Cactus League countdown: Seattle Mariners

No team reports to Arizona for spring training this season earlier than the Seattle Mariners. That’s actually because they open 2012 with two games in Tokyo on March 28-29, but frustrated Mariners fans might tell you it’s because they need the extra work.

Coming off a second straight last-place finish in the AL West, the Mariners face long odds once again after a mostly quiet offseason that saw the top half of the division get even stronger.

While the Angels and Rangers spent big on marquee free agents, the Mariners did little to change the team that won 67 games a year ago. They did strike in a big way late in the hot-stove season, though, in what turned out to be one of the biggest trades of the winter.

The Mariners gave up prized pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees in exchange for catcher Jesus Montero, one of New York’s most promising prospects. Montero has just 18 games of big-league experience, but in that time he’s flashed the potential to be one of the league’s top hitters. He hit .328 with a .406 on-base percentage, 12 RBIs and four home runs.

That’s just the kind of offense Seattle needs after scoring the fewest runs and posting the lowest on-base percentage in the majors last year, ranking as easily the league’s worst offensive team. But at just 22 years old and still learning the ropes as a pro, Montero isn’t going to revive the Mariners alone.

Miguel Olivo led the Mariners offensively last season and will have to produce again while adjusting to reduced playing time at catcher. After that it’s up to first baseman Justin Smoak, left fielder Mike Carp and a declining Ichiro Suzuki to power Seattle at the plate.

Between Montero, Smoak, Carp, second baseman Dustin Ackley and third baseman Kyle Seager, the Mariners do have one of the league’s more intriguing collections of young talent. If each reaches his potential, the Mariners might not be as far as perceived from earning their first playoff berth since 2001.

The Mariners took a few chances as well this offseason, looking to strike gold with a handful of under-the-radar moves. They’ve invited veterans Kevin Millwood and Carlos Guillen to camp, giving the pair a shot at showing they’ve got something left in the tank. And with a few rotation spots seemingly up for grabs, Millwood, a non-roster invitee, might make it 16 seasons in the majors.

Seattle also made a pair of low-profile moves to bolster the bullpen, adding George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo. Sherrill was effective in Atlanta last year, posting a 3.00 ERA and just 12 walks in 36.0 innings. Kuo had a down year amid injuries and anxiety issues but still finished with some impressive numbers. In 40 appearances, Kuo posted a 9.00 ERA but also 12.0 strikeouts per nine innings. If he’s healthier this year and pitches like he did in 2010, when he posted a 1.20 ERA and 11.0 strikeouts per nine innings, the Mariners will have made one of the steals of the offseason.

The efforts of Kuo, Smoak and Ichiro and the arrival of a potential superstar in Montero give Mariners fans something to watch in spring training, but from the looks of things, they’ll have to treasure the month of play when games don’t count. It could be a long season in Seattle.

Who’s new:
Shawn Camp, RP (free agent); Carlos Guillen, IF (free agent); Aaron Heilman, RP (free agent); Hisashi Iwakuma, SP (international free agent); John Jaso, C (trade, Tampa Bay); Hong-Chih Kuo, RP (free agent); Kevin Millwood, SP (free agent); Jesus Montero, C (trade, New York Yankees); Hector Noesi, P (trade, New York Yankees); George Sherill, RP (free agent).

Who’s gone:
David Aardsma, RP (free agent, unsigned); Josh Bard, C (free agent, Los Angeles Dodgers); Josh Lueke, RP (trade, Tampa Bay); Wily Mo Pena, OF/DH (free agent, Japan); Micahel Pineda, SP (trade, New York Yankees); Chris Ray, RP (free agent, Cleveland); Jamey Wright, RP (free agent, Los Angeles Dodgers).

Battle ground:
With Pineda gone, a spot in the rotation opens up. Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas are locks, which leaves three spots for a crowded field. Hisashi Iwakuma signed in Seattle after 12 seasons in Japan and looks likely to get a spot, while Hector Noesi could land in the rotation after coming over in the Montero trade. Millwood will also compete for a spot, as will sophomores Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan. And that’s all before considering rookies such as James Paxton who were invited to big-league camp. … Seager started 39 games at third base last season and looks to be the favorite to win the job in camp, but Alex Liddi should be in the mix there as well.

Health watch:
Outfielder Casper Wells missed the second half of September last season with vision and balance issues that began shortly after he was hit in the nose by a pitch. Reports indicate the symptoms Wells suffered were similar to vertigo, though that was not the official diagnosis. Whatever it was, Wells says it’s cleared up and he’ll be ready for a fresh start this spring. … Franklin Gutierrez finished last season on the disabled list with a strained oblique. The center fielder has had plenty of time to recover and should be ready for the start of camp.

Sneak preview:
When the Mariners took Danny Hultzen with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, he was considered one of the most major-league-ready pitchers in the draft. He might not reach the show this season, but fans will get a look at the 22-year-old left-hander and his impressive fastball in camp this spring. … Young right-hander Taijuan Walker has just 18 starts at the Single-A level to speak of, but the 19-year-old is valued enough that he earned an invite to big-league camp. He went just 6-5 in the minors last season but posted an impressive 2.89 ERA and 10.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

Spring training info:
Peoria Sports Complex, 16101 N. 83rd Ave., Peoria. First workouts: Feb. 12 (pitchers and catchers), Feb. 18 (full squad). First game: March 3. Tickets: