As Mariners Spring Training opens, so too does a fierce competition

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners don’t know what their everyday lineup will look like. They don't have any idea. As Spring Training is now officially here with pitchers and catchers reporting today, I’ve seen this point pop up with increasing frequency: for a team with its eyes on contention, they sure do have a lot of uncertainty.

Who’s going to play center field? Are they really going to depend on Taijuan Walker and James Paxton to fill out the rotation? Is Justin Smoak going to get another chance?

There are questions without answers, lots of them—and that presents concerns, even with General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s comments yesterday that the organization will continue to have conversations about adding pieces to this club. I’d expect them to do so, and they will. But yes, right now, uncertainty.

While that presents risks—namely, if you don’t know who’s going to play a position as you head into Spring Training, you may not have someone capable of adequately playing it—I want to instead talk about the other side of this. Maybe there’s a positive angle.

For as much as I hate the comparisons, people are wont to compare the Mariners to the Seahawks, picking and choosing from the philosophies the latter seems to embody. You have "they just let the guys me themselves!" and "they have a plan they follow through on!" as two big ones, but one that’s been over-shadowed of late applies here to the Mariners: competition, everywhere.

There are starting spots to be earned, and plenty of players with the opportunity to fill them. I don’t aim to project who’s going to end up where, or who should end up where, but it’s fun to look through the positions and the potential subplots at play. If the Mariners are going to make noise in 2014, it’ll be due to some break-throughs and over-performance. It’ll be interesting to see if we start to see any of that this spring.

Let’s run through, in five groups.

The rotation: Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez, Scott Baker

There are three spots to be had with, currently, four guys to fill them. You’d assume Taijuan Walker is the most likely of this group to nail a rotation spot, but even that’s no certainty. He only has to go out and perform what we’ve seen to be his ability, but if he struggles mightily in Arizona after an off-season that saw his profile rise significantly, there’s no reason why he couldn’t start the year in Tacoma.

Paxton, like Walker, showed in a small sample that he can compete on the Major League Level—arguably looking even more impressive over his four starts (Tampa, St. Louis, Detroit and Kansas City)—but beyond the second half of 2013, he's been wildly inconsistent and struggled with control. Yet, his ceiling is high, and if he comes out and shows he's permanently fixed his walk issues a rotation spot is his.

Ramirez looked poor last year, and I've seen him get trashed by those saying the Mariners rotation is a disaster (not saying it isn't), but he's reporting to camp at just 23 years old. He's got stuff, including a fastball that touches 95—and LL's Joshua Dobner has a recent piece that cites his success down in Venezuela this winter. You can't write him off.

Finally, Baker. If he's healthy, and not atrocious in spring, he's the safe pick. The Mariners cast aside a veteran from the pile once before in favor of a young player who impressed in spring, and it left them scrambling to pick up Aaron Harang. Have to wonder if it'll make them think twice about if if it comes to that this spring.

And all of this assumes the Mariners won't add a pitcher. There have been reports, by The News Tribune's Bob Dutton specifically, that they seem comfortable with what they have—but you do wonder. Zduriencik did say just weeks ago that he was "not tremendously" pleased with what he had. If they add a guy, either through trade or free agency, this becomes four guys—four guys who each have legitimate upside—battling for two spots.

Late-inning relief: Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Fernando Rodney, [Stephen Pryor]

Fernando Rodney is the closer. Unless he's terrible. In which case, there are options.

It is very unlikely that Tom Wilhelmsen will be a better reliever than Farquhar in 2014, but his story is an interesting one. He's has the talent and stuff to be one of the better relievers in baseball but, mentally, he lost it. Does he have the resiliency to put it all back together again? In pondering this question, it's worth remembering that Wilhelmsen was completely out of baseball at one point. He previously went from Tucscon bartender to dominant reliever. He can't arrive at a similar destination after starting much further ahead?

Farquhar, of course, will be pitching with a chip on his shoulder. The peripherals say he's better than Rodney, and while that makes giving Rodney the higher-leverage situations a bit of an annoyance, the idea of knocking everyone back a slot, and having Farquhar in the role of shutdown setup man is wildly appealing.

Say these second two guys put it together, and Rodney isn't a disaster—you're looking at the bullpen being a positive attribute for the team. In a perfect world, 6-inning games and shades of Kaz, Nellie and Rhodes.

And as the header gives away, you have Pryor working to get healthy. A rough and conservative estimate by the team's medical staff put him out towards late May, but his was a serious injury and it could be later. Still, if he comes back as some approximation of his former self, you wonder if there'll be enough high-leverage situations to go around. There are worse problems to have.

Outfield: Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Abraham Almonte, Franklin Gutierrez

This is a fun one. No one is safe here, and while there will be some platooning with Gutierrez, there are just two full starting spots.

Michael Saunders feels like the safest bet to earn a full-time gig, but if he is, it isn't by much. He hasn't been able to stay healthy, but his shoulder injury last year and the samples we've selected as a result have given some reason for optimism. But if he struggles, the Mariners can quickly turn to other options.

Depending on how much the Mariners front office and Manager Lloyd McClendon value defense, Saunders and Ackley could end up competing head-to-head for playing time. While their nuanced skill-sets vary, there's a lot of overlap. Ideally, you'd like to see both of them in the same outfield, but you may not. Dustin Ackley has to show that 2013's second half wasn't a fluke. Seeing as he carried a .459 BABIP in August (earned or not, that's unsustainable), that may be difficult to do.

Put simply: if I'm looking over my shoulder, fighting like hell to earn a job I've worked my whole life for, I don't want to see Abraham Almonte back there. Odds are, he ends up in Tacoma—but he could make the lives of Ackley and Saunders considerably more difficult. On the field, Almonte plays like his hair is on fire. He could play his went into starting in center field, and he knows it—I wonder what his off-season's been like.

Lastly, I don't want to say too much about Guti. He was a great buy-low option, but boy would it be funny for him to finally be capable of being counted on when we weren't planning to do so.

First base/designated hitter/"outfield": Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, [Nelson Cruz]

Right now, there are enough spots. Nelson Cruz may yet change that, and proper platoon deployment could too, but right now it does seem as though the three mentioned here can all play everyday.

That said, Justin Smoak appears to be down to his last chance. He gets a lot of these, but in all likelihood, this is it. He hits, or he's not going to see playing time because there are better options available, in this group and the one above.

The big question with Corey Hart is health. Most players are reluctant to play designated hitter on anything approaching a regular basis, but given Hart's balky knees, he's fine with it. In speaking on 710 ESPN Seattle's Hot Stove League program, he said he envisioned himself playing about half his time there. Most seem to think Hart will spend a decent amount of time in the outfield, but I wouldn't bank on it early on. Also, can he hit in Safeco? Marine air matters, but I'm confident he can hit in Safeco.

Finally, Logan Morrison. He's often compared to Smoak: once a high-profile prospect, he's now flamed out. But there are varying degrees of flaming out. Kyle Seager, for all his ups and down last year, is the Mariners' best returning hitter. He had  a.764 OPS in 2013. Logan Morrison's career OPS is .764. He's also the "best shape of his life" leader in the clubhouse.

Now, if Nelson Cruz joins this team, it doesn't all fit. The Mariners could make it fit, but it wouldn't be in their best interests. Someone would have to go, and unless he's turned a corner, it's Justin Smoak.

The non-competition competitions: Brad Miller and Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino and John Buck

Baring an injury or Brad Miller just cratering, I don't envision a scenario in which Miller plays less than 150 games at short for the 2014 Mariners. Still, Nick Franklin is going to try to make this interesting and they're going to make them play this out. Franklin is a confident and proud individual, and there were a lot of stories last year about the work he did in the off-season—it'll be interesting to see this year what he's done to make up the ground between himself and Miller at the shortstop position.

Mike Zunino is your starting catcher, but there's a reason the Mariners went out and spent a little to bring in a serviceable veteran. Plainly: they can't bank on Zunino quite yet. They assume he'll be good to go but, if he isn't, and if he struggles, you could see Buck and Quintero or Sucre breaking camp with the team.

***

Now, I understand the concern: if we're running these competitions through Spring Training, we're going to end up judging guys on Spring Training results. And that's a valid concern. But my hope is that these competitions have already been won. To borrow from Muhammad Ali, they've been won this winter—in the weight room, on the practice field and in the cages. There will be guys who realized their jobs, their careers, are now on the line and decided to do something about it. And there will be guys who didn't.

But for as much as everyone's concerned about the level of uncertainty surrounding this team, in the outfield especially, there is a good side to this. It will certainly end up being a competition. It could also be depth, or flexibility. But if you're looking for a team that had almost every position set going into Spring Training, here's one: the 2013 Mariners.

Franklin Gutierrez was locked into center field, with Morse in one corner and Saunders in the other. Dustin Ackley was being counted on to bounce back at second base, and Justin Smoak was all set at first. Brendan Ryan was your shortstop, with Robert Andino behind him for support. Joe Saunders was your #3 starter.

Oh and the biggest competitions? Jon Garland lost to Brandon Maurer for the last spot in the rotation. And the biggest one, the one everyone cared so much about, that was between Casper Wells and Jason Bay for the 25th spot on the roster.

It's funny now to look back on 2013's Opening Day roster. The best way to do it, I've found, is this slideshow from the Seattle P-I. Just click through and be amazed at the faces you'll see (Kameron Loe!).

This is a different team. It isn't a 71-win team with Robinson Cano added. Is it a good team? I don't know. I keep pointing to projections, and how a couple reasonable moves could have the M's—mathematically—looking like the best team in the division. But as this team stands now, it is at least an interesting one. It's one with volatility, with upside.

Is this the year the Mariners turn it around, finally? I don't know. But baseball season is here (kind of).

Let's do it.

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