I saw where Eric Wedge wasn't sure if Ichiro Suzuki would be the leadoff hitter next season. If not Ichiro, then who would fill that role?
-- Frank A., Tacoma, Wash.
For starters, I definitely wouldn't rule Ichiro out from returning to the leadoff spot. I think Wedge just wants to establish from the get-go this season that all lineup options are open, so there isn't as big an issue if he does decide to move Ichiro to a different spot at some point.
As for who could step in, the two most logical answers are Dustin Ackley or Chone Figgins. Wedge pondered putting Figgins there midway through last season, but he wasn't hitting well enough by that time to deserve the shot.
While most fans are done with Figgins, if he isn't traded before Spring Training, the Mariners would be remiss to not at least give him a look in that role and see if that provides some kind of spark before they just give up on a major investment who was one of the game's better leadoff hitters with the Angels.
Ackley certainly has the desired on-base percentage and baserunning instincts to be a good leadoff hitter. The question is whether the Mariners need his bat more in a run-producing spot, which is why he hit third much of last year. If you can improve the rest of your lineup, Ackley might be a very good option there in the long run. He's not as much the classic basestealer type, but he is fast, he'd get himself in scoring position a lot and he quietly played the final month last year with a sore hamstring that limited his running.
Do you have any updates on the physical problems of Casper Wells and Franklin Gutierrez?
-- Mac V., Barnstaple, United Kingdom
Both outfielders are reportedly doing very well after being lost for the end of last season. Wells had vertigo-like symptoms that affected his head, but I'm told he's back to normal. Gutierrez also has told the Mariners he's gained strength and weight over the offseason and is feeling very good after all his stomach issues -- and then a strained oblique -- last year.
Wedge is being very proactive about these situations this offseason, however. Rather than just rely on second-hand reports, he's asked Wells and Gutierrez to come to Seattle in early January so they can be checked out and show where they are physically with a month or so before camp opens. Justin Smoak, Brendan Ryan, Kyle Seager and Ackley are also coming out at that time, so their strength and conditioning can be monitored.
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After watching Albert Pujols leave the Cardinals, will the Mariners' urgency to re-sign Felix Hernandez increase?
-- Doug T., Missoula, Mont.
While Hernandez clearly is atop the Mariners' priority list for the long term, he still has three years and $60 million remaining on the five-year, $78 million deal he signed in 2010. So if there is urgency for the Mariners, it would be to surround Felix with a team that will win enough games to keep him wanting to stay beyond the expiration of his current contract in '14.
Japanese shortstop Munenori Kawasaki has expressed interest in the Majors only if picked up by the Mariners. Do you see general manager Jack Zduriencik making a move to sign him? If so, what impact do you think he will make?
-- Josh C., Portland, Ore.
Kawasaki is a free agent who doesn't require going through the posting and bid process of some Japanese players, so there is definitely a chance Seattle could try to sign him, perhaps to a Minor League deal with an invitation to camp. My understanding is he's a good defender and smart player, but not a big threat with the bat. Zduriencik is looking for a veteran shortstop for insurance behind Ryan, so he might be a fit as a utility-type player if he's willing to take that kind of deal.
Is there any chance of the Mariners bringing back veteran bats like Wily Mo Pena or Russell Branyan?
-- Jewell D., Oakland, Calif.
Pena recently signed a two-year deal to go play in Japan with the champion Fukuoka Softbank Hawks, so he's out. And frankly, the Mariners didn't have a lot of interest after giving him a look at the end of last season. Branyan remains a free agent, and I would guess he's at the point now where he might have to settle for a Minor League deal with a non-roster invite somewhere. He turns 36 next week and is coming off a season during which he hit .197 with five home runs and 14 RBIs in 68 games with the D-backs and Angels.
Are the Mariners going to carry any lefty relievers next year? Who would you suggest? Cesar Jimenez, Charlie Furbush, Mauricio Robles or Jamie Moyer?
-- Randolph A., Burien, Wash.
A left-handed reliever is one of the offseason pursuits for Zduriencik. Of the options you mention, Jimenez would seem to have the upper hand after the club got a decent look at him last September. Robles is a youngster with a lot of promise, but he's been disappointing in his Minor League development. Furbush could be the answer, but he'll get an opportunity first at earning a starting job. Moyer is a free agent, and I have no idea if he'll get a shot with the Mariners. But if he does, I presume he'd be a back-end rotation candidate first.
The club has signed two lefty relievers to Minor League deals with camp invites in Sean Henn and Steve Garrison. Both have some big league experience. And Rule 5 Draft pick Lucas Luetge will get a good look as well. All that said, it wouldn't surprise me if they sign a more veteran free-agent candidate if they can get someone like George Sherrill to fill that role.