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Felix draws focus at M’s camp

Ace pitcher’s health, contract have everyone’s attention; Wedge has some other questions to ponder, too

SEATTLE – When the Seattle Mariners report for spring training today, they’ll immediately start trying to answer whether their starting rotation has enough depth and how they will shuffle a glut of players between left field, first base and designated hitter.

And why, exactly, there was a delay in an expected new contract for ace Felix Hernandez.

Seattle’s pitchers and catchers report this morning, likely the first time Hernandez will be available since news broke last week of the Mariners working on a new contract for their star.

Hernandez and the Mariners were working on a deal that would pay him $175 million over seven years and make him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball.

But there has been no formal announcement, leading to speculation there was a snag. and USA Today reported Sunday, citing unnamed sources, that the condition of Hernandez’s pitching elbow could be a future issue and was delaying the contract.

Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik reiterated Monday the organization’s policy of not commenting on negotiations and Hernandez’s representatives have not returned messages seeking comment. The Seattle Times has reported the deal may be finalized today when Hernandez undergoes a physical evaluation.

The lingering question about Hernandez’s deal is just one of those surrounding Seattle’s pitching. The rest of Seattle’s starters all have question marks, part of the reason the team is reportedly close to a deal with veteran left-hander Joe Saunders.

Hisashi Iwakuma, who was buried in the bullpen and pitched just five times the first two months of last season, is Seattle’s presumed No. 2 starter to begin the year.

Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez will likely be given chances at rotation spots, along with a handful of spring training invitees.

The buzz about Seattle’s young arms in the minors remains, but the likelihood of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer or Danny Hultzen starting the season with the Mariners is slim. Only Hultzen pitched above Double-A last season and he struggled in 12 games at Tacoma.

Eric Wedge will also be trying to figure out how to balance the situations he’ll face in left field, first base and at designated hitter. Seattle’s moves in the offseason left them with an overabundance of players with similar roles.

The best scenario for Seattle would be that first baseman Justin Smoak builds off a strong close to last season and finally shows the consistency that made him the centerpiece of the trade that sent Cliff Lee to Texas in 2010.

If that happens, Kendrys Morales would slot into the designated hitter role for the most part and Michael Morse would play in the outfield, with Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay taking spot roles off the bench. That lineup would likely give the Mariners their most potent offense.

In his 2 1/2 seasons in Seattle, Smoak has shown very little consistency at the plate. Before a stint in the minors last season, Smoak hit just .189 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs in 90 games. When he returned in mid-August with a noticeably shorter swing, Smoak closed the year hitting .288 over the final 42 games.

“I have a clear idea of how I see it playing out, but they’ll ultimately determine that,” Wedge said. “Players make decisions for you. They decide how much they’re going to play by their performance and how they act, how they handle both the good and the bad. In regard to our numbers, I look at it like a healthy thing.”

Long-term concern?

An announcement on Felix Hernandez’s contract extension with the Mariners could come as early as today as both sides continued the final stages of negotiations, the Seattle Times reported.

The talks on a contract, nearly completed last week, hit a snag when an “elbow issue” surfaced as part of a physical the pitcher took. Sources have said the issue dealt more with wear and tear noticed during an MRI and could signal a possible problem at some point during the length of the deal, though nothing immediate.

Hernandez is to partake in a physical in Peoria today, along with the rest of the team’s pitchers and catchers. His part of the physical will be limited only to areas that weren’t covered by the extensive medical probing he underwent last week.

After that, as long as nothing turns up, Hernandez is medically clear to work out as usual with pitchers and catchers when they first take the field on Wednesday.

Manager Eric Wedge was at the team’s training facility meeting with his staff on Monday and said Hernandez is expected to be ready to go with no on-field limitations.

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