During an otherwise lost 2013 season, the Seattle Mariners got a jolt of midseason excitement when a pair of Triple-A call-ups gave a glimpse of the future.
But Miller and Franklin showed up this spring with some new competition for a roster spot: each other.
Thanks to the high-priced addition of second baseman Robinson Cano, the Mariners probably only have room for one of their young middle infielders. Franklin is back playing shortstop, where he began his professional career, and he is spending the spring battling Miller for the starting job.
Through the first two weeks of the spring, neither of the challengers had taken hold of the job. Franklin was hitting .333 with a home run and four RBIs, while Miller had two homers and five RBIs to go with a respectable .263 average -- including a 2-for-3 performance March 9. Neither had been charged with an error.
Miller's role as the incumbent might give him an inside track on the job, especially when considering his success as a leadoff hitter for stretches last season. Franklin does not fit the profile of a typical leadoff man -- he is shown more power than speed -- but is a switch hitter, which could be a bonus on a team heavy with left-handed hitters like Miller.
With new manager Lloyd McClendon calling the shots, what has happened in the past might not carry much weight. So the competition is just getting started, and it does not look anywhere close to getting settled.
The Mariners still have not ruled out dealing Franklin, who has reportedly drawn interest from several teams. It is conceivable that his ability to play both of the middle infield positions could also warrant a spot as a backup, but veteran Willie Bloomquist and outfielder Dustin Ackley have plenty of experience as infielders, so it might be better for Miller or Franklin to see spend the early part of the season as full-time starters at Triple-A.
--LHP James Paxton is looking more and more like the Mariners' No. 2 starter to open the season. The 24-year-old southpaw did not allow a run over his first two starts, giving up just two hits over five total innings of work. His stuff has been even more impressive than it was during a late-season call-up last summer, and Seattle is looking for someone to put behind ace Felix Hernandez while RHP Hisashi Iwakuma recovers from an injury to a tendon in the middle finger of his right hand.
--RHP Erasmo Ramirez put together three consecutive solid starts this spring, and they came at a good time for a team desperate for starting pitching. Ramirez was 2-0 with a 1.04 ERA through his first three starts of the spring. Even more important, he showed the command (seven strikeouts and just one walk) that eluded him at times last season.
--RHP Fernando Rodney made his Mariners spring debut March 6 when he gave up two hits and a run in an inning. Seattle's likely closer, Rodney got touched up for two hits and two runs in 2/3 of an inning in his next outing -- leaving a bit of a question as to how much the soon-to-be-37-year-old has left in his tank. Seattle has two other relievers with closing experience in Danny Farquhar and Tom Wilhelmsen, but it is Rodney's job for as long as the veteran closer can run with it.
--OF Dustin Ackley came into spring training with an inside track on the Mariners' starting job in left field, and he has done nothing to disprove that notion. Over his first eight games of the spring, Ackley hit .468 with a home run and a team-high nine RBIs. The only question with Ackley seems to be whether he will challenge Michael Saunders for the starting job in center field.
--RHP Felix Hernandez did not seem to concerned about a four-hit, four-run, 2 1/3-inning performance in his March 9 start. "I was (mad) because I want to throw zeros out there," he told MLB.com after the outing, "but it's spring training so I don't care too much."
--RHP Taijuan Walker is back throwing after being shut down for a week to rest soreness in his throwing shoulder. However, the Tacoma News Tribune reported that Walker, the team's top prospect and a leading candidate for the starting rotation, probably will not be ready to make his season debut until mid-April.
--3B D.J. Peterson, who is coming off a nasty injury after having his jaw broken as a rookie late last summer, got off to a hot start by hitting safely in four of his first seven at-bats of the spring. The Mariners' first-round pick in last June's draft, Peterson appears to be back on track after the injury.
--1B Jesus Montero took his first step toward getting out of the organization's doghouse during the weekend of March 8-9, when he turned in a two-homer performance while raising his spring batting average to .350. Montero showed up for the spring out of shape but seems to be making strides. "He was better the last few days. We'll see how it goes," manager Lloyd McClendon told MLB.com. "He's doing better. He knows what he's got to do. The ball's in his court and he's starting to play a little better."
--John Stearns, a third base coach who joined the staff under new manager Lloyd McClendon, announced that he would not be able to fulfill his duties as a coach and has been reassigned within the organization. Stearns underwent hernia surgery at the beginning of spring training and said last week that he is "not able to perform the role of third base coach yet." He will serve as a scout this season while Rich Donnelly, who had been hired to manage the Triple-A team, will serve as the Mariners' third base coach.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It can't be any worse than it was last year. We had a horrible defensive outfield." -- Manager Lloyd McClendon, talking to the Seattle Times about his team's defensive woes in 2013.
RHP Felix Hernandez
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma
LHP James Paxton
RHP Erasmo Ramirez
RHP Taijuan Walker
Seattle's top two starters could match up with any 1-2 punch in baseball, but Iwakuma's finger injury raises some serious questions. If he is not ready when the season opens, the rotation could be really young, with RHP Brandon Maurer, 23, looking like the most logical fill-in. Or the Mariners might have to roll the dice on one of the veterans they signed to a minor league contract, with someone like LHP Randy Wolf filling the void -- unless Seattle can add another veteran like RHP Ervin Santana in the spring.
Paxton and Walker showed potential to be long-term pieces in the rotation, but neither has much experience. Ramirez looks like a legitimate No. 4 or 5 starter but doesn't have the kind of stuff to push him toward the top of many rotations. Beyond Paxton, there are very few left-handed options -- thanks in large part to the surgery 24-year-old prospect Danny Hultzen had in late September. Hultzen is likely to miss the entire season.
RHP Fernando Rodney (closer)
RHP Danny Farquhar
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen
LHP Charlie Furbush
RHP Blake Beavan
RHP Yoervis Medina
This was probably the most disappointing element of the 2013 Mariners, and there is little evidence to support the unit being markedly better. A healthy Stephen Pryor would be a good addition, but the right-hander doesn't appear ready to return from lat surgery until at least the second half of the season. The addition of veteran closer Rodney is another step in the right direction, but he blew eight saves last season and will be 37 years old in March.
Farquhar had some success as a closer but is still a bit unproven, and Wilhelmsen went from a potential All-Star to a struggling Triple-A enigma in a matter of weeks. Furbush and Medina need to sustain the success they had early last season, and new manager Lloyd McClendon must find a way to cut down on overuse.
One of the silver linings of the frustrating 2013 season was that several young relievers got major league experience, so Seattle has plenty of arms from which to choose -- as evidenced by the decision to deal 23-year-old flame-throwing RHP Carter Capps to Miami. The Mariners also added some veteran long shots, LHPs Joe Beimel and Zach Miner and RHPs Logan Kensing and Ramon Ramirez, on minor league contracts.
Still, the Mariners conceivably could add another veteran to the mix. LHP Oliver Perez was still available on the free-agent market in the days leading up to spring training, and he had a huge first half with the Mariners before falling off over the final couple of months of the 2013 season.
1. SS Brad Miller
2. 3B Kyle Seager
3. 2B Robinson Cano
4. DH Corey Hart
5. RF Logan Morrison
6. 1B Justin Smoak
7. CF Michael Saunders
8. LF Dustin Ackley
9. C Mike Zunino
Cano is the middle-of-the-lineup threat the Mariners lacked for years, and his presence alone helps players like Seager and Smoak fall into more realistic roles. Instead of gambling on someone like an aging Ken Griffey Jr. or an unproven prospect like Jesus Montero to anchor the lineup, as the Mariners did in recent seasons, this year's squad has a legitimate No. 3 hitter to build around.
The leadoff hitter, Miller, gave the offense a jolt of excitement as a midseason call-up last season, and there were times that Seager was Seattle's most consistent hitter, but both of them faded down the stretch. Regaining their form is a key to the success of this year's lineup, as is the development of players such as Smoak, Saunders and Ackley. Mariners fans, stop us if you've heard that one before.
For all the talk of the Cano signing, the difference between Seattle being a contender or just another also-ran this season could be the health of Hart and, to a lesser extent, Morrison. Both players have power potential and could be huge additions in that the Mariners won't have to bet on players like oft-injured OF Franklin Gutierrez and Smoak to hold down starting jobs every night.
One of the big questions involves where 2B Nick Franklin fits in now that Cano is on the roster. Franklin looked like a mainstay in the Mariners' lineup for years to come when he busted out for a .265 average with eight home runs and 30 RBIs in June and July of last season, but his rookie year ended with a whimper.
TOP ROOKIES: RHP Taijuan Walker was impressive in his short stint at the big-league level (1-0, 3.60 ERA, 12 strikeouts in 15 innings over three starts), and now the organization's top prospect looks ready, at just 21 years old, to compete for a spot in the Opening Day rotation. LHP James Paxton wasn't expected to be a serious contender for the 2014 rotation until he posted a 3-0 record and 1.50 ERA over four starts with the Mariners after a promotion last September. OF Stefen Romero could be an interesting player to watch this spring, especially if he duplicates what he did this time last year. The Mariners' 2012 player of the year, when he was an infielder, hit .500 in 14 at-bats with a 1.500 OPS in spring training last season and got off to a hot start against Triple-A pitching early last year before health issues tapered off his production. With most of Seattle's top prospects from last season having already been called up, Romero could be the next hitter to push for a promotion. CF Abraham Almonte showed some nice flashes of speed and ability during a September call-up. However, he needs to show more consistency and better decision-making in the field to have a serious chance of making the 2013 Opening Day roster.
--RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (strained tendon in right middle finger) might start throwing in mid- or late March. It is questionable whether he will be ready to pitch at the start of the regular season.
--RHP Taijuan Walker (right shoulder soreness) first experienced the soreness when he reported to camp. He resumed throwing in early March, but he probably will not be ready to make his season debut until mid-April.
--RHP Stephen Pryor (right triceps surgery in August 2013) had a torn lat muscle re-attached. He threw a bullpen session in late February, and it is possible he could be ready for the season opener.
--OF Franklin Gutierrez (intestinal issues) went on the restricted list Feb. 13. He does not plan to play this season.
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- Taijuan Walker
- Seattle Mariners
- Hisashi Iwakuma
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- Nick Franklin