While questions exist within the Mariners’ infield once you look past stalwarts Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, the only real competition for a roster spot is the three-way battle to serve as the club’s utility infielder.
Switch-hitting Shawn O’Malley is the incumbent and, after proving himself last year to be a competent backup shortstop, appears to rate an initial edge. But it’s thin.
Left-handed hitter Mike Freeman played well last year in limited action after a late-season promotion, and Taylor Motter, a right-handed hitter acquired from Tampa Bay, might be the most versatile member of the group.
“We can play any of those guys anywhere,” manager Scott Servais said. “We used so many players last year, and it really shows that depth is so important.”
Added general manager Jerry Dipoto: “And whoever is our utility guy, they all play the outfield. It gives Scott a lot of freedom to make the changes he wants to make when he wants to make them.”
All three players have two option years remaining, which only boosts their long-term value in terms of flexibility. And whichever two don’t make the big-league club will head to Triple-A Tacoma to play regularly and await a summons.
Chances are all three players will log big-league time at some point.
All of which is fine, but determining a utility infielder over the next seven weeks will likely generate far less scrutiny this spring than two big questions:
▪ Can newcomer Jean Segura, the club’s highest-profile winter acquisition, remain an impact performer in switching back to shortstop? He produced a breakout year last season while playing second base at Arizona.
▪ Can rookie first baseman Dan Vogelbach, a left-handed hitter, carry his minor-league success into the big leagues? More than that, can Vogelbach improve his defense to the point where he isn’t regarded as a liability?
“Vogy can hit,” Dipoto insisted. “He’s done everything you can do at the minor-league levels. He’s been great at every level. At some point you have to give guys an opportunity to break through.”
Even so, the Mariners are hedging their bet. They acquired veteran Danny Valencia, a right-handed hitter, from Oakland in a trade with the intention of using him in a platoon arrangement with Vogelbach.
Servais called Valencia “a very important player for us” and suggests he could also find time in the outfield and, occasionally, at third base when Seager needs a break.
What club officials quietly acknowledge is Valencia could become the full-time first baseman if Vogelbach flops. Valencia batted .287 last season with 17 homers and 51 RBIs in 517 plate appearances.
As for Segura, he sees himself as a shortstop who was simply forced by circumstances last season to shift to second base. Fair enough. He played shortstop exclusively over the previous three-plus seasons at Milwaukee.
Even so, scouts often say Segura lacks the range desired from a shortstop. It’s also worth noting that the Angels played Segura more often at second base in the minors before trading him in 2012 to Milwaukee.
Advanced metrics offer a more upbeat assessment: Segura graded out at plus-24 in runs saved from 2013-15 while ranking among the top five National League shortstops each year in range factor.
“I came to the big leagues as a shortstop,” he said. “I played almost four years as a shortstop. So I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal to play shortstop again. It’s going to be fun. I’m going back to my normal position.”
WHO’S IN CAMP? (9 on 40-man roster)
22 Robinson Cano (Bats left, throws right, 6 feet, 212 pounds): Reclaimed his All-Star status last season after battling through injuries in 2015. Cano is now 34, so the clock is ticking. But for now, he still appears capable of carrying a lineup. Option status: not applicable.
6 Michael Freeman (L-R, 6-0, 195): A versatile player in a three-way battle with Motter and O’Malley to be the roster’s utility infielder. Even if he opens the season at Triple-A Tacoma, he’s likely to see big-league time. Option status: two remaining.
21 Taylor Motter (R-R, 6-1, 195): Acquired in a November trade from Tampa Bay, Motter is the new face in the utilityman competition. Like the others, he’ll likely see big-league time even if he fails to break camp with the club. Option status: two remaining.
36 Shawn O’Malley (S-R, 5-11, 175): Proved last season that he’s capable of serving as a backup shortstop, which club officials see as the priority for any utilityman. He’s the incumbent, but he needs a strong spring to hold the job. Option status: two remaining.
28 D.J. Peterson (R-R, 6-1, 205): Rebuilt his status as a prospect last season, which prompted the Mariners to protect him from possible selection in the Rule 5 Draft. Should be the first baseman at Tacoma. Option status: three remaining.
15 Kyle Seager (L-R, 6-0, 210): Solidified his status last season as a rising star, and his production this year could get a boost if the club’s revamped lineup provides more support. Option status: not applicable.
2 Jean Segura (R-R, 5-10, 207): Even if he experiences some regression after last year’s breakout season at Arizona, Segura should provide a major offensive upgrade. What bears watching is his defense; he’s returning to shortstop after spending last season at second base. Option status: two remaining.
26 Danny Valencia (R-R, 6-2, 210): An under-the-radar acquisition who could provide a real boost after back-to-back strong seasons. Currently slotted for platoon duty at first base with Vogelbach but likely to play multiple positions. Option status: not applicable.
20 Dan Vogelbach (L-R, 6-0, 250): If all goes as planned, Vogelbach becomes a long-term fixture at first base. For now, the plan calls for him to share the duty with Valencia. But there’s no scholarship. If he stumbles, he could end up in Tacoma. Option status: three remaining.
NON-ROSTER INVITES (1)
13 Tyler Smith (R-R, 6-0, 195): Should see some time early in camp, but Smith is a utility infielder in a camp that already has a three-way battle for that job among more-experienced players. A return trip to Tacoma seems inevitable.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. First baseman Dan Vogelbach might draw more scrutiny than any player in camp. The Mariners love his bat and believe, in a few years, he might be a replacement for DH Nelson Cruz. But they need Vogelbach to produce now.
2. The three-way competition at utilityman between Shawn O’Malley, Mike Freeman and Taylor Motter should be fierce. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they end up as the top three players in spring at-bats.
3. Second baseman Robinson Cano and new shortstop Jean Segura are offseason workout partners in the Dominican Republic, but they’ve never played together. It should be interesting to watch their on-field chemistry develop.