Pitchers and catchers are on the verge of reporting, and I badly need something to take my mind off of Sunday's disaster, so I thought it would be a good time to take a quick preliminary look at some of the roster battles we'll be hearing about this spring as the regular season approaches. I imagine I'll have to update this post at least once or twice in the coming weeks as certain players see their stocks rise and fall, but for now, let's just see how things look to be shaping up in early February.
The competition likely to have the most significant effect on the 2006 Mariners will be at second base, where Jose Lopez will have to fend off both Willie Ballgame and the porcelain urn containing the cremated remains of Fernando Vina. USSM does a nice job of discussing Lopez's upside, but they're not the first people to bring up his occasionally troublesome work ethic, and seeing him dog a ground ball in ST every so often while Willie darts back and forth like a man possessed can have a significant impact on a manager's thought process, particularly a manager as inclined to favor guys with a little more veteran experience as Mike Hargrove. And hey, it doesn't get much more veteran than Fernando Vina, although I think his chances of breaking camp with the team are somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-2%. This one's coming down to Lopez and Bloomquist, and while I'm fairly confident that Lopez will win out and be the Mariners' Opening Day starter at second base, the potential is definitely there for Willie to take it away if he has a good spring.
Mind you, I don't think there's any legitimate reason, short of a felony conviction, to give the starting job to anyone but Jose Lopez. Even though Willie probably couldn't last more than a month or two as the everyday second baseman were he to win the battle in ST anyway, that could be enough to cost the Mariners a win or two in the standings. It might not, too, but Willie's upside is pretty much Lopez's downside, so there's really no conceivable way that the M's would be worse off going with the actual prospect over the first round bust.
Another competition we're going to see will take place behind the plate, where the team still doesn't seem real comfortable with its available options for backup catcher. Rene Rivera has the inside track since he's already on the 40-man roster, but he's a guy who really ought to be playing every day in the minors, hoping for his bat to show up for more than a week at a time. Also vying for the gig will be Corky Miller and, in theory, Andy Dominique; Miller has a little Major League experience, while Dominque has an interesting bat and could become a legitimate pinch-hitter if given the opportunity. Rivera's the favorite here, but he's only 22 years old - the organization's been looking for a veteran backstop for most of the winter, so don't be surprised if something changes here before the season starts. This is where it's handy to have someone like Yorvit Torrealba hanging around.
Depending on how Hargrove decides to build his roster, we could see Mike Morse fighting Greg Dobbs for that last spot on the bench, a "pure bat" capable of manning the corners. A five-man bench has room for the both of them, but a seven-man bullpen such as the one the Mariners had a year ago makes for a battle. Again, Morse has a bit of a head start because he's still on the 40-man, but he's 23 years old and positionless, while Dobbs is 27 and a born favorite to be the 1B/DH version of Pat Meares. Which is to say, he's pretty much done all the developing he's ever going to do, so the team might favor him over someone who still has a lot of work to do, and who should probably be on the field every day so that he can get as much learning in as possible. Whoever wins this potential battle isn't going to get very much playing time, so, like with Rivera, I don't know if the Mariners will be willing to limit the opportunities for Morse to play when there's a chance that he could still turn into a useful player down the road. Of note: PECOTA projects Morse to have a 15-point advantage in EqA (42 points of OPS).
The last potential battle also depends on how Hargrove builds his roster. If he goes with a six-man bullpen and a five-man bench, then there's room for both Morse and Dobbs, but if he goes with a seven-man bullpen, then not only will there be a fight for a bench spot, but there'll also be a mad rush to run away with that last slot in the bullpen. There are a ton of candidates - Marcos Carvajal, Luis Gonzalez, Scott Atchison, Jeff Harris, Kevin Appier, and Dave Burba. Once more, this could turn into one of those occasions where the team has to decide whether or not they want to sacrifice playing time for ability. Carvajal very clearly is the most talented pitcher in the group, but he's so young that the M's might think it better to let him be the #1 guy in the Rainier bullpen rather than appear in 40 games or so in Seattle. Gonzalez is also young and has a bit of talent in his left arm, but I don't see this organization as a real good fit. I have to think the favorite here is Atchison, a guy who isn't young, isn't expensive, isn't demanding, and isn't hard to replace. He's pitched 37.1 effective innings with the big club already in his career, and he doesn't have anything left to prove in the minors - it's his time to show that he can stick in the Majors and earn a few million before calling it quits. Harris isn't made to be a reliever, and will probably hang out in Cheney as Seattle's #6/7 starter, while Burba and Appier are just bad pitchers on the wrong side of 80. They'll go into Spring Training as extra mentors for the younger guys on the pitching staff, and once they've shared everything they've learned over the years, they'll either accept their roles in AAA or declare free agency and hope that some other pitching-starved organization has a need for their grizzy veteranship.
(Sorry for the length of that paragraph.)
Contrary to what Rafael Chaves has said a few times, I think the rotation is set - there's no way that either Pineiro or Meche get bumped. It's not happening. Nor do I see Cody Ransom giving Willie Ballgame a run for his money as the utility infielder, because Willie's an icon (or something) with a two-year contract. It's too bad for Cody, but if the Mariners find themselves in a pennant race late in September, I guess it's probably a good idea to keep him as far away from the field as possible.