As Spring Training nears, 10 Mariners players I’ll be watching

The time is nearly here once again. Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week for the Seattle Mariners and with that comes the optimism and excitement of a new baseball season.

In many ways, this will be a critical season for the Mariners. They are in the fifth year of General Manager Jack Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan with a number of key young players needing to take that pivotal step forward, proving that they not only belong but are the building blocks of the franchise that the Mariners have been hoping they are.

For those reasons, I will be as interested as ever to watch the Mariners this spring. I have narrowed down the 60-plus Mariners invited to spring training to a list of 10 that I will be most anxious to follow the progress of.

  1. Justin Smoak – We’ve probably driven this point into the floor but Smoak clearly is facing a make-it or break-it season. His potential is enormous and at 26 he’s still capable of realizing every ounce of it. Time for him to show that he can.
  2. Mike Zunino – Zunino had a huge year last year after being drafted No. 3 overall. He started at Everett (rookie level) and advanced all the way up to AA Jackson, in 44 combined contests he posted a 1.137 OPS with 13 homers. The interesting thing is he was regarded as an above-average defensive catcher with great leadership skills behind the plate. It will be his first big-league camp and extremely interesting to see how he bonds with his teammates. With the soon-to-be announced addition of Kelly Shoppach for the No. 2 catcher role, it is highly unlikely he breaks camp with the team but there will definitely be a Zunino sighting at Safeco this summer.
  3. Taijuan Walker – Recently ranked the No. 5 prospect in all of baseball, Walker enters his second big-league camp with a shot, albeit a long one, at making the opening day rotation. The biggest reason to watch Walker this camp is how good he is about to become. At 20-years-old, he’s literally just scratching the surface.
  4. Danny Hultzen – After absolutely dominating AA with a .93 WHIP and holding opponents to a .151 average, he struggled with his command in a move up to AAA Tacoma. It will be important to see whether those command issues were just a fluky result of fatigue and trying to impress and whether Hultzen can seize an opportunity to begin the year in the M’s rotation.
  5. Michael Saunders – One of the lone brightspots of 2012, Saunders showed that it is possible for former highly-regarded prospects to blossom late. He still has so much room to grow so it will intriguing to watch how he follows up last year’s campaign as an everyday starter.
  6. Kendrys Morales – The newcomer will be counted on as an elite middle-of-the-order bat, likely in the all-important 3-hole. Is he finally 100 percent after that fluke leg injury two years ago? How will he assert himself in the clubhouse?
  7. Michael Morse – He returns to the M’s a much more polished, wiser player than when he left, with feats still left to be accomplished. How does he handle left field? Can he stay healthy the entire year? Will his bat play immediately?
  8. Erasmo Ramirez – After Felix and Iwakuma, Ramirez may be the most likely candidate for the rotation. He is a strike-thrower with the chance to be a very solid No. 3 starter. The M’s need him to be that for them this season.
  9. Franklin Gutierrez – I have no doubt that Gutierrez can stay healthy, it’s just a matter of whether or not he will finally have fortune smile upon him, allowing him to be. Gutierrez is critical to the team’s defense and it will be fascinating to watch what he can do at 100 percent.
  10. Carlos Triunfel – I may be in the minority as someone who still has high expectations for the young shortstop. While the team has added veteran Robert Andino to potentially fill the utility infielder role, I would say that job is wide open entering camp and I personally think Triunfel is the best candidate for it. Will he emerge and make it impossible for Eric Wedge to leave him off the roster?

Five others to keep an eye on: James Paxton, Nick Franklin, Stefan Romero, Carter Capps and Jesus Montero.

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