Seattle Mariners

Questions for the Mariners entering 2015

QUESTIONS ENTERING 2015

One more move coming?

The trade that sent Michael Saunders to Toronto for veteran left-hander J.A. Happ created a hole in right field that the subsequent deal to acquire Justin Ruggiano only partially resolved.

Ruggiano is a right-handed hitter who helps balance the lineup, but he likely fits best as a platoon player. That leaves the need for a left-handed hitter to complete the platoon.

The Mariners have shown interest in Seth Smith, who now seems superfluous in San Diego after the Padres obtained Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers in separate deals.

As the Mariners’ roster currently projects, James Jones looms as the top candidate to platoon with Ruggiano. The Mariners could also try to convert Brad Miller into an outfielder if he fails to win the shortstop job.

Who is the shortstop?

Current plans call for a spring battle between Miller and Chris Taylor to determine a starting shortstop. The two shared the duty last season over the final two months, but the Mariners are unlikely to continue that arrangement.

Club officials generally view Taylor as the better defensive player but believe Miller has the potential to blossom into an impact run-production bat.

It’s possible that Miller could shift positions — to the outfield or even first base — if Taylor wins the job at shortstop. That would keep his bat in the lineup.

If Miller is the shortstop, Taylor seems more likely to return to Triple-A Tacoma in order to play every day rather than serve as a backup infielder.

How does the rotation shake out?

Start with this: Manager Lloyd McClendon identified Happ as likely to fill the No. 3 or No. 4 slot, and the Mariners believe lefty James Paxton has the potential to front a rotation.

That brings everything into focus because staff ace Felix Hernandez and steady Hisashi Iwakuma are fixtures. A possible right-left mix lines up Hernandez, Paxton, Iwakuma and Happ as the front four.

If so, that positions right-hander Taijuan Walker and lefty Roenis Elias for a spring battle to determine the fifth spot. Both have options remaining, and the odd man out is more likely to start at Tacoma than shift to the bullpen.

It also leaves no room for right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who is out of options. Ramirez rebounded from a disappointing season by turning in six dominant starts in the Venezuelan Winter League.

Normally, Ramirez might be a swingman candidate in the bullpen, but the Mariners are also overloaded with relievers. So, barring injuries, he figures to be shopped on the trade market.

The Mariners will also take a look next spring at lefty Danny Hultzen, who is finally healthy after missing much of the past two seasons because of shoulder miseries.

Hultzen was the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft and zoomed through the minors before his shoulder blew out. He seems certain to open next season in the minors but, if back in form, could be a factor at some point.

Who loses out

in the bullpen?

The fiercest competition next spring might be for jobs in a relief corps that last season led the majors with a 2.59 ERA. Only All-Star closer Fernando Rodney, after a club-record 48 saves, seems an absolute lock.

Count the candidates for the other seven (maybe just six) slots:

Right-handers Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen and Dominic Leone all made at least 55 appearances last season while compiling sub-2.70 ERAs.

Right-hander Brandon Maurer struggled as a starter but turned dominant when switched to the bullpen: a 2.17 ERA in 31 outings. Right-hander Carson Smith made nine scoreless appearances as a September call-up.

Lefty Charlie Furbush had some early hiccups but delivered a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star break and, overall, struck out 51 in 421/3 innings.

Veteran lefty Joe Beimel departed as a free agent after a 2.20 ERA in 56 outings, but the Mariners have at least three candidates lined up to compete for the unit’s second lefty job: Lucas Luetge, Edgar Olmos and David Rollins.

Now add veteran right-hander Mark Lowe and lefty Brian Moran, who returns from the Angels after being selected in the 2013 Rule 5 Draft. Competition really could be cutthroat.

Do the Mariners need a veteran backup catcher?

Club officials say no. They insist Jesus Sucre possesses the necessary catch-and-throw skills they prioritize as Mike Zunino’s caddy.

Much the same might be said for John Hicks, the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Hicks figures to open next season at Tacoma, which is where he ended last season.

Even so, don’t be surprised if the Mariners sign a Humberto Quintero-type to pair with Hicks at Tacoma and be available for duty if something happens to Zunino.

It’s hard to envision the Mariners rolling with a Sucre/Hicks combination for any extended period.

Who backs up first baseman Logan Morrison?

This is a concern because various injuries limited Morrison to fewer than 100 games in each of the last three seasons.

That duty, as the roster currently projects, falls to veteran utilityman Willie Bloomquist, although Jesus Montero remains in the system.

Miller could draw duty at first if he isn’t the shortstop, but the Mariners are also likely to focus some attention next spring on D.J. Peterson, their first-round pick in 2013.

Peterson figures to shift increasingly from third base to first base. He is also likely to open the season in the minors, but club officials say his bat is sufficiently advanced to make him a promotion possibility later in the year.

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