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MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

Felix only certainty in Seattle's rotation this spring

Injuries to Walker, Iwakuma have Mariners wondering who will follow ace

Felix only certainty in Seattle's rotation this spring

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Two batters into Seattle right-hander Felix Hernandez's spring debut Tuesday afternoon, he had given up a double to Yaisel Puig and walked Carl Crawford.

Concerned? Not the Mariners. Not about Hernandez.

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Hernandez is healthy. He's full-steam ahead for what would be his seventh Opening Day start and his sixth in a row, both club records.

And, by the way, Hernandez did respond to that shaky start by getting Hanley Ramirez to ground into a double play before throwing a called third strike past Andre Ethier.

If manager Lloyd McClendon could feel half as confident about the rest of his rotation, Seattle would be in good shape.

A week into the exhibition season, the media concerns about adding a right-handed bat have become secondary to the discussion of how the Mariners are going to fill out their rotation.

"I'm trying to see if [Hernandez] can go Opening Day, the second day and the third day," McClendon said, tongue firmly in cheek.

Truth be told, the Mariners aren't sure who will start the second and third games in the season, or the fourth and fifth.

What Seattle knows is that neither Taijuan Walker nor Hisashi Iwakuma, who came into spring expected to step into the rotation behind Hernandez, will be in that season-opening rotation. They have both been sidelined by injuries and aren't close to facing a batter this spring.

Walker developed a sore shoulder and has just been given permission to begin playing catch Thursday, the start of what is expected to be a three-week process of building up the arm strength so that he can pitch in a game. The optimistic view is he will be back in the middle of April.

Iwakuma has a sprained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand. On Friday, he was told to wear a protective splint for three weeks and then he will be examined. The hope is that Iwakuma could be ready in early May.

"It would be difficult to say they could be ready [Opening Day]," said McClendon.

The Mariners don't have the luxury of trying to go a starter short. They are scheduled to play the first seven days of the season and have games on 22 of the first 24 days. They also are playing in areas where rainouts are unlikely. They open the season with a road trip against the Angels and A's, come home for five games, then visit the Rangers, Marlins and Astros.

"You deal with your situation," said general manager Jack Zduriencik.

So the Mariners look at their situation and it is apparent Erasmo Ramirez has claimed one of the remaining spots in light of his emergence in the rotation at the end of last year. Left-hander James Paxton, the other part of the rookie tandem with Walker, would also seem to at least have an edge for another one of the openings.

And then …

"I always plan for the worst," said McClendon. "This gives other guys the opportunities to go out and show what they can do. We'll see what happens. We have options."

Well, there is Ervin Santana, who is still on the free-agent market, and veterans Scott Baker and Randy Wolf, who are both in camp as non-roster invitees.

Baker underwent Tommy John surgery two years ago, picked up $6 million from the Cubs last year, but made only three September appearances.

Wolf, who at 37 is the oldest player in Seattle's big league camp, had Tommy John surgery a year ago. His two innings against Cleveland in Sunday's exhibition game was the first time he faced a batter in a game situation since Sept. 22, 2012.

And there is a list of in-house candidates that includes Brandon Maurer, Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan. Maurer was on a slow track to open the spring because of back stiffness, but he will get his first mound appearance against Cleveland on Wednesday. Nosei came from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade before the 2012 season, and he is 2-13 with a 5.98 ERA in 34 big league appearances for Seattle, 19 of them starts.

Beavan was a first-round pick of Texas in 2007 and came to the Mariners as part of the package in the July 9, 2010, trade of Cliff Lee. He won 11 games for Seattle in 2012, but pitched his way back to the Minors for a stretch last season, having made an ill-advised adjustment in his mechanics and also suffering left knee tendinitis. The knee feels fine this year and Beavan's mechanical adjustment has been junked.

"I always plan for the worst," said McClendon "This gives other guys the opportunities to go out and show what they can do. We'll see what happens. We have options."

This may not be a worst-case scenario for the Mariners. It, however, is certainly not very good.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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