PEORIA, Ariz. — Lefty James Paxton will have some new wrinkles in his pitching arsenal Wednesday when he starts the Mariners’ spring opener against San Diego at the Peoria Sports Complex.
A new high fastball and a refined change-up.
Paxton honed both pitches last October and November under Lo-A Clinton pitching coach Rich Dorman while logging time in the Arizona Fall League after missing much of last season because of multiple finger injuries.
"He’s great. I had him in A-ball," Paxton said, "and we were working on fastball location, a high fastball and my changeup."
Paxton had no choice but to concentrate on those pitches because his recovery last autumn from a torn fingernail prevented him from breaking balls.
"I think it helped me a lot," he said. "My fastball command, I think, got better over that time. My high fastball. And the change-up, it was my only off-speed pitch, so I had to throw it.
"Being forced to throw it made it that much better. It made me get comfortable with it. That was a big plus for me."
Paxton is slotted for two innings Wednesday when the Mariners open their 33-game Cactus League schedule. It amounts to an opening statement in a bid to erase any lingering doubts regarding his durability and retain his spot in the rotation.
Manager Scott Servais recently questioned whether it was "realistic" to expect Paxton to hold up for an entire season. It’s easy to see why: Injuries limited Paxton to just 13 starts in each of the last two seasons.
But this is a new-look Paxton at age 27. He dropped 20 pounds in the off-season and contends he can already feel the difference through the spring’s early workouts.
"I feel like I came into camp ready to go," he said. "Doing all of the drills, I feel much better. Better on my feet. Even just throwing the ball, I feel like I have less stress on everything with that, too. I think it’s just a plus all around."
Paxton’s primary competitor for the rotation, right-hander Nathan Karns, is scheduled for two innings Thursday against the Padres. The competition is likely to continue throughout the spring.
Both pitchers have options remaining. The odd man out goes to Triple-A Tacoma, but Paxton insisted he is focusing solely on his own preparation and performance.
Even so, having two new pitches can only aid his bid to keep his job.
"My change-up got way better (in the Fall League)," Paxton said, "and that high fastball changed everything. Guys were always looking down in the zone for me because I have that (12-to-6) angle.
"But when I change the angle, and have a high fastball, they can’t cheat down there all of the time. It makes it a lot harder for them. I’m looking forward to continuing to work on that in spring training."
With the exception of right fielder/designated hitter Nelson Cruz, Servais is expected to employ a lineup for Wednesday’s spring opener that could approximate his primary unit for the regular season:
Nori Aoki, left field.
Kyle Seager, third base.
Robinson Cano, second base.
Franklin Gutierrez, designated hitter.
Adam Lind, first base.
Seth Smith, right field.
Chris Iannetta, catcher.
Ketel Marte, shortstop.
Leonys Martin, center field.
The lineup is subject to change before first pitch at 12:10 p.m. (PST), but the Mariners are taking a go-slow approach with Cruz, who contends he is fine and wants to play.
Servais sounded cautious.
"He’s still a little tender in the legs and his knee," he said. "But he’ll be in there in the next couple of days. No issue. We just want to take it a little slow with that."
San Diego’s posted lineup: CF Justin Upton, 2B Skip Schumaker, 1B Wil Myers, RF Matt Kemp, 3B Yangervis Solarte, C Derek Norris, LF Alex Dickerson, DH Jabari Blash and SS Alexi Amarista.
The Mariners’ starters are expected to get two at-bats before exiting.
Plans call for Daniel Robertson to replace Aoki, Ed Lucas (Seager), Chris Taylor (Cano), Jesus Montero (Gutierrez), Gaby Sanchez (Lind), Stefen Romero (Smith), Mike Zunino (Iannetta), Luis Sardinas (Marte) and Boog Powell (Martin).
San Diego plans to start lefty Robbie Erlin in Wednesday’s game. He spent most of last season at Triple-A El Paso before going 1-2 with a 4.76 ERA in three late-season starts.
The Mariners have right-hander Donn Roach lined up to follow Paxton. Others slotted to pitch: Vidal Nuno, Joel Peralta, Tony Zych, Jonathan Aro and Ryan Cook.
Center fielder Guillermo Heredia finally received clearance Tuesday and should be in uniform Wednesday for workouts prior to the Mariners’ spring opener.
Heredia, 25, is a Cuban defector who agreed Feb. 22 to a major-league deal for the minimum $507,500 salary.
While Heredia defected last year, he hasn’t played regularly in nearly two years and is expected to open the season at Double-A Jackson or Triple-A Tacoma.
As expected, the Mariners cleared space for Heredia on their 40-man roster by placing injured catcher Jesus Sucre on the 60-day disabled list.
Sucre, 27, is recovering from a broken right leg, which he suffered Jan. 17 on a slide at second base while playing in the Venezuela Winter League.
Reliever Mayckol Guiape explained his reason for changing his uniform number this spring to honor the memory of pitcher Victor Sanchez, a fellow Venezuelan who died last March from head injuries suffered in a February boating accident.
"It was just something I thought about since he passed away," Guaipe said. "It was something that was on my mind. I had the opportunity to do it, and I made the change."
Guaipe is now wearing No. 48, which Sanchez wore when the two players were teammates in 2014 at Double-A Jackson. Guaipe wore No. 53 last year as a rookie in 21 big-league appearances.
There will be no TV coverage of Wednesday’s spring opener against the Padres, according to Mariners’ officials, but 21 of the club’s 33 Cactus League games are currently scheduled to be televised.
In addition to 16 games on Root Sports, five games will be televised by the opposing club’s network and should be available through the MLB television package.
The first televised game is Saturday against the Angels in Tempe on the Angels’ network. Newcomer Wade Miley is scheduled to start for the Mariners.
The first Root Sports telecast is March 9 against Kansas City at Peoria Stadium.
Live radio broadcasts will be available on 710 ESPN for 20 games, including Wednesday’s spring opener, with 10 games being broadcast on a tape-delayed basis at 7 p.m.
The only two games not on 710 ESPN are March 12 vs. Cincinnati in Goodyear, and March 14 vs. Arizona at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale. Both are split-squad doubleheader games being played at the same time as games in Peoria.
Left-handed pitcher Mike Montgomery is expected to miss a few days after undergoing surgery to remove a cyst from his neck. "He’s fine," Servais said. "Everything went great, but it was a surgical procedure."…The Mariners are showing interest in first baseman/left fielder Efren Navarro, who recently opted for free agency rather than accept an outright assignment by Baltimore to the minors after clearing waivers. Navarro, 29, spent four seasons with the Angels before the Orioles acquired him on Jan. 26 in a cash transaction…right-hander Felix Hernandez threw his second spring bullpen workout and said it went "great." His next step is to throw live batting practice to hitters — probably on Friday…former pitcher Jaime Moyer arrived and will spend a week as an alumni coach…former pitcher Jaime Moyer arrived and will spend a week as an alumni coach…Self-anointed homer expert Domingo Ayala addressed the club prior to Tuesday’s workout as part of the latest team-building exercise. If it’s not obvious, yes, it was a parody. ..Servais said the Mariners have already reached an agreement with National League clubs to use the DH for all but two or three Cactus League road games.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners