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Answering Mariners' 3 big spring questions

Battle for starting SS job, bullpen roles up in the air as Seattle opens camp

PEORIA, Ariz. -- It's been 4 1/2 months since the Mariners closed out their 2014 campaign one game shy of tying for the second American League Wild Card spot. And now they're ready to get to work to take that next step.

General manager Jack Zduriencik worked this winter to fill the gaps in that 87-75 club, adding offensive weapons to a team that returns one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. All those pieces will start coming together as the Mariners begin anew on Friday, when pitchers and catchers report to the team's Spring Training facility for their physical exams.

There will be plenty of familiar faces in the first wave of players arriving Friday as 14 of the 27 pitchers due in camp played for Seattle at some point last season, six others were in the Minor League system and former Mariner reliever Mark Lowe is one of the nine hurlers on non-roster invitations.

Catcher Mike Zunino is back for his second full season as a starter as well, along with Jesus Sucre, who closed out 2014 as the primary backup. Of the seven catchers in camp, only veteran non-roster invitee John Baker is new to the organization.

So there will be far fewer introductions for second-year manager Lloyd McClendon as the Mariners hit the field Saturday for the first time. Position players are due for their physicals on Tuesday, with the first-full squad workout on Wednesday.

It should be an interesting camp for a club looking to contend for its first postseason berth since 2001, with expectations bolstered by the addition of Major League home run leader Nelson Cruz and several other key veterans.

In Part 6 of our Spring Training preview series, here are three questions that need to be answered before the Mariners break camp and head home to Seattle to open the season on April 4 against the defending division champion Angels:

1. Who's going to handle that shortstop job?
For the second straight year, the starting shortstop position is up for grabs going into camp. But unlike McClendon's first season, that appears to be the only real question mark among the starting position players barring injury issues. Brad Miller beat out Nick Franklin with a monster spring in 2014, then struggled in the first half and eventually lost his job and then regained a split situation in the closing month with rookie Chris Taylor. Now Miller and Taylor are rated dead even by McClendon, with Miller considered the better hitter and Taylor a superior defender. Both are well-regarded youngsters with good work ethics and approaches, so it should make for a tough decision if each plays up to his capabilities in camp.

Video: Outlook: Miller vying for Mariners shortstop position

2. Do they flip a coin for the fifth starter spot?
Sore arms can change things in a hurry, but going into camp the first four starters appear solid with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and newcomer J.A. Happ. Should all four stay healthy, the fun figures to boil down to young right-hander Taijuan Walker vs. 2014 rookie standout Roenis Elias for the final slot. Walker, 22, is regarded as one of the potential up-and-coming stars in baseball and has put up a 2.89 ERA in 11 Major League appearances over the past two seasons. Elias, 26, was the surprise of last year's staff (10-12, 3.85 ERA in 29 starts) after making the jump from Double-A. And 24-year-old right-hander Erasmo Ramirez is another contender should anyone falter, since he's out of Minor League options and will be exposed to waivers if he doesn't make the club.

Video: Outlook: Elias could build on strong finish to 2014

3. Who gets squeezed out of the bullpen?
If Seattle opens with a seven-man bullpen, as expected, somebody isn't going to make the opening roster given the strong group of returners from a group that posted the lowest ERA in the league last year. Even after trading young right-hander Brandon Maurer for outfielder Seth Smith, the Mariners have six outstanding right-handers returning in Fernando Rodney, Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar, Yoervis Medina, Dominic Leone and Carson Smith, plus the possibility of keeping Ramirez as a long man if he pitches well but doesn't make the rotation. Unless they go with just one lefty, only five of those righties will make the club. With Joe Beimel still unsigned in free agency, Charlie Furbush is the lone full-time lefty returnee, though Lucas Luetge spent some time in Seattle last year. Rule 5 Draft pick David Rollins and former Indians workhorse Rafael Perez are among a handful of other candidates for the second southpaw spot.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB
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