A Seattle Mariners pitching rotation that has all kinds of potential but plenty of question marks only got more muddled during the first two weeks of spring training.
Two of the starters projected to be in Seattle's rotation are hurting, and it appears unlikely that right-handers Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker will be available for their respective turns in the rotation.
"I think it'd be hard-pressed for those guys to pitch Opening Day, or the second or third day," manager Lloyd McClendon told The Seattle Times. "One of the problems we face, we don't have any days off early. We play seven in a row. So speaking realistically, I think it would be tough (for Iwakuma and Walker to be available for their first starts)."
Iwakuma reported to camp with a strained tendon in the middle finger of his pitching hand. He has been wearing the splint to protect the injury, but there was a small flicker of hope that he might get the splint off and begin pitching this week. That possibility was erased when a team doctor re-examined Iwakuma's finger and announced Feb. 28 that the All-Star starter was still two to three weeks away from throwing.
"I was honestly disappointed and frustrated at the same time, but you have to respect what the doctor says. ... It is what it is," Iwakuma said. "I'll just have to wait three more weeks."
Walker's injury is a bit more concerning, not because of its severity but because the 21-year-old phenom is battling shoulder soreness that has already limited his first full spring training with the big-league club. Walker first experienced the soreness when he reported to camp, and a team doctor announced last week that now he'll be shut down for seven to 10 days as a precaution.
Walker soared through the Mariners' system since entering the Seattle organization as a 17-year-old top prospect in 2010, and this was supposed to be the year that he became a full-time member of the starting rotation. But the shoulder soreness, which is not believed to be serious, could set him back -- and the Mariners will not be taking any chances.
Adding to the situation, right-hander Brandon Maurer has been sidelined by back stiffness. Maurer, seen as a possible option to fill in for a start or two despite a shaky rookie season last year, returned to the mound for a bullpen session on March 2 and will continue to be monitored.
Through it all, veteran projects like righty Scott Baker and left-hander Randy Wolf might have opportunities to crack the rotation out of the spring. Both players were signed to minor league contracts over the winter and had solid spring-training debuts over the weekend with two-inning scoreless starts.
Baker, who has been out two years following Tommy John surgery, made the most of his first spring start, allowed just one hit during a 32-pitch stint on March 1.
"I am happy with it," Baker told The Times afterward. "I think the biggest thing is just to get out there and not only get a feel for the mound itself. I definitely got a good test with the guys on base. That's not necessarily what you want, but it is part of the game and you do have to work on it."
The next day, Wolf threw two scoreless innings of his own. The 37-year-old had two Tommy John surgeries, the most recent of which came after the conclusion of the 2012 season.
--LHP James Paxton is off to a good start this spring. In his first start of spring training, the rookie retired all six batters he faced. Paxton is looking more and more like a lock for the Mariners' starting rotation, especially when considering the lack of left-handed options at Seattle's disposal. Paxton, 25, was 3-0 with a 1.50 ERA after a September call-up last season, his first Major League action.
--3B Kyle Seager missed four days with a strained index finger, but the Mariners expect him to be back for the March 4 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers. Seager was one of Seattle's most consistent offensive players for most of the 2013 season but faded down the stretch.
--2B Nick Franklin continues to be mentioned in trade rumors, and his start to the spring probably will not diminish the interest. Franklin, who turned 23 on March 2, went 2-for-3 with a solo home run in his first spring training game. He was expected to be Seattle's second baseman of the future before the team added 2B Robinson Cano in free agency. Now Franklin is left to battle Brad Miller for the starting shortstop job, and it would not be a big surprise if he gets dealt. The latest rumors have the New York Mets offering young pitching for the switch-hitting infielder. Franklin came out of the gates strong after a midseason call-up from Triple-A last season, when he was actually in the discussion for American League rookie of the year honors before falling into a prolonged slump to close out the 2013 season.
--1B Justin Smoak went 3-for-4 during his first two games of the spring, and that's only half the story. All three of his hits came from the right side of the plate, where the switch-hitting Smoak had some struggles last season (he hit .192 with two home runs against left-handed pitching last season; .260 with 18 home runs against right-handers).
--2B Robinson Cano is off to a good start this spring, not that it matters to his status as the heart of the Mariners' batting order. He went 5-for-9 with four RBIs through his first four games of the spring, reminding Seattle fans why the Mariners made such a huge financial commitment to get him. Cano made some noise over the weekend by saying that the Mariners could use another bat, but the more important thing this spring is that the one they added is looking every bit the part.
--RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (strained tendon in right middle finger) is not expected to start throwing until mid-to-late March. It is questionable whether he will be ready to pitch at the start of the regular season.
--RHP Taijuan Walker (shoulder soreness) first experienced the soreness when he reported to camp, and a team doctor announced at the end of February that now he will be shut down for seven to 10 days as a precaution.
--RHP Brandon Maurer (back stiffness) returned to the mound for a bullpen session March 2 and will continue to be monitored.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I'm not going to lie. We need an extra bat, especially a right-handed bat. We have many left-handed hitters. We need at least one more righty. You don't want to face a lefty pitcher with a lineup of seven left-handed hitters." --2B Robinson Cano, to CBSSports.com
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) is not expected to start throwing until mid- to 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, and a team doctor announced at the end of February that Walker would be shut down for seven to 10 days as a precaution.
--RHP Brandon Maurer (back stiffness) returned to the mound for a bullpen session March 2 and will continue to be monitored.
--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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- Nick Franklin