Mariners pitchers and catchers reported to Peoria Friday, will take the field on Saturday, and I will be there Monday. Here are five things I will be watching closely.
1. The bullpen.
As Jerry Dipoto’s vision for the Mariners transfers from paper to the field, the group that will be watched with the most anxious eyes is the bullpen. In most of Jack Zduriencik’s tenure, the pen wasn’t a huge concern this time of year as a pen no worse than decent seemed to sort itself out by the end of spring training. That did not happen last year, and this year’s pen looks very different as a result.
Dipoto has assembled a group that does not include a marquee name and the general reliability that comes with it. He has accumulated depth, however, something that was missing last year. At the back end of the bullpen is closer Steve Cishek, whose bounce back may be the most critical to the Mariners’ potential success in 2016. The bullpen simply cannot give away 24 wins again if its hope to make any sort of run for the postseason. Should Cishek falter, Scott Servais will have an experienced option to go to in Joaquin Benoit. If the transition is needed, it should be easier than it was when Fernando Rodney was removed as closer last year. If Cishek needs a break, it should be readily there.
As for the rest of the pen, if Charlie Furbush is healthy, one important lefty spot is filled. Another spot could go to Vidal Nuno, who Dipoto appears to value as a reliever as opposed to a starter – and value him highly, for that matter. The addition of Joe Wieland should help keep him in the pen and not as a potential seventh or eighth starter should the rest of the starters remain healthy. Tony Zych has an excellent chance of making his first Opening Day roster and could find himself pitching in multiple roles, including late relief if he repeats what we saw last September.
With two spots remaining – I do not believe they will carry an extra reliever – there will be interesting choices to be made, especially with a number of relievers being out of options. I believe the options situation will not play heavily into the final roster. I think they will go with whoever looks most ready, and that will be what I am watching for. A year ago we saw most of the relievers struggle throughout the spring. I’m not concerned with what we see early; it takes a while for relievers to get ready when they are only pitching one-inning outings. What we need to see this year – and didn’t see last year – is the group looking ready the last week of the spring. They should have their pitches and they should have their command. There would appear to be potential for more depth this year, but we don’t want to see them have to go to it because of underperformance in April.
2. The vibe.
The behind-the-scenes, off-the-field chemistry aspect will be bigger than ever this year with a new staff and new system. This won’t be business as usual. While I generally do not like to get too caught up in appearances in the spring, this year they mean something and warrant being watched closely. I don’t anticipate that you will hear the stock line, “This looks like a veteran team going about the business of getting ready for the season” from me each time I am asked on the radio in March. This should look different.
How will this team with almost as many additions as holdovers come together? How will they take to new manager Scott Servais? How will those who are returning take to a different look in camp? Servais has said that he would do things differently. Will they immediately buy in? Will they be open to new ideas and philosophies, or will there be grumbles or eye rolls? Will we hear the new language that is expected to be used throughout the system?
3. The emphasis on fundamentals.
Somewhat related, what will we see in regard to fundamentals? Failure to play fundamentally-sound baseball was a solid No. 2 behind the bullpen for me when I look at last year’s failures by the team. Repeated mistakes early on would indicate perhaps fundamentals were not handled properly in spring training. That “veteran team going about the business of getting ready for spring training” didn’t perform like a veteran team out of spring training. Will there be more emphasis on fundamentals both in drills and Cactus League games? Will there be more focus on base running in games that don’t count? The Mariners should be ahead of the game in that the outfield will be manned by actual outfielders (Rickie Weeks anyone?) and they have more players capable of stealing a base, but beyond that, how much will they push it on the base paths? Will we see them consistently take extra bases and hit cutoff men? Will the relievers do their part in controlling the running game? Do these thing look like they are being stressed, or are guys just getting their work in?
4. Six starters, five spots.
Settling the No. 5 starter will be a battle. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Wade Miley are in the rotation. Taijuan Walker, unless he completely falls on his face, is in. If everyone stays healthy, a choice between James Paxton and Nathan Karns will have to be made. If everyone stays healthy, this will be a good problem to have.
We know Paxton. We do not know Karns. Paxton has the stuff, but he needs to stay on the field. Karns is coming off his first near-full season in the big leagues, where he racked up nearly a strikeout an inning and walked just 56 batters for Tampa Bay. He’s a Dipoto-type pitcher. He’s also the guy that Dipoto got first and gave up perhaps his best trade chip (Brad Miller) for. He was not acquired to get work in Triple-A. Paxton is a talent, however, no matter how frustrating his injuries have been.
It will be interesting to see how this is handled and how it unfolds. It is being set up as a three-man competition for two spots, with competition being the key word here. Walker, Paxton and Karns, three young guys who will be pushed. Will Walker take the same approach he did last spring and focus on competing rather than working on pitches? Is Paxton already showing his competitiveness, having dropped over 20 pounds in the offseason? What will we see from Karns?
The loser of the battle will more than likely end up in Tacoma pitching every fifth day until needed at the big league level. While the possibility of putting the sixth man in the pen has been brought up, I don’t see this unless they really are alarmed with what they see from the bullpen arms in camp – and at that point I think it would be more likely we would see Karns in the pen rather than Paxton. Innings shouldn’t be a big issue for either, even though both are coming off seasons shortened by injury. It will be an interesting battle to watch.
5. Ketel Marte.
After watching struggle after struggle of young players coming up to the Mariners in recent years, Marte seems almost too good to be true. Will he pick up where he left off or will there be a sophomore slump? With 247 plate appearances last season, MLB pitchers had the opportunity to make an adjustment to Marte. He appeared to adjust right along with them, though, putting up better numbers in September than August. His plate discipline stayed the same and he adjusted to hitting at the top of the order.
Defensively there were question marks, but not big ones. What we need to see at this point is consistency. Defense is a priority at shortstop, and it is why Miller, a guy with better offensive upside, is now in Tampa and not starting for the Mariners. There has been some talk of dropping Marte in the order, and I get the feeling that this move would be more about his defense than his offense. Let him get comfortable lower in the order where there isn’t as much to focus on, and turn that focus to the defense instead. I don’t know if this is a necessary move. I think there is a good chance the more Servais and Dipoto see of Marte offensively, the more comfortable they will be having him higher in the order. Marte is comfortable there.
It would be good to see him use his legs more. This team should steal some bases and Marte is one who should be able to contribute. It’s a lot to put on a young guy – hit near the top of the order, play a premium defensive position and swipe some extra bags as well – but Marte didn’t appear to wilt under any of the pressures he encountered last year. Starting the season with a team is a different matter from coming in late when they are out of contention, so we could see something different, but I would be surprised.