Mariners Insider Blog

A second look at those seven spring questions confronting the Mariners

Can Dan Vogelbach play defense well enoygh at first base to earn a roster spot?
Can Dan Vogelbach play defense well enoygh at first base to earn a roster spot? AP

Time to reassess.

It’s been just over a month since the Mariners embarked on full-squad drills and The News Tribune identified seven questions requiring answers before the regular season opened April 3 at Houston.

These were, and remain, spring questions. The crucial issue as to whether Felix Hernandez can, for example, rebound from a disappointing season isn’t something to be determined in Arizona.

The Mariners had an open date Monday before starting their final spring push toward opening day. Let’s take another look at those seven questions:

***Can rookie Dan Vogelbach handle regular duty as the left-handed portion of a platoon set-up at first base with veteran Danny Valencia?

Vogelbach arrived sporting a redistributed physique and improved range at first base. That was a crucial first step and underscored his commitment to become a better defensive player.

Club officials have always believed Vogelbach can hit, although he’s currently in a spring slump. But his roster chances hinge on proving he isn’t a defensive liability at first base.

Results are encouraging but not yet definitive. For example, he still has difficulty in scooping throws.

"He’s working his tail off," manager Scott Servais said. "There are things he’s gotten better at. There are still things he needs to work on."

Opening line: A slight edge to Vogelbach making the club — in large part because that the club’s preference. He’ll be watched closely.

Updated line: Vogelbach’s odds have probably improved, but he’ll be watched closely over the next week-plus, particularly since the Mariners will have their regular defense back in place. A defensive regression could cost him a job.

***Does rookie Mitch Haniger appear ready for full-time duty in right field?

Only a poor spring was going to keep Haniger off the club. Just the opposite has happened; he’s been one of the best players in camp. It isn’t just the bat, either. He shows good range in the outfield and has flashed a cannon of an arm.

"Very impressive," Servais said. "Everything he does is very professional. He very routine-orientated, much like the veteran players even though he doesn’t have a lot of major-league service time."

Lots of things change in the final two weeks. Rosters are trimmed to big-leaguers and advanced prospects. Pitchers do more than work on fastball command. Everyone gets to see who can throw (and handle) a quality off-speed pitch.

Even so…

Opening line: Haniger makes the club.

Updated line: Ditto-plus.

***Who is the roster’s best fit as a utility player?

The Mariners effectively made this a two-man competition between Taylor Motter and Shawn O’Malley when they designated Mike Freeman for assignment in early March.

That Freeman cleared waivers and remained with the club didn’t change that. While O’Malley has been just as steady as Motter, club officials seem to suggest they see Motter as having higher upside potential.

Opening line: If the Mariners keep one utilityman (see below), Motter probably rates a slight edge. He has more experience in the outfield and is generally seen as a better defensive shortstop. It’s very tight, though.

Updated line: Motter seems a good bet to make the club.

***Would the roster be better served by having a second utility player as opposed to a backup outfielder?

If Motter makes that club, as seems increasingly likely, and demonstrates an expected proficiency in left field, he could serve as the right-handed complement to lefty-hitting Jarrod Dyson.

Club officials already view Motter as a solid offensive weapon against lefties.

That could mean the battle for the last roster spot comes down to O’Malley or outfielder Guillermo Heredia, who has had a great camp. It’s hard at this point to see how Ben Gamel avoids a ticket to Triple-A Tacoma.

Then again, neither Motter or O’Malley might make it. The Mariners are taking a hard look at opening the season with eight relievers.

Opening line: Tough to say because there are a lot of factors, but Dyson will be a free agent when the season ends. The Mariners would be well-served entering the offseason by knowing whether they can count on Gamel or Heredia.

Updated line: It might hinge on whether the Mariners see Motter as a regular alternative in left field to Dyson. If so, that benefits O’Malley’s roster chances.

***Is reliever Steve Cishek sufficiently recovered from hip surgery to avoid opening the season on the disabled list?

It always seemed likely that Cishek would open the season on the disabled list. That is now a virtual certainty. While he hasn’t experienced any setbacks in his recovery from hip surgery, he’s yet to throw from a mound.

Opening line: There’s little reason to push Cishek because the Mariners have plenty of alternatives. So figure a mid-April return, although that’s very subject to change.

The best guess is Dan Altavilla and Shae Simmons, the best arms among the remaining candidates, each break camp with the big-league club. Once Cishek returns, either Altavilla or Simmons likely becomes the closer at Tacoma.

Updated line: Simmons’ status is now in doubt after leaving a March 11 game because of forearm stiffness. An MRI showed a muscle strain — good news for a pitcher who missed much of the last two years after reconstructive elbow surgery.

Even so, until Simmons is back and pitching again, his uncertain status along with Cishek’s slow recovery means the Mariners are looking for at least two right-handed relievers to put alongside Edwin Diaz, Nick Vincent and Evan Scribner.

That strengthens Altavilla’s position and creates an opportunity for veteran Casey Fien and possibly Tony Zych.

***Is Ariel Miranda a better fit as the second lefty in the bullpen or as a starting pitcher at Triple-A Tacoma?

The Mariners, as a hedge, continue to keep Miranda in the starting rotation, although that should change once they get all of their starters back from the World Baseball Classic.

General manager Jerry Dipoto has insisted all along the Mariners will break camp with their 12 best pitchers. Unless James Pazos has a lights-out closing kick over the final two weeks, it’s hard to see how Miranda isn’t one of the 12.

And barring an injury, that means the bullpen.

By the way, Pazos’ chances improve significantly if the Mariners keep eight relievers.

Opening line: Miranda probably breaks camp in the bullpen, but the Mariners want to keep him stretched out. He could end up in the Tacoma rotation at some point if Pazos or someone else proves a viable alternative.

Updated line: Barring an injury to one of the projected five starters, look for Miranda in the bullpen.

***What is the pecking order for potential replacements in the rotation if an injury sidelines one of the five established starters?

Four of the five starters at Tacoma appear set with (in some order) Chris Heston, Dillon Overton, Chase De Jong and Rob Whalen. The leader for the fifth spot seems to be Cody Martin.

Of that group, only De Jong lacks big-league experience. Heston has been the best of the group to date, and he has the strongest resume with a 13-victory season at San Francisco in 2015 that included a no-hitter.

Opening line: Anybody’s guess. But keep an eye on how the Tacoma rotation lines up. The Mariners will likely stagger their top replacement candidates at one, three and five in the Rainiers’ five-man unit.

That way, if someone is needed on short notice, the Mariners should have one of their top preferences available on at least three days of rest.

Updated line: Unless something happens that pushes Miranda to the Tacoma rotation, Heston appears a likely choice to head the Rainiers’ rotation.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

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