PEORIA, Ariz. — If all goes well, Stefen Romero will resume his once-longshot bid to win a roster spot Sunday when the Mariners play Cleveland at Peoria Stadium.
"I’m doing fine," he quipped, "but my rib is not doing so well. They think it might be my intercostal (muscle), but it doesn’t seem too bad. I’m going to do stuff (in Saturday’s workout), and we’ll see how it feels.
"I’m hoping to play Sunday."
Romero, 27, experienced what club officials described as a "cramp" or spasm in the lower side of his back prior to his planned start at first base Thursday against Oakland in Mesa. He was scratched and didn’t make the trip.
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The location of the injury corresponds to the intercostal muscles, which run between the ribs and serve to regulate the chest cavity while breathing. They can become strained by rapid movements that bend or twist the upper body.
The problem often dissipates within a few days.
That’s what Romero is hoping because the Mariners break camp two weeks from Saturday, and he needs playing time — and a strong finish — to avoid returning to Triple-A Tacoma for a fourth straight year.
"He’ll hit off the tee (Saturday and see how that feels," manager Scott Servais said, "and then we’ll go from there."
Romero has 12 hits in 25 at-bats (.480) over 15 spring games and shows promise as a defensive first baseman, which marks the latest shift in his six-year professional career.
"I just try to slow everything down at game speed," he said. "You can take ground balls a thousand times a day, but it won’t match up to game speed. The fans, the live pitcher. You just try to slow it down as much as possible."
Servais noted that Romero has "infield in his background. He came out of college (in 2010 at Oregon State) as a third baseman. He’s swung the bat very well, and he’s certainly in our mix for that spot.
"The consistency of his at-bats. He’s not up there just dead-head hacking. He usually has a plan. He’s done a good job of getting guys in from third. His two-strike approach has been very good. It’s a consistent competitive at-bat."
Romero must convince the Mariners that he’s such a clearly superior choice that keeping him outweighs the risk of losing Montero and Lee to other clubs.
The Mariners can simply send Romero back to Tacoma because he has an option remaining. But Montero is out of options and can’t be sent down unless he clears waivers.
And while Lee is in camp on a minor-league contract, his deal includes an opt-out clause that allows him to become a free agent in late March if not on the big-league roster.
"We’re seeing Dae-Ho Lee make adjustments (at the plate)," Servais said. "He’s actually done very well in the field in how he’s handled things.
"Jesus Montero probably hasn’t swung the bat as well as he would have liked to in the last six, seven days. But he’ll continue to get plenty of chances. With Romero being down, it gives more opportunities to the other guys."
But Romero appeared to be winning over the Mariners before his back spasm.
"He’s been locked in," general manager Jerry Dipoto said. "His approach has been good. He’s the most versatile. He’s the most athletic. He’s the best defender at first base in that group. He’s the best runner."
That assessment comes with a numbers of qualifiers:
All clubs are wary of spring numbers —particularly early in spring when pitchers throw a lot of fastballs. It matters that Romero has a .192/.241/.308 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) in 85 career big-league games.
And, again, it isn’t a level playing field; the Mariners can keep Romero and either Montero or Lee by sending Romero to Tacoma. They can always recall Romero at a future date.
"When the competition is close," Servais said, "you have to go by what your eyes are telling you. What are seeing every day in spring-training games? Not so much the results, but what are you seeing?"
By any eye test, Romero rates this spring as the best of the three. Lee is 8-for-28 (.286) in 12 games, while Montero was 8-for-34 (.235) in 17 games.
The difference is sufficient that the Mariners are beginning to wonder whether Montero might clear waivers late in spring training. Is that a reasonable risk? Might Lee be open to a short stay in the minors with a delayed opt-out clause?
First, though, Romero needs to get back on the field. Until then, all other questions are on hold.
The calendar is starting to squeeze lefty reliever Charlie Furbush in his bid to be ready for full duty by April 4, when the Mariners open the regular season at Texas.
Furbush is ticketed for long-toss sessions Saturday and Sunday, along with some regular flat-ground work, to gauge his shoulder’s day-after recovery status. He experienced lingering day-after tightness after throwing sessions earlier in camp.
If all goes well in the back-to-back workouts, Furbush could be ready for a bullpen workout as the next step. After that comes throwing to hitters in batting practice before progressing to pitching in Cactus League games.
Being ready by April 4 is a tall order.
"There’s a chance," Servais said, "but I don’t want to hamstring the rest of our bullpen. So Charlie would have to be in a spot where we feel good about bringing him in back-to-back (games).
"We do have some off days early, which does benefit us. So I would not totally, 100 percent, rule it out. But some things are going to continue to progress the way they are."
"I still think it’s relatively close," Servais argued. "Karns’ last couple of innings (Friday) were intriguing. He kind of found his release point and got it going. He was getting the ball down, and the breaking ball came.
"It’s close. It’s competition. I know they feel it which, for me, is a good thing. Competition usually brings out the best in people. And if I’m not mistaken, it gets really competitive on April 4. So you need to be able to handle that stuff."
Paxton has mixed results: two starts in which he allowed no earned runs; and two bad ones — four runs in three innings against Arizona, and seven runs in two-plus innings last Thursday against Oakland.
Karns gave up only one run in 4 2/3 innings Friday against Texas but scrambled through trouble while throwing only 41 strikes in 81 pitches. Overall, he has allowed five earned runs in 13 2/3 innings.
"I don’t have a problem," Servais said, "in riding it out all the way to the end."
Outfielder Seth Smith and first baseman Adam Lind returned to the lineup after missing the four previous games. Smith started in the afternoon game against Kansas City after missing time because of tightness in his left groin. Lind was scheduled to start the night game. He spent the week battling the flu…bench coach Tim Bogar, also a flu victim, was back in uniform…reliever Justin De Fratus will be eased back into a work schedule in an effort to help him regain his form. He rejoined the Mariners on Friday by signing a minor-league deal just two days after being released. Servais said: "You probably won’t see him in a game for a little while. We want him to do some long toss and get stretched out a little bit. We hope to get him feeling good again."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners