With the split start to the season, the Mariners should be able to use ace Felix Hernandez in the first and third regular-season games. But unlike last year, when they eased Hernandez into things in the spring, there'll be no such luxury this spring due to the unusual scheduling.
"Obviously that's why we're here early," Willis said on Saturday. "I don't think it's a secret we're expecting Felix to start the first day, and I don't want to leave here and have a game that counts on the 28th of March and not have him able to throw 75 pitches. We need to get him stretched out. So coming early kind of eliminates any pressure."
There is also the matter of the sheer volume of arms in camp, with 35 pitchers -- 19 from the 40-man roster and 16 non-roster invitees. Willis said he had 31 pitchers in camp last year, but several of those were injured.
This spring it's all arms on deck, so the club has scheduled intrasquad games on Feb. 24, 26 and 28, and could add another partial game on Feb. 29 or March 1 before starting Cactus League play on March 2.
"I think we've got a challenge to see everyone," Willis said. "Really, once we get through our bullpen and batting practice sessions, I'm going to let these guys know -- certainly within reason -- that they've got to get ready.
"Every time they raise their arm, it may be 10 in the morning in an intrasquad game or 1:30 in the afternoon against Colorado or whoever. But every time they face a hitter, they're being evaluated. With these numbers, that's the only way we can do it."
Willis expressed optimism about his starting depth, despite the departure of Michael Pineda, who was traded to the Yankees for young catcher Jesus Montero. In addition to holdovers Hernandez and Jason Vargas, the club added Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma and veteran non-roster invitee Kevin Millwood. Hector Noesi, obtained in the Pineda trade, is also in "good position" to battle for a rotation spot, along with 2011 rookies Blake Beavan and Charlie Furbush.
Then there is the promising prospect foursome of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez and Taijuan Walker. While it figures to be tough for any of those youngsters to crack the rotation coming out of camp, Willis certainly isn't ruling out the possibility and mentioned Ramirez, 21, as one who could surprise some people.
"Everyone is really excited about the young kids," Willis said. "What I like is, if they come in here and earn it, well, let's go. Let's start the clock ticking. But if they come in here and need a little time, we have people to bridge that gap."
One of those bridge candidates is Millwood, who went 4-3 with a 3.98 ERA in nine starts with the Rockies last year. He's the most prominent veteran starter from among 16 non-roster pitchers, but that group also includes several interesting relief candidates, including Oliver Perez and Aaron Heilman.
The bullpen competition grew a lot more heated with last week's free-agent signings of veterans Hong-Chi Kuo and Shawn Camp, who'll join returners Brandon League, Tom Wilhelmsen, Shawn Kelley and Chance Ruffin, as well as veteran left-hander George Sherrill, who signed earlier in the offseason.
Many of the Mariners position players are already working out on their own at the team's facility in Peoria, but the full-squad reporting date isn't until Friday, with the first full team practice on Saturday, Feb. 18.