With Opening Day just around the corner, the Seattle Mariners' roster is starting to take shape. As of March 20, Mike Zunino, Logan Bawcom and Eric Thames were the most recent casualties from the major league camp, with Zunino and Bawcom being reassigned to minor league camp and Thames being optioned to Triple-A Tacoma.
With that in mind, the Mariners have had several battles going on this spring for key roles on the roster. The back end of the rotation was the biggest question mark heading into the spring, but questions for backup outfield jobs and the leadoff spot in the lineup also lingered.
So who will be the winners of each of these battles come Opening Day?
Fourth and Fifth Rotation Spots
This has been one of the most interesting battles all spring.
First, you had incumbent "starters" Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi. Beavan has been pleasantly successful this spring, actually registering more strikeouts than normal. For the spring, he has been 1-0 with a 3.86 ERA and nine strikeouts in 14.0 innings pitched.
Ramirez has been even better this spring, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA and nine strikeouts in 12.0 innings pitched.
Then there's Hector Noesi. Let's just say that Mr. Noesi will not be included in this conversation and leave it at that, shall we? Great, let's move on.
Next, you had the highly touted pitching prospects in the Mariners' farm system. Young hurlers Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer all had hopes of potentially cracking the Opening Day rotation.
But as of March 21, only Maurer remains. He has been fantastic all spring, going 2-1 with a 1.20 ERA and 15 strikeouts over 15.0 innings pitched. Maurer may have never pitched over the Double-A level, but he has made a viable case for a spot in the rotation this spring.
You had veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland as well, who were brought in over the offseason to help provide some depth for the rotation. Yet both were coming off long-term injuries and offered no guarantee to perform.
Bonderman has seen mixed results so far this spring, going 2-0 with a 7.20 ERA and five strikeouts in 10.0 innings pitched. Garland, meanwhile, has been a nice surprise, much like Kevin Millwood was for the Mariners last year. He is 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA over 6.0 innings pitched and has made a very strong case to be included in the Mariners' rotation.
Garland's future will most likely be decided sooner rather than later—especially with a clause in his contract saying that he needs to be made aware whether he has made the starting rotation or not:
Jon Garland says he expects the #Mariners to tell him by tomorrow whether he's made rotation. That's when his out-clause can be triggered.
— Geoff Baker (@gbakermariners) March 22, 2013
With all things considered, Garland has been very similar to Kevin Millwood from last season. He was brought in as a veteran presence and outperformed expectations. Expect the Mariners to inform Garland he will make the rotation, thus leaving one spot left for the remaining candidates.
As much as Mariners fans will want to see Maurer get his chance now, Beavan has done nothing to lose his spot in the rotation, either. With Beavan more likely to be able to throw 200 innings now, expect him to earn the fifth spot in the rotation, with Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez waiting in the wings.
Final Prediction: Jon Garland and Blake Beavan
Fourth and Fifth Outfield Spots
As interesting as the battle for the starting rotation has been, the battle for the outfield has been that and then some.
With Eric Thames being optioned to Triple-A, the Mariners are down to seven outfielders competing for five spots. Franklin Gutierrez, Michael Saunders, Mike Morse, Jason Bay, Casper Wells, Raul Ibanez and Carlos Peguero have all shown their highlights this spring and have all made their cases.
Of the seven, Mike Morse has been the most impressive at the plate, batting .333 with six home runs and 11 RBI, making Mariners fans feel more comfortable about letting go of John Jaso for the slugger this offseason.
The most surprising entries here are that of Carlos Peguero and Jason Bay.
Peguero has long been known for his power, but he's struggled with plate discipline for the majority of his career. However, this spring, he has been an all new hitter at the plate, batting .341 with three home runs and five RBI. Although he still has 14 strikeouts, he has shown improved discipline and has been making a strong push to be included in the conversation for a backup job in the outfield.
Jason Bay has been nothing short of a success story as well, batting .323 with two home runs and four RBI. He is healthier than he has been in years and is no longer burdened by a fanbase expecting him to live up to a monster contract. With that in mind, Bay has really shown a lot of promise this spring and has kept his name in the ring just as much as Peguero.
With all that said, Franklin Gutierrez, Mike Morse and Michael Saunders have been penned as the starters for a while, especially with the success of Morse in spring training, Saunders in the World Baseball Classic and the health of Gutierrez. This leaves Bay, Peguero, Wells and Ibanez for two spots.
In the offseason, the Mariners brought in Raul Ibanez to be a much-needed veteran leader for a very young team. What the Mariners didn't expect was for him to put up the numbers he has so far this spring. With a solid .333 batting average with three home runs and nine RBI, expect Ibanez to stick with the team as the fourth outfielder/matchup nightmare.
Finally, with the amount of moving around that manager Eric Wedge has done with Jason Bay this spring, expect him to be the fifth outfielder come Opening Day. Casper Wells may offer more versatility for defensive purposes, but that doesn't seem to be much of a concern with Guti and Saunders roaming two-thirds of the outfield.
As much as Mariner fans would love to see Wells get a full-time chance with the team, he is going to be tough-luck-loser No. 1. Wells has hit only .200 over the spring, which has been even more magnified with almost everyone hitting this spring for the Mariners.
Prediction: Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez
The final battle for the Mariners this spring wasn't a position battle, but rather the battle for the leadoff spot in the lineup.
Of the candidates, the most seriously considered at the beginning of the spring were Michael Saunders, Dustin Ackley and Franklin Gutierrez. What Mariners fans didn't expect to see was a Jason Bay sighting at the top of the order.
It has been a very interesting spring, to say the least, for the Mariners atop the order. And nobody really knows if they are any closer to having their leadoff hitter than they were at the beginning of the spring.
At this point, look for the Mariners to go with Gutierrez at the top of the order for a few reasons.
First, it allows Eric Wedge to drop Ackley lower in the lineup so that he may continue to refine his swing into the hitter everyone expects him to be. Secondly, Saunders may have the speed to be a leadoff hitter, but his power and still-unproven batting average suggest he would be better suited batting lower in the lineup, much like Ackley.
Manager Wedge has been saying all spring he wanted a more balanced lineup, and placing a pair of hitters like Ackley and Saunders lower in the lineup does just that.
Prediction: Franklin Gutierrez