(Kevin Millwood will start for the Mariners Thursday against the Cubs. Photo by Associated Press).
Opening Day for the Mariners in Japan is now officially less than three weeks away. They head off to Tokyo two weeks from today. The Mariners, thus, are going to have to start making some roster decisions way ahead of other teams, the majority of whom don’t open their season until Friday, April 6 — nine days after Seattle and Oakland kick off on Wednesday, March 28. (The Marlins and Cardinals have the stage to themselves on Wednesday, April 4, in the inaugural game at the Marlins new stadium. Six openers take place on Thursday, April 5, and eight more on April 6 — plus the Mariners’ re-opener with the A’s that night, this time in Oakland).
Kevin Millwood starts today’s exhibition game against the Cubs, an important outing to evaluate his chances of making the Mariners’ rotation. But when you plot out your prospective final 25-man roster for the March 28 opener, here’s something to keep in mind: The way I see it, the Mariners’ unique schedule makes it very likely, if not ironclad, that they will not carry a fifth starter to start the season.
In fact, with two games in Tokyo followed by a six-day respite in Arizona to re-acclimate themselves, they theoretically wouldn’t even need a third or fourth starter beyond Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas, who barring injury will start the first two games in Japan (not to mention the second two games stateside when the season picks up on April 6). The Mariners will be allowed to reconfigure their roster once they get back from Japan.
I imagine they’ll open with four starters on their roster, just to be safe, but I honestly don’t see any need whatsoever for a fifth starter in Japan. In fact, the Mariners could conceivably go until April 13th before needing a fifth starter, because once they return to Oakland, they play two games against the A’s (April 6 and 7) and promptly have another day off on Sunday, April 8. If they want to keep Felix and Vargas on normal rest, they wouldn’t need a fifth starter until the home opener on April 13th — also against Oakland (the Mariners play the A’s in seven of their first 11 games). Or they could choose to stay in rotation, give Hernandez and Vargas an extra day’s rest, and slip in the fifth starter on April 11 against Texas.
At any rate, if you’re plotting out the Opening Day roster, I’d factor in either an extra reliever, or extra position player, to replace the fifth starter. And I’d lean in the direction of an extra position player, because Hernandez and Vargas can reasonably be expected to go pretty deep into the game. Even if something bad happens, they would have their two other starters (if they activate both) available for long relief. Remember, Millwood is on a minor-league contract, so he could just be re-assigned to minor-league camp until he is needed as a fifth starter, if he wins that job. That would allow the Mariners to delay a decision on clearing a spot on the 40-man roster.
This is all speculation, of course, but I’d look for the Mariners to start the season with 11 pitchers and 14 position players — even though they probably won’t keep it that way for very long. It could be a chance for someone like Vinny Catricala to be on the roster in Japan as a potential big bat off the bench, even if it’s deemed that Catricala needs to start the season in the minors to hone his skills. Remember, the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers don’t even open their season until April 5. The Mariners have some time to play around with before then, and a unique situation that gives them many options to ponder.