Previewing the Mariners' 2014 infield

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Where did Jesus Montero come from?

This Friday, the Mariners will face off against their faux rivals, the San Diego Padres, in the name of charity. It will be the first of 33 opportunities for players and manager Lloyd McClendon to lock down starting roles and back up some strong statements that have pervaded this year's camp.

Over the next few days, we'll break down the roster by position and try to get a sense of where the Mariners are headed as they approach Opening Day. Let's start with the infield.

Catcher

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"I just want to simplify everything," Zunino said. "I want to stand up tall. I want to see the ball a bit better. I wasn't striding as much. And I want to get my foot down a little quicker to recognize pitches."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

"I believe you need protection, a third catcher type of guy. It doesn't necessarily have to be a third catcher, but someone who can go back there. I'd be a little reluctant to do that (play Buck at DH) without that guy."

-- Lloyd McClendon via Larry Stone, Seattle Times

Since Jesus Montero's implosion, Zunino has the starting catching job locked down. This spring, his focus is geared almost exclusively on boosting his production at the plate, where he lagged with a .214/.290/.329 slash line over 52 games in 2013.

No word yet on Jesus Sucre's role this year, but John Buck will be primarily filling in as a veteran backup backstop when needed. Barring any offensive outburst during Cactus League play, he doesn't seem to have the manager's approval to split DH duties.

First base

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"I was just trying to get him [Smoak] to understand your swing path and what it does to your swing if you are in the right spot," McClendon said. "It's not about muscling up. It's not about swinging harder. It's about getting that bat in the proper slot to get it through the zone. If you do that, positive things will happen. I think he liked what he felt. It was something to build off of."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

"Corey Hart is working mostly with the outfielders right now. Ideally for the Mariners, they'd like to be able to play him in right field more than a few times a week. [...] If the season started today, Hart would bat clean-up behind Robinson Cano."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

So far, McClendon seems to like Corey Hart in right field, and would be comfortable seeing him start 145 games out there while taking occasional reps at DH and first base. If Hart manages to stay healthy and semi-productive in the outfield, Justin Smoak and Logan Morrison will split duties at first base.

I have to admit, I completely forgot about Jesus Montero. Following his injury and suspension in 2013, I assumed that he was out of the running for any spot on the club, and that a return to the team would be minimal, perhaps as a back-up DH or emergency catcher.

Suffice to say, expectations weren't much higher in the M's camp this week when Montero arrived in Peoria 40 lbs. heavier than he left the M's last year. He didn't help his case by telling the press, "I feel comfortable with my weight" and "After winter ball, all I did was eat." McClendon voiced his concerns to MLB.com's Greg Johns, telling Jesus that he needed to "put up or shut up" in order to contend as a first baseman in 2014. General manager Jack Zduriencik was even harsher toward the once-promising power hitter, stating that he has "zero expectations" for Montero and putting the burden of a successful comeback squarely on the 24-year-old's shoulders.

Second base

Contenders:

  • Robinson Cano

Buzz around camp:

"The Mariners expect Cano to provide leadership on the field, but manager Lloyd McClendon says he just needs "Robbie to be Robbie" and everything else will work out. [...] 'I like to lead by example,' he [Cano] said. 'When you talk too much, nobody listens. I'm going to go out and try to play every day, and that's the biggest example you can show a kid, by how hard you work and how good you prepare yourself in the offseason so you can play 162 games.'"

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

After a tiff with New York Yankees' hitting coach Kevin Long, who accused Cano of slacking on routine plays during his time in New York, it looks like things are boding well for the M's new second baseman. Nick Franklin has officially been told to pack his bags for shortstop, and the position is Cano's to maintain for the year, if not the next decade.

Whether he intends to or not, Cano is already a strong presence at spring training, and the "kids" are already hanging off of his every word. Kyle Seager, another infielder who won't be facing any competition for his spot on the roster, told Greg Johns that he was excited to be around a player he'd followed for most of his career, and will be scrutinizing Cano's habits and methods throughout the season.

Shortstop

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"McClendon values defense at the shortstop position but would be happy with a solid glove man who contributes offensively as well. [...] 'I'm not looking for a flashy play. I'm looking for a guy that is very sound fundamentally, makes the plays consistently and provides offense."

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

Infield competition will be fiercest at short, where McClendon is leaving the door wide open for Franklin to compete for the starting role after relinquishing his post at second base to Cano. Franklin appears to have a slight offensive edge, but McClendon will be looking for sharp glovework -- giving Miller an advantage after half a year's work at shortstop. While both men have significant experience at short from their days in the M's farm system, Franklin has yet to play even five games there in the major leagues.

One former second baseman who won't be getting a shot in the infield rotation is Dustin Ackley, whom the skipper seems to prefer in left field this year.

Third base

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"McClendon said in an ideal world, he'd like Kyle Seager to hit second, in front of Robinson Cano and Hart, who are slated as the three-four hitters. 'Ideally, if we're real good, he's hitting second,' McClendon said. 'But I don't know. We'll see how it all works out.'"

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

Little has been said about Seager's role this spring. Though McClendon envisions him in the No. 2 spot, leadoff may be an option, depending on who else secures a starting role in the infield. Seager put up his best career numbers in 2013, batting .260/.338/.426 in his second full season as the M's key corner infielder. Over the last week, the 26-year-old has been talking swing mechanics and hitting approaches with Robinson Cano, who seems more than happy to dole out advice to his new teammates.

Who do you think is better suited for shortstop, Franklin or Miller? And, more importantly, what will become of Jesus Montero?

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