While much of the focus on Mariners pitching this spring has swirled around the fifth-starter competition between Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias, there is an even deeper and heated competition for relief spots on a club that posted the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball in 2014.
Manager Lloyd McClendon said Thursday that the only certainty is that Fernando Rodney remains the closer after racking up a Major League-leading 48 saves last season. Even after trading promising right-hander Brandon Maurer and not re-signing veteran lefty Joe Beimel, the Mariners have a surplus of quality candidates for their seven-man ‘pen.
Which is why when McClendon was asked about right-hander Yoervis Medina (pictured above), who has allowed just four hits and one run in 8 1/3 innings of Cactus League action and has been an integral part of the bullpen the past two years, he offered up a stern warning.
“He hasn’t pitched well to this point in the spring,” McClendon said. “We had a couple bullpen sessions with him and hopefully we’ll see better from him today. He did a nice job for us last year. Everybody in our bullpen did a nice job for us. But one thing I expressed to the guys in our bullpen, Rodney is etched in stone. Nobody else. Whether you like it or you don’t, it’s just a fact.”
Medina has a 2.81 ERA in 129 appearances the last two years, but the Mariners also have right-handers Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Dominic Leone (pictured), Carson Smith and veteran non-roster invitee Mark Lowe in the mix behind Rodney. Charlie Furbush is the No. 1 lefty, with youngsters David Rollins and Tyler Olson and non-roster veteran Joe Saunders still competing for the second lefty role.
McClendon isn’t committed to keeping two southpaws on a seven-man bullpen, however.
“I just want to make sure we take the best possible team north,” he said. “Whether that’s a left-hander or right-hander [for the last spot], I don’t know yet. It’ll all play out real soon. I would like to think we’re dynamic enough that we don’t just close the box and say it has to be a second lefty. Would I like a second lefty? Yeah. But it doesn’t just necessarily have to be a second lefty.”
Neither Wilhelmsen nor Leone have very good numbers this spring, but both are a little behind due to minor health issues. Wilhelmsen started a little late because of a sore back, while Leone didn’t throw for about a week recently due to shoulder stiffness.
McClendon said both are playing a little catch up, but should be fine in accumulating enough work to be sharp by the start of the season. That’s an important factor as those two are the primary candidates for multiple-inning roles, which can be critical early when starters aren’t going as deep into games.
Leone was a key rookie addition last year when he posted a 2.17 ERA in 66 1/3 innings after making the jump from Double-A. This year’s promising rookie appears to be Smith, a hard-throwing 25-year-old who has been extremely impressive since being called up last September, while Olson and Rollins have been outstanding this spring as young lefty candidates.
Seattle went with an eight-man ‘pen for the second half of last season with excellent results, but that extra arm requires going with one less position player on the bench. McClendon’s desire to have more left-right options in the outfield – with Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano splitting time in right and Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks in left – it’s not going to be possible to go a man short on the bench.
So, yes, the bullpen competition is tight and McClendon sees that as an excellent sign of progress.
“I think this organization is at a point now where we don’t have to take guys to the big leagues out of necessity,” he said. “We’re at a point now where we take guys because they’re the best guys to take. And there is a lot of competition. We can probably say we’ve got nine to 10 legit people for a seven-man bullpen. So decisions are going to be tough.”
Lloyd McClendon has endorsed center fielder Austin Jackson as a leadoff hitter ever since Seattle acquired him from the Tigers at last July’s Trade Deadline, but the Mariners skipper is toying with trying Rickie Weeks in that role at times this season as well.
McClendon had Weeks leading off and Jackson batting second in Wednesday night’s Cactus League game against the Cubs, the second time he’s tried that combination this spring. And it probably won’t be the last.
“I like Rickie as a leadoff hitter, too,” McClendon said. “Austin led off yesterday, Rickie is leading off today. I’m just playing with things. That’s all.”
Weeks won’t likely play every day, as he’s slated to split time in left field with Dustin Ackley while Jackson is the full-time center fielder. But McClendon is intrigued by the possibilities and feels Jackson is an excellent situational hitter, capable of moving runners and doing damage in the No. 2 spot as well.
“Every player is different. They all have their strengths and weaknesses,” McClendon said. “Rickie has close to 3,000 at-bats in the leadoff spot and 100 home runs. There’s a lot to like about him there. Austin is a speed guy that hits a lot of triples and doubles. They both bring a lot to the table.”
Of Weeks’ 1,026 career starts for the Brewers over the past 11 years, 623 came in the leadoff spot and he produced a .256/.353/.445 slash line in that role with 125 doubles, 22 triples and 100 home runs. He also started in the No. 2 spot 131 times, with a .232/.325/.385 line.
Jackson filled a leadoff role almost his entire career in Detroit, with 622 of his 695 starts coming there. Jackson’s career line while leading off is .276/.337/.405.
McClendon has talked much of the spring about Weeks being one of his No. 2 candidates in the order, along with right fielders Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano. But he figures this is a good time to look at the options.
“I’m just playing with things and seeing what makes things tick a little better,” he said.
Ackley started in the No. 2 spot in 48 games last year and batted .233, though his OPS was .712 thanks in part to nine of his 14 home runs coming in that position. But McClendon prefers him at the bottom of the lineup.
“He’ll hit down in the order,” McClendon said. “I won’t make that mistake again. He was in a comfortable position and swinging very well and very productive in the bottom half of the order. To hit in the top half takes a different mindset and in some ways it probably messed with his psyche a little bit. And I knew that going in. I was just trying to find a spark.”
Here’s the full lineup for Wednesday’s 7:05 p.m. PT game against the Cubs, which will be televised live on ROOT Sports and MLB.TV.
With less than two weeks until Opening Day — 13 days to be exact — manager Lloyd McClendon is trotting out a lineup that looks like a pretty good replica of the group that likely will face Angels right-hander Jered Weaver on April 6 at Safeco Field.
Not that McClendon was admitting to such.
At his morning meeting with the media, the second-year skipper playfully rejected any notion that Tuesday’s starting nine had any significance and claimed bench coach Trent Jewett — who is the one who fills out the lineup card each day — had put together the batting order.
“I don’t even know what the lineup is,” McClendon said. “It’s his handwriting. Technically he made the lineup out. Go ask him.”
McClendon said he hasn’t decided on an Opening Day batting order yet, but pressed further on whether he liked Tuesday’s collection, he couldn’t help but concede.
“Yeah, I like that lineup,” he said.
There aren’t any big surprises there. McClendon has said from the start of camp that Austin Jackson is his leadoff hitter. He likes either Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano or Rickie Weeks in the No. 2 spot, depending on who is playing that day. The 3-4-5 order of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager has been much talked about since Cruz signed in December.
The skipper has also said he’ll likely bat his shortstop ninth, whether it was Brad Miller or Chris Taylor. And with Taylor sidelined, Miller indeed is penciled in the No. 9 spot today.
That leaves the 6-7-8 spots and Logan Morrison, Mike Zunino and Dustin Ackley makes for a left-right-left combo there. Those spots could certainly get shuffled, but I’d guess that’s the preferred slotting if they’re all hitting as expected.
Ackley hit second in 50 games last year, but his .233 batting average and .277 on-base percentage in that slot led McClendon to prefer him lower in the order when possible. If Ackley produces consistently for a good stretch, I could see him getting bumped up in the order at some point. But McClendon’s current preference is Smith, who has a career .347 on-base percentage compared to Ackley’s .309.
One obvious note: Today’s starter is J.A. Happ, not Felix Hernandez. Happy likely opens the year as the No. 4 starter, though McClendon said he won’t likely define his pitching rotation until three or four days before the start of the season.
“He just had a little soreness, but he’s fine,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I just didn’t want to take a chance. I’ve been assured everything is fine.”
Seager figures to be one of the key figures in Seattle’s lineup this year as the No. 5 hitter behind Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz in the middle of McClendon’s batting order. The 27-year-old hit .268 with 25 home runs and 96 RBIs last year and also earned his first American League Gold Glove award.
Seager signed a seven-year, $100 million contract extension in December. He’s hit .400 (10-for-25) with two doubles, one home run and five RBIs in 10 Cactus League games this spring.
In other news Sunday:
• McClendon said the decision on a second left-hander in the bullpen – a battle now down to Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins, former Gonzaga standout Tyler Olson and veteran Joe Saunders – won’t like be made for another week to 10 days.
• If James Paxton proves healthy, there’s a chance he could pitch in the No. 2 spot in the Mariners rotation between right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Paxton, making his first start of the spring on Sunday, currently is lined up between those two in the Cactus League schedule.
Asked if he likes the idea of a right-left-right-left rotation, McClendon said: “If they’re good, yeah. I don’t like it just to have it.” But McClendon then acknowledged, “I have real good candidates to have it, yeah.”
• Iwakuma will pitch in a simulated game Monday morning against Minor League hitters, while Erasmo Ramirez gets the start in the afternoon’s Cactus League game against the Angels in Tempe.
• J.A. Happ is scheduled to pitch Tuesday against the Padres, Taijuan Walker gets the Wednesday night start against the Cubs and Hernandez will face the Royals on Thursday afternoon. All those games are at Peoria Stadium. The Mariners also have a split-squad game Thursday against the Brewers at Maryvale, with Roenis Elias getting that start.
• McClendon had a motivational speaker in the clubhouse on Sunday morning. The session was closed to the media, but a group was setting up stacks of bricks and boards to be broken in what McClendon called “part of the act.” Before reporters were ushered out of the clubhouse, Hernandez was pretending he was going to break some of the boards being carefully stacked for the demonstration.
“Use your left arm, Felix,” catcher Mike Zunino called out.
• Here are today’s lineups for the Rangers game, which will be televised live on ROOT Sports and MLB.TV.
James Jones and Stefen Romero, two young outfielders who saw considerable playing time for the Mariners last season, were among 11 players sent to Minor League camp on Friday as the club continued getting closer to its final 25-man roster.
Also optioned to Triple-A Tacoma were first baseman Jesus Montero, shortstop Ketel Marte, catcher John Hicks and lefty reliever Lucas Luetge, all of whom are on the 40-man roster.
The club also re-assigned five players to Minor League camp who were non-roster invitees, including veteran outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. Also in that group were highly regarded infield prospects D.J. Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan and two veteran pitchers, right-hander Justin Germano and southpaw Rafael Perez.
The moves leave 39 players remaining in big-league camp with 2 1/2 weeks remaining until Opening Day on April 6.
“All these young men have done a nice job in camp for us,” said manager Lloyd McClendon. “It’s a combination of two things. No. 1, the innings, the at-bats, the playing time is not here for them anymore. And the second part of it is, they need to go get ready for a season. They’ve got to get at-bats and build the innings up and get ready to pitch. It’s just that time of the year.”
Jones, 26, played 108 games for Seattle last season and hit .250 with a team-leading 27 stolen bases. Romero, 26, hit .192 in 72 games in 2014. But the offseason addition of veterans Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano, Rickie Weeks and Nelson Cruz has made the outfield situation far more crowded this spring.
Both Jones and Romero have played well this spring – Romero hitting .364 and Jones batting .267 with a team-leading 10 runs scored – but faced long odds from the beginning.
“It was tough,” McClendon said. “One thing I explained to the club when camp opened, when you become good it becomes very difficult to make a club. The options become tougher and I think that was the case with both these young men. It’s not so much what they did or didn’t do, it was just the type of talent we’ve acquired that they’re pushed back to Triple-A.”
Montero arrived at camp with much fanfare after losing 40 pounds and re-dedicating himself over the winter. But he, too, faced a number’s crunch with no opening at first base or designated hitter. After batting .200 (3-for-15) in seven Cactus League games, he’ll get more opportunity to work at first base in Tacoma.
“He just needs to play,” McClendon said. “The at-bats weren’t here. And one thing I told him, the competition at Triple-A is going to be tough and stiff. You’ve got to go compete and compete for at-bats. I think he’s prepared to do that.”
Gutierrez, a former American League Gold Glove center fielder attempting to come back following a year away from baseball, hasn’t played since March 8 due to a sore groin muscle and will attempt to get healthy now in the Minor League side.
“It’s quite simple,” McClendon said. “He just hasn’t been able to get out on the field. That playing time is not there any more. The opportunity is there at the Triple-A level and we’ll see if he can get over there and get back out on the field and compete.”
By sending down Luetge and Perez, the Mariners have three remaining candidates to be the No. 2 lefty reliever in the bullpen – veteran Joe Saunders, Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins and former Gonzaga standout Tyler Olson.
The club also has three remaining catchers in camp with starter Mike Zunino, backup Jesus Sucre and non-roster veteran John Baker.
The remaining outfielders are Dustin Ackley, Austin Jackson, Endy Chavez, Smith, Ruggiano, Weeks and Cruz.
Infielders still in camp are starters Logan Morrison, Robinson Cano, Brad Miller and Kyle Seager, along with Willie Bloomquist, injured shortstop Chris Taylor and non-roster invitees Shawn O’Malley and Carlos Rivero.
Mariners shortstop Chris Taylor was held out of Saturday’s game against the D-backs and may be sidelined another day or two after taking a pitch off the right wrist in the sixth inning of Friday’s 10-5 win over the Brewers.
Taylor was hit by an 0-2 fastball from Milwaukee’s Jim Henderson. The pitch was ruled a foul tip and after taking a few practice swings, Taylor stayed in the game and wound up singling up the middle on the next pitch.
But manager Lloyd McClendon said Taylor was “a little sore” on Saturday and would be undergoing further tests to make sure nothing was damaged.
“I’m hoping he’ll be ready tomorrow, but I’m doubtful,” McClendon said Saturday morning.
The Mariners have Monday off, so if Taylor sits out Sunday, he could get an extra day of rest before the club resumes Cactus League play on Tuesday against the White Sox in Glendale.
Taylor went 3-for-3 with a triple in Friday’s game and is batting .421 (8-for-19) with an .842 slugging percentage in eight spring games as he competes with Brad Miller for Seattle’s starting shortstop job.
In other news Saturday:
— Felix Hernandez will throw three or four innings in a simulated game situation on Sunday morning at the Mariners’ Peoria complex against Minor League hitters, then is scheduled for his next Cactus League start on Saturday, March 21, against the Cubs in Mesa.
— Seattle’s upcoming probable pitchers: Roenis Elias on Sunday vs. the Dodgers, Hisashi Iwakuma Tuesday at the White Sox, Erasmo Ramirez on Wednesday vs. the A’s, Taijuan Walker Thursday night vs. the Indians, Elias on Friday at the Rangers and Hernandez on Saturday at the Cubs.
— Recently signed veteran Kevin Correia is slated to throw an inning or two in relief of Iwakuma on Tuesday in his first game action since agreeing to a Minor League deal.
— James Paxton will make his first appearance of the spring in a simulated game on Tuesday morning, pitching about three innings or 45 pitches against Minor League hitters as he returns from a bruised forearm. J.A. Happ will throw a similar simulated game on Wednesday rather than facing the AL West rival A’s.
— Left-hander Edgar Olmos is still 2-3 weeks from being able to throw after being returned from the Rangers on a waiver claim due to a shoulder issue.
— Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez won’t play for a few more days as he continues working back from a sore groin muscle that cropped up as he attempts to return from a year’s absence from baseball.
— McClendon said as things stand, he’s seen enough from his left-handed relief competitors to believe the club can go with a second southpaw in the bullpen behind veteran Charlie Furbush. McClendon didn’t name names, but both Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins and Tyler Olson have yet to allow a run in Cactus League play and are pushing for a spot despite never pitching above Double-A ball.
“Having said that, we still have a long way to go,” McClendon said. “But I like what I’ve seen to this point. I like the chances of being balanced. Now a week from now, it might be different.”
— Robinson Cano is back in the lineup today against the D-backs at Scottsdale after missing six games following his grandfather’s death in the Dominican Republic and Rickie Weeks returns after missing two games with a sore hamstring. Here’s the full lineups for today’s 1:05 p.m. game, which will be a radio only broadcast on 710 ESPN Seattle and Gameday Audio.
Newly converted outfielder Rickie Weeks was pulled early from Wednesday’s game and held out of Thursday’s Cactus League contest for the Mariners due to some tightness in his right hamstring, though the issue is believed to be minor.
“It’s nothing serious,” manager Lloyd McClendon said Thursday morning. “We just took him out for precautionary measures. We didn’t want to take a chance. I will not play him today, but I expect him to be right back out there.”
In fact, Weeks said he would be going through his normal workout Thursday, but just wasn’t making the trip to Mesa for the afternoon game with the A’s as originally planned.
“It tightened up a little when I was running down the baseline and hit the bag,” Weeks said. “I just ran through it, but it was like a little cramp. I could have stayed in there, but with Spring Training they just want to be cautious.”
After playing strictly second base in his 11 years with the Brewers organization, Weeks has played exclusively left field since joining a Mariners squad that has Robinson Cano at second. He’s gone 2-for-9 with a home run in four Cactus League games so far and said he’s feeling more and more comfortable in his new position.
In other Thursday news:
— McClendon had Nelson Cruz in right field in Thursday’s lineup for the first time this spring and says the club’s new designated hitter will continue being included in that mix.
“I’m confident he can play the outfield,” McClendon said. “He needs to be out there and I’m trying to be as smart as I can be with this, get him some time out there to keep him sharp and at the same time keep him healthy in the spring. I don’t have a number [of games], it’ll be more of a feel. But he’ll be out there a few more times.”
— Left-hander Danny Hultzen said he felt great the day after pitching an inning against the Rockies in his first game action since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2013.
— Felix Hernandez will throw three or four innings in a simulated game situation on Sunday morning at the Mariners facility instead of facing the Dodgers in a Cactus League game that afternoon.
— After Kyle Seager went deep on Wednesday, the Mariners were tied with the Royals for the most Cactus League home runs with 11.
— Will Ferrell won’t enter the game until the second inning today in his whirlwind attempt to play for 10 teams in one day. So here are today’s starting lineups at the noon start at Hohokam Stadium.
Pretty quiet morning as far as news out of Mariners camp, but should be an interesting game this afternoon as Danny Hultzen will make his first appearance since undergoing shoulder surgery in 2013 when Seattle hosts the Rockies at 1:05 p.m. at Peoria Stadium.
Erasmo Ramirez gets the start and will likely go three innings in his second Cactus League outing, with Hultzen then coming in for an inning of relief. Hultzen was the second overall pick in the 2011 draft and while he’s not expected to be ready to help at the Major League level this year, the Mariners are pointing him toward being full go by 2016.
Tom Wilhelmsen will also pitch an inning of relief today in his first outing of the spring after being slowed initially by a sore back. Closer Fernando Rodney is among the other relievers who’ll pitch today.
Manager Lloyd McClendon spent a good part of his morning session with the media talking about the “live-and-learn” moments from Tuesday’s 9-3 loss to the Rockies, a game marred by some poor defensive play from some of his young prospects.
McClendon says those mistakes are a necessary part of the development of youngsters, particularly kids who are pressing in their first Major League camp while trying to make an impression. McClendon said the same is true for managers.
“Sure, absolutely. I made a lot of mistakes when I was a young manager. I haven’t made one mistake here,” he said with a laugh.
As for his understanding of what players are going through in trying to make a team, McClendon unleashed another grin.
“I was a horse[blank] player,” he said. “I understand. It’s a hard game. Jim Leyland used to tell me, when we board that plane, you get on the back and make sure the general manager doesn’t know you’re on this team.”
McClendon spent 8 ½ seasons in the Majors as a utility player, so he was better than he lets on. But the point was made. Baseball can be a tough game and the skipper has some empathy for guys trying to make a squad.
On the news front, McClendon said Roenis Elias will start Sunday against the Dodgers. So the upcoming pitching slate is Jordan Pries on Thursday, J.A. Happ on Friday, Taijuan Walker on Saturday and Elias on Sunday. Hisashi Iwakuma is throwing a simulated game against Minor Leaguers on Thursday and Felix Hernandez will do the same on Sunday.
And James Paxton is still on line to make his Cactus League debut Tuesday, March 17. Paxton is scheduled for his first live batting practice this morning.
Robinson Cano is still due back from the Dominican on Friday following his grandfather’s funeral services in the Dominican Republic.
Here are the lineups for today’s game, which will be televised live on ROOT Sports and MLB.TV.
Things get busier for me on the writing end once Cactus League games begin, so I’ve haven’t been able to post pictures as much lately. But here are a few scenes from camp in recent days. And be sure to follow all my Mariners news coverage at Mariners.com and on Twitter at @gregjohnsmlb.
Kyle Seager has the Mariners pointed toward a big season in 2015.
Former third baseman and current ROOT Sports broadcaster Mike Blowers interviews Taijuan Walker for a pregame show.
Outfielder James Jones chatting with Jesus Montero at the batting cage.
Veteran reliever Mark Lowe is back with the Mariners this spring as a non-roster invitee, fighting for a spot in the bullpen.
Pitching coach Rick Waits — the man with the ‘stache — talks strategy with Danny Hultzen.
Here’s a good look at Tom Wilhelmsen’s circle changeup grip.
Big Nelson Cruz is an imposing figure with a bat in hand.
Veteran right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will both pitch simulated games against Minor League hitters later this week in their second outings of the spring as manager Lloyd McClendon looks ahead to regular-season matchups.
Iwakuma would have been slated to face the A’s on Thursday in Mesa and Hernandez lined up against the Dodgers on Sunday in Peoria for his second Cactus League start. But with Seattle facing both those clubs in their first road trip of the regular season in April, McClendon will avoid giving the opposing hitters extra work against his aces.
“I just don’t want them facing teams we’re going to play early,” McClendon said. “I don’t like doing that. Any type of edge we can get by not having them face them early is good. They just need to build up [innings]. I don’t think they’re trying to make the club.”
It doesn’t appear Hernandez will actually line up to face the Dodgers in the early Interleague series, however. He’ll pitch Opening Day against the Angels on April 6, then face the A’s on either April 11 or 12, depending on how Seattle uses a first-week off day on April 9. Either way, he wouldn’t line up for his next start until the Mariners return home to face the Rangers the following weekend.
Iwakuma, however, could face the A’s in his second regular-season outing on April 12 if the Mariners use the off day to go with a four-man rotation and keep their top starters pitching every fifth day at the start.
The simulated games on Thursday and Sunday will be held in the mornings, prior to each day’s Cactus League contests.
In other Tuesday morning news:
–James Paxton, slowed by a bruised forearm in the initial weeks of camp, is scheduled to throw the first of his two live batting practices on Wednesday in preparation for his Cactus League debut on March 17 against the White Sox in Glendale.
— Newly signed right-hander Kevin Correia was scheduled for a bullpen session on Tuesday and will gradually be worked into the mix among the starting candidates after agreeing to a Minor League deal on Monday.
“He’s behind the eight-ball a little bit as far as competing for a spot, but you never know,” McClendon said. “We’ll see how fast he can get going. He’s a veteran pitcher that’s had success. I like him. We have to get him healthy and get him going. He knows how to pitch. He knows what he’s doing and can give you quality innings. We’ll see.”
— Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez was held out of game action again Tuesday as he recovers from a sore groin muscle. “He’ll get his workout in,” said McClendon. “We’re just trying to give him a couple days and hopefully he’ll feel better and we’ll get him back out there.”
— Seattle’s pitching plans for upcoming games: Erasmo Ramirez will start Wednesday against the Rockies in Peoria, with Danny Hultzen and Tom Wilhelmsen to make their first appearances of the spring in relief. Jordan Pries gets his second start on Thursday against the A’s in a noon game in Mesa. J.A. Happ follows on Friday in a home game against the Brewers, followed by Taijuan Walker’s third start of the spring on Saturday vs. the D-backs in Scottsdale.
— With Robinson Cano not expected back in camp until Friday due to the death of his grandfather in the Dominican Republic, McClendon had shortstop Brad Miller playing second base on Tuesday against the Rockies, with Chris Taylor at shortstop. The two were flip-flopped the other way in Monday’s game as McClendon looks to get the two shortstop competitors equal time in the early going.