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February 17, 2015 at 4:15 PM

Mariners 2015 spring training position preview: Who will be the fifth starter in the rotation?

Seattle Times file photo/Dean Rutz

Seattle Times file photo/Dean Rutz

 

The position previews are coming to an end. Let’s take a look at the Mariners’ starting rotation that –  on paper – looks to be very solid for 2015. When you have Felix Hernandez as the ace, that sort of helps. If Hisashi Iwakuma returns to Hisashi Iwakuma-level consistency, J.A. Happ pitches as well as hoped and the youngsters – James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Roenis Elias – continue to progress, there is a chance for the rotation to be elite.

ESPN’s Buster Olney rates the Mariners’ rotation as the fourth-best in baseball.  At this point, looking around the AL West and seeing the Oakland rotation that lost Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester and Angels’ rotation that features a recovering Garrett Richards, the Mariners have the most talented and deepest group of starters in the division.

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The past 

Here are all the pitchers that made starts last season for Seattle.

 

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Felix Hernandez gave a Cy Young level performance, but didn’t win the award. As a reminder – from the Mariners season review – here’s some of the things he did:

  • The Record – 15-6, 2.14 ERA (56 ER, 236.0 IP) with 248 strikeouts in 34 starts (27 quality starts).
  • ERA Title – Claimed his second AL ERA title with a 2.14 mark ahead of Chris Sale (2.17).
  • Low ERA – ERA of 2.14 was the lowest by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez recorded a 1.74 mark in 2000… set a single-season club record lowering the mark he already held of 2.27 set in 2010…owns 5 of top 10 ERA’s in single-season club history.
  • During the DH Era – Posted the 4th-lowest ERA for an AL pitcher in a season of 230.0 or more innings since the advent of the Designated Hitter in 1973, behind the Yankees Ron Guidry (1.74 in 1978), Toronto’s Roger Clemens (2.05 in 1997) and Baltimore’s Jim Palmer (2.09 in 1975).
  • Strong Finish – Posted a 1.66 ERA (7 ER, 38.0 IP) in 6 starts in September (2-1, 3 ND).
  • WHIP Leader – Led the AL in WHIP at 0.915, the lowest by an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 2000 (0.737).
  • AL Leaderboard – ERA (1st, 2.14), Opponent Batting Average (1st, .200), Innings (2nd, 236.0), Starts (T1st, 34), Strikeouts (4th, 248), Wins (T8th, 15), Strikeout-to-Walk Ratio (5th, 5.39), Strikeouts per 9.0 IP (5th, 9.46).
  • The Felix Quality Start – Set a Major League record with 16 consecutive starts allowing 2 or fewer runs in at least 7.0 innings May 18-August 11…old record was 13 straight starts by Tom Seaver in 1971…led the Majors with 23 such starts (7.0 or more IP, 2 or fewer runs), next closest AL pitcher was Corey Kluber with 19…110 FQS since 2009, most in the Majors ahead of Clayton Kershaw (89).
  • 200 K’s, 200 IP – Only pitcher to record 200 strikeouts in each of the last 6 seasons…recorded 6th consecutive season with 200+ strikeouts and 200.0 innings; tied for 3rd-longest streak in MLB history behind Tom Seaver (9, 1968-76), Roger Clemens (7, 19867-92) and Walter Johnson (7, 1910-16).
  • Opponent On-Base Pct – Recorded the lowest opponent on-base percentage in the AL at .243, the 3rd-lowest by an AL pitcher during the designated hitter era (since 1973), trailing only Pedro Martinez (.213 in 2000) and Justin Verlander (.242 in 2011).
  • OPS & Slugging – Held opponents to a .546 OPS (2nd in AL) and .303 slugging percentage (2nd in AL).
  • You’ll Get 7.0 – Pitched at least 7.0 innings in 24 of 34 starts, 2nd-best in AL (David Price, 26).
  • 2 or Fewer Runs Allowed – Allowed 2 or fewer runs in AL leading 25 starts (Kluber 2nd with 23).

Beyond Hernandez’s brilliant season, the early story line from last season was the injuries. Iwakuma reported to spring training with an injured middle finger. He wasn’t able to throw for six weeks and didn’t make his debut until May 3. Walker battled shoulder issues all spring, was shut down and wasn’t available out of spring training. And then Paxton went on the disabled list April 9 because of a strained lat, then had setback during his recovery and didn’t return until Aug. 2.

The injuries exposed a lack of viable depth at the Class AAA level. Erasmo Ramirez was supposed to be that pitcher, and Blake Beavan was also there. But neither was a great option. Ramirez continued to frustrate the Mariners with his inconsistency. Beavan had shoulder issues after one start and was basically done. Brandon Maurer was converted to a reliever after struggling to maintain consistency throughout each of his seven big-league starts.

Just think if the Mariners hadn’t signed Chris Young on the final day of spring training. Young was a late addition after Randy Wolf opted out of his contract during the last week of spring training. Young, who won just about every AL Comeback Player of the Year award out there, was outstanding for Seattle this past season. He went 12-9 with a 3.65 ERA in 29 starts and one relief appearance.

But think about this … The Mariners had a combined 22 starts from Ramirez (14), Maurer (7)  and Beavan (1)  and then two bullpen starts from Tom Wilhelmsen. In those 24 games, Seattle finished with an 8-16 record.  Pretty brutal number for a team that finished one game from a playoff with the A’s.

It’s one reason they acquired J.A. Happ this offseason.

Elias was a nice story, going from Class AA to the big leagues and winning 10 games. Elbow issues shut him down early, and the Mariners tried to control his innings late. It seemed obvious that Elias was starting to fatigue a little down the stretch. But he showed he can pitch at the big-league level.

After average spot starts midseason and some tough criticism from manager Lloyd McClendon, Walker showed signs of his limitless potential in September. In two starts and two relief appearances, he posted these numbers:

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And of course, he had the gem of an outing in Toronto that he lost, 1-0, to Mark Buehrle in that run of good outings. Walker seemed to really grow last season. It’s easy to forget that he’s just 22. It’s why the Mariners didn’t trade him this offseason for one year of Justin Upton or Ian Desmond.

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The present

Seattle Times file photo/Maddie Meyer

Seattle Times file photo/Maddie Meyer

One main concern is whether Iwakuma will be the same pitcher he was in 2013 – when he was an all-star. He showed hints of it in 2014. But he lacked his usual command and consistency.  Look at his month by month splits …

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The finger injury and then lingering back injuries midseason were issues. Pitchers are creatures of habit and routines, and Iwakuma had his whole spring-training routine disrupted and put on hold because of the finger problems. He couldn’t even throw for the first few weeks of spring.

One noticeable issue was Iwakuma’s fastball command. He was able to throw it for strikes, but not necessarily quality strikes that get hitters out.  His usage of his four-seam fastball was down last season. Was it the erratic command? Was it the velocity going down a tick?  We also saw hitters start looking for that split-finger fastball more and more.  From Fangraphs

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It’s difficult to know how much having the delayed start to his spring followed by an expedited preparation process were factors in his struggles. Also some of the minor injury stuff appears to have been more of an issue than was first thought. It’s a contract year for him. So there is added incentive for him to have good season. I do think if Iwakuma pitches well, the Mariners might be inclined to do another two-year extension with him with an option for a third year. He turns 34 in April.

At the Mariners pre-spring luncheon, McClendon said there is one open spot in the rotation. Last week, GM Jack Zduriencik said there are two open spots in the rotation. So which is it?

I’d lean to one spot.

McClendon made it clear that Happ is in the rotation, saying: “We didn’t acquire Happ to pitch out of the bullpen. We can put all that to rest.”

He’ll join Hernandez and Iwakuma, who are obviously in. Most believe that James Paxton will take the other spot, though McClendon wouldn’t confirm it. But it’s impossible that Paxton won’t be part of that rotation if he’s healthy. He’s that good. In fact, you could see a scenario where McClendon splits up Hernandez and Iwakuma and puts Paxton as the No. 2 starter.

“We have candidates for one spot,” McClendon said. “Competition is a good thing. You hope at the end of spring training that you have some really tough decisions to make. We’ll see what happens.”

That leaves Walker and Elias to fight for the last spot. You might as well throw Ramirez into that competition as well, because he’s around. Ramirez has pitched well in winter ball but is out of minor-league options. So if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training, he’ll be designated for assignment and likely claimed by another team.

The odd man out probably will be with Class AAA Tacoma this season. Walker and Elias have minor-league options, and it’s a way to control their overall usage. The Mariners ran into innings issues with Elias last season.

The battle for that last spot should be quite intriguing.

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The future

Seattle Times file photo/John Lok

Seattle Times file photo/John Lok

Iwakuma and Happ are free agents after this season. But the core group of Hernandez, Paxton, Walker and Elias will remain. The three youngsters are cheap and under club control for the next few seasons. The Mariners will have some flexibility to add starting pitching next season.

Is Danny Hultzen part of that future? The former first-round pick is fully recovered from extensive shoulder surgery. But to expect much from him this season is a little unfair. Hultzen essentially has missed a season and a half.

From what I wrote in Baseball America …

“It will be a normal spring training for him,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said.

Last year, he came to spring training in the midst of a grueling, year-long, incremental process. The interminable rehab, the hours of playing catch and bullpen sessions that culminated in late September with a promising 25-pitch outing in an instructional league game that left the Mariners organization hopeful he was on his way to becoming the pitcher everyone hoped he could be.

“He was throwing 90 mph and wasn’t letting it fly,” Zduriencik said. “The rhythm was there, the feel for the changeup and snap on his breaking ball was there.”

There were slight differences in the 6-foot-3, 210-pounder’s mechanics as well.

“He made a little tweak in his delivery, a little tweak in his arm angle,” Zduriencik said. “I think everybody walked away and was like, ‘Wow, this was impressive.’ ”

The Mariners then shut him down after that outing.

“We thought he could have thrown in the fall league,” Zduriencik said. “He was kind of prepared for that physically. But when you go through a year-long rehab like he’d been through, it made more sense to give him time off.”

So what is realistic to expect from Hultzen in 2015?

“That’s a very good question,” Zduriencik said. “When you look at the unknown on how he’ll perform, that’s up in the air.”

Hultzen, 25, last pitched in an official game on Sept. 1, 2013, for Triple-A Tacoma.

“You have to be careful,” Zduriencik said. “You can’t throw this guy to the wolves. He’s going to have a progression.”

 

As for the rest of the minor-league system, well, that’s kind of an issue. Right-hander Jordan Pries was solid last season, being named the Mariners’ co-minor league Starting Pitcher of the Year. He went  a combined to go 10-8 with a 3.86 ERA (66 ER, 154.0 IP) over 27 games, 26 starts in Class AA and Class AAA. Pries doesn’t have overpowering stuff. He’s probably a No. 5 starter if he gets to the big leagues in the future.

Beyond that there isn’t a ton of immediate help. It’s a reason Seattle acquired Mike Kickham and Sam Gaviglio in the offseason to get some upper-level depth.

 

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