Breaking down the Mariners' position battles

March 24th, 2022

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Mariners had their only off-day of Spring Training on Wednesday and returned with exactly two weeks left until Opening Day. While the club hasn’t necessarily reached crunch time when it comes to scoping out the active roster, things are becoming more clear after nine days of camp and five Cactus League games, including Seattle’s 3-2 win over the Guardians on Thursday.

Below is a breakdown of a few position battles that have emerged.

The fifth starter
This one hinges heavily on if the Mariners make another big splash via the trade market, though that seems increasingly less likely by the day due to high asking prices. Seattle could conceivably hold out until the Trade Deadline for such an arm instead, when more should be available.

As it stands, top pitching prospects Matt Brash, Levi Stoudt and George Kirby are in consideration, with Brash -- the No. 98 prospect in baseball per MLB Pipeline -- in the pole position early. Stoudt has also impressed, and he has a bigger innings buildup than Kirby, with 81 2/3 last season. Kirby, the No. 32 overall prospect, might have the most potential of them all, but he accumulated just 69 2/3 frames in 2021, and the Mariners intend for him to pitch deep into the season, so they’ll monitor his situation more closely.

The Mariners have told all three pitchers -- who are all close pals away from the field -- that they’re being considered.

“Everyone just wants each other to do well,” Brash said of the competition. “We all know that eventually we're going to be up there. We're going to be in the big leagues together. So there's no hard feelings or anything. Everyone just wants the best for the other guy, and I think that's really cool that we're supporting each other.”

Center field
Jarred Kelenic
is the front-runner, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Julio Rodríguez is lurking. MLB Pipeline’s No. 3 overall prospect seemingly does something every day that wows his teammates and coaches -- at the plate, in the field or on the basepaths -- and the Mariners have put up virtually no roadblocks to his timeline to the Majors.

Rodríguez has played center field in three of his five Cactus League games thus far, including a start on Monday, when Kelenic played right field as part of a defensive alignment that seemed intentional.

As for how that’d shape the regular-season roster, if Rodríguez makes the team and plays center field, Kelenic would shift to left and Jesse Winker, who was worth minus-5 defensive runs saved in left last season, would probably see more time at DH. The Mariners could be creative in how they deploy Kelenic and Winker (both lefties) against southpaw pitchers, too. And they could move Rodríguez to right on days they DH or rest Mitch Haniger.

Another name to watch in center, at least off the bench, is Billy Hamilton, who signed a Minors deal with the club this week. With a plus glove and blazing speed -- and rosters reportedly expanding from 26 to 28 players in April -- he brings value.

Designated hitter/bench
This one is a little murkier to project given that the Mariners intend to rotate players in order to build in additional rest and create more defensive versatility.

“If you look, we don't have a set-in-stone DH,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I want to use that position as something you can rotate guys through, like we did a nice job with Haniger last year. You're going to have some days for Winker. You're going to have some [Eugenio] Suárez DH days. You may have [an Abraham] Toro DH day, and [Ty] France. Then along those lines, Julio -- when he does show up -- you may have a Kelenic DH day.”

So rather than think of the Mariners’ DH battle between multiple sluggers with defensive limitations, instead consider this spot one for merely extra playing time. Those in contention for that spot include Luis Torrens, Dylan Moore and Toro, who the club plans to regularly move around this season, including first base and the outfield. With time and reps, the Mariners believe Toro could blossom into a Ben Zobrist-type utility hitter, and with a 1.238 OPS in five Cactus games, he’s been the club’s best hitter in Spring Training.

If Toro is the hottest hitter out of camp, he’ll probably see the most playing time. But Torrens’ bat, especially against lefties, will necessitate playing time, and his defensive limitations led to him filling the DH role most days in the second half of 2021.

Speaking of Torrens’ struggles, the Mariners are nonetheless intent on working him more regularly behind the plate this spring, seeking an avenue to get his bat into the lineup regularly, but not exclusively at DH. That would lead to more split time with Tom Murphy.

As for how that combo would work, both have pronounced splits, but Torrens was at least serviceable against righties last season, with a .644 OPS compared to Murphy’s .504. Yet Torrens crushed lefties with an .854 OPS, underscoring his offensive value. As solid as his bat was last year, the Mariners really need Torrens to take a step forward defensively to maximize the value of his roster spot.

Cal Raleigh has looked solid this spring, yet even with rosters reportedly expanding in April, it’s still unlikely that the Mariners will carry three backstops. Murphy is the veteran, the superior defender and has the best grasp of Seattle’s pitching staff. That would leave Raleigh as the odd man out to start the season.

After a tough rookie season for Seattle, where he hit .180/.223/.309 (.532 OPS) and was admittedly overwhelmed at times, the Mariners might opt to let Raleigh start at Triple-A Tacoma, where he was the affiliate’s best hitter last year. Regular playing time for the 25-year-old could be more of a priority than anything.