CLOSE

Now Commenting On:

Mariners hoping younger players take next step

Team expects new veterans, spring competition will augment developing core

Mariners hoping younger players take next step

SEATTLE -- There's been considerable talk about the Mariners' increased veteran presence at their upcoming Spring Training, but manager Eric Wedge says this year's camp has something for all ages.

When the Mariners hit the field in Peoria, Ariz., this coming week, there will be plenty of eyes on experienced newcomers like Kendrys Morales, Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay.

More

But the other end of the spectrum figures to be far more critical in the long run, as talented youngsters like catcher Mike Zunino and pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer check in Tuesday when pitchers and catchers report.

One of the top-rated groups of prospects in baseball will be well represented in Peoria, as 20 of the 59 players the Mariners have invited to their big league camp having yet to play in the Majors. Wedge wanted some respected veterans to insert into his lineup and clubhouse, but he remains bullish on the young bucks who represent the future.

"It's not just the big three that everybody talks about," Wedge said, referring to Hultzen, Paxton and Walker, "but guys beyond that as well. It's going to be real exciting. If you look at the players we're bringing to camp, if you look at our camp from head to toe, we'll be as talented with our 60 players as anybody in baseball."

Wedge has some things to sort out in the next six weeks, including a rotation that remains up in the air and just how he's going to fit the veteran hitters in with the nucleus of young returning position players. But that's what Spring Training is for, and the Mariners will have some intriguing competition for jobs and playing time as they attempt to take another step forward in the tough American League West.

"What we wanted to do was to continue to let these kids grow, continue to keep this system where it's at, but augment it with middle-of-the-lineup hitters as well as experience," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "That's where it's at. Spring Training will be interesting. We'll see young kids compete, veteran guys doing their thing and hopefully the kids already at the big league level take the next step and continue to grow."

Pitchers and catchers report

Tuesday, Feb. 12

Full squad reports

Friday, Feb. 15

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Padres, Friday, Feb. 22 at 1:05 p.m. MT (12:05 p.m. PT)

Opening Day

Away vs. A's, Monday, April 1 at 7:05 p.m. PT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. Who fills out the rotation?
As long as Felix Hernandez is healthy, there will be no question regarding the Mariners' No. 1 starter. Hisashi Iwakuma should be a solid No. 2 as he returns for his second season with Seattle, and the Mariners are close to finalizing a deal with free-agent Joe Saunders, who essentially would take the place of Jason Vargas after he was dealt to the Angels. Young returners Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi have experience at the Major League level, but close attention will be paid as well to top prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer. Veteran Jeremy Bonderman will also be given a look as a Minor League signee coming back from Tommy John surgery.

2. Where do the new pieces fit in?
Zduriencik added some offensive punch this offseason, but now the puzzle will need to be pieced together. Will Morales play mostly designated hitter or is he destined to split time or more with Justin Smoak at first base? Can Morse handle a corner outfield spot on a regular basis? Where will Ibanez and Bay fit in? And what is veteran infielder Robert Andino's role? Stay tuned.

3. Can Montero be 'The Man' behind the plate?
Jesus Montero played 56 games at catcher last year and 78 at designated hitter while splitting time with Miguel Olivo and John Jaso. But Olivo, who caught 70 games, was let go and Jaso (who was behind the plate in 40 games) was traded. The Mariners will look to the 23-year-old Montero to catch the majority of games this season, but exactly how many will be determined by how he handles things. Veteran Kelly Shoppach and Ronny Paulino have been brought in to provide experienced backup, and 2012 first-round Draft pick Zunino will get a chance to show how ready he is during camp as well.

2012 record
75-87, fourth in the AL West

Projected batting order
1. 2B Dustin Ackley:
  .226 BA, .294 OBP, .328 SLG, 12 HR, 50 RBIs in 2012
2. 3B Kyle Seager:
  .259 BA, .316 OBP, .423 SLG, 20 HR, 86 RBIs in 2012
3. LF Michael Morse:
  .291 BA, .321 OBP, .470 SLG, 18 HR, 62 RBIs in 2012
4. DH Kendrys Morales:
  .273 BA, .320 OBP, .467 SLG, 22 HR, 73 RBIs in 2012
5. C Jesus Montero:
  .260 BA, .298 OBP, .386 SLG, 15 HR, 62 RBIs in 2012
6. RF Michael Saunders:
  .247 BA, .306 OBP, .432 SLG, 19 HR, 57 RBIs in 2012
7. 1B Justin Smoak:
  .217 BA, .290 OBP, .364 SLG, 19 HR, 51 RBIs in 2012
8. CF Franklin Gutierrez:
  .260 BA, .309 OBP, .420 SLG, 4 HR, 17 RBIs in 2012
9. SS Brendan Ryan:
  .194 BA, .277 OBP, .278 SLG, 3 HR, 31 RBIs in 2012

Projected rotation
1. RHP Felix Hernandez, 13-9, 3.06 ERA in 2012
2. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, 9-5, 3.16 ERA in 2012
3. RHP Blake Beavan, 11-11, 4.43 ERA in 2012
4. RHP Erasmo Ramirez, 1-3, 3.36 ERA in 2012
5. RHP Hector Noesi, 2-12, 5.82 ERA in 2012

Projected bullpen
Closer: Tom Wilhelmsen, 29/34 saves, 2.50 ERA in 2012
RH setup man: Stephen Pryor, 3.91 ERA in 2012
LH setup man: Charlie Furbush, 2.72 ERA in 2012

The new guys
DH/1B Morales: The 29-year-old Cuban switch-hitter was emerging as one of the AL's premier sluggers in 2010 when he shattered his leg jumping into a walk-off celebration at home plate with the Angels. After sitting out all of '11, Morales came back last season and began showing signs of his former self, particularly in the final two months for Anaheim. But the Halos are loaded offensively and dealt him to Seattle for Vargas, giving the Mariners a much-needed middle-of-the-order threat.

OF/1B Morse: Morse is another power bat brought in for the final year of his contract in a three-way trade that sent Jaso to the A's. Morse hit 31 home runs and 95 RBIs for the Nationals in 2011, and 18 home runs and 62 RBIs last year when he missed the first two months with a back injury. The big right-hander rejoins the Mariners organization where he broke into the Majors from '05-'08 as a shortstop, but never could find a position and wound up emerging only after he was traded to the Nats.

OF/DH Ibanez: The 40-year-old Ibanez returns for his third stint with the Mariners. And while he's no longer an everyday outfielder, he hit 19 home runs and 62 RBIs in 384 at-bats last year for the Yankees and then provided some incredible clutch heroics in the postseason as well. Seattle will look to him for some veteran leadership and as a valuable left-handed platoon and pinch-hitting option.

OF Bay: One of the better power hitters in baseball from 2004-'09, Bay is looking to resurrect his career after three tough seasons with the Mets. Signed to a low-risk one-year deal, Bay will have to show he's overcome his recent struggles, which bottomed out with a .165 average, eight home runs and 20 RBIs last year before he was released after playing 70 games. But this is a former three-time All-Star who averaged 29 home runs and 99 RBIs over a six-year span, so he'll be given a chance to show what he has left at age 34.

INF Robert Andino: Andino is a well-regarded veteran who will provide an offensive upgrade at the utility infield role held by Munenori Kawasaki last year, and could step in as a capable starter at second or shortstop if needed. Wedge likes Andino's toughness and the fact he played a valuable role for the Orioles the past two seasons, filling in for Brian Roberts at second base.

Prospects to watch
C Zunino: The 2012 first-round Draft pick impressed everyone with a strong showing in Low-A Everett and Double-A Jackson the final two months last season, and will be given a good look this spring. While he'll likely need more Minor League time with just 34 professional games on his resume at age 21, there seems little doubt it's only a matter of time before the Florida product gets his shot.

LHP Hultzen: Hultzen, 23, dominated at Double-A Jackson last season (8-3, 1.19 ERA in 13 starts), but the 2011 first-round pick struggled in Triple-A Tacoma at the end of his first season of pro ball. The Mariners think that was largely due to fatigue after a long year that started in the Arizona Fall League, so it'll be interesting to see where he picks up this spring with a fresh start.

RHP Walker: At age 20, Walker is regarded by many as the best of the Mariners' elite group of pitching prospects. He'll almost surely need more Minor League time after going 7-10 with a 4.69 ERA as one of the youngest players in the Double-A Southern League, but his stuff is electric and he should be more comfortable in his second Major League camp.

LHP Paxton: Paxton, 24, could be ready to challenge for a rotation spot after going 9-4 with a 3.05 ERA at Jackson last year. He's the oldest of the top Mariners pitching prospects, though he sat out the 2010 season after declining to sign with the Blue Jays as their first-round pick.

RH Brandon Maurer: The big 22-year-old comes in as the unheralded pitching prospect behind the Big Three of Hultzen, Paxton and Walker, but he was the Southern League Pitcher of the Year for Jackson last year after going 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts. The Mariners like what they've seen, but this will be his first Major League camp, so a lot of questions are still to be answered.

On the rebound
1B Smoak: The big first baseman struggled for much of the first five months last season and wound up in Triple-A in the second half before returning in time to post an excellent final three weeks. That late revival gives hope that Smoak figured some things out with his swing, though he had similar late success his previous two seasons as well. Wedge says he expects Smoak to be his first baseman, but acknowledges that will be up to how Smoak performs as the club now has some veteran options with Morales, Morse and Ibanez.

2B Ackley: The Mariners' 2010 first-round pick played his first full year in the Majors in 2012, but didn't hit as well as expected with a .226 season. Though he never spoke of it publicly during the year, the Mariners removed a bone spur in his left ankle the day after the season ended, and there's hope that will help him drive better off his back plant foot at the plate and be more of a threat on the base paths as well.

SS Ryan: Though Ryan is one of the premier defensive shortstops in the game, his .194 batting average last year had the 30-year-old pressing at the plate. The Mariners don't expect big offense from Ryan, but they would like to see him back near his .244 career average while helping ignite the running game a little more. A season-long issue with his right elbow was cleared up by a postseason removal of a bone spur as well.

Classic departures
RHP Hernandez: The Mariners' ace will depart in early March to play for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic, and could miss 2-3 weeks of camp, depending how well his team does. Hernandez did the same in the 2009 WBC, and came back to post a 19-5 record and 2.49 ERA for the Mariners. Venezuela plays its first-round games in Puerto Rico from March 7-10, then would advance to second-round play in Miami from March 12-16 before the Final Four in San Francisco on March 17-19. So Hernandez will be the one Mariner who could be away from the Phoenix area for an extended period, as Venezuela finished third in the '09 Classic and is loaded again with Major League players.

OF Saunders: Saunders will compete for Canada, which plays its first-round games in Phoenix, just 30 minutes from the Mariners own Spring Training complex. So unless Canada advances to second-round play in Miami, he won't be going too far, though he'll miss at least 8-9 days of camp while training and playing for his country. This will be Saunders' first Classic experience, though he played for Canada in the 2008 Olympics.

LHP Oliver Perez: The veteran lefty will be making his third World Baseball Classic appearance for Mexico, which like Canada opens in Pool D in Phoenix. Perez has pitched in four WBC games, posting a 5.91 ERA. Mexico advanced to the second round in 2009.

3B Alex Liddi: The 24-year-old infielder will represent his native Italy, which is also in Pool D in Phoenix. Liddi, the first Italian-born player in the Majors since 1962, played two games for Italy in the 2009 WBC and hit .375 (3-for-8) before his team was eliminated in the opening round.

Long gone

LF Ichiro Suzuki: The Mariners dealt their all-time hits leader to the Yankees last July 23, so they began moving on the final two months of 2012. But this will be their first Spring Training since 2000 without the Japanese star patrolling right field.

LHP Vargas: Vargas won a career-high 14 games while posing a 3.85 ERA, but the need for offense led Zduriencik to deal him to the Angels for Morales in a swap of players who'll become free agents after the season.

RHP Kevin Millwood: The veteran right-hander started 28 games last season, going 6-12 with a 4.25 ERA, but recently announced he was retiring after 16 years in the Majors.

C Jaso: Jaso was one of the Mariners most productive hitters in 2012 with a .276 average, 10 HRs and 50 RBIs in 294 at-bats, but Seattle shipped him to the A's in a three-way deal that brought Morse back to the Northwest.

C Olivo: Though he played 87 games last season and started the most of any of Seattle's three catchers, the Mariners didn't trigger an option year on Olivo's contract after he batted .222 with 12 home runs and 29 RBIs.

3B/OF Chone Figgins: Figgins was released with one year and $8 million still remaining on the four-year contract he signed with Seattle in 2010 after hitting just 161 in 166 at-bats last season.

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.

Less