We break down your 2009 Seattle Mariners, position-by-position, with the start of the MLB regular season fast approaching. In our first installment, we take a look at the infielders.
Projected Starters: 1B Russell Branyan; 2B Jose Lopez; 3B Adrian Beltre; SS Yuniesky Betancourt.
Bench: 2B/SS Ronny Cedeno.
Fighting for a spot: 1B Mike Sweeney; 1B Chris Shelton; 2B/SS Reegie Corona.
40-man roster players in the minors: 1B Mike Carp; 1B Bryan LaHair; 3B Matt Tuiasosopo.
With the exception of shortstop, the infield is all but set. Branyan, Lopez, and Beltre are guaranteed starting spots and the only battle left to be decided is between incumbent shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and newly acquired utility man Ronny Cedeno. Cedeno, who spent last year in reserve for the Chicago Cubs, has the talent to succeed Betancourt in the everyday lineup, and should push for playing time if Betancourt can’t learn patience at the plate. Even if he doesn’t start, Cedeno will make the 25-man roster as a valuable backup.
One other spot that remains to be decided is the backup first base job. That battle is between two non-roster invitees in Mike Sweeney and Chris Shelton. While neither is under contract nor on the 40-man roster as it stands right now, Sweeney has the inside track to making the club out of Spring Training since he cannot be sent to the minors while Shelton can. Shelton still has one option remaining, meaning the Mariners can send him outright to Triple-A (or any other minor league level, for that matter) and still keep him under club control. By contrast, were Sweeney sent to the minors, he would have the right to refuse the assignment and instead elect to become a free agent, which he would most certainly do. That alone gives Sweeney the edge, despite the fact that Shelton has greater upside and more long-term potential at this point.
Another intriguing candidate to make the big club is utility infielder Reegie Corona, a Rule V pickup from the Yankees organization. Under the terms of the Rule V Draft, Corona must remain on the Mariners’ 25-man roster all season, or be offered back to the Yankees for half the value which he was purchased. From a financial standpoint, it would benefit the M’s to keep Corona around. But with Ronny Cedeno around, Corona’s big-league value is severely mitigated. Some of you may remember utility infielder Luis Ugueto, a Rule V pick from the Marlins organization a few years back. He lasted on the 25-man roster for an entire season, though never panned out long-term for the club and has since fallen off the face of the earth, just proving that Rule V draftees aren’t always as cracked up as they’re made out to be. Of course, there’s always the chance that the Yankees could refuse the 50% discount and allow Seattle to retain Corona with no strings attached, and that may be exactly what the M’s are hoping for.
40-man roster players who have already been optioned to the minors include 1B Mike Carp, 1B Bryan LaHair, and 3B Matt Tuiasosopo. The big name here is that of Tuiasosopo, who is already rumored to be the eventual replacement for Adrian Beltre once Beltre takes off. Many pundits are expecting Beltre to be traded by the July 31 deadline, but that’s no guarantee. The Mariners’ new management has made it no secret that they’d like to obtain draft picks, and if the team lets Beltre walk as a free agent, they would obtain two first-round picks from the club that signs him. So no guarantees that we see Tui for an extended period of time this year. Carp and LaHair are two long-term solutions for the club at first base, and sooner or later one of those two players will probably be dealt to another club. There’s no room for two aging Minor League prospects on the Triple-A roster, and the M’s will have to commit to either LaHair or Carp before next offseason.