Sweeney making Mariners take notice

Sweeney making Mariners take notice

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As the Mariners approach the halfway mark of the Spring Training schedule, a few things are becoming more apparent every day.

1. The weather is warming up in Arizona.

2. Mike Sweeney is making a serious push to be on the Opening Day roster.

Sweeney, who signed a Minor League deal on Feb. 12, still appears to be a long shot considering the current makeup of the club.

Even though the team is carrying left-handed-hitting Ken Griffey Jr. as its primary designated hitter and Sweeney, who bats right-handed, could conceivably get at-bats against southpaws, as he did last year, the Mariners signed Ryan Garko to a Major League contract to serve the same purpose Sweeney is swinging for.

It gets more difficult when other roster spots are taken up by outfielder Milton Bradley, a switch-hitter who's also expected to get at-bats at DH, and outfielder Eric Byrnes, a spark-plug type who also hits right-handed and could be used in reserve and pinch-hitting situations.

Then again, none of those players is hitting like Sweeney this spring.

Entering Wednesday, the 36-year-old was 12-for-16 in Cactus League games for a .750 batting average. His back and knee woes appear to be behind him.

"This is the third straight Spring Training that I've seen him do this," said Wakamatsu, who was Oakland's bench coach in 2008 -- when Sweeney made that team as a non-roster invitee -- and then put Sweeney on the Mariners' roster in the same situation last year.

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When pressed with the question of how Wakamatsu could possibly fit Sweeney onto his roster, the skipper simply said, "We've got a lot of things to work out."

So how is it possible? Well, let's first take a look at the simple mathematics of the situation.

The Mariners likely will take a 12-man pitching staff to Oakland for the season opener the night of April 7, especially now that starter Cliff Lee has been suspended for five regular-season games after throwing a pitch that sailed near D-backs catcher Chris Snyder's head on Monday.

With 12 pitchers, that leaves 13 position player spots. Factoring in two catchers, plus projected Opening Day starters Casey Kotchman (first base), Chone Figgins (second base), Jack Wilson (shortstop), Jose Lopez (third base), Bradley (left field), Franklin Gutierrez (center field), Ichiro Suzuki (right field) and Griffey (DH), only three bench spots are left.

Byrnes figures to land one because of his speed, defensive ability and right-handed pop off the bench. Ryan Langerhans looks like a good bet because of above-average outfield defense and a good career on-base percentage. Jack Hannahan was looking like he'd make the team in the utility-infielder role until groin problems sidelined him this spring, and Matt Tuiasosopo and Josh Wilson also have been playing well enough to merit consideration. And then there's Garko, who signed a big league deal that will pay him $550,000.

In other words, there isn't much room for Sweeney, but he could squeeze onto the roster if the Mariners choose him over another player. After all, Sweeney isn't just having a torrid spring. Once his injury woes were ironed out, he was one of the team's best hitters down the stretch last year, hitting .311 in the second half of 2009. He also has impressed team brass by being a clubhouse leader.

If the Mariners do decide to stick with Sweeney, the candidate to be replaced could very well be Garko.

The 29-year-old, who signed as a free agent 11 days before Sweeney accepted his invitation to Spring Training, has two Minor League options remaining, which means the Mariners could send him to Triple-A Tacoma to begin the year without exposing him to the 29 other Major League clubs via the waiver wire. The Mariners also might try to trade Garko, who could be an attractive option for some teams given his career .887 OPS against left-handed pitching.

With two weeks left in Arizona, a lot can happen, and Sweeney's chances still have to be considered remote, but the Mariners do have options if the veteran's bat continues to do the talking.

"It doesn't shock me," Wakamatsu said. "He told me he feels as good as he's felt in a long time."

Doug Miller is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.