MICHAEL GREY

Shortstop isn’t the Mariners’ only intriguing position battle

Feb 25, 2015, 12:02 PM | Updated: 1:05 pm

Taijuan Walker is one of the Mariners’ options for the fifth spot in what could be a stacked ...

Taijuan Walker is one of the Mariners' options for the fifth spot in what could be a stacked rotation. (AP)

(AP)

The Mariners are underway in Arizona and hope springs eternal for Seattle’s baseball team! OK, that may be overstating it a touch, but you will be hard pressed to find many with a bad thing to say about the 2015 Mariners. With increased offense, experienced pitching and depth in the bullpen, they’re a hot pick to do big things this season.

With that said, the conversation will inevitably turn to position battles through spring training. The good – perhaps great – news here is that while there will be much competition, a good portion of the roster is pretty well set.

Mariners notebook: Full squad in Peoria and ready for work

In terms of position-battle sex appeal (which sounds dirtier than it was intended to), the shortstop competition between Brad Miller and Chris Taylor is the one that will likely get most of the ink. General manager Jack Zduriencik himself mentioned it last week on The MLB Network as a battle to watch and it’s easy to understand why fans would be drawn to it. The flashes of potential from Miller, now featuring flowing locks, versus the lesser known up-and-comer in Taylor should add some spice to the endless days of fielding drills and exhibition games. In contrast to last year’s shortstop battle – Miller vs. Nick Franklin – all the parties involved this year know exactly what is expected from manager Lloyd McClendon and should provide a spirited competition.

However, that is not the competition that I’m most interested in.

You see, I’ve been battling the assumption that the Mariners’ pitching will regress to some degree from a year ago if only because the pitching performance from a year was so otherworldly good. Any notions that I had of the Mariners improving on last year’s record were based on additional offense provided by offseason moves and a lessening of the burden on the starters. I mean, they couldn’t be as good as they were in 2014, could they? It seems that perhaps they can, at least in the opinion of folks like Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated and David Schoenfield of ESPN, who both said as much in recent weeks on my show and who both are far more learned than I.

If that’s the case and there is a chance that the Mariners could again roll out the best pitching staff in the American League, then the biggest position battle in spring training is the three-way competition for the No. 5 spot in the rotation. Taijuan Walker, Roenis Elias and Erasmo Ramirez will all be in the mix for that fifth spot, and after last year all Mariners fans know just how important that spot could be. In addition to the importance of having a contributor in that fifth spot is the fact that all three of these young hurlers have a story to tell and could be a part of the Mariners moving forward.

It’s easy to say that the fan favorite is likely to be Walker given the time he’s been with the organization and the blessing/curse of potential with which he’s always been associated. In Walker you have a pitcher that many hope to see battling for the first or second spot at some point but first has to find the consistency to earn the trust of McClendon and his teammates.

Elias was one of my favorite stories from a year ago with his Cuban roots and his ability to put together start after unlikely start. Being forced into action as a youngster at the back end of the rotation a year ago, he showed every bit of the grit that you could hope for in a starter. Can he find the command and the stamina for a Major League season? What will he take with him from his rookie season that he can use for the 2015 campaign?

Finally, Ramirez went out and scuffled a year ago, repeatedly finding himself either in the doghouse or on the short end of McClendon’s leash. It was agonizing watching him pulled early in games with swollen pitch counts and a hanging head and only got worse when McClendon spoke so starkly of his disappointment in Ramirez postgame. Just the same, Ramirez also put together a scoreless-inning streak that at one point was over 19 innings long and never stopped going out there and giving it his all. Does he have the stuff that he’ll need to keep McClendon on the bench or is this the last chance for him to make a go of it in a Mariners uniform?

These three pitchers playing for a chance to be in a top-flight rotation is the battle to watch for me. The Mariners are still built on pitching and defense – even with Robinson Cano and now Nelson Cruz in the lineup – and it will be incredibly important to this team’s hopes down the stretch to have that rotation locked in. Shortstop and even outfield competitions will get the headlines but I’ll be watching these three battle it out for a chance to be a part of something that could be pretty special.

As always, thanks for reading and feel free to join the conversation any time on Twitter and Instagram @TheMichaelGrey.

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Shortstop isn’t the Mariners’ only intriguing position battle