If you had to pick the best breakout candidate for the Mariners this season, who would it be?
-- Bob W., Spokane, Wash.
I expect Taijuan Walker to take a big step forward this year and really be a key member of the rotation and a critical part of the Mariners' hopes if they're going to compete for a postseason berth. Seattle is keeping expectations low for the 23-year-old by talking about him as one of the three guys fighting for the fourth and fifth starting berths -- along with Nathan Karns and James Paxton -- but he has the ability to be right there with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at the top of the rotation.
After Walker overcame a slow start last season and started relaxing and throwing strikes, he became a much better pitcher. And with a year under his belt, this could be a very interesting year for the young right-hander.
With Chris Iannetta and Steve Clevenger in camp as the likely top two catchers, have the Mariners moved on from Mike Zunino or will he remain in contention for the 25-man roster?
-- James M., Kennewick, Wash.
The new regime would very much like to have Zunino start the season in Triple-A and get some confidence and consistency in his offensive approach. The Mariners feel he was rushed to the big leagues and needs the chance to get his feet under him before returning to the Majors for what they hope will be a long and successful career. So barring injuries, I expect they'll stick to that plan, though it wouldn't surprise me to see Zunino called up at some point midseason if he plays well in Tacoma.
When will we see the fan vote for Ken Griffey Jr.'s decision whether to wear his cap backward or not on his Hall of Fame plaque?
-- Marius P., Aachen, Germany
That was actually a joke Griffey made, though you never can quite be 100-percent sure with him. But as much as he'd love to have a backward-hat plaque -- and may well get one made just to have at his house -- you can rest assured the Cooperstown version will be straight forward.
Part of the Royals' success last year was having a speedster who could come off the bench and pinch-run in the late innings. Toward the end of the Mariners' 2014 season, James Jones did extremely well in that role. Why don't the Mariners have a speedster who can come off the bench and run this year?
-- Pieter Y., Hong Kong
Jarrod Dyson was indeed a valuable weapon for the Royals, but finding a player with enough offensive skills who can also run and defend isn't easy. And if a player can run but not hit enough to get on base much, it's hard to use up a spot on the 25-man roster for such a limited role. Every team would love to have a guy like that, if he's versatile enough to command a roster spot. Of course, if he's really good enough to hit well, the guy is going to be in the starting lineup.
Is it possible that Nelson Cruz could make a transition from right field to first base?
-- Anthony P., Los Angeles
That might be possible someday, but it takes time for a guy who has never played first base to learn the position and get comfortable, and that's not something the Mariners are pondering this season. They'll use Cruz primarily at DH as well as some in the outfield, where he's played his entire career.
Any sense of why Alex Jackson and D.J. Peterson are not developing? They were widely regarded as good Draft picks.
-- Keith, Tacoma, Wash.
Neither top prospect had a good season last year, and that is a situation the Mariners are pondering and a big reason Jerry Dipoto made a change in player development by hiring Andy McKay (while keeping amateur scouting director Tom McNamara). Dipoto is pushing for a more consistent plan in terms of wording, goals and approach from top to bottom in the organization, and that goes for all the players, not just the big-name prospects. I think you'll also see guys given more time to develop at lower levels before being bumped up.
With Spring Training right around the corner, what suggestions do you have for fans going to see the Mariners in Arizona? What are your suggestions for good places to eat in the area? Best time in the spring to see games? Best places at the complex to get autographs?
-- Ken J., Bernardsville, N.J.
There are dozens of places to eat in Peoria all around the ballpark, whether you're looking for something quick, like In-N-Out or Chick-fil-A, or the adjacent Mexican restaurant Salty Senorita or something more upscale like Firebirds or P.F. Chang's. The Corner Bakery Cafe right across the street is an excellent spot. Finding food isn't difficult, and of course you can eat in the stadium as well. Autographs take a little more work. Probably the best time to catch players is when they're coming off the practice fields in the morning. Many will stop along a roped-off area near the indoor batting cages when they're headed back to the clubhouse.
My recommendation for people who want to see players up close and personal is to come out to the morning practices, which generally run from about 9-11 a.m. Then you can grab something to eat and head over to the park for a 1 p.m. game, if they're playing in Peoria that day. Coming later in March usually guarantees the warmest weather and chance to see the veteran players stay in games longer, but I think any time at Spring Training is a good time.