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February 2, 2009 at 4:55 PM

Less than two weeks until pitchers and catchers…

So now that we got that little football game out of the way yesterday, I declare today the official start of baseball season.
The sport will return in all its glory in less than two weeks, when spring training opens. But why wait until then? With the Bowl of Supe having been consumed on Sunday, baseball now has the professional sports floor to itself. The NBA? Dead to us here in Seattle. The NHL? The name vaguely rings a bell. Major League Soccer? I’m trying, I swear, but I don’t quite get it yet.
So to kick things off, on a day that I am recuperating from a mean weekend bout with the flu — a work in progress, sad to say — here are 10 questions I’m especially looking forward to have answered as the Mariners launch into their latest new era:
1, How will Jack Z. round out the Mariners’ roster? Will he find a way to manipulate the payroll to afford Bobby Abreu, or will he swing a deal for one of the Yankees’ expendable outfielders, Nick Swisher or Xavier Nady? Or will be pull off something — a signing or trade — that none of us see coming? Will he bow to public will and sign Ken Griffey Jr.? Or, will he stand pat?
Speaking of Griffey, ESPN’s Buster Olney quoted an anonymous talent evaluator for a major-league team on Junior:
“He doesn’t have power anymore; he can’t defend anymore. For me, he’s a spare outfielder. He can’t catch up to a good fastball anymore. The only ball he can hit over the fence now is a breaking ball that comes into him. Even if he’s cheating, he has trouble catching up with a good fastball. But he’s a good person, and maybe you’d want him around your young players. One of the questions you’d have to have about him is this: If you bring him in and he can’t play anymore, how messy would it be to release him?”
2, What will 2009 bring for Erik Bedard? One would think that he would be highly motivated for a big season, coming off the disappointment of last year, and headed for free agency. A healthy, productive Bedard would be a huge boost for the Mariners — and perhaps pave the way for a productive trade at the deadline that could salvage the Orioles’ deal.
3, How’s the catching going to sort out? It’s going to be a weird situation, because Kenji Johjima will be with Team Japan at the outset of camp — and if Japan advances to the championship game of the World Baseball Classic again, the Mariners won’t get him full-time until after the title game, March 23 at Dodger Stadium. That leaves an opening for Jeff Clement to get a lot of Cactus League playing time and make his case. Not to mention Rob Johnson, Jamie Burke and Adam Moore.
4, Who is going to close? There’s so many different ways that new manager Don Wakamatsu could go here. I hope he resists the temptation to pull Brandon Morrow from the rotation, but I could see a Jonathan Papelbon situation develop. A couple of years ago, the Red Sox went to camp with the notion of giving the closing job to Joel Pineiro and using Papelbon in the rotation. But as the season neared, they realized that Pineiro simply wasn’t going to get the job done (I could have told them that in January). Papelbon became the closer, and saved 37 games. The Mariners have a lot of options, but I think it will come down to Roy Corcoran, Mark Lowe, Miguel Batista or Tyler Walker, with Ryan Rowland-Smith a darkhorse and Morrow the fallback.
5, Who is going to start? Another wide-open situation, or is it? You can pencil in Felix for Opening Day, and Bedard, if healthy, for the No. 2 spot. After that, it gets interesting. Morrow has been promised a crack at the rotation. Carlos Silva still has three very expensive years left on his contract, and I can’t see him working out of the pen. Jarrod Washburn, if he’s not traded, presumably has a spot assured. So that leaves no room, on the surface, for Ryan Rowland-Smith, who was impressive as a starter last year (3-2, 3.50 ERA in 12 starts). Not to mention lefty Garrett Olson, picked up in the Aaron Heilman trade. I suspect this situation will take a lot of surprising twists and turns before it’s resolved.
6, What’s up with Ichiro? After all the insinuations last year of a clubhouse rift, it’s incumbent for Wakamatsu to deal with the issue head-on. But that’s going to be tricky, because Ichiro, like Johjima, will be tied up with the World Baseball Classic. I, for one, always get a kick out of watching Ichiro go through his paces in spring training. Last year, it was especially amusing to watch him deal with his 0-for-20-something start to Cactus League games. He knew it meant nothing and seemed to gain keen amusement from watching the concern start to grow.
7, What will become of Wladimir Balentien? I haven’t given up on him becoming a productive player, but last year was not impressive. Yes, he’s out of minor-league options, so he’ll either make the team or get traded. The Mariners need someone like Balentien to surprise.
8, How will first base/DH sort out? Russ Branyan, Mike Sweeney and Chris Shelton will all by trying to make their case. I’m a sucker for the classic “veteran desperately trying to hang on” spring story, I admit it. Throw Chris Woodward into that category, too.
9, How will the new staff be different? The Mariners have a new manager (Wakamatsu) and entirely new coaching staff (Ty Van Burkelo, bench; Rick Adair, pitching; Alan Cockrell, hitting; Bruce Hines, third base; Lee Tinsley, first base; John Wetteland, bullpen). That means a whole new dynamic, including an entire different way of running spring training, which will be interesting to see.
10, How will this team come together? That’s a rather broad category, but I think we’ll start to at least get a feel in spring training if the Mariners are going to be markedly better this year. Then again, I’ve been fooled by teams in spring before, in both directions — ones that turned out to be better than anyone thought in spring (2001 being the classic example) or worse (pick any recent Mariners’ season).
Can’t wait to get it started. What are you looking forward to most this spring?

Comments | Topics: Chris Woodward

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