M’s set to start spring with bounty of questions

When the Seattle Mariners report for spring training on Tuesday,
they’ll immediately start trying to answer whether their starting
rotation has enough depth and how they will shuffle a glut of
players between left field, first base and designated hitter.

And why exactly there was a delay in an expected new contract
for ace Felix Hernandez.

Seattle’s pitchers and catchers will report Tuesday morning,
likely the first time Hernandez will be available since news broke
last week of the Mariners working on a new contract for their star.
Hernandez and the Mariners were working on a deal that would pay
him $175 million over seven years and make him the highest-paid
pitcher in baseball.

But there has been no formal announcement, leading to
speculation there was a snag. ESPN.com and USA Today reported
Sunday, citing unnamed sources, that the condition of Hernandez’s
pitching elbow could be a future issue and was delaying the
contract.

Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik reiterated Monday the
organization’s policy of not commenting on negotiations and
Hernandez’s representatives have not returned messages seeking
comment. If completed as originally structured, Hernandez’s new
deal would encompass the final two years of the contract he signed
in 2010 and cover through the 2019 season, paying him $134.5
million under the additional five years.

Hernandez pulled out of pitching for Venezuela in the upcoming
World Baseball Classic late last week. He took to Twitter to defend
his decision, writing it was not an easy one but that his family
comes first. He’s expected to report to the Mariners facility on
Tuesday morning.

The lingering question about Hernandez’s deal is just one of
those surrounding Seattle’s pitching. The rest of Seattle’s
starters all have question marks, part of the reason the team is
reportedly close to a deal with veteran left-hander Joe
Saunders.

Hisashi Iwakuma, who was buried in the bullpen and pitched just
five times the first two months of last season, is Seattle’s
presumed No. 2 starter to begin the year. Blake Beavan and Erasmo
Ramirez will likely be given chances at rotation spots, along with
a handful of spring training invitees.

The buzz about Seattle’s young arms in the minors remains, but
the likelihood of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Brandon Maurer or
Danny Hultzen starting the season with the Mariners is slim. Only
Hultzen pitched above Double-A last season and he struggled in his
12 games at the Triple-A level.

”We’ll make the decision when all these kids come to spring
training, with all the front office, the coaching staff, and what’s
best for each individual part,” Zduriencik said. ”So the door’s
wide open.”

Eric Wedge will also be trying to figure out how to balance the
situations he’ll face in left field, first base and at designated
hitter. Seattle’s moves in the offseason left them with an
overabundance of players with similar roles.

The best scenario for Seattle would be that first baseman Justin
Smoak builds off a strong close to last season and finally shows
the consistency that made him the centerpiece of the trade that
sent Cliff Lee to Texas in 2010.

If that happens, Kendrys Morales would slot into the designated
hitter role for the most part and Michael Morse would play in the
outfield, with Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay taking spot roles off the
bench. That lineup would likely give the Mariners their most potent
offense. Seattle has ranked last in baseball in batting average
each of the past three years.

In his 2 1/2 seasons in Seattle, Smoak has shown very little
consistency at the plate. Before a stint in the minors last season,
Smoak hit just .189 with 13 homers and 38 RBIs in 90 games. When he
returned in mid-August with a noticeably shorter swing, Smoak
closed the year hitting .288 over the final 42 games.

”I have a clear idea of how I see it playing out, but they’ll
ultimately determine that,” Wedge said. ”Players make decisions
for you. They decide how much they’re going to play by their
performance and how they act, how they handle both the good and the
bad. In regard to our numbers, I look at it like a healthy thing.
You’re one trade or injury away from being another injury or trade
from getting thin again.”