PEORIA, Ariz. — The evolving mix that is the Mariners’ bullpen could include either Nathan Karns or James Paxton, who are currently competing for the final spot in the club’s rotation.
"It’s possible," general manager Jerry Dipoto conceded prior to Paxton’s start Thursday against Oakland in Mesa. "Our preference would be to keep them (both) stretched out (as starters). But if we have to, we’ll go a different route."
Karns is generally viewed as a better potential bullpen fit, but the Mariners could turn to Paxton to fill one of their two projected lefty relief jobs.
"First of all," Dipoto said, "we want to take the 12 guys who give us the best chance win day after day. We feel that, at any certain point, those two guys are going to be among our best 12."
The Mariners are scrambling for parts in the bullpen because of injuries to Evan Scribner and Ryan Cook, Charlie Furbush’s slow recovery from shoulder problems and Justin De Fratus’ ineffectiveness.
"You also looking at different ways, with the guys you have in camp," manager Scott Servais said, "that you can put the bullpen together."
Closer-to-be Steve Cishek returned to action Thursday after being slowed by some biceps issues following a March 6 outing against Texas.
"I’m not concerned where he’s at, innings-wise," Servais said. "I think he’ll be fine. We’ve just got to get him out there and keep him moving forward."
The situation surrounding Furbush is far iffier. He threw long toss again Thursday, which is a positive sign since his problem this spring has been lingering tightness the day after a throwing workout.
But opening day is just 2 1/2 weeks away, which is why Dipoto says, "we’re 50-50" that Furbush is ready when the season starts.
The Mariners shifted Mike Montgomery earlier this week to the bullpen at least in part as a hedge against Furbush’s possible absence. But Montgomery is also out of options, and club officials doubt he would clear waivers.
"You get more adrenaline for sure," Montgomery said Wednesday after working one scoreless inning as a reliever in a 9-6 victory over the Giants. "It’s get up a half-inning before, make my warmup pitches and run straight into the game."
The Mariners liked what they saw.
"The stuff was up a little bit," Servais said. "The velocity was 92-94 (on Wednesday). There’s down angle to it. The presence. Come in, left-handed, and just go after it."
If Montgomery continues to pitch well, that seems likely to diminish any chance that Paxton winds up in the bullpen. Montgomery could win a spot even if Furbush is ready to go — because Vidal Nuno has an option remaining.
Four of the five right-handed jobs appear set, barring further injuries, with Cishek, Joaquin Benoit, Tony Zych and Joel Peralta. The Mariners signed Peralta, an 11-year veteran, just prior to the start of camp to a minor-league deal.
"His velocity is up over last year," Dipoto said. "He’s got that little backdoor curveball. He just knows how to sequence his pitches. He can elevate at 91 miles an hour, and it plays up because his split is so good."
While Karns could be a candidate for the fifth spot, the Mariners are increasingly intrigued by Blake Parker, who spent the last nine years in the Cubs’ system. He posted a 3.86 ERA in 74 big-league games from 2012-14.
"He’s at 89-92 (mph)," Dipoto said. "He works ahead in the count, and he has a legitimate wipe-out split. It’s a real pitch."
One argument against Parker is, like Peralta, he is in camp on a minor-league deal and would need to be added to the 40-man roster. Once added, neither could be sent to the minors without clearing waivers.
That means somebody would need to go if, as expected, Scribner is ready to return by late April.
"He won’t pitch in a game before we leave (spring training)," Dipoto said, "but you may see him up and moving on a mound in the not-too-distant future. He needs a spring training. He’s going to need innings somewhere.
"We’ll start him here (in extended spring training), and when he’s ready to go, we’ll send him to Tacoma."
Keeping Karns or Paxton, even as a bridge to Scribner’s return, would enable the Mariners to keep Parker in reserve at Triple-A Tacoma.
While Shawn O’Malley is batting .583 (14-for-24) in 14 games after getting two more hits Thursday against Oakland, his chances appear slim in his bid to win a job as a utility infielder.
"To be a utility infielder," Servais said, "you have to be able to play shortstop. Kyle Seager is not going to play shortstop for us. Robby Cano is not going to play shortstop for us. So it’s got to be one of the guys in the utility role."
And O’Malley at shortstop?
"I think if you had to use him in a pinch," Servais said, "you can certainly throw him out there, and he knows the position well enough to handle it.
"Is he at the point where you would run him out there for two weeks or a month and say he’s our everyday guy, I think we’ve got some more accomplished shortstops ahead of him in (Chris) Taylor and (Luis) Sardinas."
Shortstop Ketel Marte is in line for more-regular duty in an effort to find his form at the plate as he worked to emerge from a 1-for-18 skid over his last six games.
"I think he and Edgar (Martinez) had a little session (on Wednesday)," Servais said. "His timing has been off. He hasn’t stayed square to the plate. He’s pulling off a lot, especially left-handed.
"Getting started and being on time is what he’s working on. He will play a little more consistently going forward to help him get his timing going."
Marte admitted he feels "a little lost" at the plate but said he just has "to keep working hard."
Dipoto reiterated the Mariners’ desire to hold onto De Fratus by signing him to a minor-league contract if he clears waivers after being released prior to Wednesday’s game…The Mariners signed right-hander Steve Johnson to a minor-league deal and assigned him to minor-league camp. He was 5-1 with a 4.25 ERA in 27 games, including five starts, for Baltimore from 2012-15. He was released Monday by Texas after allowing eight runs in 3 1/3 innings in four spring outings….first baseman Adam Lind returned Thursday to workouts after missing a day because of flu-like symptoms…outfielder Seth Smith should return to action Saturday in one of the split-squad games. He experienced some tightness in his left groin in Monday’s game against Arizona in Scottsdale…bench coach Tim Bogar remains sidelined by the same flu that sidelined Lind and catcher Steve Clevenger.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners