PEORIA, Ariz. — The exodus will start in the coming days. A shuffle from big-league camp to the minor-league clubhouse for some of the Mariners’ most-promising prospects.
This is inevitable.
The Mariners transformed themselves in the off-season into a veteran club that has scant room, barring injuries, for even top prospects such as infielders D.J. Peterson, Ketel Marte and others from the TNT’s Top 10.
The same is true for most of those who a year ago played their way onto the club for extended stretches, such as outfielders James Jones and Stefen Romero. They will, barring something unexpected, soon be squeezed out.
“When you get better (as a team),” manager Lloyd McClendon said, “teams are harder to make. There are only so many spots.”
There are exceptions, of course.
The shortstop battle between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor might last until the roster’s final cut to 25 players. So, too, the competition between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias for the rotation’s lone opening.
The odd-man out in both cases figure to head to Triple-A Tacoma.
Competition is also fierce for bullpen jobs. Two or more relievers with big-league credentials are likely ticketed for the Tacoma.
For many, though, the dream is already on borrowed time.
The Mariners opened their minor-league camp Monday when pitchers and catchers reported — many of those players were already here after taking part in a mini-camp that ended Sunday.
Full minor-league workouts begin March 16.
The clock is ticking.
“It’s hard (not to get caught up in the opportunity),” Peterson said. “You want to make a good impression…You’ve just got to stick with the basics and not try to impress. Eventually, it will all come.
“It’s not where you start. It’s where you finish.”
The start, for many, will be Tacoma. For others, Double-A Jackson. The finish? That's one big TBD.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said left-hander Danny Hultzen, who is back after two years of shoulder miseries. “I just want to stay healthy. Whatever happens, happens. I’m just excited to be able to play again.”
Often, the impression a player makes in big-league camp proves pivotal when the big club goes looking for replacements.
Jones and reliever Dominic Leone gained early-season summonses a year ago because of their spring performance. While last year’s club had more holes, in part due to injuries, opportunity is again still likely to beckon.
Here are 11 possibilities (in alphabetical order). None are likely to break camp with the big-league club, but an informal canvassing of club officials, along with a handful of rival scouts, provides some early impressions:
***Catcher John Hicks: Long a good catch-and-throw receiver, he shows increasing potential at the plate since adopting a line-drive approach to center-right field.
His defensive skills are already big-league ready, which positions him as a recall candidate if injuries thin the big-league roster. Could make a real push in 2016.
***Left-handed pitcher Danny Hultzen: Major shoulder injuries are the biggest bugaboo these days for pitchers, but he shows signs of regaining the form that made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft.
His innings will be limited this season. McClendon openly acknowledges Hultzen is being pointed toward 2016 but, if he responds as hoped, he could be a strong contender for future rotations.
***Outfielder James Jones: The speed plays as a plus skill, and the Mariners believe he can play all three outfield spots. That likely positions him as the first recall candidate if needs for an outfielder arise at the big-league level.
Austin Jackson will be a free agent in the coming off-season. If Jones shows some much-needed improvement in his plate discipline, he figures to gain strong consideration as the starting center fielder in 2016.
***Infielder/outfielder Pat Kivlehan: The word that keeps coming from club personnel is “ballplayer.” He seemingly lacks any single dazzling skill, but Kivlehan makes regular contact and shows an instinctive feel on the field.
It will be interesting to see whether the Mariners try to anchor Kivlehan, No. 7 on the TNT Top 10, at one position or continue to shift him between the infield and outfield corners. He figures to open at Tacoma.
***Outfielder Jordy Lara: It remains a legitimate question to wonder whether his breakout 2014 stemmed from spending much of the summer in the hitters’ paradise of Hi-A High Desert. But those questions are quieter now.
Lara passes the eye test for many observers, although his lack of speed and range means he likely profiles as a first baseman/DH. That means he must continue to rake. Look for him to start at Jackson.
***Catcher Tyler Marlette: Club officials love his bat, particularly his quick hands, but acknowledge his defense is playing catch-up. Look for that to be an emphasis this year in his development.
Marlette, No. 9 on the TNT Top 10, seems likely to open the season at Jackson, but he could make the jump later to Tacoma if the opportunity presents itself.
***Infielder Ketel Marte: Has had some rough moments — five errors in a three-game span — but club officials see this as a learning experience for a talented 21-year-old middle infielder.
Previous view still holds: Marte, No. 3 on the TNT Top 10, could be ready to make a strong push next season for a roster spot. Almost certain to spend this summer with the Rainiers.
***First baseman Jesus Montero: The early returns on his career-reconstruction project are encouraging — the guy lost 45 pounds over the winter — but still incomplete.
“Look,” one rival scout said, “the potential is still there. He’s always going to be a below-average runner and his defensive ceiling is borderline average. But he’s got big-time, right-handed thump. Those guys are hard to find.”
***Outfielder Julio Morban: Want to dream a little? Squint your eyes a bit and Morban can make you recall a young Tony Gwynn at the plate. Now, he’s not Gwynn. Who is? But when healthy, Morban has always hit.
And that’s the issue: Can he stay healthy? Morban has played just 363 games in six years. He closed last season at Tacoma; so he figures to be there again when this season begins.
***Infielder D.J. Peterson: His spring got off to a bang with he homered in his first at-bat. He led the organization a year ago by hitting 31 homers in 123 games at High Desert and Jackson.
Peterson, No. 2 on the TNT Top 10, figures to shift increasingly from third base to first base — hey, Kyle Seager isn't going anywhere. Could start at Jackson, but it will be disappointing if he’s not in Tacoma at some point.
***Outfielder Stefen Romero: Played 72 games last season in the big league but failed to seize the opportunity. Now, he’s almost certain to head to Tacoma, where he spent parts of the last two seasons.
Club officials still like his potential: He batted .358 with 12 homers and 36 RBIs last season in 36 games for the Rainiers. A one-time second baseman, he shifted two years ago the outfield. Don’t be surprised to see him at first.
MARINERS SIGN CORREIA
Add veteran right-hander Kevin Correia to the Mariners’ pitching depth.
Correia, 34, agreed to a minor-league deal Monday that includes an invitation to big-league camp. He is a 12-year veteran who has a 75-95 record with a 4.59 ERA while logging time with five clubs.
“It was getting to the point where it was time to go, either way,” he said. “The offseason didn’t work out the way I was hoping it would have, but I’m happy where I landed.”
Barring injuries to other pitchers, Correia appears likely to open the season at Triple-A Tacoma. He was working out near his home in San Diego prior to signing with the Mariners.
“I’m not here to try to make the bullpen,” Correia said. “I’m here to try to make the rotation and that’s my main focus.”
Correia was a combined 7-17 with a 5.44 ERA while splitting time last season with Minnesota and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He also previously pitched for San Francisco, San Diego and Pittsburgh.
LATIN OPERATIONS CONSOLIDATED
The Mariners announced plans to consolidate their Latin American operations at their new academy near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic.
General manager Jack Zduriencik said the club would “continue to be heavily invested in our scouting efforts throughout Latin America, and particularly in Venezuela, where we have…experienced much success.”
While the move takes advantage of the organization’s new Dominican facility, which can house up to 80 players, it also represents a response to Venezuela’s deteriorating social conditions.
The decision also means the Mariners will no longer field a club in the Venezuelan Summer League. The organization will instead field two clubs in the Dominican Summer League.
“Our plan all along has been to centralize our efforts,” Zduriencik said. “By bringing our operation under one umbrella, we will be much more efficient and effective in the development of young players.”
Second baseman Robinson Cano is expected to return Friday from the Dominican Republic, where he is attending funeral services for his grandfather.
Cano left camp following last Saturday’s game.
McClendon said Cano will likely return to the lineup for Saturday’s game against Arizona at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
Reliever Tom Wilhelmsen is scheduled to make his spring debut by pitching one inning Wednesday against Colorado at Peoria Stadium.
Wilhelmsen has been slowed this spring due to back soreness.
***Felix Hernandez is scheduled for two innings Tuesday when he makes his spring debut against the Rockies at Salt River Fields. Plans call for Roenis Elias to follow Hernandez and work three innings.
***Erasmo Ramirez will start Wednesday’s game. Danny Hultzen is also slotted to pitch that day against the Rockies along with Wilhelmsen. It will be Hultzen’s first game action since Sept. 1, 2013.
***Tentative starters for the rest of the week: Jordan Pries on Thursday against Oakland in Mesa; J.A. Happ on Friday against Milwaukee in Peoria; and Taijuan Walker on Saturday against Arizona at Salt River Fields.