in a long time,” he said. “I’m real excited to be able to play again…This just feels like a normal spring training. My arm feels good. I’m just treating it like that.
“I’m not really thinking about my arm anymore. I’m past that, which is a really good sign.”
Hultzen, 25, was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and advanced to Triple-A Tacoma in 2013 before his shoulder began to hurt. That eventually resulted in surgery to his labrum and rotator cuff on Oct. 31.
A year-long rehab program followed.
Right-handed reliever Tom Wilhelmsen showed no second thoughts at challenging the Mariners to a salary-arbitration hearing despite losing his case.
“You hear so many things about it,” he said. “I’m glad I did it. I got to stand up for what I believe in, man. That’s a pretty cool thing to do.”
Wilhelmsen sought $2.2 million after going 3-2 with a 2.27 ERA last season in 57 games, but the three-judge panel sided with the club’s offer of $1.4 million.
The two sides presented their case Friday in Florida, and the panel issued its ruling on Saturday — shortly after Wilhelmsen rejoined the club in time for the first official workout for pitchers and catchers.
“The way I’m looking at it, I won,” said Wilhelmsen, who made $528,800 in 2014. “That was my mind-set going in. I’m a winner. I get to do everything I want to do. I get to stand up for what I believe in.”
Players are required to attend the hearing — and hear club officials point out their deficiencies. That requirement, which can produce hard feelings, is intended to spur both sides to a negotiated agreement.
“There’s no spilled milk here,” Wilhelmsen insisted. “It was an interesting process. I’m glad it’s over, but I’m glad I was able to be a part of it.
Wilhelmsen was the first Mariners player to undergo an arbitration hearing since pitcher Freddy Garcia won his case in 2003.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, 33, isn’t looking to return to Japan when his contract expires at the end of the season.
“I would want to stay here and pitch,” he said through interpreter Antony Suzuki after throwing his first official bullpen workout.
Iwakuma will be a free agent after the season, although his contract allows the Mariners to retain rights to make a qualifying offer. He is 38-20 with a 3.07 ERA in three seasons following 11 years in Japan.
“Robby (who is 32) is at the point now where he’s not going to play 162 games anymore,” McClendon said. “I’d like to see (Seager) in the 150-range as well.”
Cano played 150 games last year at second base, including 150 starts. Seager, 27, played and started 157 games at third base.
“Quite frankly, I played (Seager) too much down the stretch,” McClendon said, “but I had no choice. Bloomy (Willie Bloomquist) was down.”
Bloomquist suffered an injury July 23 to his right knee that required season-ending surgery on Aug. 9. He now insists he is fully recovered, but the Mariners plan to ease him into spring workouts.
The Mariners gained another backup option for Cano and Seager by signing free-agent second baseman Rickie Weeks, although he is expected to spend much of his time this spring learning to play the outfield.