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March 15, 2013 at 5:00 AM

Why Brandon Maurer, other young arms, will have to crack Mariners rotation or go to Class AAA

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ADDITIONAL NOTE 8:30 a.m.: The Mariners made additional roster moves this morning, optioning infielder Alex Liddi to Class AAA Tacoma and re-assigning catcher Ronny Paulino and infielder Stefen Romero to minor league camp. There are now 47 players in camp: 35 on the roster and 12 non-roster invitees.

There had been some speculation that Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan or Erasmo Ramirez could either make the Mariners as a starting pitcher this spring, or find a job as a long reliever in the bullpen. I’ve been told that’s not the case. The Mariners, as things stand today, have no intention of carrying a starting pitcher in their bullpen to serve in a long relief role.

Of course, the team did do that last year with Hisashi Iwakuma. But that was more out of necessity. He was just breaking into American baseball, was not yet good enough for the rotation and the team did not want to dispatch him to the minor leagues with his young family still acclimating to life in Seattle. Not only that, he was still acclimating to life here. So, they kept him in the bullpen, hoping he’d build arm strength. But as you remember, he was barely used. That’s the thing with long guys. They can sit in the bullpen for weeks on end because managers really need them in blowout situations and sometimes there just aren’t any.

With the Mariners, they plan to carry a seven-man bullpen and fill it with guys who can work both situationally and longer — a couple of innings at a time — if needed. For now, no long guy is planned.

And that means two things: No. 1, the seven-man pen means no six-outfielder arrangement, so it’s going to come down to a choice between Casper Wells or Jason Bay. And frankly, the way Bay has looked, I’m starting not to like Wells’s chances as much as I did before. But we still have two-plus weeks to go.

The other thing, if there’s no long guy, is that Maurer, Beavan and Ramirez are now competing with Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman for the final two rotation spots. And either those young guys win those spots or they go to Class AAA.

There won’t be any compromise.

Now, it’s possible Bonderman or Garland might have to go to AAA, but I doubt both will.

Garland could have taken an offer from the Indians prior to signing with Seattle, but he came here after a talk with manager Eric Wedge. I wasn’t there for the chat, but I guaratnee you it went something like: “If you do what you did before, you will make this team.”

So far, Garland has looked very good this spring. Hitters are pounding the ball into the ground off him. He’s thrown 200 innings in a season before — none of the young guys have — and the Mariners need that kind of depth.

I’m assuming he stays.

Bonderman is more of a wild-card, simply because he hasn’t pitched in three years. I could see him possibly going to AAA and then being called up in-season if the team had a need. Or maybe he wouldn’t go for that and would simply retire. I don’t know because I’m not inside his head. But I’ll tell you this: if things are even between him and the other guys, there’s a good chance he’s kept. Otherwise, why invite him to camp? As for the 40-man roster, I can think of some guys I’d drop to create a space.

So far, though, I’m not sure they have been even between Bonderman and the others. With Garland, yes, they have been. He stays. With Bonderman, I’d have to see more out of him.

We saw a pretty good showing for four innings out of Maurer today and honestly, he’s going to have to be lights-out the rest of the way, simply because he’s yet to pitch any AAA ball and has plenty of options left.

Ramirez has tasted the majors before, but again, he missed significant time last year with an elbow injury and had only limited success pitching in a very small sample of starts late. And if he’s kept to start the year, how many innings, realistically, could the team hope to get out of him? Maybe 150?

With Beavan, the team knows he’s thrown 150 already in his career. That means he can look to move on up towards 200 because his arm is developed enough to handle the workload. I’m not championing Beavan because I like his face, or his Texas drawl. Merely stating a fact: on a team that has questions about rotation depth, Beavan right now — outside of Garland — might be the most likely rotation candidate who can give you anywhere from 180-to-200 innings without embarassing himself. Remember, minor league innings don’t translate to the big leagues on a 1-to-1 basis. The stress level in the bigs is much higher. In other words, it takes way more exertion to get guys out in the majors than being able to blow minor leaguers away with a fastball or three. If you haven’t thrown 150 innings in the bigs, you haven’t done it — period.

And you simply cannot overlook that factor.

The team has just invested the better part of two seasons developing Beavan as a back-end starter. If they’re going to send him to AAA in a season where innings might becaome a serious need, they had better be confident that somebody else can do a better job for just as long.

Maurer looks like he might be able to do a better job right now, but for how long? Again, as a rookie, there’s no way he’d throw more than 150 innings.

So, if I had to handicap things right now, today, based on what I’ve seen, I’d say Beavan and Garland get the nod.

Now, that can change. We still have two weeks to go. But again, nobody here is making it as a bullpen guy. They will have to make it as a starter. If Beavan stumbles and Maurer looks like he’s overpowering hitters, we could very well see him with the team come April. But he has to be definitively better than the other guys. Because, remember, there’s no harm letting him pitch some AAA ball if you aren’t certain. Unlike two years ago, when Michael Pineda made the team out of camp, the Mariners do have some guys who can handle the back-end workload. The back end of that team’s rotation two years ago was not as talented as this year’s is. The main problem facing this rotation is inexperience and the possible innings shortfall.

And that shortfall is why the idea of a six-man bullpen was never going to fly.

The time to go with a six-man pen is when the season is a couple of months old and you see how your starters are doing. Wedge went to a six-man pen two years ago when the season was two months old and only after he’d kept using the same five relievers every week while his designated long man — Jeff Gray — sat doing nothing for weeks on end. If you’ve got starters going six or seven innings per night, like the M’s were doing two years ago in the first half, you can drop that extra bullpen guy.

But going with six men to start the season? In the year 2013? Not a great idea. This isn’t the 1960s or 1970s, or even the year 2000. Today’s generation of pitchers has been groomed differently. It’s common in April to have an entire five-man rotation go only five or six innings per night for the first month. Try a six-man bullpen with that and you’re playing with fire. All it takes is one guy to get shelled early a la Hector Noesi and your bullpen risks being gassed for a week.

The Mariners opened 2010 with a six-man pen so they could keep Ryan Langerhans as an extra outfielder. Three days later, the plan was scrapped.

You have to get through the early season, see how your rotation — in Seattle’s case, an already question-filled one — is going to hold up and then you start to contemplate going with six relievers instead of seven.

Besides, going with six outfielders is a waste of roster space. This is the major leagues: a good team has to be able to pick between a fifth and a sixth guy, especially a team coming off 87 losses. We aren’t breaking up a World Series winner here.

So, again, it’s going to be Bay or Wells.

It’s going to be a seven-man bullpen.

And that bullpen won’t have any starters serving as long guys. Which means Maurer et al will have to make it as a rotation guy or pitch someplace else.

Should be a fun final two weeks.



Comments | More in spring training | Topics: brandon maurer; blake beavan; erasmo ramirez; jon garland


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