OAKLAND -- On the eve of his team's Opening Day debut against the A's, Mariners manager Eric Wedge made two things official Thursday. Brandon League will serve as closer in David Aardsma's absence, and Ryan Langerhans starts in center field in place of Franklin Gutierrez.
The League decision seemed a mere formality, given he's been at the head of a short list of candidates for that spot throughout Spring Training. But Langerhans is a bit of a surprise, since Michael Saunders had initially seemed destined for that duty once it became apparent Gutierrez was going to begin the season on the disabled list with an ongoing digestive tract issue.
But Langerhans, 31, started three of the last four spring games in center and convinced Wedge and his staff that his strong spring (.316, two home runs, nine RBIs) and excellent defensive play deserved credit. So the eight-year veteran has gone from a non-roster invitee to Opening Day starter.
Langerhans is a career .228 hitter but reworked his swing over the offseason and has felt confident through spring. With five doubles, two triples and two home runs, he posted the most extra-base hits and highest slugging percentage (.579) of any of the Mariners regulars in Cactus League play.
"He really has had a nice camp for us," Wedge said as his team conducted its final workout at Oakland-Alameda County Stadium before Friday night's opener. "Michael will be in center field some, too. But we felt that's where we wanted to start on Opening Day, and we'll go from there. He's been around a little bit more and has some experience. You really have to recognize the camp he had, the way he swung the bat and ran the bases, and he plays an aggressive center field. So that's where we want to start."
As for League, the 27-year-old struggled at times this spring with a 1-2 record and 5.54 ERA, but Wedge will begin the season at least with him in the ninth-inning role instead of former Orioles closer Chris Ray or veteran Jamey Wright, who put up 11 straight scoreless innings.
League said his understanding is his role could change on a daily basis.
"We've got a bullpen full of guys who can do it," League said. "I guess we're just going to do it by committee. He said it'll be day-to-day, and some days [I'll] be setting up Ray and vice versa. I just have to go in there and get outs.
"Last year I learned a lot about being in the bullpen and pitching in various roles. I'll be ready."
Wedge indicated the role is a little more permanent than that, at least in Aardsma's absence, but acknowledged things are just being worked out and he needs to see how players perform before casting anything in stone.
"Initially that's the way we'll start out," he said of League as closer. "I'm not sure how it'll play out. Brandon has the most experience at the back end of the bullpen. We've got a few other guys that are veteran guys who'll see time at the back end as well. A lot of it depends on how we use Leaguer. He's a guy who can be a one-plus [inning] guy. So depending how you use him, he might not be available the next day."
Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen are both hard-throwing right-handers who also won bullpen jobs, but neither has pitched in the Major Leagues, so Wedge won't toss them into late-inning situations right off the bat.
Ray and League are the two candidates with closing experience, with David Pauley, Aaron Laffey and Wright seen more as multiple-inning relievers.
League is the only one of the seven relievers who was with the team at the start of last season, so it's not surprising that roles are still being worked out.
"There's some uncertainty, and that's not necessarily a bad thing," Wedge said. "It just means we need to get into the regular season and work off what we see. I don't want to pigeonhole ourselves. Until you get some history under your belt, it's hard to predetermine. But we have to start somewhere, and that's where we're starting."