PEORIA, Ariz. -- While injury issues have caused problems for the Mariners this spring, they've also opened unexpected opportunities for several players. And right-handed starter Rob Whalen and first baseman Daniel Vogelbach -- who homered and doubled in Friday's 9-7 win over the Rangers -- are two who've stepped into the void.
On his Wheelhouse Podcast this week, general manager Jerry Dipoto indicated both those players have been bright spots this spring and are making a push for roster berths.
Whalen remains a long shot given the Mariners could open the season with just four starters due to having four off days in the first two weeks, and James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales have those slots in hand, if Hernandez is ready to go as expected.
But Whalen has pushed himself into the conversation and appears to be challenging Ariel Miranda for the final rotation berth if Erasmo Ramirez isn't recovered from a strained lat muscle by the time a fifth starter is needed on April 11.
Whalen struck out nine in a five-inning start his last time out against the Rockies and has a 1.38 ERA with 11 hits and four runs (two earned) in 13 innings over four appearances, with 19 strikeouts and four walks.
It's been a dramatic improvement for the 24-year-old right-hander, who walked away from baseball in July last year after struggling with anxiety and depression while going 0-7 with a 6.58 ERA for Triple-A Tacoma.
"Nobody has been any better than Rob [this spring]," Dipoto said. "And it's a great story. He went through so much last year battling depression and at one point went home. We accommodated it and made sure he had the help he needed.
"When he showed up this spring, he showed up 25 pounds lighter and his emotional place was so much different than this time last year. In addition, his command has been lights out. His mind is free and he's enjoying playing the game."
On the heels of his strong outing against the Rockies, Dipoto wasn't ruling anything out for Whalen, who was acquired from the Braves a year ago.
"This guy worked his tail off to put himself in the position he's in," Dipoto said. "He's certainly a threat right now to break with the big-league club. He's pitched that well. He's freezing guys on front-hip cutters. The ball was moving all over the place and that was the single best breaking ball we've seen any of our pitchers have all spring."
Vogelbach has a clearer path to a 25-man roster spot, given hand surgery to starting first baseman Ryon Healy has opened an opportunity. Healy figures to make his Cactus League debut this weekend and could be ready close to Opening Day, but Vogelbach has opened eyes by batting .405 with six doubles, three homers and nine walks in 37 at-bats this spring.
Dipoto noted that Vogelbach could also help fill in at designated hitter if Nelson Cruz's strained quad muscle lingers longer than expected, with Cruz projected to return about a week before the March 29 opener.
"Vogelbach is making his case, whether Ryon Healy is ready or not, to be on our 25-man club," said Dipoto. "Whether that is sharing time at first base while Ryon's hand improves, whether it's a bat on the bench or in this case it might be helping Nelly out while Nelly recovers from his quad.
"But Vogey deserves to be on this club. He has raked from day one. He has controlled the strike zone really better than anybody in the Cactus League. What he's doing with the bat is reminiscent of what he's kind of always done in the Minor Leagues, but we've never had the opportunity to see in the big leagues."
Dipoto said Rule 5 Draft pick Mike Ford seems to be finally getting more comfortable and the club will need to determine what to do with him when the final roster is set. But Vogelbach has emerged as the clear leader in that battle.
"Right now, Vogey is making it real simple to like what he's doing," Dipoto said. "He's been good and he's been good every day."