Mariners Insider Blog

Competition for duty as utilityman and backup outfielder about to intensify

Taylor Motter is one of three candidates to be the Mariners’ utilityman.
Taylor Motter is one of three candidates to be the Mariners’ utilityman. AP

This much hasn’t changed since the Mariners opened camp in mid-February: the only competition for roster spots outside of the bullpen concerns two jobs: utilityman and backup outfielder.

And that competition should intensify beginning Wednesday night when the Mariners return from the first open date in their spring schedule by playing Cleveland at 6:10 p.m. Pacific time at Peoria Stadium.

The Mariners are without their starting middle infielders, second baseman Robinson Cano and shortstop Jean Segura, and missing at least a part-time outfielder in Nelson Cruz because of the World Baseball Classic.

Opportunity beckons for utility candidates Shawn O’Malley, Taylor Motter and Mike Freeman as well as outfielders Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel. It’s also possible the Mariners could keep a second utilityman as their backup outfielder.

Start with the utilityman competition, which again became a three-man battle when Freeman cleared waivers last Saturday after being designated for assignment to create a roster space when the Mariners acquired pitcher Chase De Jong.

"They’re going to play a lot," manager Scott Servais said. "Back and forth between shortstop and second. Get some time in the outfield as well. You see them show up at first base for a few innings here or there.

"They all bring a little something different to the mix in their skill sets. Even though in stature they look a lot alike, their skill sets are a little bit different."

General manager Jerry Dipoto said the club wouldn’t view Freeman any differently because of his change in status — Freeman is now a non-roster player in camp as a minor-league invite.

But the fact remains that Freeman is the player the Mariners chose to risk losing on waivers after getting De Jong from the Dodgers.

And to keep Freeman now instead of O’Malley and/or Motter would mean putting Freeman back on the 40-man roster, which would require a taking someone else off and possibly losing them in a waiver claim.

Clubs generally are reluctant to surrender inventory in spring training if they can avoid doing so. All of which means Freeman probably needs to be seen as clearly better than O’Malley and/or Motter to win a big-league job.

Another wrinkle: The choice for a backup outfielder isn’t simply an either/or question between Heredia and Gamel because all three utility candidates have experience in the outfield.

Two utilitymen on the roster would create immense flexibility but, even if it becomes a choice between Heredia and Gamel, the decision goes deeper than deciding whether the roster benefits more from a left-handed or right-handed hitter.

Consider: The starting outfielder most likely to be slotted for platoon duty is left fielder Jarrod Dyson, a left-hander hitter, but that doesn’t necessarily favor Heredia (a right-handed hitter) over Gamel (a left-handed hitter).

The Mariners have talked of replacing Dyson with a right-handed bat by shifting right fielder Mitch Haniger to left field and putting Cruz in right field. Servais said previously that he wants to find some time for Cruz in the outfield.

Another right-handed option would be to put Danny Valencia in the outfield if club officials believe first baseman Dan Vogelbach, a left-handed hitter, can play, at least occasionally, against left-handed pitchers.

The prime evaluation period for these various moving parts is the next two weeks as the WBC works toward a March 22 championship game, but Cano, Segura and Cruz could return sooner if the Dominican Republic makes an early exit.

UP NEXT: The Mariners resume their Cactus League schedule at 6:10 p.m. Pacific time Wednesday by playing Cleveland at Peoria Stadium. The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN and mariners.com.

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma is scheduled for two innings in his second start with Ariel Miranda, Dillon Overton, Ryan Weber, Zac Curtis, Dean Kiekhefer and James Pazos also scheduled to pitch.

Cleveland lists right-hander Carlos Carrasco as its starter.

DAYS LEFT UNTIL OPENING DAY: 26

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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