Bullpen, bench still unresolved as Mariners leave Arizona

PEORIA, Ariz. &

The Mariners ended their stay in Arizona facing the same unanswered questions they had when they arrived six weeks ago.

Seattle broke camp Thursday still unsure of the makeup of its bullpen and its bench.

"We're still sorting through some things," manager John McLaren said before an afternoon split-squad game against San Diego.

"There's a couple guys we still have to make a decision on. We want to check on a couple guys and see how they're throwing," McLaren said, meaning relievers Brandon Morrow and Mark Lowe.

"It should come together pretty quickly."

With the exception of starting pitcher Felix Hernandez, catcher Kenji Johjima and utility man Willie Bloomquist &

all of whom stayed behind to play the Padres &

Seattle's veterans packed for San Francisco to play a game Thursday evening against the Giants.

The Mariners then planned to fly to Las Vegas for a pair of games against the Chicago Cubs Friday and Saturday. They return to Seattle for a workout at Safeco Field on Sunday. The season-opening series against Texas begins Monday afternoon, with new ace Erik Bedard's debut.

But before that, Seattle must figure out its bullpen ahead of All-Star closer J.J. Putz and determine who will be the reserve outfielder. McLaren said he expected to meet with the rest of his staff and general manager Bill Bavasi in Las Vegas on Friday to answer those questions.

"It's not only about making important decisions, it's making the right decisions," McLaren said earlier this week. "We have to look at a broader scope than just (opening day). If you get caught up, we might not make a good decision."

What Seattle does in its bullpen will have a direct effect on how many players the Mariners can keep on the bench.

The team had hoped to carry 11 pitchers but might have to go with 12 because of uncertainties over the health of Morrow and Lowe.

Morrow, last season's rookie wonder, was projected to fill the primary right-handed setup role but has been slowed by a sore pitching shoulder. The fifth overall draft choice in 2006 was knocked around for five runs and four hits in a third of an inning during his most recent outing, in a minor league game Tuesday.

McLaren was noncommittal when asked if Morrow was a lock to make the 25-man roster.

"We're trying to see where we are with him," the manager said.

If Morrow is sent down or placed on the disabled list, Seattle might keep an extra right-hander in the bullpen.

Lowe could fill the right-handed setup role if Morrow is out. The 24-year-old has been impressive coming off two elbow surgeries within the last 18 months, giving up only two earned runs in seven spring appearances. This week, he successfully pitched for the first time on consecutive days.

Seattle also has knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, right-handers Sean Green and Ryan Rowland-Smith and left-hander Eric O'Flaherty. All could end up making the 25-man roster if Morrow is out and the Mariners choose a 12-man staff.

A staff of 12 pitchers would leave only one roster spot for a reserve position player. Bloomquist, backup catcher Jaime Burke and infielder Miguel Cairo are locks to make the team. That leaves Mike Morse, Charles Jimerson, Jeremy Reed and Greg Norton to battle for perhaps only one opening.

Reed, who is left-handed in a spot where Seattle prefers a right-hander, could be traded. Jimerson, the fastest of the four, was batting only .208 with two RBIs this spring entering Thursday. So the decision could come down to Morse versus Norton.

Morse was leading the Mariners with a .518 spring average and was tied for the team lead in RBIs (14). He is out of options to the minor leagues and would have to clear waivers if Seattle doesn't keep him.

"I want to play in the major leagues ... I think I'm ready," Morse said earlier this month.

Norton, a 35-year-old switch-hitter and pinch-hit specialist is a favorite of McLaren's. He entered Thursday batting .333 with two home runs and nine RBIs.

"It's not a situation where these guys can show us anymore," McLaren said. "It's a situation of what's the best fit for us right now.

"We are looking at the big picture and we are looking at March 31, putting our team together."

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