It's been an exciting spring for the Seattle Mariners, hasn't it?
For a team that many, including myself, gave little shot at competing this season, it's not too hard to feel a bit encouraged by what we've seen over the past few weeks.
Can the M's successful March in Arizona translate to a big summer in Seattle?
I suppose that will depend largely on whether the team's roster has what it takes to compete in the AL West this year, with the first test being Opening Day next Monday in Oakland.
While we wait, though, the M's still need to sort out a few things, most notably their roster.
At this point most spots should be secure. However, there are more than a handful of players continuing to fight for their shot at making the cut.
So who will make the final roster?
Any time you pay someone $175 million dollars with a seven-year contract extension, it seems safe to say they're going to be around for awhile.
On the bright side, I believe King Felix will earn every penny of it for the M's as their ace this year and for many more to come.
But what about the starting rotation behind him?
Hisashi Iwakuma will probably be the Mariners' No. 2 starter in 2013, which, depending on your perspective, is either good or not so good.
After arriving from Japan last season, Iwakuma struggled in spring training and soon found himself buried deep in the bullpen for the first half of the season with only a handful of odd appearances to his credit.
Then slowly but surely during the second half of the season, Iwakuma emerged as arguably the team's second best starter while finishing the year with nine wins.
So which pitcher will show up in 2013?
I'm willing to go out on a limb and say we will see more of the guy who looked solid after the All-Star break, rather than the cloistered reliever still figuring out how to go about his business after arriving stateside a few months prior.
His numbers and stuff may not blow anyone away, but at the end of the day I see him more as an asset than a liability—which for this year may be good enough.
If Joe Saunders weren't a veteran left-handed starter, I might have a harder time penciling him in as the M's No. 3 starter.
At the same time, having Saunders on a one-year contract isn't a bad thing, either, given the team can find out whether they want to keep him or not without too much risk, similar to the Hisashi Iwakuma signing last year.
Much like Iwakuma, Saunders' 2012 season could be split in half, with the first portion in Arizona being a disaster, while the second part in Baltimore turned out to be a success.
Unlike Iwakuma, I'm not convinced 2013 will be a good year for Saunders.
Will the fact that the organization moved in the fences in left field help the offense, but hurt the likes of Saunders?
It's a good question and one I think we will need to keep a close eye on.
At the very least Saunders should be able to eat innings, yet whether those innings are pretty remains to be seen, as evidenced by his recent body of work. On Sunday against Arizona, Saunders surrendered eight runs on seven hits and four walks over five innings.
But doesn't Saunders have a solid record pitching at Safeco Field?
Yes, but that's pitching against the Mariners during some lean years, not for them.
I hope Saunders proves me wrong. Because if not, the starting rotation will start to fall off a cliff.
Oh dear, it's around this time my magic eight ball starts giving me trouble.
Each time I shake it, it keeps telling me "Reply hazy, try again," "Concentrate and ask again," and "Better not tell you now."
You have to wonder if manager Eric Wedge and general manager Jack Zduriencik are sitting in their office in Peoria right now doing the same thing, asking, "Should Blake Beavan make the starting rotation?"
What's funny is that just when you think you know what the Mariners are going to do, they opt to go in a different direction.
Case in point, Jon Garland. Thursday night Garland looked solid; Friday they couldn't commit to him.
I suppose it's good that the M's believe they have better options, but after seeing Beavan pitch "batting practice" to the Cleveland Indians on Saturday while giving up nine runs, eight of which were earned, and 16 hits over 5.1 innings, it makes you wonder.
So how in good conscience can I possibly pencil in Beavan at No. 4?
Let's just say the M's will keep Beavan on an extremely short leash while sending Jeremy Bonderman to Triple-A Tacoma to give his arm a little more time to get in shape. I'd like to think the key decision makers have spoken to Bonderman about the possibility and have his commitment to make such a move if necessary, especially after letting Garland walk.
You could argue that Bonderman is already trending upwards based on his last few outings, but Beavan wins out based on his past experience with the club and general durability at the moment.
Beyond that Beavan has little else to stand on. But what about Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez?
For Erasmo Ramirez, the time has come.
After looking sharp at the end of last season, coupled with a solid spring training, Ramirez will have the chance to prove himself and could potentially be one of the team's bigger surprises this season if what we've seen thus far holds true.
Or, perhaps not?
According to Ryan Divish over at The Tacoma News Tribune, it appears the Mariners have changed their approach with Ramirez given his recent work coming out of the bullpen:
Mariner manager Eric Wedge said a week ago that they view Ramirez as a starter only, despite showing he could pitch in relief last season. That thinking seems to have changed.
We don’t know the thinking behind it. The Mariners have reasons we don’t know about. There could be health issues or something we are not privy to. Ramirez has had elbow issues each of the past few seasons.
That is a very real possibility. There is some thought that his elbow may have acted up again, not allowing him to be stretched out properly to be ready for the season. If that’s the case then the Mariners are right to slow-play him a little. But usually with an elbow or shoulder issue, they shut them down immediately. Ramirez is still throwing.
While everyone wonders what happened to Ramirez, Brandon Maurer continues onward and upward.
Maurer has been lights out thus far in spring training, and while part of me believes it's too soon to promote him, at this point it's hard to deny him when reviewing the alternatives.
Much like Blake Beavan, I can see Maurer being given a short leash, but unlike Beavan I think he has a much higher ceiling and might be able to stick around.
Strange to think this time last year, Tom Wilhelmsen was simply hoping to get a steady job pitching for the Mariners.
What a difference a year makes as Wilhelmsen is the team's current closer.
It will be fun to see how he fares over a full season, but if he has any trouble holding down the job, there will be plenty of other relievers capable of pushing for his spot.
One guy who may push for the closing job is Stephen Pryor.
The 6'4" and 250-pound right-hander has the look and stuff to do the job some day, but for now he still needs to work on a few of the finer points after averaging a strikeout per inning this spring.
Today pencil him in with another intriguing young power pitcher in the bullpen.
Carter Capps, similar to Stephen Pryor, is a big man with big stuff at 6'5" and 220 pounds with a rocket of an arm.
Yet rather than simply overpower hitters with heat, it seems that Capps understands the need to expand his repertoire, as he explained to Ryan Divish of The Tacoma News Tribune:
“You’ve got to have another pitch to get guys out,” Capps said. “Guys in the big leagues are so good that they are going to hit your fastball in the end, it’s just matter of time.”
Capps appeared in 18 games last season, pitching 25 innings and posting a 3.96 earned run average. He struck out 28 hitters and walked 11. And he did it by almost exclusively throwing fastballs.
According to Fangraphs and Pitch F/X data, 82.6 percent of Capps’ pitches last season were fastballs. Sure, his fastball averaged 97.8 mph, but it doesn’t matter in the big leagues. By the end of the season, hitters were cheating on the fastball and hitting it.
“The scouting reports are so advanced,” Capps said. “They know exactly what you have. They know what you can throw for a strike and what you can’t, and they take advantage of it.”
If Capps can build upon what he already has, then look out. Granted this may take a little time, but much like Pryor he is someone to keep an eye on for this year and several to come.
Of course at the same time, it can't hurt to have a veteran in the bullpen to help balance out the youngsters.
Kameron Loe has been a pleasant surprise for the Mariners this spring, especially with Josh Kinney going down early in March.
With news on Monday that Kinney will be placed on the 60-day DL, the M's decided to add Loe (Mariners.com) to the 40-man roster, which should all but guarantee him a spot on the final roster.
When the M's first signed him prior to spring training I wasn't quite sure what to think of the 6'8" and 245-pound journeyman, but so far so good as he's managed to pitch flawlessly while averaging well over a strikeout per inning (Mariners.com) this spring.
If nothing else, Loe should solidify the right-handed side for the Mariners' bullpen with another imposing figure capable of throwing heat.
So what about the left side of the Mariners' bullpen?
The good news is that this trio has looked solid this spring, but perhaps not as dominant as the righties.
Case in point: veteran Oliver Perez.
Perez this spring has pitched well for the M's after re-signing over the winter with a financially friendly deal, yet sadly he's probably best known outside of Seattle for his part in the brawl between Mexico and Canada during the World Baseball Classic a few weeks ago.
When dialed in, Perez can be the kind of guy you flirt with letting close a game or two. But just when you start to trust him, he has this nagging tendency to come apart at the seams.
As much as I would like to have high hopes for him in 2013, I do so with extreme caution.
For now let's just hope he keeps doing what he did best last year as a lefty stopper and see how that nets out.
Is it me or is Charlie Furbush looking like the best player the Mariners received in return from the Detroit Tigers two summers ago for Doug Fister?
Perhaps it's too soon to pass judgement on Francisco Martinez or Chance Ruffin, and maybe a bit unfair to Casper Wells, but Furbush last year went from spare part to valuable fixture in the bullpen.
While he may never start a game again for Seattle, Furbush can certainly make a nice living as a left-handed long reliever once again for the M's in 2013.
Rounding out the bullpen is second-year man, Lucas Luetge.
I was tempted to pencil in Erasmo Ramirez here as the right-handed long reliever opposite Charlie Furbush, but the situation surrounding Ramirez at the moment is too strange to comprehend.
After jumping directly from Double-A last year, Luetge looked impressive in 63 games (Mariners.com) with the M's.
This spring he's once again pitched well, while notching more than a strikeout per inning.
Similar to the other lefties, if Luetge can duplicate or improve upon what he's achieved thus far in his career, he should have no trouble earning a paycheck.
As we shift gears to look at the Mariners' everyday players, I figure we should start with the one guy who arguably had the most to prove this spring.
Much has been said about Justin Smoak's struggles, yet when push came to shove he made it clear that he wasn't going to give in without a fight.
From the beginning, Smoak has hit the baseball with authority; therefore, it's safe to say he should be the M's starting first baseman.
The question isn't whether he has earned the job, but instead whether he will keep it.
Ever since coming to Seattle in exchange for Cliff Lee back in 2010, we've watched Smoak go every which direction but up.
Sure there have been a few positive stretches over the past few seasons; however, until he can do it for a full season it's going to be hard to take what we've seen so far too seriously.
Let's hope that this year Smoak finally cements his spot in the lineup and lives up to the potential we've waited years to see.
If anything should happen to Justin Smoak, it's somewhat comforting to know that Kendrys Morales would likely take over at first base.
For now, though, we will probably see Morales getting the majority of his at-bats serving as the M's designated hitter.
Regardless of where he plays, if he continues to hit like he has in spring training (Mariners.com), Seattle fans will quickly forget all about Jason Vargas...that is, if they haven't already.
At second base, the Mariners with Dustin Ackley should have their man for the next decade.
That was the plan when the club drafted him with the No. 2 pick in 2009 through the early stages of the 2012 season.
It was around that time that Ackley basically hit a wall.
The promising rookie campaign of 2011 seems like a distant memory, but I believe that Ackley can be the X-Factor in 2013.
If Ackley's spring numbers (Mariners.com) are indicative of anything, it's not too far fetched to at least hope.
Then again, it's hard to put too much credence in spring training numbers when you consider that even Brendan Ryan was at one time among team leaders in batting average.
Ryan's numbers have cooled a bit since returning from experiencing some stiffness in his neck last week. But so long as he's healthy and semi-productive at the plate, his defense should carry him as the starter this season.
Hot prospect Brad Miller or perhaps Nick Franklin may some day grab the starting job at short, but in spite of each putting up a decent challenge the past few weeks, the job looks safe in Ryan's expert hands.
Of course, if anything happens to Brendan Ryan or any of the other infielders, primarily on the left side of the diamond, Robert Andino will likely get the call to step in.
Sadly, I think Andino looks like a bust right now, yet you never know.
Until the previously mentioned prospects—Brad Miller, Nick Franklin, or even Carlos Triunfel—can break through the M's farm system, the utility role for this season will belong to Andino.
Let's just hope the team doesn't need to rely too heavily on him for at-bats in 2013.
The final starter in the Mariners' infield is perhaps the most underrated.
Kyle Seager barely made the team last year, but once he got his chance he never looked back.
Let's hope so, but at the very least he should be secure at the hot corner in 2013.
Whether or not Jesus Montero will be the Mariners' catcher long-term remains to be seen, but for this year the job is his to start the season.
With both Mike Zunino and even John Hicks breathing down Montero's neck, he's managed to piece together a quiet spring (Mariners.com) both at and behind the plate. Yet it's hard to tell what the future holds.
As much as I'd like to see Montero stick behind the plate, it's hard to imagine, given the promise that Zunino has shown.
Here's hoping that similar to Kendrys Morales, no matter where Montero ends up playing for the M's, he hits the ball with authority.
Similar to relief pitcher Kameron Loe, when the Mariners signed veteran Kelly Shoppach, I didn't think much of the move.
Shoppach in my mind is strictly a backup catcher at this point, helping fill the role in a defensive sense.
What's surprised me, though, is that Shoppach has actually managed to post some respectable numbers offensively this spring (Mariners.com).
While it's unlikely he will contribute much on offense once the regular season starts, it's encouraging to think he might not embarrass himself either when filling in for Jesus Montero.
He probably won't hit quite as well as John Jaso, but could he be a step above Miguel Olivo?
As we begin to round out the Mariners' roster, we now shift to the outfield.
Michael Saunders, along with Kyle Seager, was one of the biggest surprises in 2012 for Seattle. But can Saunders build upon his breakout performance?
While I can't picture him becoming a .300 hitter or going 30/30, I'd like to think he's capable of holding down an everyday role while hitting 20 homers with 20 steals and serving as a dynamic spark plug, either at the top or bottom of the order.
So long as Michael Morse is healthy, the Seattle Mariners will try to get him as many at-bats as possible this season with the hopes of getting the greatest return on their investment.
Most of his time in the field will be spent playing outfield, but most importantly his time will be spent mashing the baseball.
Speaking of healthy, if Franklin Gutierrez can play this year at or close to 100 percent, the M's might have a fairly respectable outfield.
Guti has looked solid when healthy this spring, but you never can bank on him.
If at any point he can't play, the Mariners may need to rely on some veteran help to carry the load.
Raul Ibanez is back and raring to go.
When asked about his passion for the game by Ryan Divish at The Tacoma News Tribune, Ibanez responded:
“I love what I do,” he said. “It’s fun for me to wake up every morning. I’m excited about coming to the ballpark. What more can you ask for? I don’t think I’ve ever really worked. I mean you work hard at your craft, but if you love what you do it isn’t really working.”
From the day he’s shown up at spring training till Sunday, Ibañez has attacked each day with the enthusiasm of a rookie and motivation of a player just trying to make the team.
Hitting well over .300 with a handful of homers and more than a dozen RBI this spring, Ibanez is playing with the energy of a man half his age.
Can he keep it up for a full season?
I feel like we've been here before, most recently with Ken Griffey Jr., but let's hope Ibanez's return to Seattle has a happier ending.
And finally, if you don't think Jason Bay is going to grab the proverbial "last" roster spot, I've got two words for you: Endy Chavez.
Signing Chavez to a minor league deal earlier this week all but sealed the deal that Casper Wells' days in a Mariners uniform are numbered.
Geoff Baker of The Seattle Times mapped out the situation on Sunday:
The signing gives the Mariners added center field depth in the event they part ways with outfielder Casper Wells this week. Wells appears to have been beaten out for a fifth outfield spot by Jason Bay, but is out of minor league options and could be lost to a waiver claim if the team attempts to outright him to AAA.
There is still a chance the Mariners could try to trade Wells before being forced to make a roster move involving him.
Wells plays all three outfield spots. With lingering questions about the health of starting center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, the Mariners' only other capable major league center fielder is Michael Saunders.
But with Chavez providing insurance, the Mariners could move Wells to free a spot for Bay.
Do I think this move makes sense?
Yes and no.
Yes, Bay has looked decent this spring and could contribute this season.
No, because Wells is younger and a far better defender that can serve as an insurance policy.
Ultimately, though, I can't see Wells ever breaking through while playing in Seattle, given all the chances he's had over the course of the past several years. Perhaps it's for the best that Wells be given a shot elsewhere, rather than be shuffled back and forth between Seattle and Tacoma.
Strangely enough, when you look down the roster the same thing could probably be said of Blake Beavan. But for this year I believe he will be given the benefit of the doubt.
Beyond those two players, though, and a handful of veterans that may or may not pan out this year like Bay, Joe Saunders, Kameron Loe, and Kelly Shoppach, to name a few, the Mariners seem to have quite a few promising young players to build with.
While it may take them time to mature, it's good to know that both the infield and bullpen already have some key fixtures in place. Meanwhile, the starting rotation will likely be a work in progress, especially in the early going this season as what you see today may look entirely different in a few weeks'/months' time. The good news there is that the team should have plenty of help working to refine their skills down at Tacoma.
Finally, the outfield...well, let's just hope that they stay healthy, because honestly the Mariners really don't have a whole lot of talent to fall back on beyond the fossil-fueled old-timers they have paired alongside Michael Saunders.
Fingers are crossed, but if you ask me it's time to start the season and play ball!