PEORIA, Ariz. — There might be no better example of the Mariners’ improving fortunes than left-hander Roenis Elias having to fight to keep his spot in the rotation.
It was Elias who, a year ago as a rookie, proved the club’s biggest spring surprise by coming out of Double-A and pitching his way onto an injury-depleted rotation.
Elias then validated his big-league credentials by producing a 3.85 ERA while going 10-12 in 29 starts. Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura was the only American League rookie to post a better qualifying ERA.
It’s no stretch to argue that Elias, a former Cuban defector, was the biggest surprise a year ago in the Mariners’ surprising season.
So what’s that get him this spring?
Nothing more than the opportunity to hold his job in what projects as a one-on-one battle with right-hander Taijuan Walker, who has long been viewed as the organization’s top pitching prospect.
Elias opened his bid last Thursday by pitching two scoreless innings. That came a few days after he shrugged when asked if it bothered him that he has to win a spot after his rookie success..
“No, you just go out and do what you have to do,” he said through an interpreter, “and God’s going to have the last word.”
(Let’s just presume an uppercase G in Elias’ reference to the Almighty and not take it as a veiled reference to manager Lloyd McClendon, general manager Jack Zduriencik or anyone else with input into roster decisions.)
Elias has reason, after all, to trust divine grace after the last few years.
He defected from Cuba in late 2010 while in Mexico after playing for Guantanamo, his hometown, in the Serie Nacional. The Mariners signed him to a minor-league deal on May 3, 2011.
Elias then worked his way through the minors for three years before cashing his opportunity a year ago. Along the way, he married and had a son, but it wasn’t until recently they were able to join him on a full-time basis.
“That’s going to help tremendously,” he said. “Last year, my family was a little scattered. My wife was in Mexico, and I didn’t see her that often. Now, they’re here, and I get to see them every day and I can focus a little more.
“Last year, my mind was scattered, thinking about different things. It will be easier to focus this year.”
Scattered or not, Elias displayed notable maturity a year ago and improved as the season went along. He posted a 2.31 ERA in 10 starts after the All-Star break before a sore elbow ended his season in mid-September.
“He came off a boat,” McClendon said. “He was fighting for his life. I don’t think he’s going to be afraid of Albert Pujols. He was fighting alligators, trying to survive. Big difference.”
Hyperbole aside, the basic point holds. Elias certainly appears relaxed after his outing last Thursday — he handled his post-game interviews in English for the first time.
He shows no lingering symptoms from his sore elbow, although he admits the injury scared him. It also spurred him to a off-season regimen designed to bring him to camp better conditioned to handle a full big-league season.
“This year,” he said, “I’m sort of focusing on the details. The second year for a player is a little harder. I just want to refine everything. I’ve looked at a lot of video from last season.
“I’ve looked at the spots I want to improve on. One of them was working on my arm angle. They’ve told me not to drop my arm too much. I’ve been working on keeping that up and maintaining that slot.”
All designed with one goal in mind: Better fastball command.
“He’s got a dynamic curveball,” McClendon said. “His change-up got better at the end of the year. His consistency with fastball command needs to be better.
“He’s got a chance to be a pretty (darn) good pitcher for a long time.”
Good enough to hold his spot in the rotation?
That’s to be determined.
“There’s not a lot of difference between this year and last year,” Elias said. “Last year, I didn’t come in with a spot. I still have to work hard and do what I did last year — and even improve on that.
“Yes, they do know me (better than last year), but I still have to work hard and keep improving. Even if I say I’m ready for that spot, if I don’t prove it, they’re not going to take me with them.”
HERNANDEZ, RODNEY SLOTTED
Felix Hernandez will make his spring debut Wednesday when the Mariners play Colorado at Peoria Stadium. McClendon also revealed All-Star closer Fernando Rodney will pitch Sunday in Goodyear against Cincinnati.
“They’re both well ahead of schedule,” McClendon said.
Hernandez is, pretty much, in line with his 2014 approach.
He made his debut last spring on March 4 — 27 days before pitching the season opener. His start Wednesday will be 26 days prior to his projected start against the Angels in the season opener.
Rodney is slightly ahead of schedule. His first outing a year ago was March 6 (25 days before the opener). His appearance Sunday will be 29 days prior to the opener.
OLMOS IN CAMP
Lefty reliever Edgar Olmos is in camp after returning, officially, Thursday to the Mariners when Major League Baseball voided the Feb. 24 waiver claim that sent him to Texas.
The Mariners confirmed Olmos, 24, is battling shoulder inflammation. They also say his throwing program is “to be determined,” which suggests he’s not close to being ready to get on a mound.
Texas sought to have the claim voided after discovering the injury.
The Mariners acquired Olmos in a Nov. 20 waiver claim from Miami, where he spent all seven of his previous pro seasons. He was a combined 3-3 with a 4.06 ERA last year in 51 minor-league games.
Olmos’ return forced the Mariners to create an opening Thursday on their 40-man roster, which they did by designating first baseman Ji-Man Choi for assignment.
Choi, 23, underwent surgery earlier in the day to repair a fractured fibula in his right leg and a torn deltoid ligament. He suffered the injury in Wednesday’s 4-3 victory over San Diego.
BEIMEL TO TEXAS
Lefty reliever Joe Beimel won’t be returning to the Mariners. Instead, he will be facing them as a division rival after agreeing to a one-year contract with the Texas Rangers.
The deal isn’t guaranteed, but Beimel gets $1.5 million if he makes the roster on opening day. He can also boost the value through performance bonuses.
Beimel, 37, was 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA last season in 56 games for the Mariners, but discussions on a new year stalled when he pushed for a multi-year deal.
PAXTON ON MOUND
Lefty James Paxton threw a 30-pitch bullpen workout that marked his first time on a mound since a stumble in a pre-camp agility drill resulted in a sore forearm.
“Feels great,” he said. “All fastballs. Next time, I’ll start working in my other pitches.”
Paxton is tentatively scheduled for one more bullpen workout before shifting to live batting practice in preparation for his spring debut. Club officials maintain he should be fully ready when the season starts.