Mariners enter Spring Training with few locks

Besides newcomer Cano, there aren't many sure things in lineup, rotation, 'pen

Mariners enter Spring Training with few locks

SEATTLE -- Ask Lloyd McClendon about his potential lineup going into Spring Training and the new Mariners skipper laughs.

"I can tell you who'll be playing second base," McClendon said, knowing that spot is reserved for one Robinson Cano, the biggest addition to a team looking to force its way back into contention in the rugged American League West.

When pressed, McClendon acknowledges that Kyle Seager figures to man third base. And, yeah, you can surely use a pen when writing in the names Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma -- two of the AL's premier starters -- atop the rotation.

But beyond that? McClendon isn't kidding when he notes that competition is wide open, and it would be premature to project an accurate lineup or assign roles before he and his brand new coaching staff even set foot in the team's remodeled spring facility in Peoria, Ariz., for the start of camp this week.

Cano's arrival means former second baseman Nick Franklin will now battle Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job. The signing of Corey Hart and trade for Logan Morrison created options in the outfield and at designated hitter, as well as competition for Justin Smoak at first base.

While Mike Zunino and John Buck appear fairly set at catcher, the outfield will be determined this spring, as will the bullpen and back end of the rotation. Such competition is welcomed by McClendon, who continually notes that it takes thoroughbreds to win, and he's eager to let the races begin.

Seattle hasn't had a winning season since 2009, and its most recent playoff appearance came in '01, but a promising young core of players accumulated by general manager Jack Zduriencik has now arrived, and the club felt it was time to add a bonafide star to that mix with the signing of Cano for $240 million over 10 years.

McClendon spent the past eight years as a coach on Jim Leyland's staff with the Tigers, and he sees many similarities to the situation he walked into there in 2006. Indeed, the '05 Tigers had the same 71-91 record as Seattle achieved last year. And that '06 club wound up winning 95 games and going to the World Series.

McClendon isn't predicting such a magical turnaround, but he does plan to employ much the same approach as Leyland, with a heavy emphasis on strong, fundamental baseball and a quiet confidence in his players that helps them perform to the best of their abilities.

"This franchise has been knocked down," McClendon said. "We've been on the mat quite some time. It's time for us to get up."

Pitchers and catchers report

Wednesday

Full squad reports

Feb. 17

First Spring Training game

Home vs. Padres, Feb. 27 at 12:05 p.m. PT

Opening Day

At Anaheim vs. Angels, March 31 at 7:05 p.m. PT

Triple play: Three questions that need answers

1. How much can Cano carry?
The Mariners made the biggest splash in the Majors this winter with the signing of Cano, stealing the top free agent on the market away from the Yankees. But it will take more than one man to continue turning around an offense that ranked 12th in the AL in scoring last year after finishing last in the league the previous four seasons. It will be interesting to see how Cano reacts to the expectations of his mega-contract as well as being the center of attention and a focal point of scrutiny if the team doesn't do well. But the biggest help for all that will be if the Mariners aid Cano by playing well as a team and providing him support in the lineup, which is why newcomers Hart and Morrison and returnees like Seager, Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders must step up and be consistently productive over the course of the season as well.

2. Felix, Iwakuma and … then what?
The Mariners top their rotation with two of the premier starters in baseball in Hernandez and Iwakuma, who finished third in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year. Those two combined to go 26-16 in 2013, while the rest of the pitchers were 45-72. Not all of that fell on the rotation, but that's where it starts, and McClendon is going to sort through a host of options this spring. McClendon expects prize prospect Taijuan Walker to make the rotation, and veteran Scott Baker will get every chance to show he's recovered from 2012 Tommy John surgery. Also in the hunt are rookie southpaw James Paxton and young right-handers Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan.

3. How far left will the Mariners lean?
How critical are Hart's knees to the Mariners' plans? The two-time All-Star is one of the only right-handed-hitting options currently at McClendon's disposal, and the veteran missed all of last year after having microfracture surgery on both knees. The Mariners need Hart in the lineup somewhere -- preferably outfield or DH -- to provide some lineup balance. Adding Cano was huge, but Seattle now has an infield with lefties at second, short (Miller) and third (Seager), while outfielders Ackley, Saunders and Morrison are also southpaws. Unless Franklin Gutierrez can hold a starting role in the outfield, Zunino will be the only right-handed regular at this point, while Smoak is a switch-hitter. Franklin is another switch-hitting option if he can beat out Miller at short.

2013 record
71-91, fourth in the AL West

Projected batting order
1. LF Dustin Ackley:
.253 BA, .319 OBP, .341 SLG, 4 HR, 31 RBIs in 2013
2. 3B Kyle Seager:
.260 BA, .338 OBP, .426 SLG, 22 HR, 69 RBIs in 2013
3. 2B Robinson Cano:
.314 BA, .383 OBP, .516 SLG, 27 HR, 107 RBIs in 2013
4. DH Corey Hart:
Did not play in 2013
5. 1B Justin Smoak:
.238 BA, .334 OBP, .412 SLG, 20 HR, 50 RBIs in 2013
6. CF Michael Saunders:
.236 BA, .323 OBP, .397 SLG, 12 HR, 46 RBIs in 2013
7. RF Logan Morrison:
.242 BA, .333 OBP, .375 SLG, 6 HR, 36 RBIs in 2013
8. C Mike Zunino:
.214 BA, .290 OBP, .329 SLG, 5 HR, 14 RBIs in 2013
9. SS Brad Miller:
.265 BA, .318 OBP, .418 SLG, 8 HR, 36 RBIs in 2013

Projected rotation
1. RHP Felix Hernandez, 12-19, 3.04 ERA in 2013
2. RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, 14-6, 2.66 ERA in 2013
3. RHP Taijuan Walker, 1-0, 3.60 ERA in 2013
4. RHP Erasmo Ramirez, 5-3, 4.98 ERA in 2013
5. RHP Scott Baker, 0-0, 3.60 ERA in 2013

Projected bullpen
Closer: Fernando Rodney, 37/45 saves, 3.38 ERA in 2013
RH setup man: Danny Farquhar, 16/20 saves, 4.20 ERA in 2013
LH setup man: Charlie Furbush, 3.74 ERA in 2013

The new guys
Cano: One player can't turn around a team on his own, but the Mariners are putting a lot of faith -- and cash -- on Cano being an impact player in the middle of their lineup for years to come. The five-time All-Star was durable and productive in his Yankees career and now gets the chance to show what he can do to help the Mariners.

Hart: Seattle needs the two-time Brewers All-Star to provide protection behind Cano, and Hart is more than capable, if he can stay healthy. That's a big if, after Hart missed all of last season with knee problems, but the Mariners feel he can DH and play some first base and possibly outfield while adding a needed right-handed bat to the lineup.

Morrison: Acquired by trade from the Marlins, Morrison is another outfielder/first baseman who has dealt with knee issues the past two seasons. Once regarded as a top prospect in Miami, LoMo will be looking to put his career back on track in a new league at the opposite corner of the country.

Baker: Signed to a low-risk, one-year Minor League deal, Baker could be a key addition if he returns to the productive starter who solidified the Twins' rotation from 2007-11. He had Tommy John surgery in '12 and pitched just three games last September for the Cubs. However, Baker threw well in those outings and has a good chance to earn a rotation spot if he's healthy this spring.

Buck: Seattle needed a veteran behind the plate to complement young Zunino, and Buck seems a perfect fit, with the ability to help mentor a young staff and also provide some punch off the bench and in a backup role.

Willie Bloomquist: The versatile Bloomquist returns for a second stint with the Mariners and gives McClendon backup options in both the infield and outfield as a right-handed bat with a solid glove and leadership qualities.

Rodney: The 36-year-old closer hasn't officially signed yet, but has a two-year deal pending the completion of a physical this week in Arizona. His arrival will help solidify the back end of the bullpen by allowing Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen to push back to right-handed setup roles, while adding experience and another power arm to what was an inexperienced relief corps.

Prospects to watch
Walker: One of the premier right-handed prospects in baseball, Walker looked strong in three late-season starts last year, and McClendon has already said he'll be disappointed if the 21-year-old doesn't grab a starting job this spring.

Mariners top prospects
Mariners on MLBPipeline.com's Top 100 Prospects list:
Rank Name Pos.
6 Taijuan Walker RHP
88 D.J. Peterson 3B

Paxton: After struggling with his consistency in the Minors, Paxton broke into the big leagues in impressive fashion, as he went 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA in four September starts against very good competition (the Rays, Tigers, Cardinals and Royals). The 25-year-old could very well earn a starting job this spring, though it remains to be seen if the Mariners want to open the year with two rookies in the rotation.

RHPs Dominic Leone and Carson Smith: With Carter Capps traded away and Stephen Pryor coming back from shoulder surgery, Smith and Leone are next in line as promising young power arms who put up impressive seasons at Double-A Jackson last year. Rodney's arrival likely lessens their immediate chances, but both are highly regarded and could be close.

On the rebound
Gutierrez: The Mariners re-signed Gutierrez to a $1 million deal after his four-year, $19 million contract expired, but he'll need to prove himself healthy to earn a roster spot after playing just 173 of the team's 486 games over the past three years due to a host of injuries and illness. But Seattle could use his right-handed bat and defensive abilities, so if he has overcome his issues -- he's now on medication to deal with an inflammatory condition called ankylosing spondylitis -- he could find his way back into a helpful role.

Pryor: The hard-throwing reliever missed all but seven games last season and isn't expected back until close to midseason after undergoing shoulder surgery. But he was one of the team's most promising young bullpen arms coming up and would be a huge boost if he could return at full strength at some point this year.

Long gone
DH Kendrys Morales: The switch-hitter filled a key role in 2013 as a dependable middle-of-the-order bat, hitting .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs. But he turned down a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer and Seattle opted to fill the DH role with Hart, while Morales remains unsigned while seeking a multiyear deal on the free-agent market.

OF Raul Ibanez: The 41-year-old veteran provided a nice power boost with 29 home runs and 65 RBIs last season, though he tailed off significantly with just five homers and nine RBIs after the All-Star break. The Mariners wanted to get more athletic in the outfield, so Ibanez will look to extend his career one more year as a DH with the Angels.

LHP Joe Saunders: The veteran southpaw worked as Seattle's No. 3 starter all last season, but allowed the second-most hits in the Majors and the highest batting average against at .311, while going 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA.

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.