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Mariners feeling good about club as camp opens

McClendon: 'I think we've gotten significantly better in a lot of areas'

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Spring Training officially began Saturday for the Mariners as 28 pitchers and seven catchers took to the practice field for the first time. And manager Lloyd McClendon acknowledged there's a different feel to this season as things got underway.

"Yeah, for a lot of reasons," said the second-year Mariners skipper. "Obviously I know my club a lot better. I think we've gotten significantly better in a lot of areas, or we hope we have. It should be an interesting camp for us."

Pitching coach Rick Waits pointed out one glaring difference as well.

"We've got great depth," Waits said. "Remember last year, we had two guys hurt before we even started. So this is great. Guys are healthy."

All-Star right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma missed all of camp last year with a torn finger tendon. Young right-hander Taijuan Walker battled shoulder problems all spring as well. There's a long way to go before Opening Day on April 6 against the Angels at Safeco Field, but the Mariners at least are off on the right foot with a full crew.

"Injuries are always a concern for any manager," said McClendon. "You hope we can come out of this camp clean and ready to go."

Most of the Mariners' pitchers will throw their first bullpen sessions in the first two days, then build up from there. Eleven hurlers took the mound on Saturday, including Walker and Roenis Elias, two youngsters who figure to battle for the fifth rotation spot if all goes well.

"I'm excited and ready to go," said Elias, who went 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts last year. "This should be fun."

Sunday's bullpen sessions will include Iwakuma, newcomer J.A. Happ and returning lefty Danny Hultzen. Several of the veterans are being held back, including Felix Hernandez and Fernando Rodney, who always start throwing a few days later.

Among other news from Saturday:

• Right-handed reliever Tom Wilhelmsen lost his salary arbitration case after a Friday hearing in Florida. Wilhelmsen will thus earn $1.4 million this season instead of the $2.2 million he sought. Wilhelmsen was the first Mariners player to go all the way to an arbitration hearing since Freddy Garcia in 2003. Wilhelmsen was back in camp and took part in drills on Saturday.

Video: [email protected]: Wilhelmsen strikes out Craig to end the 8th

• McClendon said he's talked with Rickie Weeks about adapting to a utility role when the veteran joins his new team after spending 12 years strictly as a second baseman with the Brewers.

"He'll get his reps in the outfield, a little bit at third, a little bit at second and first. And we'll evaluate," McClendon said. "I don't think it's going to be as difficult as people think. You have to put the work in, but I did it in my career. I started out playing catcher and ended up playing first, third and both corners of the outfield. So it can be done, and I'm sure he's a much better athlete than I ever was. I'm sure he'll be just fine."

Jesus Montero has been the early talk of camp with his 230-pound frame and improved outlook, but McClendon said much still has to be seen before the youngster has a place on the 25-man roster.

"I think he's in a much better place as a human being," McClendon said. "The baseball skills, we'll see. That starts in the next few days. But I think from an organizational standpoint, the Seattle Mariners did a real good thing by supporting this young man and making sure his life was put back in order. He's made tremendous strides in that area. Now from a baseball standpoint, he's got to get out and compete. Listen, I love Montero, but I also love my family and my job, and I'm going to take the best guys. So he's got to go out and compete just like everybody else."

• The University of Washington baseball team will take batting practice Sunday morning on one of the Mariners' practice fields before playing Oklahoma State at 11 a.m. MT at Peoria Stadium. The Huskies are one of the teams taking part in four days of games at the newly renovated facility in preparation for the March 4 Cactus League opener between the Mariners and Padres.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
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