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Inbox: Could Sheffield make starting rotation?

Mariners reporter Greg Johns answers questions from fans
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

What are the odds we see Justus Sheffield make the rotation out of Spring Training? Will there be an innings limit or restrictions on him this season?
-- Billy H., Bonney Lake, Wash.

If all goes to plan this spring, the Mariners will open the season with a five-man rotation -- in some order -- of Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc and Felix Hernandez. That would leave Sheffield, their shiny new top-ranked pitching prospect acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton deal, starting the year in Triple-A Tacoma and being a phone call away when needed.

What are the odds we see Justus Sheffield make the rotation out of Spring Training? Will there be an innings limit or restrictions on him this season?
-- Billy H., Bonney Lake, Wash.

If all goes to plan this spring, the Mariners will open the season with a five-man rotation -- in some order -- of Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Mike Leake, Wade LeBlanc and Felix Hernandez. That would leave Sheffield, their shiny new top-ranked pitching prospect acquired from the Yankees in the James Paxton deal, starting the year in Triple-A Tacoma and being a phone call away when needed.

But I certainly don't rule out the chance of Sheffield breaking camp with the big-league club for one simple reason. Things rarely go according to plan, particularly with pitchers, and should any of those five have any sort of health issue, then the 22-year-old Sheffield likely would be the next man up if he has a good spring.

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There's one caveat, however. If the Mariners just need a short-term fix for a spot start or two, they're more likely to go initially with Erik Swanson, the 25-year-old prospect acquired in the same Paxton deal. They'd like to wait and bring Sheffield up when he's ready to stick for good and not shuffle him back and forth, if possible.

As for innings, he threw 118 2/3 last year and his career high is 127 2/3, so I'm sure they'll be careful and not push him beyond the 140-150 range no matter where he's pitching.

Video: BOS@NYY: Sheffield seals Yankees' win in MLB debut

Are the Mariners interested in Yolbert Sanchez? And do they even have enough international money to be competitive?
-- Danny F., Olympia, Wash.

The Mariners only have about $40,000 left from their $3.5 million in international bonus pool money, so they're not likely a factor in pursuit of the Cuban shortstop unless they make some trades to acquire more, as they attempted last year when chasing Shohei Ohtani. Teams are able to trade for up to 75 percent of their original allotment, which in Seattle's case would be about $2.6 million.

The Orioles still have close to $6 million available, with the Dodgers at about $1.4 million and Phillies around $1 million. The 21-year-old could wait until July 2 to sign, however, when the next signing period begins and all teams start over with new annual allotments.

I don't get why Edwin Encarnacion is an upgrade over Nelson Cruz at designated hitter. They have similar stats and are both relatively old with large contracts.
-- Steve, Landau, Germany

Nobody is saying Encarnacion is an upgrade over Cruz, though he's the one guy in the Majors with more home runs than Cruz over the past seven years. The reason Encarnacion is on the Mariners' roster and Cruz has moved on to the Twins in free agency is a result of Jerry Dipoto's moves to shed long-term contracts and gain future payroll flexibility.

You have to follow the bouncing contracts on this one. Jean Segura had four years and $58 million remaining on his contract when he was sent to the Phillies, with Seattle taking back Carlos Santana and his two years and $40 million as part of the return. Dipoto then swapped Santana for Encarnacion, who has one year at $25 million, plus a Draft pick.

Each move reduced the remaining years and dollars owed, while also adding younger prospects. The Mariners weren't looking to sign Cruz or any veteran DH for this coming season. They're looking beyond this year, and even if they can't trade Encarnacion -- which they're still looking to do -- by next year, his contract will be off the books.

Video: Johns on what Seattle has planned for Encarnacion

Evan White keeps being described as perhaps the best defensive first baseman in the Minors, plus a strong and intelligent bat. Is there any chance he makes the Major League squad this year with a strong spring?
-- Scott B., Hillsboro, Ore.

White will be one of the many promising prospects to watch in camp, and he is already the team's best glove man at first base, but the 22-year-old played at Class A Advanced Modesto last year and is targeted to start at Double-A Arkansas this year as he continues developing his offense and working toward a more-realistic 2020 arrival. Rushing prospects is not a smart plan, and Seattle already has Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach, Jay Bruce and Encarnacion competing for this year's spot.

With the popularity of the shift and utilizing an "opener" over the past few years, what unorthodox trend do you think will be next to take over baseball?
-- Josh W., Issaquah, Wash.

I wouldn't be surprised to see teams starting to implement four-man outfields in some scenarios in the near future, shifting an athletic infielder -- someone like Dee Gordon, for the Mariners -- back and reducing the gaps against certain hitters who are more prone to fly balls, or in situations where an extra-base hit would be far more damaging than a ground-ball single.

Dipoto recently stated that Bruce will get the majority of playing time in left field. Assuming that Mallex Smith and Mitch Haniger get the bulk of the time in center and right, how much playing time does that leave for Domingo Santana?
-- Benjamin D., Fort Worth, Texas

I think you misunderstood. What Dipoto has said is that Bruce will get the majority of his OWN playing time in left field -- where he'll back up Santana -- and then also see some action at first base and DH. I expect Santana to be the primary starter in left as he's the guy they're looking at for the long term.

But they do want to get Bruce regular at-bats because he's a quality hitter when healthy and could significantly drive up his trade value if he returns to form. How well Bruce is moving in the outfield after dealing with hip issues last year with the Mets will be another thing to watch this spring.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.

Seattle Mariners