The ongoing search by the Mariners to find a starting pitcher — and maybe nothing else — underscores the club’s willingness to open next season with three rookies ticketed for regular duty in their lineup.
"I wouldn’t say `committed,’ but that’s our working plan," general manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledged. "I’ve said throughout that we have a need to get younger, more athletic and more flexible. And those guys are critical to doing that."
The Mariners project Ben Gamel as a near-regular in left field and have Dan Vogelbach and Mitch Haniger lined up for platoon duty at first base and in right field. The hope is Vogelbach and Haniger can play their way beyond part-time status.
"If they’re playing in (Triple-A) Tacoma," Dipoto said, "you’re only getting younger in theory. This is getting younger in practice.
"Those guys, they’re all young in terms of their experience. But every one of those guys has been excellent to better-than-excellent as a minor-league player."
The Mariners acquired all three players in trades over the last six months: Vogelbach on July 20 from the Chicago Cubs; Gamel on Aug. 31 from the New York Yankees; and Haniger on Nov. 23 from Arizona.
"Ben Gamel was the International League player of the year last year," Dipoto said. "Dan Vogelbach OPS’d .900 in the PCL. Mitch Haniger had the highest wRC+ number among anyone in minor-league baseball."
(OPS is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage; wRC+ is weighted runs created plus and seeks to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs.)
Outfielder Guillermo Heredia, another rookie, could also play his way into the mix if Haniger and/or Gamel struggle.
"We’ve seen things that we like in all of these players," Dipoto said. "It does give us that athletic, younger look that we wanted to have. We want to continue to move in that direction while we maintain what we think is an open window to compete for a championship."
That drive to end a 15-year postseason drought points to another off-season move: the Nov. 12 trade to get veteran Danny Valencia from Oakland. He is slotted to serve as Vogelbach’s partner at first base but can also play either outfield corner.
The Mariners also still have veteran Seth Smith, who projects to play right field against right-handed pitchers.
"The beauty of being younger and more flexible," Dipoto said, "is these (rookies) also have options. So if along the way, we need to augment what they’re doing on our major-league roster, we have the ability to move them on and off as need be."
The remainder of the Mariners’ projected 25-man roster is also virtually in place, thanks to a busy two months prior to arriving at the Winter Meetings, which run through Thursday morning at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
"We had a checklist," Dipoto said. "We wanted to knock out the right-handed bat that was going to balance out Vogelbach at first base and give us some corner utility, particularly in the outfield corners. I think Danny Valencia does that.
"We did want to address the top of the order and get an upgraded shortstop, and I think Jean Segura does that. We did want to improve our pitching depth, and I think with additions like (Rob) Whalen and (Max) Povse, we’ve done that.
"We wanted to address a left-hand (in the) bullpen. I think we did that both at the major-league level (by signing Marc Rzepczynski) and in terms of addressing it through the system (in trades to obtain James Pazos and Zac Curtis)."
The Mariners also believe they’ve bolstered their major-league-ready depth by acquiring versatile Taylor Motter and Richie Shaffer in a Nov. 18 trade with Tampa Bay for three lower-level players.
Here’s how things shape up — some 70 days before pitchers and catchers report for spring training:
Catcher: Mike Zunino is the starter with newcomer Carlos Ruiz ticketed for backup duty. Jesus Sucre, signed Monday, provides insurance, but the Mariners are hoping to get him through waivers to play at Triple-A Tacoma.
Infield: The Mariners appear committed to a Vogelbach/Valencia platoon at first base. The rest of the infield is set with second baseman Robinson Cano, Segura and third baseman Kyle Seager.
Shawn O’Malley is an early favorite to retain his job as the utility infielder, but he’ll need to hold off Mike Freeman and Motter.
Outfield: Gamel enters camp as the tentative choice in left field, while Leonys Martin returns in center. Right field projects as a platoon between Smith and either Haniger or Heredia. Valencia will also play the outfield on occasion.
Nelson Cruz figures to draw time in right field in addition to his duty as the primary designated hitter. That accounts for the allotted 13 non-pitcher spots on the roster.
Rotation: The current five-man unit projects as Felix Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma, Ariel Miranda and Nathan Karns, but the Mariners are determined to find another veteran starter.
Such an addition would not only provide the depth necessary as a hedge against injury but also provide Karns with a degree of competitive urgency and allow Miranda, possibly, to shift to the bullpen.
Bullpen: Veteran Steve Cishek is expected to be fully recovered from hip surgery at some point in April, which provides the bullpen with four virtual locks along with closer Edwin Diaz, Nick Vincent and Rzepczynski.
The Mariners appear likely to carry five right-handed relievers, which leaves two openings from a group that currently includes Evan Scribner, Arquimedes Caminero, Casey Fien, Dan Altavilla and Tony Zych.
Scribner and Caminero are out of options.
Miranda could join Rzepczynski as the unit’s second lefty. If not, the current candidates include Pazos, Curtis and Paul Fry.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners