And so it begins: Full-squad workouts underway today

McClendonAs Lloyd McClendon greeted 61 players to the Mariners first full-squad workout of Spring Training on Wednesday, the second-year manager had a clear message for his troops.

Forget what you’ve been reading and hearing. It’s time to start preparing and playing.

“I don’t usually share my messages,” McClendon said when meeting with reporters prior to the first workout. “But I will share this. Expectations are very high and that’s OK. I understand it. But we can’t get caught up in expectations. We’ve got to get prepared and get ready for the grind of a 162-game schedule and it starts today. If you want to be a champion, it doesn’t start in April, it starts in February. And I think they’ll be up to the task.”

The addition of Major League home run leader Nelson Cruz to a team that went 87-75 last year despite considerable offensive shortcomings has pushed Seattle into prominence among many prognosticators. McClendon agrees this is a better club on paper after a productive offseason by general manager Jack Zduriencik.

“Good players win championships and Jack has gone out and provided us more talent, to give us a better opportunity to get that done,” said McClendon. “Having said that, it just doesn’t happen. I caution a lot of people that we’re not starting at 87 wins, we’re starting at zero. You’ve got to prepare and work.

“Everybody is hopeful this time of year. Everybody is thinking about winning a World Championship. I know this: It’s not always the most talented club, it’s the club that works the hardest and stays the healthiest that has a chance to win championships. That’s what we want to set out to try to do.”

If the Mariners are going to make a run in the American League West, they’ll need their pitching to replicate last year’s success, while adding offensive punch from Cruz and fellow veteran newcomers Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano and Rickie Weeks.

That group was scheduled to take the field for the first time Wednesday a 10 a.m. MT, joined by the nucleus of returners built around Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager.

“It’s always nice when you get all your players into camp,” McClendon said. “That’s probably the official start of Spring Training. The pitchers and catchers is a grind because you’re going through the same thing every day and it’s a little monotonous. It’s always exciting when you see your position players again.”

In other news Wednesday:

— With full-squad work beginning, the pitchers had a light day scheduled before live batting practice begins Thursday. Only two pitchers were scheduled to throw bullpen sessions Wednesday. Tom Wilhelmsen will throw off the mound for the first time this spring after being held back following his arbitration hearing in Florida last weekend and Danny Hultzen will throw his second bullpen. Hultzen was given an extra day between his throw sessions as he returns from shoulder surgery.

Coaches will throw batting practice to hitters on Wednesday, with live batting practice beginning Thursday. Every pitcher is scheduled to throw at least two bullpens and two live BPs before Cactus League play begins March 4. Felix Hernandez won’t start his throwing for a few more days as he follows his usual slower spring routine. James Paxton (bruised forearm) is the only other pitcher yet to toss off a mound.

— McClendon said Weeks will spend most of his outfield time in left field, working alongside Dustin Ackley. He said that wasn’t a message to Ackley, but merely a move to improve the team by adding another veteran right-handed hitter.

“We’re trying to get better and Rickie Weeks is a good player that can help us win ballgames,” he said. “I think the combination of both those guys out there should produce a very productive left field. When you have a combination of 20-25 home runs and 100-plus RBIs, now you’ve got something.”

— Ruggiano will see some time in center as well as right field, with McClendon saying it will be important to give center fielder Austin Jackson some rest at times to keep him sharp. James Jones provides further depth as he’s capable of playing all three outfield positions.

— I get a lot of questions about the Mariners broadcast schedule for spring. You can see the full TV/radio slate here.

Pictures from Peoria, Monday edition

FelixDrillsFelix Hernandez, looking fit and trim this spring, throws over to first base during fielding drills on Monday.

Luetge

Lucas Luetge is among the large group of left-handers competing for a spot in the bullpen.

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Reliever Yoervis Medina (right) and Fernando Rodney pass the time while waiting their turns in fielding drills.

Marlette

Tyler Marlette, who split time between Class-A and Double-A last year, is one of several young catching prospects in camp.

Germano

Justin Germano, a nine-year Major League veteran, is among the non-roster invitees in camp looking to find a home for the upcoming season.

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Andy VanSlyke, who has assumed duties as the team’s second hitting coach this spring, chats with catcher Mike Zunino during batting practice.

Paxton to miss several more days with sore wrist

Seattle Mariners v Los Angeles Angels of AnaheimLeft-hander James Paxton has been held out of throwing for the first three days of Mariners camp due to a strained forearm that was injured when he fell doing agility drills about a week ago.

Paxton, expected to be a key component in Seattle’s rotation, will be held out at least a few more days, according to general manager Jack Zduriencik. An MRI and x-rays revealed nothing more than bruising, so the lanky southpaw is just behind held back now as a precaution.

“He actually hurt both arms,” Zduriencik said. “He fell and grabbed himself. His left arm is a little sore and his right arm, we’re not that concerned about. But both of them, he kind of braced himself and jammed it. So no sense pushing it. We’ll let him get treatment, let it quiet down and get him out here as soon as he’s ready.”

Paxton, 26, missed three months as a rookie last season with a strained lat muscle behind his left shoulder, but when healthy was outstanding. He went 6-4 with a 3.04 ERA in 13 starts and is 9-4 with a 2.66 ERA in 17 outings over the past two seasons for the Mariners.

“It’s sad because he had a great winter, he stayed in Seattle and worked out every day and was outstanding,” Zduriencik said. “He’s saying he feels good. But we’re not going to make him come out throw until it’s completely quieted down. It doesn’t make sense this early.”

Paxton said he’d done the same footwork drill a thousand times before and has done it again since, without issue, but just caught his foot on the artificial turf in the workout area at the team’s Peoria complex and landed awkwardly in what he called “an unathletic moment for me” on his first day after arriving in Arizona.

“You get here and ‘C’mon, you’ve got to be kidding me,’” he said. “I busted it getting ready for this and now something like this happens. It’s putting me back a little and it’s frustrating, but I just have to take it one day at a time and get ready to go for when it matters.”

Pictures from Peoria: The first weekend

In addition to my daily series of Spring Training stories on Mariners.com, I’ll be packing a camera around the Peoria practice fields the next few weeks and sharing some of the better photos here on the blog. So check in regularly here for scenes from spring!
RodneyFernando

All-Star closer Fernando Rodney wasted no time getting his game face — and cap — properly aligned as pitchers went through fielding drills.

Zunino

Catcher Mike Zunino oversaw things in the bullpen as work got underway for the 28 pitchers in camp.

EliasBaker

Returning starter Roenis Elias listens to new catcher John Baker, who will challenge for a backup spot as a veteran non-roster signee.

LloydGwynn

Among the interested onlookers during the bullpen throwing sessions: Minor League coordinator Chris Gwynn and manager Lloyd McClendon.

JacksonAustin

Center fielder Austin Jackson is among the many position players already in camp working out on their own before the full-squad workouts begin Wednesday.

MonteroField

A slimmed-down Jesus Montero drew considerable attention with his new physique, but now must carry that over into camp as he works at first base.

HicksDanWilson

John Hicks, one of the club’s top prospects, takes in some wisdom from Mariners Hall of Fame catcher Dan Wilson. Wilson will be helping coach catchers throughout the organization this season.

Strength coach talks about Montero’s turnaround

MonteroGrounderJesus Montero figures to be one of the more interesting storylines in Mariners camp this spring. The 25-year-old has turned heads with his work ethic and physical makeover. You can read his story here today as he talked about why he’s turned things around.

But Montero hasn’t done all this on his own. He worked out every day over the offseason with Mariners strength and conditioning coach James Clifford, the former Husky linebacker, along with two other members of the club’s training staff.

So it was interesting today to hear Clifford’s perspective on Montero’s efforts. Here are a few of his thoughts:

— “It’s been fun. I’ve known Jesus since he got to us and coming in this offseason, what he did, what he asked for and how he went about it was really impressive. I know Jesus is a humble guy and likes to give a lot of credit to a lot of people. But he deserves that. He came in every day this offseason. And when I say every day, I mean every day. He came in Christmas Day, New Year’s Day. He just said, ‘Whatever you’ve got for me, I’m here to do it.”

MonteroWoodward— “That first month, there were days I thought he might say, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough’ for that day. But as he was laying on the ground looking up, he’d say, ‘If you’ve got more, just tell me.’”

— “People talk about how much weight he’s lost and it’s visible. You can see that. But what I see the most is what he’s gained in mobility and stability and movement. Those are the biggest gains I’m excited about and impressed with. We wanted not only to get him in condition, we wanted to help his performance and that’s part of our plan.”

— “He’s a great young man. He truly is and I was coming in and what I knew of him, I wasn’t sure what was going to happen after the first couple weeks. I just wasn’t. We made a pact that we were going to get something done and he literally just was all in. Whatever you’ve got for me, I’ve got it. I’ll go until I can’t go. It was impressive. It was good.”

— “We’ve worked on sprint mechanics. What we’ve really targeted is shorter bursts, but you’re going to see a difference for sure. What’s improved so much is his agility, just being able to use his body, load and change direction. We did sprint mechanics for sure, just cleaned him up and made him more efficient. And he’s going to get better.”

— “He is an athlete and he’s always been an athlete, he just didn’t maintain what he needed to do to continue to be an athlete. When you get away from that and don’t take care of yourself, you lose mobility. That’s one thing we talk about during the season, one of our biggest things is mobility. We sit down all the time, we’re on planes, cramped, in clubhouse, we have to make sure they maintain that mobility. For him, he’d just lost so much of it. Now it’s there.”

— “I’ve been in the organization 23 years and doing this 16-17 years. He dedicated himself as much this offseason as I’ve ever seen anybody and I’m proud of him. It’s just been rewarding for me to watch this guy do this. He really just said, ‘I’m going to do this.’”

Joe Saunders headed back to Mariners

Seattle Mariners v Detroit TigersWhile the Mariners have yet to make it official, it was hard to ignore the temporary sign at a locker in the team’s Spring Training clubhouse on Friday to clear a space for Joe Saunders.

The 33-year-old southpaw has agreed to a Minor League deal with a non-roster invitation to camp with the Mariners, but must pass his physical exam before things are finalized. Mariners pitchers and catchers were reporting to camp on Friday and will be on the field for the first time Saturday morning.

Saunders has been a starter most of his 10-year Major League career, but could compete for a role as a lefty relief specialist or provide further depth and injury insurance for a Seattle club that already has seven starting candidates.

Saunders was 0-5 with a 6.70 ERA in 14 appearances (eight starts) with the Rangers and Orioles last year after going 11-16 with a 5.26 ERA in 32 starts for Seattle in 2013. The Virginia native was a 2008 American League All-Star with the Angels and has a career 86-89 record with a 4.37 ERA in 235 Major League games, with only six of those in relief.

Seattle has been searching for left-handed bullpen candidates to complement Charlie Furbush, the lone full-time lefty returnee from 2014. Veteran Joe Beimel filled the second lefty slot last season, but he remains an unsigned free agent.

Lucas Luetge is another southpaw who split time between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle last year and the club selected left-handed reliever David Rollins from the Astros in the Rule 5 Draft. General manager Jack Zduriencik also acquired lefty Mike Kickham from the Giants in an offseason trade, claimed Edgar Olmos off waivers and brought in veteran Rafael Perez as a non-roster invitee.

Olmos, who has some Major League experience with the Marlins, was designated for assignment last week and the club is currently waiting to see if he clears waivers.

Top pitching prospect injured in boating accident

Victor Sanchez, one of the top pitching prospects in the Mariners farm system, suffered a head injury in a boating accident in his home country of Venezuela on Saturday, according to Venezuelan media reports.

The Mariners say they are aware that Sanchez has been in an accident, but have been unable to confirm the nature or severity of the accident at this point.

Sanchez, 20, was reportedly struck by a boat while swimming on a beach in Carúpano and, according to a report in Venezuelan sports website Lavinotinto.com, he was unconscious for some period of time on Saturday night and hospitalized in Carupuano.

The 6-foot, 255-pound right-hander was ranked as the Mariners’ 11th-best prospect by MLB.com last year. He went 7-6 with a 4.19 ERA in 23 starts for Double-A Jackson, where he was the second-youngest player in the Southern League.

Sanchez was regarded as one of Venezuela’s top young pitching prospects when the Mariners signed him for a reported $2.5 million bonus in 2011 as a 16-year-old out of Rio Chico, Venezuela. He made 15 starts with Low-A Everett in 2012, going 6-2 with a 3.18 ERA, then posted a 6-6 record and 2.78 ERA in 20 starts for Class-A Clinton in 2013 before being promoted to Double-A ball last season.

Sanchez threw a no-hitter in 2013 for Clinton in the 27th start of his pro career, blanking Lansing for nine innings with eight strikeouts, no walks and just one hit batter marring his outing.

Sanchez was not among the players invited to Seattle’s upcoming Major League camp, but was preparing to report to Minor League camp in several weeks at the team’s complex in Peoria, Ariz.

Weeks signing official; he’ll fill utility role

Milwaukee Brewers v Cincinnati RedsRickie Weeks doesn’t figure to play a lot of second base for the Mariners, but that didn’t stop the free agent infielder from signing a one-year deal with Seattle on Thursday as he starts a new chapter in his baseball career.

Weeks played strictly second base in 11 seasons with the Brewers, but figures to compete more as a utility player on a Mariners team that has Robinson Cano at second. The 32-year-old free agent agreed to terms on Wednesday, but the contract wasn’t finalized until he passed a physical exam on Friday.

“Rickie is a talented player who will be used at multiple positions,” said Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. “His toughness, right-handed bat and Major League experience are desirable factors for our 2015 ball club. We look forward to Rickie’s contributions this season and see him as a very nice fit, complementing the pieces we already have in place.”

The deal will pay $2 million in base salary, with another potential $2 million in incentives.

Left-handed reliever Edgar Olmos was designated for assignment to open a spot on Seattle’s 40-man roster. Olmos was acquired by the Mariners off waivers from the Marlins in November.

Zduriencik, who was the Brewers scouting director in 2003 when Milwaukee selected Weeks with the second overall pick in the Draft, has been looking to add right-handed bats to a club looking to bolster its offense and balance a team that finished one game shy of an American League Wild Card spot in 2014.

Weeks posted a .274/.357/.452 slash line with 19 doubles, eight home runs and 29 RBIs in 252 at-bats with Milwaukee last year while splitting time at second base with Scooter Gennett. He hit 29 home runs and 83 RBIs in 2010, was a National League All-Star and Home Run Derby participant in 2011 and carries a career .249 average with a .771 OPS.

Weeks has a career .385 on-base percentage and .834 OPS against left-handed pitchers and could work into the mix as a right-handed option in left field alongside Dustin Ackley or at first base with Logan Morrison, while also capable of filling in as needed for Cano at second or Nelson Cruz at designated hitter. Seattle was last in the AL in on-base percentage (.300) and OPS (.676) last season.

The Brewers asked Weeks to play some outfield last year, but he declined at that time and wound up starting just 51 games in the final season of a four-year, $38 million contract. Milwaukee then declined an $11.5 million option for 2015 and he remained unsigned until Friday, one week before Seattle’s pitchers and catchers will report to Peoria, Ariz., for the start of camp.

Analysis: Where does Weeks fit with Mariners?

Cincinnati Reds v Milwaukee BrewersWhile there was nothing official on Rickie Weeks’ signing from the Mariners on Thursday, the veteran second baseman is expected to take his physical exam in Seattle on Friday and if all goes well, put his name on a new one-year deal perhaps as early as Friday afternoon.

The obvious question is where Weeks fits in for a club that already has Robinson Cano at second base for the next nine years.

That’ll be something the Mariners and Weeks will obviously address once he joins the club, but here’s my take. General manager Jack Zduriencik wasn’t looking for a second baseman, but he has been in search of veteran right-handed hitters to help Lloyd McClendon balance a very left-leaning lineup. And while Nelson Cruz and Justin Ruggiano help in that regard, having Weeks still available and willing to sign relatively cheap – a $2 million base deal with another $2 million in potential incentives – was an opportunity the Mariners couldn’t pass up.

Let’s face it. The Mariners are still pretty southpaw heavy. If Brad Miller wins the starting shortstop job, they’d have an all-lefty infield with Logan Morrison, Cano, Miller and Kyle Seager, plus left fielder Dustin Ackley. Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino and center fielder Austin Jackson are right-handed, while lefty Seth Smith and righty Justin Ruggiano are likely platoon candidates in right field. So Weeks presents an intriguing right-handed bat and some interesting questions as to how to get that bat in the lineup.

At 32 and coming off a couple injuries, including some hamstring issues, Weeks isn’t the same player he was when he was a National League All-Star in 2011. But he was a productive right-handed hitter last year in a part-time role for the Brewers, hitting .274 with a .357 on-base percentage and .809 OPS in 252 at-bats.

Those numbers are even better when Weeks lines up against left-handed pitchers. He owns a .261/385/.448 slash with an .834 OPS against southpaws and a reputation as a professional hitter who knows how to work counts and get on base.

Miami Marlins v Milwaukee BrewersFor a Seattle club that finished last in the AL in on-base percentage at .300 and OPS at .676, those are tempting numbers. Tempting enough that McClendon will now try to find ways to squeeze Weeks in on club that already has a second baseman.

How might that work? Weeks has never played any other position in his professional career and declined last year when asked by the Brewers if he’d be willing to try the outfield after losing playing time at second to Scooter Gennett.

But Weeks clearly is in a different position now. His options in free agency were limited and he wound up choosing to play for Seattle, fully knowing the situation with Cano. So we’ll see how it plays out, but my presumption is Weeks will be worked some in left field, where he could offer a right-handed complement to Ackley.

He could be used occasionally at second or third, allowing Cano and Seager to rest their legs and/or play DH. Weeks himself can DH now and then to rest Nelson Cruz. Or more likely, Weeks and Cruz could both be in the lineup against southpaws as it’s quite possible Cruz could play a corner outfield spot while Weeks takes the DH swings.

Remember, Cruz has been an outfielder all his career. He’s played 833 games in the outfield compared to 120 at DH. Even last year, he played 70 games in the outfield for the Orioles. He might not be a preferred option out there, but he’s got a good arm and won’t embarrass himself. So if Weeks doesn’t adapt well in the outfield, Cruz could shift there some to allow Weeks at-bats at DH.

Another option could be time at first base as Logan Morrison’s backup. Morrison has played more than 100 games just once in five years in his career. Seattle’s current backup plan is to see how Jesus Montero looks this spring, or use Ackley or utility man Willie Bloomquist for spot duty.

Bloomquist is a major wildcard in this situation, coming off microfracture knee surgery. The Mariners have said they expect him to be ready by the start of the regular season, but that’s definitely not a sure thing. Weeks, despite his lack of prior versatility, ironically might fall into that kind of super utility role if needed.

Or maybe McClendon and Zduriencik have something completely different in mind. This one admittedly came out of left field. If you’d listed teams who figured to be a good match for Weeks heading into the offseason, the Mariners figured to be somewhere toward 30 on that list, thanks to Cano. But it just might make sense if Weeks is willing and able to play different positions, which appears to be the case since he’s voluntarily signing with Seattle.

Will it all work out in the end, who knows? But the Mariners just added another interesting element to their Spring Training. And more importantly, another capable right-handed bat to their bench.

Mariners add another lefty relief candidate

Cleveland Indians v Oakland AthleticsThe Mariners continued stocking up on left-handed bullpen candidates Thursday as the club announced the signing of former Indians reliever Rafael Perez to a Minor League contract with an invite to Major League camp.

With pitchers and catchers reporting next Friday in Peoria, Ariz., the club now has seven left-handed relievers coming to camp.

Of that group, returners Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge and newcomers Mike Kickham, Edgar Olmos and Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins are on the 40-man roster, while Perez and Tyler Olson are non-roster invitees. Kickham and Perez are both candidates for starting roles as well, should they wind up in Triple-A Tacoma.

Perez has the most experience of any in that group, having made 338 relief appearances with the Indians from 2006-12. He pitched 14 games, including eight starts, with Triple-A Round Rock and Indianapolis in the Rangers and Pirates organizations last year. He also pitched 10 games, with eight starts, in the Mexican League.

Between those three clubs, Perez was 6-7 with a 2.87 ERA in 103 1/3 innings.

The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder also posted a 2.31 ERA in 15 regular-season games (six starts) with Gigantes del Cibao in the Dominican Winter League this offseason, then was 3-1 with a 0.84 ERA over 32 innings in six playoff starts. He then pitched 5 1/3 scoreless innings in one start in the Caribbean Series against Cuba.

Perez was a workhorse for the Indians from 2008-11, with his 268 appearances in that span tied for the most by an American League reliever with Craig Breslow. He also made six relief appearances in the 2007 playoffs when the Indians fell one win shy of the World Series.

In his seven-year Major League career, Perez is 21-12 with a 3.64 ERA in 338 outings, all in relief for the Indians.

Seattle’s pitchers and catchers will report to Spring Training in Peoria on Feb. 20 for physicals, with the first workout on Feb. 21. Position players are scheduled to report for physicals Feb. 24 and the first full-squad workout will be Feb. 25.

The Mariners Spring Training roster is currently at 59 players (40 roster, 19 non-roster), including 28 pitchers (8 non-roster), seven catchers (four non-roster), 12 infielders (three non-roster) and 12 outfielders (four non-roster).

Here is the full 40-man roster, as well as the non-roster invitees.

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