PEORIA, Ariz. (AP) — Roenis Elias began spring training last February as a pitcher who had never started a game above Double-A. He wound up earning a spot with the Seattle Mariners as a surprise fifth starter and went on to win double-digit games.
A lot has changed this time around, right?
Well, not quite.
“There’s not a lot of difference between this year and last year,” the 26-year-old lefty said Sunday through a translator. “Last year I didn’t come in with a spot. This year you could say the same thing.”
With four rotation spots seemingly spoken for, Elias finds himself locked in a battle for Seattle’s last starting slot.
“You still have to work hard and keep improving,” said Elias, who was 10-12 with a 3.85 ERA in 29 starts. “Even if I say I’m ready for that spot, if I don’t prove it they’re not going to take me with them.”
Stars Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma will take two slots. Third-year pro James Paxton enjoyed a breakout 2014 — in 13 starts he had a 3.04 ERA. Manager Lloyd McClendon said the team traded for J.A. Happ with every intention of the lefty being a starter.
That leaves room for just one more.
In other circumstances, Elias might have the job secured. But highly touted 22-year-old Taijuan Walker and others are looming.
“You just go out and do what you have to do,” Elias said.
With a year of big league experience to look back on, he said he has become more detail-oriented and watches more video, looking for tiny tweaks to arm angles, for instance.
Elias has also leaned on veterans Robinson Cano, Fernando Rodney, Yoervis Medina and Hernandez to learn how to mentally prepare himself.
Elias had an injury scare in September when elbow tightness ended his season. His arm has fully recovered and he doesn’t expect it to be an issue.
“I’m ready to go and help the team make the playoffs.”
Though his immediate future has some questions, Elias is becoming more comfortable in his surroundings.
The Spanish-speaking Elias uses a translator to do interviews with English-speaking media. On Sunday, he offered that he should be ready to conduct his own interviews in about two months.
Elias also figures to have fewer distractions this season. His wife and 2-year-old son have moved to the United States from Mexico. He said his “mind was a little scattered” being apart from his family last year.
“The fact that they’re here,” he said, “I can see them every day and be easier to focus.”
Elias has plans to see even more family after the season. A Cuban native, he has not returned to the country since he escaped by boat in October 2010. After procuring a visa, he’s looking forward to a reunion with his father and grandmother in December.
“It’s going to be big, seeing my father and grandmother,” he said. “Seeing them is motivation to keep doing what I’m doing.”
NOTES: McClendon said he wants second baseman Robinson Cano and third baseman Kyle Seager to start “150ish” games in the field. He said both players wore down after utility player Willie Bloomquist’s season ended in August because of a knee injury. “Quite frankly, I played (Cano and Seager) too much down the stretch,” he said, “but I had no choice. Bloomie was down.” Giving Seattle’s top two hitters a break was a big factor in the team’s signing of Rickie Weeks. Though Weeks, 32, has never started a game at a position other than second base or DH, McClendon envisions him getting half his at-bats in the outfield and the rest at first, third and an occasional appearance at second. McClendon said he “would stay away” from playing Weeks at shortstop. … A day after learning he had lost his salary arbitration case, reliever Tom Wilhelmsen was in good spirits. “The way I’m looking at it, I won either way,” said Wilhelmsen, who will earn $1.4 million in 2015 instead of the $2.2 million he requested. “There’s no spilled milk here.” Wilhelmsen, who posted a 2.27 ERA in 79 1-3 innings in 2014, said he approached his first arbitration hearing with an open mind. “I’m glad I did it,” he said. “I got to stand up for what I believe in, man. That’s a pretty cool thing to do.” He also left with a more complete understanding of the game. “I learned that it’s obviously a little bit more of a business than players want to think it is,” the 31-year-old right-hander said.
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