Felix gets Opening Day nod; Ichiro remains biggest roster question

posted by Curtis Crabtree - 

Miami Marlins v Seattle Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Looming uncertainty over the availability of Ichiro Suzuki for the start of the season is the last significant roster decision to be made prior to the team breaking camp on Tuesday.

However, the decision on Opening Day starter is no longer in question. Felix Hernandez will get the ball for the 10th consecutive season on Opening Day when the Mariners face the Cleveland Indians on Thursday night.

"Felix has earned the right. He is healthy. He's had a good spring training other than the fact he hasn't thrown a lot of innings. Everything else we've asked him to do has been off the chart. I'm excited for him and to get him out there," manager Scott Servais said.

"He is deserving of it and his track record speaks for itself. I'm excited to give him the ball. I'm excited where he's at. In my tenure here as a Mariners manager, this is the best spot I've seen Felix Hernandez in."

Servais wanted to wait until after speaking to Hernandez on Sunday morning before confirming the six-time All-Star and 2010 Cy Young Award winner as the team's Opening Day starter. Hernandez threw 63 pitches in Saturday night's final spring training start against the Chicago Cubs. 

He allowed just one run on four hits with a walk and three strikeouts, the lone run in 3 2/3 innings coming on a solo home run from Ian Happ.

Servais said they will monitor Hernandez's pitch count and he won't throw 100 pitches. Hernandez said they talked about 80-85 pitches being his target for Thursday. The team will have an off-day on Friday as well, allowing a fresh bullpen to be utilized liberally in the first game, if necessary.

With Hernandez in place for Thursday night, the rotation likely lines up with James Paxton, Mike Leake and Marco Gonzales filling out the team's initial four-man rotation. Seattle is going with four starters and eight relievers out of the gate since a fifth starter is not needed until April 11.

The team completed the signing of Wade LeBlanc on Sunday as well, giving them a potential option as a spot starter for the 11th. LeBlanc, Ariel Miranda and Rob Whalen are the most likely options to make the start on the 11th when the time comes.

Hernandez joins Jack Morris, Robin Roberts, Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, Steve Carlton and Roy Halladay as pitchers to make an Opening Day start in at least 10 straight seasons.

"It's an honor. Ten straight with one team, that's really, really an honor for me," Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he had no doubt he would be ready in time to make the start despite getting hit with a line drive on the right arm in his first start of spring in late February. Well, outside of the immediate aftermath of the injury that is.

"I told you!" he exclaimed as he came to meet with reporters about getting the call.

"When I got hit I was like 'oh man, I'm done.' But the next day I felt better and we progressed pretty good so I'm happy with it."

The final spot for a position player remains uncertain due to Suzuki's injuries and rustiness.

He will play in a minor league games on Monday while the rest of the team has the day off. One final Cactus League game remains on Tuesday against the Colorado Rockies for Suzuki to get "A" game reps before Opening Day.

"I sat with Ichi, needed him to be brutally, totally honest with where he's at physically," Servais said. "He went out and got some (batting practice), moved around. We were still kind of debating whether we should fire him out there today, we feel best he play tomorrow."

Servais noted they can't get the games back that Suzuki has missed due to injury. He sustained a strained calf that has slowed him throughout the last couple of weeks. Additionally, he took a pitch off his head in a minor league game on Thursday that added another wrench to the equation.

"I certainly have a ton of trust in Ichi and him knowing his body and what it's going to take for him to be ready for Opening Day," Servais said.

With the Mariners having three off days in the first nine days of the regular season, that could give Seattle the flexibility it needs to manage Suzuki's playing time through the first few weeks and allow his injuries and timing to get back to peak form.

Roster Moves:

The Mariners reassigned RHP Ryan Cook, INF Zach Vincej and C Tuffy Gosewisch to minor league camp on Sunday and optioned LHP Ariel Miranda to Triple-A Tacoma.

The moves put Seattle's roster at 31 players with three being non-roster invitees, RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP Casey Lawrence and OF Kirk Nieuwenhuis.

Lawrence has been told he's making the 25-man roster and he will need to be added to the team's 40-man roster. Iwakuma will start the season on the disabled list as he continues to rehab from shoulder. Nieuwenheis could potentially be the backup option should Ichiro Suzuki be unable to play to start the season.

Cook has finally worked his way back from a slew of injuries that have kept him out the last two years. He tore a lat muscle in his first spring training game with Seattle in 2016, then tore his hamstring while running as well. Once back on the mound, he tore his Ulnar Collateral Ligament, requiring Tommy John surgery. And it didn't end there as nerve issues resulting from the surgery set him back again.

Cook had four major injuries and had barely thrown a baseball in two years before spring training. He ultimately appeared in eight games for Seattle, pitching seven innings with a 12.86 ERA. Servais said he believes Cook's pitches have returned to form, but he needs to harness his stuff and build up his ability to work back-to-back days to be counted on by the major league club.

"I think he plays a major role for us at some point in the season and helps us out," Servais said. "This guy is a former All-Star. He's got good stuff. I really tip my cap to him. It's been two years of grinding through to get to this point. I know his goal was to make our team out of camp and he almost did.

"I definitely think he's going to help us, just not right out of the chute."

Notes:

-- Outfielder Ben Gamel is progressing faster than anticipated from an oblique strain that has sidelined him the last several weeks.

Gamel was expected to take batting practice on Sunday after getting an increasing number of swings in over the last several days.

"He looks good. He's coming along quicker than expected," Servais said. "... He has bounced back really quick."

-- Hisashi Iwakuma threw his first bullpen since shoulder surgery on Sunday, tossing about 20-25 pitches.

"It's step one," Servais said. "He's got a long ways to come back. I know he was anxious to get on the mound and all reports are it was very good."

Projected Opening Day Roster:

Outfielders:

Dee Gordon
Mitch Haniger
Guillermo Heredia
Ichiro Suzuki/Kirk Nieuwenhuis
Andrew Romine
Nelson Cruz (DH)

Infielders:

Robinson Cano
Jean Segura
Kyle Seager
Ryon Healy
Daniel Vogelbach

Catchers:

Mike Zunino
Mike Marjama

Rotation:

Felix Hernandez
James Paxton
Mike Leake
Marco Gonzales

Bullpen:

Edwin Diaz
Juan Nicasio
Nick Vincent
Marc Rzepcyznski
Dan Altavilla
James Pazos
Wade LeBlanc
Casey Lawrence

Disabled List:

RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (shoulder)
RHP Erasmo Ramirez (lat strain)
RHP David Phelps (elbow, 60-day DL)
OF Ben Gamel (oblique)

Photo Credit: SEATTLE, WA - APRIL 19: Starter Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners delivers a pitch during a game against the Miami Marlins at Safeco Field on April 19, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won 10-5. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

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