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February 6, 2014 at 1:42 PM

Previewing Peoria: Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma and the rest of the rotation

Well, since pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 12 and we’ve looked at the catchers and the bullpen, I guess it seems logical to look at the starting pitchers.

The Mariners had 11 pitchers make starts last season. Stats from Fangraphs

starting individual

Obviously, Hisashi Iwakuma and Felix Hernandez were great for the Mariners. They both made the all-star team and Iwakuma was third in Cy Young voting.

Iwakuma had a breakout season. He finished third in the AL with a 2.66 ERA, while pitching 219 2/3 innings (third most in the AL). He allowed just 10 runs in his final 55 2/3 innings pitched for a 1.62 ERA.  He set a club record and let MLB with 10 starts where he pitched at least six innings and didn’t allow an earned run. He had five wins and five no decision in those starts. He had two separate scoreless innings streaks of 20 innings or more. Iwakuma was second in the AL with a 1.006 WHIP, which was also a club record, and had 10 starts without a walk.

Hernandez had a great year by most pitchers’ standards. But being Felix, it seemed a little down. That’s how high of a bar he has set for himself. Still the numbers are impressive.

He posted a 3.04 ERA with 216 strikeouts in 204 1/3 innings pitched. It was his fifth straight season of 200 plus innings and 200 plus strikeouts. It’s something only he and Justin Verlander have done over the last five years.

He had a career high strikeout rate of 9.51 strikeouts per nine innings pitched. He had two starts where allowed two runs or fewer and was 11-1 with a 1.07 ERA in those game.

So these guys were fine.

But it was after Hernandez and Iwakuma where things got ugly, like Miguel Batista pitching with bases loaded type of ugly.

Let’s start with No. 3 starter Joe Saunders. For a while he was Safeco Joe because he won a few starts at home while getting shelled on the road. Then he got consistent and started getting knocked around in both places.

Saunders had the highest ERA among qualifying American League pitchers. And gave up 232 hits – second most in the AL. Right-handers hit .337 this season. It was ugly. And worse, the mistakes of Brad Miller and Nick Franklin behind him led to some frustrated postgame comments on a few different occasions. It just didn’t work and the Mariners wisely did not exercise their option on Saunders for this season.

The decision to push Brandon Maurer into the starting rotation out of spring training was a mistake. It was a gamble that the Mariners were forced into when Erasmo Ramirez got injured during spring training and Jon Garland demanded that they make a decision on him making the starting rotation with two weeks remaining before opening day.

Maurer was outstanding in the spring. But his lack of command and his inexperience was quickly exposed at the big league level. He got hit, lost his composure and struggled to recover.

The Mariners other starter in the opening day rotation was right-hander Blake Beavan. He lasted two starts before GM acquired right-hander Aaron Harang. Beavan came into the season having worked on throwing from a different angle trying to force more sink. It messed with secondary stuff and he eventually went back to his old arm slot.

The addition of Harang wasn’t so good.  After pitching for most of his career in the National League, he could never adjust to the AL and the lack of free outs. Harang’s best outings came against the Pirates, Padres and Astros – two NL teams and a former NL team that resembled a Triple A team.

He was so bad that people were clamoring for Jeremy Bonderman to be called up from Triple A Tacoma.

The Mariners rotation did get better when my cousin Erasmo Ramirez finally got healthy and returned on July 11. Ramirez won four games in a row, while benefitting from some good run support. His walks per nine innings was still up to 3.24 (72 1/3 innings pitched) from 1.83 (59 innings pitched) in 2012. He also allowed a home run in nine of 13 starts. He admitted to struggling with his command and couldn’t find the feel with his change-up at times. But there is some potential for success.

Speaking of potential, the September call-ups of Taijuan Walker and James Paxton had Mariners fans salivating. They looked good in their combined seven starts. Beyond the numbers and stats, they looked comfortable and not intimidated, while their stuff looked like it would more than play at the big league level – as scouts like to say.

So here’s a list of who’s invited.

Right-handed pitchers

  • Felix Hernandez
  • Hisashi Iwakuma
  • Erasmo Ramirez
  • Taijuan Walker
  • Brandon Maurer
  • Blake Beavan
  • Andrew Carraway
  • Scott Baker
  • Matt Palmer
  •  Mark Rogers

Left-handed pitchers

  • James Paxton
  • James Gilheeney
  • Roeneis Elias

That list could grow. The Mariners will likely add another veteran type pitcher on a minor league deal with a non-roster invite to spring training in the next day or two and they still have some interest in Ervin Santana. But let’s go with what we know.

If you built your rotation, you’d probably go with …

  1. Felix Hernandez
  2. Hisashi Iwakuma
  3. Erasmo Ramirez

After that, it gets a little less certain. Really after Iwakuma it gets muddled. Ramirez has shown he can pitch at the big league level, but hasn’t shown the ability to stay healthy. If he is healthy, he can be a capable starter.

As for the other spots, many people assume those spots belong to Walker and Paxton based off of last year’s success in September. I think the Mariners would like to have both of them come into spring training, pitch well and take those spots.

But these are also rookie pitchers with minimal big league experience. They are far from finished products. Walker needs to continue to develop his change-up and find better command with his curveball and cutter. Paxton, because of his long mechanics, can be inconsistent with his command. If you look at his game logs in Tacoma, you can see stretches of that problem. While everyone wants to see Walker and Paxton now, pushing them into the rotation to appease fans’ demands isn’t the best decision making.

If they were to both make it, it would be logical to have Walker as the No. 5 starter so you could skip a few starts in the season and keeps his overall innings count down. The 21-year-old threw a combined 156 innings last year and the Mariners probably won’t let him go over 180 this season. At 25, Paxton is older and a little more developed, his innings count might not be quite as stringent.

One of the biggest complaints was the lack of quality starting pitching after the Hernandez and Iwakuma, right now, the possible starters for the 3,4,5 spots certainly have more talent and potential than Saunders or Harang.

The Mariners brought in Baker as a level of insurance in case the three young pitchers struggle. If he is finally healthy after Tommy John surgery a year and a half ago, he could be a nice contributor.

Brandon Maurer’s situation is interesting. After struggling at the start of the season and being sent to Tacoma, Maurer came back up as a reliever. He had some success there. But the Mariners sent him back to the Arizona Fall League as a starter after the season. They believe he’s a starter. But if some combination Walker, Paxton, Ramirez, Baker or someone else takes up the final three spots in the rotation, would the Mariners consider moving Maurer back to the bullpen? He might be able to help them in that role. Or do they keep Maurer stretched out and starting in Triple A in case a pitcher struggles or gets hurt?

Of course if the Mariners did sign a pitcher like Santana, the whole slotting of the rotation could be very different.

So what your rotation be …

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