The spring calendar shows an open date Tuesday for the Mariners in their 33-game Cactus League schedule. It’s what comes next that matters most.
“For our competitions in camp,” manager Scott Servais said, “it is crunch time. The fifth starter spot. Where we’re at at first base. Backup catcher, that’s a competition there.”
And the bullpen. Don’t forget the bullpen.
Even with the herd of relief candidates thinning notably in recent days, there’s still at least one spot still available, probably for a right-hander, in the seven-man unit.
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That there is competition at backup catcher rates as a mild surprise and underscores how quickly Rob Brantly made an impression after being acquired March 12 in a waiver claim from the Chicago White Sox.
“The reports coming in were that he was an offensive player,” Servais said. “That he had success at the minor-league levels with the bat. Defensively, he’s been better (than expected).
“He’s made a little adjustment with his throwing. Just a minor tweak that Dan Wilson and I threw at him, and he took it and ran with it. I like the player. I like what he brings. It makes it interesting for us. Another option.”
The Mariners initially viewed Brantly as spring depth in the event of an injury to either starter Chris Iannetta or projected backup Steve Clevenger. If the latter two remained healthy, they’d try to retain Brantly by sneaking him through waivers.
Not anymore. Brantly has a chance to win a job.
“Both of those guys are out of options,” Servais said, “so you have to make your choice.”
Clevenger has seemingly done nothing to jeopardize his status. His defense has also been better than anticipated, and he drew high marks Saturday from Servais for his handling of Felix Hernandez.
“He had a lot of challenging balls to block,” Servais said. “He not only blocked them, he kept them very close to him. We feel this guy has improved.
“When we first acquired him, I called him, and I said, ‘Hey, man, I know you can hit a little bit. You’ve got to catch.’ He’s been open to the things that Dan Wilson and I have thrown at him, but there still is competition.”
Clevenger and Brantly each offer the benefit of being a left-handed complement to Iannetta, who is a right-handed hitter. Whoever wins the job figures to start 60-plus games; Iannetta has never started more than 105 games in his 10-year career.
The Mariners are approaching decision time regarding a right-handed-hitting first baseman to serve as Adam Lind’s platoon partner because Dae-Ho Lee has a late March opt-out clause in his minor-league contract.
The choice initially seemed to be between Lee and Jesus Montero, who is out of options. But both have been outplayed by Stefen Romero, who has an option remaining. Keeping Romero, though, means the club risks losing the other two.
The Mariners, by their actions, continue to indicate Luis Sardinas is their choice over Chris Taylor and Shawn O’Malley as the roster’s utility infielder. Sardinas started Monday in center field and will likely draw future duty at first base.
“Being a super super-utility player,” Servais said, “is a plus. If you have to pinch-run late in the game (for Lind or the other first baseman), you burn two players. You not only have to use a pinch-runner, you have to put a guy in there at first.”
That won’t be necessary if Sardinas proves capable of playing first base.
Six of the seven bullpen spots appear set with closer Steve Cishek and three other right-handers: Joaquin Benoit, Tony Zych and Joel Peralta; and two lefties in Vidal Nuno and Mike Montgomery.
If lefty Charlie Furbush beats the odds and is ready by opening day, the Mariners — if they want to keep their preferred mix of five righties and two lefties — face a choice between Montgomery, who is out of options, and Nuno, who has one left.
The Mariners could opt for Nathan Karns as their fifth righty reliever if he gets beaten out by lefty James Paxton in the competition for the final rotation spot.
General manager Jerry Dipoto recently raised that possibility.
“We want to take the 12 guys who give us the best chance win day after day,” Dipoto said. “We feel that, at any certain point, those two guys (Karns and Paxton) are going to be among our best 12.”
The Mariners have four other right-handed bullpen candidates still in camp: Donn Roach, Casey Coleman, Mayckol Guaipe and Blake Parker.
(Joe Wieland is still in camp but appears ticketed for the rotation at Triple-A Tacoma. Reliever Justin De Fratus returned last week on a minor-league deal but isn’t viewed as likely candidate at the start of the season.)
Parker began the spring with five scoreless outings but raised concerns Saturday with a shaky performance when brought back after one day of rest.
“He was down a lot last year (because of an elbow injury),” Servais said. “We’ve taken it easy on how much we’ve used him and how much rest he’s gotten between his outings.
“The last time out, we brought him back one day sooner, and he wasn’t quite as sharp. But he has had a good spring. He’s opened some eyes.”
Guaipe and Coleman have each pitched better after some early wobbles, but Roach is emerging as a serious late candidate.
Once slotted for the Tacoma rotation, Roach has eight scoreless innings in his past three outings. He closed out Monday’s 6-3 victory over the Dodgers with three brisk innings.
“He can give you length,” Servais said. “We want to keep him stretched out so that if it doesn’t work in the bullpen, he can be a (starting) option for us in Tacoma. Yes, he is in the mix.”
PAXTON’S NEXT START
The open date Tuesday means a day off for everyone on the 40-man camp roster except left-hander James Paxton, who will pitch in a minor-league game to remain on his regular work schedule.
It’s not an ideal arrangement because Paxton is battling right-hander Nathan Karns for a job in the rotation.
“When you’re watching him in a Triple-A game on a back field,” Servais said, “you’re still looking at the stuff and how he’s able to make adjustments and make pitches just as much as you’re looking at the result.
“I think that’s important because a lot of time you just get caught up in the result. We do need to get him extended. The last time, we did not get him through the third inning. I’d like to see him get through five innings.”
Karns is slotted for six innings Wednesday night when the Mariners resume their Cactus League schedule against Oakland at Peoria Stadium.
First baseman Dae-Ho Lee had an excused absence Monday from camp to spend time with his wife, who is close to giving birth. It amounts to a two-day break because of the open date. ... Franklin Gutierrez was scratched Monday because of the flu. The Mariners responded by putting Nelson Cruz in right field and using Chris Iannetta as their designated hitter.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners