Optimism runs high for Mariners

Staff writerFebruary 12, 2013 

PEORIA, Ariz. — Spring training officially begins today for the Seattle Mariners, bringing a sense of optimism – foolish or not – for every team in baseball.

It’s a cliché that every club has a chance to win. And the Mariners aren’t afraid to fall into that mindset.

“I feel as confident as ever in regard to our future here in Seattle,” manager Eric Wedge said. “I’m excited about the upcoming year and I think the fans should be excited about it. I know there are a lot of questions and that’s a good thing, but in regard to how we see our future and where we see ourselves at right now, we feel we’re in a very, very good place.”

Pitchers and catchers will report to the spring training complex for physicals. Their first workout will be Wednesday morning. Position players officially report on Friday, but many will begin filtering in for workouts over the next few days.

So while the Mariners are not above cockeyed enthusiasm, there are questions and concerns that must be addressed before the season begins on April 1 in Oakland.

“Spring training will be interesting,” general manager Jack Zdruiencik said. “We’ll see young kids compete, veteran guys doing their thing, hopefully the kids at the big-league level take the next step and continue to grow to become mature big-league players.”

The current primary worry is Felix Hernandez, his contract extension and rumors about possible elbow problems.

Hernandez will take his physical today and is supposed to address the media.

The Mariners and Hernandez’s representatives are still discussing a reported contract extension that would pay the former Cy Young Award winner $175 million over the next seven years. Seattle seems likely to request protection in case of serious injury to Hernandez’s elbow.

Sources close to the situation think the deal will still get done sometime this week.

But what else should Mariners fans watch for this spring?

In terms of true position battles, there are a few.

The fifth spot in the rotation is far from locked up. Blake Beavan is the favorite to win the spot, but he will face competition from veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland and possibly from one of the quartet of young prospects: James Paxton, Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer.

It seems unlikely any of the four youngsters will make the rotation following spring training, but it’s possible all four could be in the Tacoma Rainiers’ starting rotation.

“I don’t think you can take our upper level pitching, between Double-A and Triple-A, and the young kids at the big league level, and say anybody in baseball has that right now,” Zduriencik said.

At first base, Justin Smoak appears to be at a crossroads in his career. The Mariners have given him multiple chances to earn the job with some consistent hitting and he’s faltered. Now, he’s facing competition from Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales.

Smoak worked hard to change his body in the offseason and get stronger. If he can’t produce immediate results, he may end up in Triple-A to start the season.

The left-field job is far from settled. The Mariners brought in Morse to be the everyday left fielder. But what if Jason Bay somehow resurrects his career? What would the Mariners do then? They would want to have both of them in the lineup. It would be Wedge’s job to try to make it work somehow.

“If you look at some of the veterans we brought in, plus the young kids, the versatility is really going to work for us, whether it be left, right, first, DH, the outfield/first base/DH or catcher/DH, we’re going to have some opportunities to make it work,” Wedge said. “I want to make sure we’re better balanced, not just with regard to young and old, but also left-right, to make it more difficult for teams to match up with us.”

Something else to watch is the continued progression of catcher Jesus Montero. The Mariners have asked him to come in to camp in better physical shape. They’ve also preached to him about his concentration. Granted, his focus might waver with his name circulating amid the rumors coming from the performance enhancing drug scandal in Florida.

All of these concerns pale when pondering the biggest question: Will the Mariners be significantly better this season?

After a rebuilding year where a ton of inexperienced players were penciled into the daily lineup, the Mariners have added proven hitters and veteran leadership. Plus, the young returnees have a crucial year of seasoning under their belt.

“It’s seems like it’s going to be a really great group,” said infielder Kyle Seager. “They’ve brought in some talented guys. It’s definitely exciting.”

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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