Precious few roster spots up for grabs
McLaren in search of extra outfielder, help for bullpen depth
PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Mariners' regular-season opener is a month from Monday and only a few spots on the 25-man Opening Day roster are still available.The five-man starting rotation is set. The everyday infield has been in place since the first day of Spring Training. The same goes for the all-left-handed-hitting outfield, and the two catchers manager John McLaren plans to carry. Assuming the season begins with a 12-man pitching staff, it appears that only four roster spots -- three in the bullpen and one in the outfield -- are open, so now is the time for all potential backups to step up to the plate, or take the proverbial bull by the horn on the mound. Here's a look at how the roster shapes up as of Sunday: Starting pitchers (5): The best rotation (on paper) in several seasons -- perhaps the best in franchise history -- starts with left-hander Erik Bedard, followed, in order, by right-handers Felix Hernandez and Carlos Silva, left-hander Jarrod Washburn and right-hander Miguel Batista, probably the only No. 5 starter in the Major Leagues that won at least 16 games last season. With only three scheduled off-days during the first 45 days of the season, it is likely all five starters would stay in rotation and not miss a start. By then, McLaren and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre should have a good idea just how good this group can be and if any adjustments are needed. Relief pitchers (7): The no-doubt-about-it staff members include closer J.J. Putz and setup right-handers Brandon Morrow and Sean Green. The left-handed setup reliever, which used to belong to dependable George Sherrill, could come down to a battle between Eric O'Flaherty and Cesar Jimenez. The long and middle relief spots seem to be wide open. Right-handed knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey, a Rule 5 Draft selection from the Twins, must be on the Opening Day roster or be offered back to the Twins for $25,000 -- half the amount Seattle paid to get him. A former fastball-breaking ball pitcher when he was with the Rangers, Dickey has mastered the knuckler, a pitch that takes so little physical effort to throw he could be an ideal long man, capable of pitching three or four innings at a time in a blowout game, or working in back-to-back games if needed. Left-hander Horacio Ramirez, acquired from the Braves in a trade prior to last season, was handed a starting job in Spring Training a year ago but lost it late in the season because of ineffectiveness. His best bet in 2008 appears to be long relief. He also could be a nice insurance policy in case one of the five starters falters or encounters health issues.
Right-hander Cha Seung Baek, who also tossed two scoreless innings in his spring debut, has the distinction of being the only candidate without an option remaining. If the Mariners want to send him to the Minor Leagues, he must clear waivers and with an arm like his, you would have to think another organization would pick him up in a heartbeat.Lefty Ryan Rowland-Smith, who was sent to Venezuela during the winter league season to build up his arm for future starting duty, most likely is headed to Triple-A Tacoma. The Australia native has basically been used as a reliever the past two seasons, making just one start since 2005. It is still too early to get a good read on exactly how right-handers Chris Reitsma and Mark Lowe and left-hander Arthur Rhodes -- all coming off injuries -- will figure into the Opening Day roster equation. At least two, and possibly all three, could open the season on the disabled list, giving the bullpen a couple of weeks to sort itself out. Infielders (6): There is no doubt that first baseman Richie Sexson, second baseman Jose Lopez, shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and third baseman Adrian Beltre will be in the lineup on Opening Day. Super subs Willie Bloomquist and Miguel Cairo also have job security. Outfielders (4): All three starters, left fielder Raul Ibanez, center fielder Ichiro Suzuki and right fielder Brad Wilkerson, are left-handed batters. That is bad news for left-handed-hitting Jeremy Reed and good news for right-handed-hitting Mike Morse, Charlton Jimerson and Wladimir Balentien. This one could come down to Morse, who is out of options, and Jimerson, for the only outfield backup spot. Balentien has an option remaining, making it easier to send him to the Minors, where he might be better off playing every day for Triple-A Tacoma than once a week for the Mariners. Catchers (2): The productive combination of Kenji Johjima and Jamie Burke returns for a second season, which means up-and-coming receivers Jeff Clement and Rob Johnson are probably going back to Triple-A Tacoma to share the catching and designated hitter duties. Clement could work his way onto the Mariners Opening Day roster as the DH, but that's a long shot. Designated hitter (1): Switch-hitter Jose Vidro had the ninth-highest batting average (.309) for a DH in franchise history last season (Edgar Martinez had seven of the top eight) and figures to open the season in that role. He hit at least .300 from both sides of the plate, but hit just six home runs and drove in 59 runs in 548 at-bats. Clement has the swing and the power to put a jolt into the offense -- just in case it's needed at some point during the season.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.