PEORIA, Ariz. – In just more than a week, March 14 to be exact, the Seattle Mariners will board a plane for Japan to open the 2019 season with the Oakland A’s – a week earlier than everyone else.
For fans starved for something more than meaningless spring training results, the two-game set in the Tokyo Dome offers a brief preview before the regular season truly gets going into full swing March 28.
The Mariners will take at least 30 players to Japan on the trip, which includes two exhibition games against the Yomiuri Giants. But before that first pitch against the A’s on March 20, the Mariners will have to whittle down to a 28-man roster. Both teams get three extra players for the two games to help offset having to start the season so early.
When the Mariners return from Japan, they will have six days and two exhibition games against the San Diego Padres at T-Mobile Park to decide on a final roster, trimming it down from 28 to 25 for the home opener against the Boston Red Sox on March 28.
That final number of 25 means more to manager Scott Servais than the three extras for Japan.
“I think certainly we’ll have an extra pitcher that will be in that extra group,” he said. “We’ll plan for that. You know with 28, it could be an extra outfielder. I’m not really looking at it. … This is just two games. I’m not that concerned about it, who ends up those final two spots, will they play? Will they not play? It’s too far down the road for me.”
But it’s not too far down the road to speculate. Here’s a look at the roster projection for the trip to Japan and also a look at the 25-man roster for the home opener against the Red Sox.
Starting rotation (5)
• Marco Gonzales, LHP
• Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
• Felix Hernandez, RHP
• Wade LeBlanc, LHP
• Mike Leake, RHP
Notes: Four of the five starters will start games in Tokyo because of the exhibition games. Servais wanted to bring all five pitchers in the starting rotation instead of leaving one in Arizona. He mentioned the team-bonding aspect a trip like this can build, but he’ll also have an extra long-relief option as well.
The big question is who will start Opening Day. Servais isn’t willing to announce his starter yet, but he did have a little slip up in a postgame comment when discussing Gonzales earlier this week. There seems to be two options – Gonzales or Hernandez. The expectation would be for Kikuchi to start Game 2 of the series instead of placing more hype on making his big-league debut in his home country by starting opening day.
Hernandez has started the past 10 Opening Days for the Mariners and 11 of the past 12. He has displayed loyalty and built a legacy with an organization that hasn’t always returned the sentiment. But the current regime of Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto has no special ties to Hernandez and his glory years. He’s also coming off his worst season as a professional and is heading for free agency at the end of the season. Do they reward him one last time?
Gonzales is the future of this rotation and the model for their step-back plan. He has done everything they’ve asked since being acquired from St. Louis and has assumed a leadership role with younger prospects like Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn and Erik Swanson. Starting Opening Day would reward Gonzales for a breakout season in 2018 and signal a shift in the organization’s direction.
• Hunter Strickland, RHP
• Dan Altavilla, RHP
• Cory Gearrin, RHP
• Shawn Armstrong, RHP
• Chasen Bradford, RHP
• Gerson Bautista, RHP
• Brandon Brennan, RHP
• Roenis Elias, LHP
• Zac Rosscup, LHP
Notes: This number is flexible down to eight because the Mariners will have the extra starting pitcher available in the games against the A’s. The Mariners still will probably bring nine relievers to Japan in case of an injury. Brennan is a Rule 5 selection, meaning he has to remain on the active roster, if not on the injured list, for the entire season. If the Mariners decided to take him off, he must be offered back to the Colorado Rockies. Unless Brennan implodes in the next week, Seattle is going to give him a chance to stick in the bullpen. They like his power fastball/changeup combination.
• Mitch Haniger
• Domingo Santana
• Jay Bruce
• Ichiro Suzuki
• Mallex Smith
Notes: It’s likely Smith won’t be ready to play in the field against the A’s. He’s meeting with team doctors this week to see if he can be cleared to start hitting and resume throwing. But because of the scheduling quirk of playing in Japan, if the Mariners were to put Smith on the day 10-day injured list (formerly the disabled list), he wouldn’t be eligible to participate in the series against the Red Sox. The days after those games in Japan don’t count toward the 10-day minimum. So the Mariners might keep him on the active 28-man roster even though he might not be able to play in the field against the A’s. Seattle will have to determine if Smith will be ready to play against Boston to decide on that roster spot. If he doesn’t start full workouts this week then an IL stint might be necessary.
The Mariners could play Haniger in center field for those games. Seattle also could bring young center fielder Braden Bishop with them on the trip and then decide on whether to put him on the active roster in the days leading up to the series with Oakland.
Barring an injury, Ichiro is expected to be added to the 28-man roster for the A’s series. What will happen after Japan? Well, the expectation is for the team to remove Ichiro from the active roster, and he’ll make a decision on his future. There is a belief he might announce his retirement – something he refuses to acknowledge – after Japan or in that week leading up to the home opener. Perhaps if Smith still isn’t ready to go, they could carry Ichiro for a few extra games in the regular season. But the team would prefer to not have to play Haniger in center field for an extended period, and Bishop is a better defensive outfielder at this point.
• Kyle Seager
• Tim Beckham
• Dee Gordon
• Ryon Healy
• Daniel Vogelbach
• Edwin Encarnacion
• Kristopher Negron
Notes: No real surprises in this grouping. Shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford could make the trip as one of the extra reserve players not on the active roster, giving him a chance to get in work with the big-league team and coaching staff. Negron’s ability and experience as a utility player makes him the logical choice over Dylan Moore and Shed Long. While Long has been one of the better stories of spring training, remember that he’s never played above the Double-A level and has minimal experience at shortstop and in the outfield.
The decisions get a little more complicated when the roster has to be trimmed to 25 players. The Mariners have a glut of first baseman/designated hitter types with Bruce also expected to play some first base. So out of the group of Bruce, Healy, Vogelbach and Encarnacion, one player can’t make the roster. With no trade looming, Encarnacion will be an everyday contributor at DH or first base until the team can finally move him, which might not be until July.
It basically comes down to Vogelbach or Healy for that spot. The decision might be a simple as this – Vogelbach is out of minor-league options, Healy is not. If Vogelbach doesn’t make the team, he has to be designated for assignment and exposed to waivers. And there is belief that, despite his limitations on defense, Vogelbach would be claimed off waivers.
• Omar Narvaez
• David Freitas
Notes: It appears the Mariners will go into the season with Freitas or Jose Lobaton as the backup catcher. They haven’t signed another veteran catcher yet. All three catchers will travel to Japan in case of an injury in the exhibition games. Both would be expected to start games against left-handed starting pitchers. The separator will be defense and roster makeup. The biggest hindrance to Lobaton making the team would be the 40-man roster spot that would be required to open up for him. The Mariners might not be willing to risk losing a player to a waivers claim just to put a backup catcher on the 40-man roster if it’s not a significant upgrade.
Mariners 7, Padres (SS) 7: Seattle starter Leake was tagged for eight hits, including home runs by Francisco Mejia and Manuel Margot, in 3 2/3 innings Tuesday in Peoria, Arizona.
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