PEORIA, Ariz. – It wasn’t the guys on the mound, or those manning the bases Friday who were going to win a job with the Seattle Mariners based on the nine innings being played.
Instead, the guy behind home plate, incumbent catcher Rob Johnson, had the most at stake in the second game of his first back-to-back stint of the preseason. For all of the weights lifted, sprints run and pulleys tugged on by Johnson since two hip operations during the winter, these two games were ultimately going to determine whether he heads north with the ballclub come April 5.
Johnson passed the first test in the morning, his hips feeling fine after catching five innings the day before. Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu confirmed before Friday’s game, a 6-5 win over the Cincinnati Reds on a Ken Griffey Jr. walkoff grand slam in the ninth, that Johnson would join catcher Adam Moore on the opening-day squad as long as he passes this crucial test of his health.
“If Rob has no setbacks, they’ll be our guys,” Wakamatsu said. “They’ve both, in my opinion, just done a great job.”
Johnson said after the game that he has little doubt he’ll feel fine after a night’s sleep. That wasn’t always the case, especially earlier this month when he experienced stiffness in his hip and had his Cactus League debut put off by a week.
“When I had that setback earlier in camp I wasn’t sure,” Johnson said. “Now that they’re getting in better shape, they’re coming back faster rather than shutting down.”
Wakamatsu has plenty of roster juggling ahead in coming days. The Mariners announced that pitcher Cliff Lee had his next catch session pushed back four additional days in order to alleviate stiffness from an abdominal strain.
It now looks likely that Lee will miss the month of April, given that he’ll probably go a month between his last Cactus League outing and the earliest chance he’ll have to face live hitters. After that, it will take time to build his arm endurance to the point where he can pitch in a major-league game.
All of this will only add to rumors the Mariners might sign Jarrod Washburn before the season begins. If not, the team is ready to head north with Jason Vargas and Doug Fister in the starting rotation, with Luke French – who allowed two runs over four innings in this one – serving as the long reliever.
If Fister somehow doesn’t make it back from a forearm injury, then French would join the rotation and one of two non-roster invitees, David Pauley or Jesus Colome, would be added as the long reliever. Matt Tuiasosopo is going to be the backup infielder over Josh Wilson, largely because he’s already on the 40-man roster, while Mike Sweeney and Eric Byrnes will likely fill out the final spots – though much of it depends how long Lee stays out and whether he starts the season on the disabled list.
There is a possibility one or more players could start the season on the DL to free up roster room, which is the only reason the Mariners won’t officially commit to Sweeney being on the opening-day roster – though he’d be added later.
As far as the catching, the Mariners cut Guillermo Quiroz and Eliezer Alfonzo, leaving Josh Bard as the only catcher in camp after Johnson and Moore. Bard will serve as Triple-A insurance in the event Johnson suffers another setback.
Moore made a case for his addition early on in camp, and greatly impressed coaches with his handling of the pitching staff. His confidence had actually been bolstered back in September, when he caught all 14 innings of a Mariners victory.
“I got to handle most of the staff that night,” Moore said. “So that was a huge boost for me, to know that I could handle major league pitchers for that amount of time. I figured that heading into camp, with all this time to get to know those guys even better, I could improve on what I was doing before.”