The most-prominent holdover in the Mariners’ revamped bullpen remains a question mark that threatens the composition and effectiveness of the entire unit.
Lefty Charlie Furbush says he’s “feeling good” in his continuing efforts to recover from the shoulder tendinitis that prevented him from pitching last season after July 7.
But Furbush turned cautious when asked Saturday whether he harbored any doubts that he’d be 100 percent when the Mariners open the season April 4 at Texas.
“I’m taking it a day at a time,” Furbush said between appearances at the club’s annual FanFest at Safeco Field. “I can’t be a fortune teller, unfortunately, and read the future. I’m just going to keep doing my work.
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“Once I get on the mound, we’ll see what I’ve got. Once we get to that point, I think I’ll have a pretty good idea of where I’m at.”
Trainer Rick Griffin said Furbush, 29, will enter spring camp on a go-slow plan.
“He has not thrown off the mound yet,” Griffin said. “We like our pitchers to throw three or four bullpens before they get to spring training.
“Charlie probably won’t throw a bullpen until we get down there just because we want to be cautious and make sure everything is OK. But he’s doing well so far. He’s not having any issues and no setbacks. So we’re moving forward.”
The Mariners are counting on a healthy Furbush, who had a 2.08 ERA last season in 33 games prior to his injury. General manager Jerry Dipoto cites him as the club’s primary left-handed setup man for new closer Steve Cishek.
Another offseason acquisition, veteran Joaquin Benoit, projects as the bullpen’s primary right-handed setup reliever.
“Our belief,” Dipoto said, “is that a healthy Charlie Furbush gives us three legitimate, experienced bullpen guys.”
Dipoto also wants two lefties in a projected seven-man bullpen. Choosing one to pair with a healthy Furbush figures to be one of the spring’s top position battles. And if they need two because Furbush suffers a setback?
The Mariners don’t want to think about that at this point.
“He’s healthy,” Dipoto declared. “We will carry a second left-hander (in the bullpen), whether that be Mike Montgomery, Vidal Nuno or some other member. It could be (rookie) Paul Fry. We will carry a second left-hander.”
While Nuno and Fry have options, Montgomery must make the club or be exposed to waivers before he can be sent back to the minors.
“He will come in as a starter (in spring training),” Dipoto said. “It’s a lot easier to prep a guy to start and then back off to allow him to leave if that’s what the case may be. We’re not going to be opposed to carrying him in the bullpen.”
Montgomery, 26, flashed star potential last year by pitching two shutouts and compiling a 1.62 ERA in his first seven career big-league starts following an early June promotion from Triple-A Tacoma.
Then he hit a wall — and hard. Montgomery went 0-4 with an 8.33 ERA in his next nine starts and was sent back to the minors. He also issued 24 walks over 40 innings in his final nine starts.
Nuno, 28, offers the versatility of being able to pitch in any role. He made 32 appearances, including 10 starts, after arriving last season from Arizona in a June 3 trade. He had a 1.93 ERA in 22 relief outings.
Fry, 23, received a non-roster camp invite after compiling a 2.02 ERA last season while making 28 appearances at Advanced-A Bakersfield and 22 at Double-A Jackson. He also had 113 strikeouts in 80 innings.
“He kind of came out of nowhere last year,” Mariners assistant general manager Jeff Kingston said. “He’s a 91 (to) 93 mile-an-hour fastball guy with a good slider and deception.”
Another possibility is Danny Hultzen, the injury-plagued No. 2 overall selection in the 2011 draft. The Mariners now view Hultzen, 26, as a reliever in part because shoulder injuries limited him to 43 2/3 innings over the past three years.
“Honestly, if I had my druthers,” Dipoto said, “Danny Hultzen comes in, blows us all away, and he winds up being the second lefty to join Charlie Furbush in the bullpen and the rest is history.
“Danny Hultzen is a terrific kid. He’s found himself on the unfortunate side of injury on more than a couple of seasons, but he is wildly talented. I believe we’re going to see the arm strength that he's always shown when he’s healthy.
“We are going to see the pitchability and the acumen that he’s shown when he’s healthy.”
Even so, Hultzen still looms as a long shot to open the season in the big leagues.
Since he is out of options, Hultzen had to clear waivers in November before the Mariners could send him to Triple-A Tacoma after he was designated for assignment to clear a 40-man roster spot.
The Mariners are unlikely to put him back on the roster until they’re certain he can handle a big-league workload. In short, Hultzen will likely need to prove himself in the minors even if he excels in spring training.
First, though, the Mariners need a healthy Furbush.
“I’m feeling good,” he said. “I actually played catch out to 120 feet (Saturday) with (James) Paxton and Cishek and felt great. I’m just taking it a day at a time, but I’m working my way up to getting ready to go in spring training.
“Right now, I’m not in a position to be ready for the first day in camp. They’re going to take it a little slow with me. Just put me in a position to get ready for April 4. I’m excited to get down to spring and see what I’ve got.”
Much depends on it.
LERUD NEARS DEAL
The Mariners are closing in on a minor-league deal with veteran catcher Steve Lerud, which would effectively fill the hole created by a recent injury to Jesus Sucre. An agreement with Lerud would include an invitation to big-league camp.
Lerud, 31, is a journeyman minor-league player who has just 15 big-league at-bats, in 2012-13 with Philadelphia, over a 12-year pro career.
The Mariners accelerated their search for a veteran catcher after Sucre suffered a broken fibula, the smaller of two bones in the lower leg, and severely sprained right ankle Jan. 17 while playing winter ball in Venezuela.
Sucre recently underwent surgery and is expected to miss six months.
Lerud has spent time in six organizations and batted .238 last season with two homers and 23 RBIs in 60 games for Triple-A Syracuse in the Washington organization. He has a .224 career average in 867 minor-league games.
ISHIKAWA DEAL FIZZLES
A potential minor-league deal with first baseman Travis Ishikawa, which once appeared close, now seems unlikely. A club official said Ishikawa, a former Federal Way standout, is expected to pursue other opportunities.
The breakdown might be due, in part, to the Mariners’ recent agreement with free-agent first baseman Gaby Sanchez, who spent last season in Japan after spending seven seasons in the big leagues.
Sanchez is expected to battle Jesus Montero as a right-handed complement to starter Adam Lind, a left-handed hitter.
Two recent top-100 prospect rankings underscored the Mariners’ need to overhaul their farm system.
Outfielder Alex Jackson was the organization’s only player cited by Baseball Prospectus or MLB.com among the game’s top 100 prospects in pre-spring rankings.
Jackson, 20, placed No. 94 on both the MLB.com Top 100 list and Baseball Prospectus’ Top 101 rankings despite a disappointing first full pro season when he was demoted from Low-A Clinton to Short-A Everett.
The News Tribune Top 10 had Jackson as the organization’s top prospect entering last season following his selection in 2014 with the sixth overall pick in the draft. The new News Tribune Top 10 will be released in mid-February.
“Jackson has the offensive upside to be an impact middle-of-the-order hitter,” MLB.com reported, “though the gap between his present ability and overall potential might be greater than initially expected.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners