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.”