They are the questions that dominate coverage of every camp, be it spring or late summer. And as I've spent the week in Peoria with the Mariners, it's time to answer them for you.
Q: Who's the first player to arrive and the last one to leave?
A: TOM MURPHY. A Mariner newcomer dared to beat the catcher to the park Wednesday. And upon us breaking the news to him, Murphy's face dropped. "Who beat me?" He asked. "Steven Souza," we answered. "Beat you by about 3 minutes." Murphy narrowed those bizarre blue eyes of his, as if they had the power to see through walls and into souls. "I'll be having a talk with him."
Q: Who entered camp in the best shape of their career?
A: RODRIGUEZ, KELENIC, RALEIGH, GILES, MURPHY, FRANCE & HANIGER, TO NAME A FEW. "I don't know what to say about my traps," Julio Rodriguez told us as he shrugged his newly formed shoulders. "They just keep pumpin' up."
Q: Well then, who wins the award for looking MOST transformed since last season?
A: With a narrow win over Kelenic & Murphy, I'll go with RODRIGUEZ. 6'4", 228 pounds, knotted shoulders, six-pack abs, the big puppy is all grown up. Man's a full dog now.
Q: What player is creating the most buzz? Who is "the talk of camp"?
I'll give you three players...
#3: MATT BRASH. "He has video game stuff," his pitching coach Pete Woodworth whispered to me amid all the buzz surrounding the rookie. Brash looks like he should be working in the laundry room. Instead, he's likely going to be the team's #5 starter to break camp, and there's a definitive belief he can consistently get Major League hitters out right now.
#2: ANDRES MUNOZ. Acquired with Ty France in the Padres blockbuster two years ago, Munoz is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery & ready to play a major role at the back of the bullpen. "100 is a 100," said Paul Sewald of his fellow reliever's fastball. "It's kinda disheartening to throw bullpens alongside him. I release the ball before he does and his catcher's mitt pops before mine does."
#1: JULIO RODRIGUEZ. There's that name again. And there really is no denying it. "I've run out of superlatives to describe him," a smiling Mr. Mariner, Alvin Davis, told us.
Q: Who is stepping into a leadership role (particularly with the loss of Kyle Seager)?
A: MURPHY. JP Crawford has taken the torch straight from the hand of Seager, but he's been slowed this week by some dental work, so we haven't heard a lot from him. And Haniger is doing his best to step up and into a larger leadership role, but I'm afraid it just ain't his bag, baby. I think it's undeniable that Tom Murphy carries a big stick in the clubhouse, if not the biggest.
Q: What are the camp battles? And who's winning them?
#5 STARTER. Matt Brash is leading George Kirby for the 5th spot in the rotation. But both will wait, if Jerry Dipoto finishes a trade for Frankie Montas or another near-the-top-of-the-rotation arm from the trade market.
CENTERFIELD. Julio Rodriguez seems to have the momentum for being named the Mariners' Opening Day starting CF. If they decide for more seasoning of their top prospect, Kelenic moves to CF, Winker to LF & perhaps Billy Hamilton and Steven Souza both make the Opening Day 28-man roster.
CLOSER. Scott Servais told us point-blank that the Mariners aren't going to name one. Looks like Closer-by-committee, but make no mistake, Andres Munoz is going to be in the back-end mix with Sewald, Diego Castillo & Ken Giles (& maybe Drew Steckenrider, too).
BENCH SPOTS. They're going to carry 13 players & 15 pitchers to start the season. Abraham Toro, Dylan Moore & Luis Torrens are shoe-ins. So, that likely leaves it between Billy Hamilton, Steven Souza or Cal Raleigh for the 13th spot. Raleigh seems headed for Tacoma. If performance dictates the answer, Souza gets the nod. If Servais simply wants the speed tool coming off his bench, Billy Hamilton might still be the fastest thing in a baseball uniform. My guess? SOUZA.
Q: Is the team going to make the playoffs?
They are definitely a contender, one of the top 8 teams in the AL, and six are going to make the playoffs this year. You want me to go out on a limb? Okay, I will. YES. THE MARINERS WILL WIN 91 GAMES & MAKE THE PLAYOFFS.