League's role clarifying in unclear 'pen picture

League's role clarifying in unclear 'pen picture

League's role clarifying in unclear 'pen picture
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Of all the position battles going on in Mariners camp, the biggest uncertainty surrounds a bullpen in which 20 candidates are still fighting for seven likely spots and few front-runners have emerged.

The one thing that seems to be clarifying is Brandon League's position as interim closer until David Aardsma returns from January hip labrum surgery. Manager Eric Wedge hasn't made any official proclamations, but League is the one known commodity in a camp where veteran challenger Chris Ray has been slowed by a calf injury and Manny Delcarmen hasn't pitched effectively yet.

"He's going to be a late-inning guy for us," Wedge said of League. "How it all plays out, we still don't know. But right now he's obviously at the top of that pecking order."

Otherwise, the bullpen situation is about as gray as the Mariners' road uniforms. Among the uncertainties is a definitive timeline on Aardsma's return. Though the club originally set a mid-April projection, that seems to be fading as the veteran has just begun to play catch in the last week.

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Aardsma threw for the third time Sunday and said he lengthened out to 90 feet, though he's not speculating on when he'll be ready to step on a mound.

"It's absolutely a good step," Aardsma said. "I'll just keep throwing and keep extending it. I'm not worried about a final number [on a return date]. When I'm ready, I'm ready."

League saved six games for the Mariners last year and has been throwing well his last few times out. Youngsters Dan Cortes and Josh Lueke are hard-throwing youngsters with lots of upside, but neither is ready for a closer role, and Cortes in particular has struggled with his control in the early going.

Cortes, who just converted to a reliever last year in midseason, said Aardsma has been talking to him all spring about how to deal with his new role and potential jump to the Majors.

"I just need to be calm and relax and control my emotions," Cortes said. "I'm pretty amped up all the time, but having guys like that helping me out, it's great."

Ray, a non-roster invitee, is the one veteran in camp besides Aardsma with considerable closing experience, but he missed a week with soreness in his calf and is just now getting back to speed after throwing 1 1/3 innings in a Minor League game on Saturday.

"There's nothing worse than sitting around feeling like a waste of space for a week," Ray said. "Hopefully, everything goes well and I'm back in there this week. Everything feels good."

Ray did some running Sunday and will likely throw a bullpen session Monday, then hopes to be back in Cactus League action, in which he threw two innings with two hits and one run in two early appearances.

Things seem even murkier with the other bullpen spots. Non-roster invitee Fabio Castro, a 5-foot-7 lefty with limited Major League experience with the Phillies and Rangers, has been the most effective pitcher in Cactus League play with three hitless innings, four strikeouts and no walks.

"Obviously, we're counting on Brandon League and we've got some tough competition going on," pitching coach Carl Willis said. "Castro is throwing the ball very well the last couple times out. I think we saw the real Denny Bautista the other day, which was encouraging. Justin Miller, Tom Wilhelmsen, it's really too early to say.

"Cesar Jimenez has thrown well a couple times now. Oly [Garrett Olson] has gone out and been Oly. It's still a lot of competition going on there."

Aaron Laffey, acquired from the Indians, likely is competing with Olson for a roster spot as a lefty. He'll throw in a "B" game Monday against the Padres. Then there's Jose Flores, a hard-throwing 21-year-old right-hander the club will need to make a decision on as a Rule 5 Draft pick.

The one given is the 27-year-old League, who went 9-7 with a 3.42 ERA last year in 70 appearances. He's thrown five innings this spring, with seven hits and five runs, but the Mariners aren't concerned with those numbers.

"He's a veteran guy who knows what he needs to do in regard to coming into camp and getting ready," Wedge said. "I think you see him working in the right direction with each outing."

As for Aardsma?

"We're going to play it by ear and continue to see how he comes along," Willis said. "If things continue to progress, I'm hoping we could see him on the mound ... well, I don't have a date set for that.

"We have to be respectful to seeing how he responds to playing catch and baseball activities. We'll know more here in the next few days."

Shawn Kelley, another returning reliever, is progressing well from partial Tommy John surgery, but he'll open the season on the 60-day disabled list and isnít expected back until June at the earliest.

Which means there will be spots open for guys. Which guys exactly is something that will play out in the next two weeks.

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.