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Originally published Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 6:55 PM

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Eric Wedge considers Justin Smoak to be leading contender at first base

Mariners manager Eric Wedge is hoping Justin Smoak's hot finish last year carries over to this season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Despite a rocky season in 2012, and the acquisition of numerous players since then who can play first base, Justin Smoak still figures prominently in the Mariners' plans.

In fact, manager Eric Wedge said Smoak still is the leading contender to be the regular first baseman.

"I've made it very clear I feel strong about Justin Smoak and what his abilities are," Wedge said. "I have every anticipation he's going to be our first baseman this year. Now, if he shows us something different, then so be it. But he's coming in as our first baseman, and I expect him to take that and run with it."

Smoak hit .217 last year, but finished second on the Mariners with 19 homers despite a three-week stint in Tacoma. When he came back up, Smoak hit .341 with a .571 slugging percentage over his final 27 games.

The Mariners challenged him to get in better shape over the winter. Trainer Rick Griffin reported Wednesday that Smoak has gained 9 pounds but reduced his body fat.

"The calculations we made, he put on 8 pounds of muscle," Griffin said. "He looks bigger, he looks stronger. He's more agile. His foot speed is better. His quickness is better. He's done everything to prepare; the rest of the stuff is related to being on the field."

Montero expected

to be kept busy

Wedge made it clear that Jesus Montero will do the bulk of the catching at the outset of the season.

One of the Mariners' story lines this season will be the readiness of top prospect Mike Zunino, who hit .360 in 44 minor-league games after the Mariners made him the No. 3 overall choice in the June draft. Zunino is a longshot to make the team out of spring training.

Wedge said of Montero, "He knows he's coming here to catch. ... We're going to ask him to catch as much as we feel he can go out there and perform the way he's capable of performing."

The Mariners, meanwhile, are in the market for one or two veteran catchers to compete for a backup role. They reportedly are close to signing Ronny Paulino to a minor-league contract with a spring-training invitation.

Leaders in force

Wedge made some pointed comments about the leadership on the team last year.

"If you look at the veterans we had in the clubhouse last year versus the veterans we have this year, it's night and day," he said.

The Mariners have added Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Jason Bay and Robert Andino. Gone from last year are Ichiro, Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo.

"I'm not going to talk about guys that aren't here anymore, but you can look at their role and their impact or lack thereof. It is what it is."

NOTE

• The Mariners had two offseason surgeries: Dustin Ackley to remove a bone spur from his left ankle, and Brendan Ryan to remove loose bodies and a bone spur from his right elbow. Both were arthroscopic and took place the day after the season ended. Griffin said both Ackley and Ryan are expected to have no limitations in spring training.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry

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