There are 35 pitchers in camp with the Mariners this spring, 19 of them on the 40-man roster and another 16 invites. That means the team has a whole lot of evaluation to do in a limited amount of time, given their March 22 departure for Japan and an early opening to the regular season.
Willis sounds excited and ready to go. And he suggested that anyone hoping to show something this spring had best get it going early.
“Once games start, starting with that first intrasquad game…for many of these guys we’re going to need them to go out and it’s going to count,” he said.
Those intrasquad games, by the way, are scheduled for Feb. 24th, 26th and 28th. Willis said they’ll run eight or nine innings apiece. The Mariners have Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas set to go as the No. 1 and 2 starters and are reasonably comfortable with Hisashi Iwakuma after that.
But from there, it’s pretty much an open competition. The team is counting on seeing something from Hector Noesi and has Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush back as well as a 40-man roster guy with big league experience.
Still, nothing is guaranteed for them. Kevin Millwood is a veteran Willis knows from a prior stint in Cleveland and he’s got a good shot at a back end rotation spot if he throws well this spring.
“It should be a very interesting competition for a couple of spots,” Willis said.
Not to mention newcomers Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, all minor leaguers who could crack the majors within the next two years. One or two could even make the big leagues this season, though they remain longshots to do so out of camp.
“Everybody’s real excited about the young kids,” Willis said. “And what I’m excited about is, if they come in here and earn it then let’s go!”
Hultzen was bounding through the clubhouse a little earlier today. He told me the excitement level is far greater than anything he experienced during the Arizona Fall League, when he was based in this same clubhouse while pitching for the Peoria Javelinas.
Still, the experience helped him prepare for this.
“I can’t even imagine what it would be like if I hadn’t,” he said. “I got to know the layout of the place, all the do’s and don’t’s of being in here. But it’s still pretty overwhelming.”
Hultzen spent the remainder of the off-season training in Florida and also back home in Maryland at at his University of Virginia alma matter. He recently made a $100,000 donation to the school’s baseball program.
On the bullpen side of things, the team added a slew of veterans over the final six weeks of the off-season, with George Sherrill, Shawn Camp and Hong-Chih Quo coming in on major league deals to bolster a corps that includes closer Brandon League. Willis mentioned Tom Wilhelmsen as another returnee the team is counting on for a crew that’s a bit more set than the rotation.
Willis said the veteran additions were a plus because there’s far more volatility with young bullpen arms.
“Young guys, you need to learn how to study the game,” Willis said. “You need to learn how to understand the game.”
They’ll also need to perform in a hurry this spring or risk getting left behind. The Mariners have plenty of work ahead and they’re not about the stand around waiting for guys to catch up to the pack.