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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 27, 2013 at 3:33 PM

Mariners have minor-league depth if rotation falters

Brandon Maurer stretches during a spring training workout in February. Photo by Associated Press Brandon Maurer stretches during a spring-training workout in February. Photo by Associated Press

Brandon Maurer stretches during a spring-training workout in February. Photo by Associated Press

Congratulations to Brandon Maurer, who came into Seattle’s camp on the periphery of the rotation battle, yet simply made it impossible for the Mariners to send him down. And now he’ll start the season as one of five starters in the Mariner rotation. Even though Maurer has never pitched above Double-A, I think this is the right decision, as I expressed earlier (even though I was extremely surprised to to see the Mariners cut loose Jon Garland; it was a gutsy move, one that fans will have an easy time tracking now that Garland is headed for the Rockies’ rotation).

Maurer’s poise was easy to spot from the beginning. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t seem to get caught up in the tension of the moment. He exudes a quiet confidence, which I believe is what manager Eric Wedge is talking about when he says he likes a player’s “heartbeat.” But that wouldn’t have meant much without stuff, and Maurer displays four or even five major-league pitches with command. At the tender age of 22, he’s earned a shot to see how far that will take him.

Blake Beavan also prevailed for one of the two hotly contested rotation spots behind Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders. Hernandez and Iwakuma have had strong springs. Saunders has been spotty, but I wouldn’t read too much into that. Veterans like him know how to round themselves slowly into shape, so his 11.57 ERA this spring isn’t necessarily indicative of anything more than a guy who is worrying more¬† about process than results in March.

All things being equal, I believe the Mariners would have been better served with Erasmo Ramirez over Beavan,¬†whose body of work has not inspired everyone with confidence. Geoff has done a good job chronicling why the Mariners don’t believe that Ramirez yet has the arm strength for a regular rotation berth. But he’s going to be lurking in the background, bidding to step in if a pitcher falters.

I am not ready to consign Beavan to a doomed stint with the Mariners. While statistics can point out trends and historical precedent, players are not static beings. They are constantly learning and improving (or at least attempting to do so), and breakthroughs happen. We are perhaps seeing that being the case with Justin Smoak, another player that many have written off. So we’ll get a chance to see if Beavan’s new pitching approach and philosophy will make a substantial difference in his outcomes.

However, I don’t think Wedge’s will give Beavan much rope — not with the depth they appear to have built on Tacoma’s staff. And though I’m expecting good results from Maurer, there are no guarantees. He is the first Mariners pitcher to jump straight from Double-A to the majors since Mike Hampton and John Cummings in 1993. It didn’t work out so well for them. Hampton made just three starts and finished the year 1-3 with a 9.53 ERA. Cummings lasted eight starts and was 0-6, 6.02. You just never know with young pitchers, which is why it’s good to have fallback options. And the Mariners appear to have more and better ones than they’ve had in awhile.

Though nothing has been finalized, I’d imagine the Rainiers will have Ramirez, Jeremy Bonderman, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton in their rotation, perhaps rounded out by Hector Noesi. The first four, certainly, could all push for a major-league spot as the season progresses. (Noesi, on the other hand, looked completely out of kilter in spring training; while he still has the stuff to eventually figure things out, I think it will be a longer process for him). Meanwhile, wherever Taijuan Walker starts the season — and it could be back at Double-A Jackson — he could come fast once he harnesses his fastball command and hones his off-speed pitches. Early in spring, Hultzen looked just about as sharp as anyone in camp. I thought he was going to make a strong run at a rotation spot — until a hip flexor injury put the brakes on his spring. Hultzen asn’t a serious contender after that, but he’s healthy again, and if he continues to progress, it’s going to be hard to keep him down. Paxton struggled in camp, but the feeling last year was that he was the farthest advanced of the “Big Three”. If he can get back in a groove, he could make some noise as well. And Bonderman definitely made a positive impression in camp, though he very visibly faded in the fifth inning of his most recent start. That showed everyone he wasn’t ready for a big-league berth after more than two years out of the game because of arm problems. But the Mariners are convinced Bonderman has the potential to get back to where he was before with Detroit, when he was an above-average starter for a few years. He’ll get a chance to continue to build his arm strength and regain his feel for pitching in Triple-A. No guarantees, but it’s an intriguing possibility down the road for Wedge and the Mariners

It’s always a good scenario for a team to have pitching options in the case of injuries or poor performances. When the Mariners used just five starters in 2003, it was the first time it had happened in the major leagues since 1966.The fact is, pitching staffs are in a constant state of flux, and it’s nice to have potential reinforcements.

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