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Mariners have options as pitchers, catchers report

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Only 14 of the 35 pitchers and catchers reporting to Mariners camp Tuesday have ever played in the Majors for Seattle, so there'll be plenty of new faces and challengers when the group gathers on the field Wednesday for the first time with manager Eric Wedge.

The catching corps has undertaken the most drastic turnover, with just one Mariners veteran among the six backstops who'll be competing for jobs this spring. And that "veteran" is Jesus Montero, the 23-year-old youngster who will be given a chance to earn the bulk of the duties behind the plate this season.

He'll be joined by recently signed MLB veterans Kelly Shoppach and Ronny Paulino, as well as prospects Mike Zunino, John Hicks and Jesus Sucre. Shoppach is the only one in that group on a Major League contract, having signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal last week.

Montero, who caught 56 games last year and was the designated hitter for 78 more, is eager to take the next step in his career after the Mariners let Miguel Olivo go and traded John Jaso.

"They've given me a lot of confidence," Montero said. "I still have to work hard and do my job, but it's been good. I feel real happy to be here again. I can't wait for the season to start."

All the catchers will have a short time to familiarize themselves with the pitching staff as this spring's schedule is more condensed due to the World Baseball Classic. In order to get some players ready for the international tournament in March, Cactus League games begin earlier than normal.

The Mariners will have only three days of pitchers and catchers work before the first full-squad workout Saturday. Then it's just six days of practice before the initial Cactus League game Friday, Feb. 22, against the Padres in Peoria Stadium.

That likely means lots of early game action for all the pitchers as they break in on short pitch counts, which will give Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis a chance to see all the arms in camp. And it's an interesting collection of young prospects and older veterans looking for a shot, along with ace Felix Hernandez and returning starter Hisashi Iwakuma.

Beyond Hernandez and Iwakuma, rotation spots are wide open after Jason Vargas was traded to the Angels in the offseason for first baseman Kendrys Morales. Youngsters Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi started at various times last year, but Beavan, 24, is the only one with much of a track record after going 11-11 with a 4.43 ERA in 152 1/3 innings.

Ramirez, 22, went 1-3 with a 3.36 ERA in 59 innings and didn't move into the rotation until midseason, then missed some time with a sore arm. Noesi, 26, was given a shot to start 18 games but wound up 2-12 with a 5.82 ERA and was sent to the Minors in the second half.

The Mariners invited a host of quality prospects to camp -- led by Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Brandon Maurer -- and general manager Jack Zduriencik said those youngsters will get a good look this spring.

But Zduriencik doesn't want to rush those young arms if they're not ready and he sought to bridge the gap with some veteran free agents, led by left-hander Joe Saunders. The 31-year-old has agreed to a one-year deal at $6.5 million, with another option season as well, and should help fill Vargas' role as a solid southpaw who has consistently provided around 200 innings the last five years.

Two other veterans -- Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman -- will be in camp as non-roster invitees on Minor League deals, which is the route Kevin Millwood took in making the team last year. Garland hasn't officially signed yet as he's awaiting a physical, but he and Bonderman are both interesting projects coming back from health issues.

Garland, 33, sat out last season while recovering from shoulder surgery. Bonderman, 30, hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2010 and is coming off Tommy John elbow surgery. But both have been quality Major League starters and Garland was very successful as recently as 2010, when he went 14-12 with a 3.47 ERA for the Padres before his shoulder issue cropped up the following June while with the Dodgers.

Bonderman has been in Peoria for several weeks now throwing off a mound and preparing for his return. The early schedule has many of the pitchers working ahead this offseason, even before arrival in Arizona.

"As soon as we get there, it's physicals and then our first workout," said Beavan, who has been throwing at the University of Texas prior to arrival in Peoria. "Nine days later, we start our first game. That's part of the reason why I've tried to get going early this year. I've never been a guy that wants to knock the dust off in spring. I'd rather be ready earlier than later."

If Garland passes his physical and is added to the group, the Mariners will have 30 pitchers in camp: 18 from their 40-man roster and another 12 non-roster invitees.

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.

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