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Seattle Mariners
Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Mariners have decisions to make before opening day

Seattle Mariners' Dan Vogelbach scores on a base hit by teammate Mike Zunino as Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Jimenez waits for the throw during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Monday, March 6, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Matt York / Associated Press)
Seattle Mariners' Dan Vogelbach scores on a base hit by teammate Mike Zunino as Texas Rangers catcher A.J. Jimenez waits for the throw during the third inning of a spring training baseball game, Monday, March 6, 2017, in Peoria, Ariz. (Matt York / Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

The Seattle Mariners open the season two weeks from Monday at Minute Maid Park in Houston, and an interminable spring training lengthened by the World Baseball Classic will come to an end. Seattle returns all but one of its remaining players absent from big-league camp because of the WBC on Tuesday and will begin the push to prepare for a season with postseason expectations. Barring injury, the roster seems basically set.

But with two weeks left in spring training, there are things that must be done before that first pitch against the Astros.

Here are a few observations from spring so far.

First things first

Any skepticism surrounding the production of the platoon of Daniel Vogelbach and Danny Valencia at first base hasn’t been assuaged this spring. Neither has looked particularly astute in the field, and perhaps more surprising, they’ve both struggled at the plate.

Valencia is the better athlete of the two and is about “average” or just under at first base per an opposing scout. The Mariners had hoped the constant work this spring would result in rapid improvement given his past experience as a third baseman. But there are still signs of a player not completely at ease with the responsibilities of the position.

Meanwhile, Valencia has struggled at the plate with his timing. He’s tinkered with his leg kick trying to find some consistency, but hasn’t looked comfortable in the majority of his at-bats. He’s hitting .186 (8 for 43) with two doubles, a homer and four RBI. He has 11 strikeouts and six walks. The Mariners are right in not worrying too much about Valencia. He has a proven “track record” as manager Scott Servais likes to say. Over his last three seasons – a timeframe that general manager Jerry Dipoto likes to use – Valencia is hitting .281 with a .785 OPS.

Vogelbach has looked better than expected in some ways at first base. He’s not afraid to play off the bag and has looked decent on balls hit to him. He’s looked most uncomfortable and less confident on throws in the dirt or plays involving a throw near the runner and the bag. He might not be a liability, but the routine big-league plays aren’t a given to be made.

While Vogelbach’s defense is an understood work in process, he hasn’t been particularly productive at the plate. He’s hitting .226 (12 for 53) with a .305 on-base percentage, .321 slugging percentage, two doubles, a homer and five RBI. But it’s the 18 strikeouts that are of some concern.

Servais hinted that Vogelbach might be pressing a little in trying to make the team. But it’s always been assumed that Vogelbach had a spot locked up coming into spring.

Could that change?

It seems unlikely. The Mariners decided on this plan of giving Vogelbach an opportunity in the offseason, much to the surprise of some in the baseball community. A slow spring isn’t going to change that thinking.

Getting right in bullpen

Coming into spring training, the overall depth of the Mariners’ relief corps was considered a vast improvement over last season. And for the most part, that assessment was considering how thin the group was last year. But it only took a slow recovery from injury by Steve Cishek and an unexpected issue from Shae Simmons to take away that depth, at least for the first month of the season.

While Cishek wasn’t expected to be ready for opening day in his recovery from offseason hip surgery, the progress to get him back on the mound has been slower than expected. Cishek has yet to throw off the mound. The hope is that will come in the next week to 10 days. Still that pushes his return to possibly late April.

When Simmons left the game March 11 with forearm stiffness, it complicated matters. While the issue turned out to be only a muscle strain and no structural damage, Simmons has yet to resume throwing.

If you were to project the Mariners’ five right-handers in the bullpen, it would be closer Edwin Diaz, Dan Altavilla, Nick Vincent, Evan Scribner and Casey Fien joining lefties Ariel Miranda and Marc Rzepczynski. The group of righties lacks the third power arm in the absence of Simmons with only Diaz and Altavilla throwing in the mid- to upper-90s.

It makes the recovery of right-hander Tony Zych that much more intriguing. Zych, who is coming off offseason shoulder surgery, will throw in a Cactus League game later this week, according to Servais. Zych seemed destined to start the season with Triple-A Tacoma, where he is expected to build up at a controlled progression while getting back some of his feel and command after basically missing all of last season.

But with Simmons and Cishek down, Zych and Thyago Vieira are the only other right-handed relievers on the 40-man roster. Even if Zych’s innings progression prevents him from being ready by opening day, he could be needed in that first month to cover innings. He’s also one of the few remaining power arms at the upper levels of the Mariners’ system. Of the non-roster right-handed relievers in camp, none has really pitched at a level to be considered for the opening-day roster or a first call-up once the season starts.

Servais also hinted that he might carry an eight-man bullpen to start the season. Could the extra spot go to lefty James Pazos? He’s looked strong at times, flashing a mid-90s fastball. But he also had one awful outing where his lack of command reappeared. He will get tested in the final weeks of Cactus League games against big-league hitters to see if that’s a possibility.

Motter of trust

If the season started today, it looks as though Taylor Motter would win the battle for utility infielder over Shawn O’Malley. Motter played well of late this spring and has looked better than average at the multitude of positions he’s played. Motter is more than just a great head of hair. He brings more power than O’Malley and might be better at multiple positions defensively while also being an above-average base runner.

If Servais decides to go with an eight-man bullpen to start the season, Motter would make the team and Guillermo Heredia – the projected fourth outfielder – would go to Tacoma. Motter played six innings in left field on Sunday and a few innings at first base. He’s shown he can play second base, shortstop and third base at a solid level. He’ll likely see more time in left field in the coming games to see if going with a short bench is even a viable possibility.

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