Mariners Insider Blog

Analysis: Seven questions awaiting answers as Mariners open full-squad drills

Can hard-throwing reliever Shae Simmons, acquired from Atlanta in an offseason trade, win a spot in the Mariners’ bullpen? That’s one question facing club officials over the next six weeks.
Can hard-throwing reliever Shae Simmons, acquired from Atlanta in an offseason trade, win a spot in the Mariners’ bullpen? That’s one question facing club officials over the next six weeks. AP

At some point Sunday morning, the Mariners will emerge from their traditional pre-camp clubhouse meeting — a session that sets out rules and policies — and divide into various groups for their first full-squad workout.

Some 41 days later, they will break camp after their Cactus League finale against Colorado in Scottsdale to depart for Houston to begin the 2017 season on April 3 against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.

Here’s what club officials must determine between now and then in trimming a 62-player camp roster to 25 players for the regular season.

Note: Several key issues are omitted here that are certain to have an enormous impact on the season. Does Felix Hernandez look rejuvenated? Can newcomer Jean Segura handle a return to shortstop? Is Mike Zunino swinging at strikes?

But those questions don’t really require a spring answer.

Hernandez will start the season opener for a ninth straight season. Segura and Zunino will enter the season as lineup cornerstones. Nothing that happens in Arizona, barring an injury, will affect those matters.

What follows are seven questions requiring an answer from general manager Jerry Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and their staffs prior to that April 1 flight to Houston.

Can rookie Dan Vogelbach handle regular duty as the left-handed portion of a platoon set-up at first base with veteran Danny Valencia?

 
Dan Vogelbach can struggle this spring at the plate and still make the roster because club officials are convinced he can hit. Elaine Thompson The Associated Press

The Mariners are heavily inclined in Vogelbach’s favor. They want him to win the job. They’d like for him to develop beyond a platoon player.

That said, the Mariners are in win-now mode. Vogelbach needs to prove he can be an adequate defensive first baseman. The bar isn’t particularly high — say Adam Lind-level.

Vogelbach can struggle this spring at the plate and still make the roster because club officials are convinced he can hit. But a poor defensive spring will likely result in a demotion to Triple-A Tacoma.

Opening line: A slight edge to Vogelbach making the club — in large part because that the club’s preference. He’ll be watched closely.

Does rookie Mitch Haniger appear ready for full-time duty in right field?

It’s possible that Haniger could play his way off the 25-man roster, but it would take some work. Club officials love his power right-handed bat and see him as a plus defender.

All that said, the Mariners do have alternatives in Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredia. If Haniger really struggles, and either Gamel or Heredia puts together a big spring, then club officials might reassess.

Opening line: Haniger makes the club.

Who is the roster’s best fit as a utility player?

 
From left, Mike Freeman, Taylor Motter and Shawn O'Malley will vie for the Mariners' likely lone utility roster spot. The Associated Press

This should be the most-watched competition in camp with Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman and Taylor Motter each getting extensive playing time at multiple positions.

O’Malley is the incumbent and a switch-hitter. Freeman is a left-handed hitter acquired in an Aug. 1 waiver claim from Arizona. Motter is a right-handed hitter obtained in a November trade from Tampa Bay.

All three are genuine utilitymen who can serve as a backup shortstop and also play the outfield. All three have above-average speed. All three have limited big-league time, and all three have two options remaining.

It’s about as even as it can get.

The early view casts Motter as having slightly better tools, O’Malley as offering the flexibility of a switch-hitter, and Freeman as the heady player least likely to make a mistake. The decision will hinge on spring performance.

Opening line: If the Mariners keep one utilityman (see below), Motter probably rates a slight edge. He has more experience in the outfield and is generally seen as a better defensive shortstop. It’s very tight, though.

Would the roster be better served by having a second utility player as opposed to a backup outfielder?

Let’s assume Haniger plays just fine in right field. If so, that seemingly positions Gamel and Heredia in competition to be the backup outfielder. That could be a close call, too, since both can play all three positions.

But Motter has considerable outfield experience and, as a right-handed hitter, could serve as a platoon partner in left field with newcomer Jarrod Dyson, a left-handed hitter.

A bench with Motter and another utilityman, either O’Malley or Freeman, would provide Servais with enormous in-game flexibility. It would also allow Gamel and Heredia to play full-time at Tacoma while being on call.

Opening line: Tough to say because there are a lot of factors, but Dyson will be a free agent when the season ends. The Mariners would be well-served entering the offseason by knowing whether they can count on Gamel or Heredia.

Is reliever Steve Cishek sufficiently recovered from hip surgery to avoid opening the season on the disabled list?

 
A still-ailing Steve Cishek could mean (a) Dan Altavilla and Shae Simmons each make the club or (b) create an opening for someone else. Bruce Kluckhohn The Associated Press

Cishek is still recovering from offseason hip surgery and isn’t expected to start throwing bullpen workouts before early March. That said, it won’t necessarily take long for a veteran reliever to build his endurance to game-ready status.

The key here is how it impacts other bullpen candidates.

The Mariners figure to keep five right-handed relievers and, barring injuries, that group will include closer Edwin Diaz along with set-up relievers Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner, who are each out of options. A healthy Cishek would make four.

If there’s just one opening, the choice seems to be either Dan Altavilla or newcomer Shae Simmons because each fills the need for a power right-handed arm for set-up situations.

A still-ailing Cishek could mean (a) Altavilla and Simmons each make the club or (b) create an opening for someone else. The Mariners have 13 right-handed relievers on their camp roster.

Opening line: There’s little reason to push Cishek because the Mariners have plenty of alternatives. So figure a mid-April return, although that’s very subject to change.

The best guess is Altavilla and Simmons, the best arms among the remaining candidates, each break camp with the big-league club. Once Cishek returns, either Altavilla or Simmons likely becomes the closer at Tacoma.

Is Ariel Miranda a better fit as the second lefty in the bullpen or as a starting pitcher at Triple-A Tacoma?

 
Lefthanded pitcher Ariel Miranda probably breaks camp in the bullpen, but the Mariners want to keep him stretched out. Mark J. Terrill The Associated Press

All signs point to Miranda shifting to the bullpen in a flexible match-up and extended-innings role similar to how the Mariners used departed lefty Vidal Nuno in 2016.

That could change if newcomer James Pazos or some other lefty reliever has a strong spring. Other candidates include Zac Curtis, Paul Fry, Nick Hagadone and Dean Kiekhefer. The Mariners haven’t given up on Miranda as a starter.

Opening line: Miranda probably breaks camp in the bullpen, but the Mariners want to keep him stretched out. He could end up in the Tacoma rotation at some point if Pazos or someone else proves a viable alternative.

What is the pecking order for potential replacements in the rotation if an injury sidelines one of the five established starters?

Barring injuries, the big-league rotation is set with Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Drew Smyly and Yovani Gallardo. But organizational depth will play factor over the six-month season. The Mariners used 13 starters in 2016.

Candidates include Chris Heston, Dillon Overton, Cody Martin, Rob Whalen, Andrew Moore, Max Povse and Christian Bergman.

Opening line: Anybody’s guess. But keep an eye on how the Tacoma rotation lines up. The Mariners will likely stagger their top replacement candidates at one, three and five in the Rainiers’ five-man unit.

That way, if someone is needed on short notice, the Mariners should have one of their top preferences available on at least three days of rest.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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