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<  Brock and Salk

Mariners' question marks may actually be a good thing

Smoak2
The Mariners have viable alternatives this season if players like Justin Smoak, center, aren't producing. (AP)

By Danny O'Neil

The Mariners might have the strongest pair in baseball in Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano.

It's the rest of the roster that is puzzlingly uncertain, whether you're talking about the starting outfield or just who is going to fill the No. 3 spot in the rotation.

This is not entirely a bad thing. Well, at least not among the position players. The uncertainty in the back end of the starting rotation is a potentially fatal flaw, but on the diamond, the unknown reflects something the Mariners haven't had too much of recently: options.

Seattle has some this year, and that more than anything is what differentiates this year's spring-training storylines from last season.

There were no choices last year. Not with a trio of players whose jobs were bestowed more than they were earned, the Mariners hoping – just hoping – that players like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak would be ready to fulfill the promise that had greeted each of their acquisitions.

We all know how that turned out. Ackley and Montero played their way into position changes, and while Smoak hit 20 home runs, he actually begins this season with less job security than a year ago.

That's a good thing, signifying competition, whether it's Nick Franklin and Brad Miller vying to be the starting shortstop or the game of musical chairs that Smoak, Corey Hart and Logan Morrison may wind up playing.

In fact, there are exactly three of eight positions on the diamond that could be considered settled for Seattle at this point. Cano is at second base for what the Mariners hope will be the first of 10 seasons. Kyle Seager is at third base, and Mike Zunino is going to be the catcher.

The rest is up for grabs, which means there's no time for patience. Not like last year when the Mariners entered the season believing that the hard lessons of 2012 would toughen up some of their younger players, yielding dividends in 2013.

This season, instead of preaching patience, the Mariners are in position to wait and watch who emerges this spring, whether it's someone like Michael Saunders showing a consistency that has eluded him or a prospect like Abraham Almonte landing a role with a strong spring.

There's no doubt about the front end of Seattle's roster. Hernandez and Cano are as good as it gets in Major League Baseball. Whether the Mariners can round out a winning team will depend on finding answers elsewhere. And while there's a great deal of uncertainty in that regard, the Mariners do have options, something they didn't a year ago.

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