The Seattle Mariners left for Japan on Thursday with two exhibition matches scheduled against Japanese teams before they kick off the MLB 2012 season against the Oakland Athletics on March 28th at 6:10 AM EST.
The next week is going to fly by for the players and coaches with all of the travel, press conferences, cultural events and games that are scheduled, and it's important that they get everything worked out before their first game.
The team did get an early start on spring training which has proven useful, but there are still things they have to figure out as the regular season approaches.
Here are eight questions that they need to answer over the course of the next week.
The Mariners are fortunate to have so much talent at third base—Chone Figgins, Kyle Seager, Alex Liddi and Vinnie Catricala.
We're hoping to see Figgins bounce back this year after a couple of down years, using a switch to the leadoff spot as a catalyst.
Seager and Liddi saw a little time in the majors at the end of last season with moderate success, but they both came alive this spring in a big way.
Catricala went into spring training as a pretty big unknown, but solid, consistent play kept him on the top squad. He's the least experienced of the four, but he could easily fill the starting role at third in a year or two.
It would be impractical to keep all four of these guys just for third base, but manager Eric Wedge has had Figgins and Seager in particular jumping all around the field so they could be used more as utilities than solely third basemen.
Even with a couple guys playing more as utilities, this group still takes up a lot of roster space, especially when there are other candidates for the utility role. With that said, I only see Wedge keeping two of these guys on the active roster once the season starts.
Figgins has a spot locked up, and I think Seager will get the other spot to start the season, though it's subject to inheritance by Alex Liddi early in the season if Seager doesn't live up to expectations.
This leads me to my next question though: where will Figgins play if another third baseman is kept on the roster?
Figgins has spent a decent amount of his time in the outfield this spring—a move necessitated primarily by Gutierrez's pectoral injury.
With a couple of hot prospect third baseman waiting in the ranks, Wedge may want to move Figgins elsewhere to make room for Kyle Seager (or possibly Alex Liddi) in the field and batting order.
Wedge announced a little while ago that he plans to start Figgins at leadoff which makes perfect sense since that's where Figgins experienced so much success while he was with the L.A. Angels.
But, there are a lot of other worthy outfielders hoping to make the cut: Carlos Peguero, Michael Saunders and Casper Wells.
Ichiro will remain in the lineup in his last contracted year with the M's, playing in right field. Mike Carp, a proven hitter, is set up to start in left field to make room for the newly acquired Jesus Montero at DH.
That just leaves center field, which was going to be Gutierrez, but could now go to any one of the aforementioned players.
This question also hinges upon Figgins' ability to play center field. He has manned the hot corner for the majority of his career, but he's a versatile, quick player who could probably handle the task.
I don't see Seager getting the start on opening day though. Figgins will start at third, leaving center open for whoever earns the spot.
If Seager doesn't get the start at third but does stay with the active roster, he'll probably get some playing time in other spots around the infield.
Dustin Ackley will be the starting second baseman, and Brendan Ryan will start at shortstop, but Seager is a strong enough player that he could merit a start a few times a week.
The other talented infielder who will likely remain on the major league roster and fill in is the high-energy Munenori Kawasaki.
Kawasaki's outgoing and amiable personality has gained him popularity among coaches, teammates and fans. His sharp performance has also captured our attention. Ryan has seniority and MLB experience over Kawasaki, but Kawasaki is a great option to pull out of the dugout as a pinch hitter or as relief for a starter.
The M's lost Adam Kennedy this offseason who was their utility player last year, but the void can easily be filled by the Seager/Kawasaki combo.
When Wedge indicated that Ichiro would hit third in the order this year, we all knew exactly what he was hoping for: a look at Ichiro's inner slugger.
We've been able to catch brief glimpses over the years of Ichiro's ability to jack the ball, but he's never been in a role on the team where that talent was applicable.
However, after a down year, Wedge sought to guide Ichiro into a new role. Ichiro will reportedly hit third, behind Figgins and Ackley, and open up his swing a bit.
I don't expect 30 homers out of him in 2012, but a 15 or maybe even 20 home run season with an average around .275 would be awesome.
Ichiro is on the ballot for Home Run Derby contestants every year—maybe this year he'll finally join in the fun.
Too many Mariners players have had the misfortune of being struck by a freak accident. Last year, Justin Smoak took the ground ball to the face, Casper Wells took a pitch to the face and Gutierrez had stomach problems.
This year already, Gutierrez, who appeared to be in much better shape and over his stomach ailment, suffered a pectoral tear that will keep him sidelined a couple weeks into the start of the season.
Catching prospect Adam Moore was also hit with another frustrating injury when he broke a metacarpal bone a couple of weeks ago. Luckily, this one has a much more promising prognosis, and he'll potentially be back to comfortable playing by the time the team gets back from Japan.
Luckily, there are three other competent catchers on the team, so Moore's mishap will not really cost the team, but Gutierrez's could have more detrimental effects.
Before the tear, it looked like the outfield would be comprised of Ichiro, Gutierrez and Carp. Now, there's a gaping hole in center, where the "Death to Flying Things" would have been patrolling.
There are suitable replacements, but none with as much experience or expertise as Gutierrez.
The best strategy moving forward for the M's is, in my opinion, to fill holes where necessary, but to keep the spots available for when the players come off the DL. Gutierrez can still be a franchise outfielder, and Moore could be the franchise catcher if Montero doesn't make a successful transition to catcher.
Otherwise, if, say, Casper Wells (who also has solid defense) assumes the center field job, and Montero/Miguel Olivo/John Jaso take up all the time at catcher, Gutierrez and Moore could just be used as relatively valuable trade tokens.
Wedge named RHP Kevin Millwood to the starting rotation for 2012, along with Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Hector Noesi and Blake Beavan.
Millwood, 37, is easily the most experienced starter on the staff, but a 37-year-old pitcher isn't always worth the sagacity he brings.
To Millwood's credit, however, his pitching has been in line (and in some cases above) the performance level of the other starters who tried out this spring. He is an effective pitcher who knows the league and who has a great relationship with Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis form time in Cleveland.
I think it's a good idea to start him off in the rotation—if he never locks in, it's easy enough to bring in a young replacement (Hisashi Iwakuma or Charlie Furbush from the bullpen or one of the younger prospects). The Mariners probably will not be competing for the title this year, so a midseason rotation switch isn't too dangerous.
Chance Ruffin came over as the PTBNL (Player To Be Named Later) in the Doug Fister deal with the Detroit Tigers last year. He's a powerful relief pitcher with the potential to become a closer.
Currently, the Mariners have Brandon League slotted as their starting closer (rightly so, after last year's stellar performance), but League is an expensive asset, especially for a team that most likely will not reach the playoffs in 2012.
They extended his contract this offseason one more year, but a trade at this year's deadline isn't out of the question since he's coming out of arbitration now.
If that happened, Chance Ruffin could take over the closing job for at least the next couple of years in Seattle.
The excitement is building internationally for the MLB 2012 season opener between the Oakland A's and the Mariners. The opener will be the first half of a two-game series between the teams. So, who's going to be representing the Mariners over there?
Here's my projected lineup:
- Figgins (3B)
- Ackley (2B)
- Ichiro (RF)
- Smoak (1B)
- Carp (LF)
- Montero (DH)
- Wells (CF)
- Olivo (C)
- Ryan (SS)
On the mound: the one and only King Felix.
I'm very happy with the way that lineup looks; I think General Manager Jack Zduriencik has done a wonderful job with the team over the past four years, and I think we'll start to see the full effects of Jack Z's efforts unfold.
I'll be writing a live blog during the Mariners first game (next Wednesday) with up-to-date analysis and commentary. Get pumped for a new, exciting season of baseball in 2012!