Mariners seek solutions to 3 camp questions

New faces, first-year manager begin season of transition

February 19th, 2016

PEORIA, Ariz. -- As pitchers and catchers report for their physical exams on Friday to officially start Spring Training, it won't take long for the overriding theme of the Mariners' new campaign to come to the fore.

This is a year of transition for the Mariners' roster, a radical re-do of the squad that went 76-86 last season and resulted in the dismissal of general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Lloyd McClendon. In their stead this spring come Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais, along with a whole fleet of new faces on the field.

Of the 28 pitchers reporting to camp today, 15 are new to the club this offseason. And three of the six healthy catchers in camp have never before worn Mariners colors.

Comeback candidates | Newcomers | Prospects | Position battles | Projections

Some of those newcomers -- like Wade Miley and Nathan Karns -- will help bolster the rotation behind returners Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.

A whole flock of fresh faces will compete for bullpen roles, led by new closer Steve Cishek, veteran setup man Joaquin Benoit and middle-relief candidates Justin De Fratus, Evan Scribner, Ryan Cook, Joel Peralta and Jonathan Aro. And they'll all be throwing to the new catching combo of Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger.

"We're just excited about Spring Training and meeting all the new guys and getting ready to get it going," said returning left-hander James Paxton. "About half the team is brand new, so it's going to be fun. We're going to need nametags for a little bit probably."

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With camp ready to roll and pitchers and catchers set to take the field for the first time Saturday, we conclude our Spring Training preview series with three questions that must be answered this camp:

1. Is Marte ready to be the man at short?

Despite all the roster churn, starting position players appear fairly set, barring injuries. It's a largely veteran group led by Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Kyle Seager and Seth Smith and bolstered by newcomers Nori Aoki, Adam Lind, Leonys Martin and Iannetta. All those players will be 28 or older this season and have established track records.

The lone exception is shortstop Ketel Marte, who is 22 and has started just 49 games in his career after being called up for the final two months last season. The speedy switch-hitter performed well in that late run, but he definitely looms as a legitimate question at a key position, and the Mariners don't have any experienced veterans behind him at this point with youngsters Chris Taylor and Luis Sardinas and September callup Shawn O'Malley competing for the backup role.

2. Is the 'pen mightier in 2016?

Dipoto spent much of his offseason reworking the bullpen mix. Gone are Tom Wilhelmsen, Carson Smith, Danny Farquhar and Joe Beimel, not to mention late-season departees Fernando Rodney and Mark Lowe. Outside of lefties Charlie Furbush and Vidal Nuno, none of the returning relievers appeared in more than 20 games last season for Seattle.

So who fills the gaps? Benoit is a veteran workhorse, but many of the others -- including Cishek, Cook, De Fratus, Scribner and Peralta -- are looking to bounce back from down years or injuries. Dipoto acknowledges not every pitcher will likely return to peak form but feels he built in a safety net by adding enough veteran options as well as interesting non-roster candidates to absorb the usual ups and downs of relievers.

"We're going to have a couple of spots in the bullpen -- at least one, maybe two -- that are going to be a brawl with a handful of guys that really have a legitimate opportunity," Dipoto said.

3. How about that new skipper?

Perhaps Dipoto's biggest gamble was bringing in an untested manager in Servais. The former big league catcher has been around the game all his life, both as a player and then a director of player development with the Rangers and Angels.

Servais and Dipoto have a long track record together and figure to work well in tandem. And their ideas about unifying the organization from top to bottom with a clear message of what is expected from players at all levels figures to be sound in the long term. But Servais also is going to be charged with uniting a 25-man roster that has undergone tremendous turnover while instilling his own plans, which include intense focus on fundamentals and preparation.

That process will begin Saturday with pitchers and catchers and then hits full speed next week when he meets with the club as a complete group for the first time and then takes the field for full-squad workouts beginning Feb. 25.