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Inbox: Will Seattle try to extend Cruz's deal?

All-Star slugger set to become free agent following '18 season
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

What do you see happening with Nelson Cruz after he finishes his contract this season? Extend, re-sign or let him leave? If he departs, what are the most likely replacement options at designated hitter?
-- Todd, Wenatchee, Wash.

Cruz seems to really like his situation in Seattle, and the Mariners certainly like having him as their designated hitter. The man has hit more home runs than anybody else in the Majors over the past four seasons and is a legit cleanup hitter and anchor to the lineup. But while he keeps himself in excellent shape, Cruz will turn 38 on July 1, so it will be fascinating to see how long he keeps producing at that level.

What do you see happening with Nelson Cruz after he finishes his contract this season? Extend, re-sign or let him leave? If he departs, what are the most likely replacement options at designated hitter?
-- Todd, Wenatchee, Wash.

Cruz seems to really like his situation in Seattle, and the Mariners certainly like having him as their designated hitter. The man has hit more home runs than anybody else in the Majors over the past four seasons and is a legit cleanup hitter and anchor to the lineup. But while he keeps himself in excellent shape, Cruz will turn 38 on July 1, so it will be fascinating to see how long he keeps producing at that level.

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The most likely scenario is that Cruz finishes up his four-year, $56 million contract with Seattle this year and becomes a free agent at season's end, at which point he could re-up with Seattle or opt to sign elsewhere. I don't have any crystal ball there, especially considering much of that depends on how he performs this year. It's possible he could agree to an extension before hitting free agency, but both he and the Mariners might prefer to wait and see how the season goes before committing to more years, given his age.

It's also possible, if the Mariners find themselves out of contention, that they could trade Cruz for younger prospects in midseason, though obviously that's not a path either would like at this point. As for replacement options, first basemen Ryon Healy, Mike Ford and Daniel Vogelbach are current in-house options and Robinson Cano -- who has six years remaining on his contract at age 35 -- could eventually be an answer there.

What is the status of Hisashi Iwakuma's injury? Considering his knowledge, will he be around the team during Spring Training to help the younger players?
-- Ed Q., Storm Lake, Iowa

After some time in Japan for the holidays, Iwakuma is in California working out and continuing rehab from his September shoulder surgery. He hasn't started throwing yet and isn't expected to be fully healthy until midseason, but the 36-year-old is one of 22 players on Minor League contracts who have been invited to the Mariners' Major League camp and will continue his work there beginning Feb. 14, when pitchers and catchers report.

Iwakuma doesn't speak much English, but young teammates would be wise to pick his brain -- and see his work ethic -- every chance they get.

Video: Dipoto discusses Iwakuma on The Wheelhouse

Do the Mariners have enough starting pitching to start the season?
-- Anthony D., Seattle

Well, they have eight starters on the 40-man roster in James Paxton, Mike Leake, Felix Hernandez, Erasmo Ramirez, Ariel Miranda, Andrew Moore, Marco Gonzales and Max Povse. If you want more names, you can add Christian Bergman, Casey Lawrence, Rob Whalen, Chase De Jong and Iwakuma, who all started games last year and are still in the organization and invited to Spring Training, along with waiver pickup Sam Moll. And general manager Jerry Dipoto has proven quite capable of acquiring a Wade LeBlanc or Andrew Albers at midseason if needed, not to mention trading for more-established starters such as Leake and Ramirez late last year and Miranda the previous year.

Hot Stove Tracker

I don't think numbers are the issue. The question seems more about quality than quantity. Very few teams go into a season with more than four or five truly established Major League starters. Like every team, the Mariners need to keep their top guys healthy, and it would certainly help if a couple of the younger guys stepped up. Every season brings surprises, both good and bad. How that plays out with pitching often goes a long way toward how a team fares.

How many catchers are coming to Spring Training?
-- Matthew P., Lynnwood, Wash.

At this point, there are six catchers invited to camp. Mike Zunino and Mike Marjama are back from last year, David Freitas was picked up from the Braves on a waiver claim, Tuffy Gosewisch re-signed on a Minor Legue deal, Joe Odom was selected from Atlanta in the Minor League Rule 5 Draft, and Joe DeCarlo will get his first big league camp experience as a 2012 second-round Draft pick who converted to catcher last year for Class A Advanced Modesto.

Video: SEA@HOU: Zunino nabs Correa with a strong throw

What happens if Dee Gordon proves to be a liability in the outfield? I don't doubt his athleticism, but wouldn't a corner outfield spot be an easier transition than center?
-- Peter A., Chicago

Many outfielders will tell you that center field is actually easier in terms of being able to see the ball off the bat and not having to deal with slicing or hooking balls into the corners. The hard part is the amount of ground that needs to be covered, and Gordon's speed obviously is a plus there. Should it turn out that Gordon really can't handle center field, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger have both played center in the past.

While Heredia doesn't grade well in many defensive metrics, he ranked 17th among all MLB outfielders -- tied with speedster Jarrod Dyson -- in the new Statcast™ measurement outs above average despite limited playing time last year, and the Mariners believe he could be very good in center if needed. Gordon is already working at getting comfortable in the outfield, and my guess is he'll do quite well there, but that will be an interesting story 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, Nelson Cruz