PEORIA, Ariz. — It’s early yet — the Mariners still have three weeks before they break camp — but competition is beginning to crystallize for duty as the bullpen’s second left-hander.
Tyler Olson and David Rollins, once viewed as the two longest shots in the battle, have been lights out. Particularly Olson, who has retired all 15 batters faced in his five innings while striking out eight.
Veteran Rafael Perez has three straight clean outings since a shaky spring debut, but Lucas Luetge and Joe Saunders each likely need to put on a push to claim the spot.
“In about a week, you really start to find out about guys,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “(They’ll pitch) back-to-back (games). They see more veteran hitters throughout the camp.
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“Right now, it’s kind of hard to judge because guys are out after three or four innings.”
Even so, McClendon sought to provide Olson and Rollins, who are each trying to make the jump from Double-A, with legitimate tests by calling on them early in games — before opponents pull their regulars.
Rollins hasn’t quite matched Olson, but he has four scoreless one-inning outings while permitting just two hits and no walks and recording four strikeouts.
“They’ve faced pretty good hitters,” McClendon conceded. “With both of those kids, I’ve tried to throw them into the fire as much as I can. And they continue to impress.”
Some points to remember in projecting who wins the job:
***Only Luetge and Rollins are on the 40-man roster. The Mariners must make a corresponding space-clearing move to retain Olson, Perez or Saunders.
***While Luetge has options remaining and can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers, Rollins is in camp as a Rule 5 pick.
That means Rollins can’t be sent to the minors unless (a) he clears waivers and (b) Houston, his former club, declines to pay $25,000 to take him back.
Olson, Perez and Saunders can simply be reassigned to minor-league camp, although…
***Saunders signed his minor-league deal as an Article XX (B) free agent, which means the Mariners must notify him at least five days before the season opens as to whether he will make the 25-man roster.
If Saunders doesn’t make the cut, the Mariners must release him or pay a $100,000 retention bonus to send him to the minors.
Even then, Saunders can choose to become a free agent if not in the majors by June 1 by exercising an opt-out clause.
(Right-handed pitcher Kevin Correia and outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez also qualify for XX (B) rights.)
Right now, though, the emphasis is on on-field performance.
Olson, 25, pitched two innings Thursday against the A’s in Mesa, while Rollins, 25, is in line for such a stretch-out test in his next outing or two.
Since both spent much of their minor-league careers as starters, the challenge figures to be in determining how quickly they can be ready to pitch again.
While Rollins made 15 relief appearances last year in the Astros’ system at Double-A Corpus Christi, Olson pitched solely as a starter at Hi-A High Desert and Double-A Jackson.
“It’s quite a bit different,” Olson said. “Just my daily routine that I like to go through, and prepare for a start, as opposed to (pitching) in relief.”
Perez, 32, is seeking to pitch his way back to the majors for the first time since 2012. He spent much of last season pitching in the Mexican League before closing the season at Triple-Indianapolis in the Pittsburgh system.
The Mariners signed Saunders, 33, just prior to camp in the hope his history of dominating left-handed hitters could aid his shift from career-long starter to full-time reliever.
“I can do whatever,” he said earlier in camp. “feel I can be a lefty (situational) guy, a long guy out of the bullpen. I feel I can be a multiple-inning guy. I can be a starter. I think that brings some value.”
So far, it hasn’t worked.
Saunders gave up a homer in his first outing and took an absolute beating last Sunday in yielding six runs in one inning to Cincinnati. He hasn’t pitched since.
Luetge, who turns 28 later this month, worked 1 1/3 scoreless innings in his first spring outing but then blew a one-run lead against Cleveland before giving up three ninth-inning runs Wednesday in a 4-1 loss to Colorado.
The Mariners butchered the ball behind Luetge in the loss to the Rockies, but he still yielded three hits in the inning.
“The guys in here know who can slip and who can’t,” said Luetge, who pitched in 63 big-league games in 2012 as a Rule 5 pick from Milwaukee before spending much of the last two season at Triple-A Tacoma.
“I’m one of them who can’t. I have to be good every time, or almost every time, to show them that I can help them.”
That’s the challenge for all five.
BACK IN CAMP
Second baseman Robinson Cano, as expected, returned Friday to camp after missing five days to attend his grandfather’s funeral in the Dominican Republic.
Cano wasn’t in the lineup for the game against Milwaukee but is expected to play Saturday against Arizona at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale.
While in the Dominican, Cano said he found time to work out.
“I didn’t just want to sit around at home,” he said, “and start crying with the whole family. I wanted to keep my mind busy.
Other personnel updates:
***Outfielder Rickie Weeks shows progress in recovering from a sore hamstring and, barring a setback, is likely to play Saturday as the designated hitter.
***Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez isn’t responding as hoped to treatment for tightness in his right groin. McClendon said Gutierrez “did not run the bases well” on Thursday in workouts.
Here’s a simple measuring stick on the Mariners’ beefed-up attack: 700 runs.
“If we stay healthy,” McClendon said, “I think we should be a club that should be able to score 700 runs…We didn’t quite get to that number (last season). I think that’s the magic number.”
The Mariners scored 634 runs last year, which ranked tied for 18th (with Boston) among the 30 clubs. Only eight clubs scored 700 or more runs in 2014. The Angels led the majors with 773.
The last time the Mariners scored at least 700 runs was 2007, when they scored 794. Last year’s total was their best output since scoring 640 in 2009.