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Inbox: Could Zunino make the big league club?

There are 21 days until Mariners pitchers and catchers report in Peoria, Ariz. Which means it's high time to answer more readers' questions ... and still time for you to ask a few more before Spring Training.

Do you think Mike Zunino will make the big league club this season?
-- Nate C., Boynton Beach, Fla.

That's a tough one to answer until we see what catchers general manager Jack Zduriencik signs before camp. Right now, Jesus Montero is the only catcher on the 40-man roster, and that will change. Eight-year veteran Ronny Paulino is close to signing a Minor League deal with a camp invite, pending a physical. And I suspect they'll add another veteran free agent or two as well after dealing John Jaso in the trade that brought them Michael Morse last week. Kelly Shoppach played for manager Eric Wedge in Cleveland and he's still available, so that's one to watch.

The Mariners don't want Zunino sitting on the bench in a part-time role at this point in his career, so Triple-A Tacoma seems the likely starting point barring injuries in camp. But if he plays well and forces the issue, you never know. I would certainly see him as a September callup, if not before, depending on how things play out.

With Seattle signing Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez, where does this leave the younger outfielders like Carlos Peguero, Eric Thames and Casper Wells? Doesn't this discourage and waste the youth movement?
-- Mike A., Tacoma, Wash.

The Mariners let go of a number of last year's veterans -- Ichiro Suzuki, Miguel Olivo, Kevin Millwood and Chone Figgins. Nobody will mistake the Mariners for the Yankees when it comes to old guys on the roster, but every team needs a few players who've been around and can help young teammates learn the ropes. With Seattle's large nucleus of youngsters, I wouldn't say the Mariners are going away from their youth movement, but just zeroing in on the ones they want to build around and supplementing them with some veterans to help in that process.

Is Wedge bringing in players this offseason to check on their conditioning like he did last year? That seemed like a good idea, but I haven't heard about that this winter
-- Jack E., Bothell, Wash.

Wedge didn't bring as many players in as he did last year, when he wanted to establish a tone and send a pretty strong message of what was expected prior to Spring Training. But he did have three players -- Justin Smoak, Brendan Ryan and Dustin Ackley -- in Seattle last week for a quick visit with him and the training staff. Ryan and Ackley both had surgeries to remove bone spurs after the season and are doing well. Montero will be in town this week to spend some quality time with Wedge prior to camp.

I've heard Brandon Maurer's name a lot recently but don't know much about him. Just how good is he and where do you think he fits into the Mariners' plans?
-- Paul E., Bellingham, Wash.

Maurer is a 22-year-old right-hander who is being mentioned more and more along with the top three pitching prospects of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. Maurer went 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA in 24 starts for Double-A Jackson last year. He is on the Mariners' 40-man roster and will be at camp next month, so he'll get a good look from Wedge and his staff for the first time.

Maurer is 6-foot-5 with a good fastball and has developed nicely as a 23rd-round Draft pick out of high school in 2008. He's currently the Mariners' No. 11 overall prospect. I wouldn't expect Maurer to be in the immediate picture for Seattle, given he's never pitched above Double-A ball and has never thrown more than 137 innings in a season, but they do like him a lot and you never know. Nobody was talking much about Erasmo Ramirez last year, but he wound up making the club in the bullpen and then transitioned to the rotation ahead of the Big Three.

What are the possibilities of Kevin Millwood returning to the Mariners or the Major Leagues at all?
-- Stephen B., Cherryville, Ore.

Millwood hasn't officially announced anything yet, but he definitely hasn't talked with the Mariners about coming back. Given the way he sounded at the end of last season, I suspect he's ready to hang it up and be a full-time dad after 16 seasons in the big leagues.

What are the chances of Tom Wilhelmsen joining the starting rotation and either Carter Capps or Steven Pryor taking over the closer's role?
-- Don S., Seattle

The Mariners aren't currently thinking of moving Wilhelmsen or Charlie Furbush, another former starter, out of their bullpen. They liked the way both pitched in their roles last year.

Is my math correct? With not getting Josh Hamilton or Justin Upton, and the acceptable salary of Morse, isn't there still money left in the budget? What should the Mariners focus on with it?
-- Ronald J., Salem, Ore.

Budgets are always a little squishy because of potential bonuses and incentives, but the Mariners are currently around $80 million in base salaries and conceivably still have some room to add a player or two. Their primary targets now would be a veteran catcher and starting pitcher. I don't sense much interest in the remaining free-agent pitchers unless the market comes down, but I wouldn't be surprised by a trade to add a veteran arm if they can find the right match.

Do you think the Mariners will make a run for Grady Sizemore, or is their outfield too crowded?
-- Mike B., Seattle

Sizemore's agent has said Sizemore won't commit to any team until his knee is fully recovered from the microfracture surgery he had last September, which might not be until midseason. The Mariners certainly have a number of outfielders to sort through this spring already. If Franklin Gutierrez can stay healthy, Sizemore doesn't likely have a spot. But if Gutierrez has issues again, Sizemore might make some sense when and if he does prove he's ready to go himself.

I always hear about how good Gutierrez is, but it seems to me he is not good if he never plays because of injuries. Is there any plan to try to trade him while he has value
-- Rich R., Deer Park, Wash.

It's actually a bad time to trade Gutierrez because you'd be selling low, given his recent run of health problems. Gutierrez is under contract for $7 million this season, with a club option for $7.5 million next year. Most teams aren't going to want to take on that contract without seeing if he's healthy, so I don't project him getting dealt at this point, as he wouldn't bring much in return compared to what he could be worth to the Mariners if he does return to full strength.

Seattle Mariners