Elbow issues or not, contract extension or not, the Mariners’ starting rotation still begins and ends with Felix Hernandez.
The 2010 Cy Young winner is the rock of the rotation. And maybe four other teams in baseball have a pitcher of his caliber to lead their rotation.
“Obviously, it all starts with Felix,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
But beyond Felix, the Mariners’ pitching rotation is far from dominant. Many of the candidates are unproven.
Seattle will likely go with Hisashi Iwakuma, the soon to be acquired Joe Saunders, youngster Erasmo Ramirez and probably Blake Beavan to round out the rotation.
Of the four, only Saunders has any significant level of experience as a big-league starter. Iwakuma and Ramirez have a combined 24 career starts, while Beavan has 41 big league starts.
Of the four, Ramirez has the most natural talent. The Mariners believe he’s going to be solid part of their rotation for years to come. Iwakuma showed flashes down the stretch of being a competent big-league starter. Saunders isn’t flashy, but will give you innings. Beavan, it’s important to remember, is 24 years old, so there is some room for development.
“Do I wish we had more experience right now? Of course I do,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “But it is what it is.”
Last season, the Mariners’ starting pitchers ranked fourth in the American League with a 3.93 earned- run average and fourth lowest batting average against at .256. They also had eight complete games.
Hernandez didn’t have a great record, going 13-9 with a 3.06 ERA. He led the American League with five shutouts while finishing second in the league in innings pitched (232) and complete games (five). He was third in the AL in strikeouts with 223 and made 21 quality starts (at least six innings and no more than three earned runs).
The Mariners got a pretty solid contribution from Jason Vargas, who posted a 14-11 record in 33 starts and threw 217 innings. He gave up too many home runs on the road, but was dominant at Safeco Field.
Iwakuma started the season in the bullpen and didn’t pitch much early on. But after he adjusted to the rigors of major league baseball, he flourished.
In 16 starts, Iwakuma posted an 8-4 record with a 2.65 ERA. Not only did he show the ability to get outs on ground balls, he also struck out 101 batters in 125 innings.
Beavan was 11-11 with a 4.43 ERA in 26 starts. He had 21 walks in 152 innings. His biggest issue was giving up too many line drives and hard-hit balls.
Ramirez made eight starts last season, posting a 1-3 record with a 3.36 ERA. But in those starts, he showed a mid-90s fastball with movement along with outstanding off-speed stuff. In one outing, Ramirez struck out 10 Oakland A’s in eight innings.
Going into spring training, the Mariners have Hernandez penciled in as their No. 1 starter. Iwakuma would likely be slotted behind him.
“He should go in as probably a No. 2 starter and just pitch,” Zduriencik said. “He’s been an experienced pitcher. He’s older, he’s got tons of innings under his belt. I don’t see any reason why this guy can’t compete and give us all he’s got the whole year.”
The Mariners have not announced the Saunders signing yet, but he has agreed to a one-year contract. Mariners fans should be familiar with him; he pitched parts of six seasons with the Angels. In nine career starts at Safeco Field, Saunders is 6-0 with a 2.13 ERA.
Saunders basically replaces fellow lefty Vargas, who was dealt to the Angels in the offseason. Saunders is similar to Vargas in his approach to getting outs. He isn’t overpowering, he allows contact and hits. Right-handers will hit him hard, left-handers not so much, but he can take the ball every fifth day.
The Mariners love Ramirez’s talent and potential and the fact he doesn’t walk many hitters. He is only 22 years old. If there is any concern, it might be the trip Ramirez took to the disabled list last season because of a sore elbow.
As for the fifth spot in the rotation, Beavan has the edge because of experience. Hector Noesi may have pitched his way out of consideration with his inconsistent outings last season. He is still very talented but his inability to not repeat the same mistakes is an issue the Mariners don’t want to deal with.
The Mariners signed veteran Jeremy Bonderman to a minor-league contract and they are reported to have also signed another veteran – Jon Garland – to a minor-league deal. Bonderman has been in Peoria for more than a month working out as he recovers from elbow surgery last offseason. Garland, 33, has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011. He missed all of last season recovering from shoulder surgery
Of course, Mariners fans would love it if one of their four prized pitching prospects were able to produce a dominant spring training and grab a spot in the rotation. Two years ago, Michael Pineda, who had never thrown a pitch in the big leagues, earned a spot.
Could Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker or Brandon Maurer win a job this spring? It doesn’t seem likely. Of the four, only Hultzen pitched at Triple-A last season, and he did so with average-at-best results.
All four could use some seasoning with the Tacoma Rainiers before jumping to the big leagues.
“Do I think one of these young kids will make the club? I don’t know,” Zduriencik said. “I think they’ll be given the opportunity in spring training. One thing I’ve been pretty adamant about, I don’t like to say, ‘This guy’s going to start in Triple-A.’
“Because if I’m that kid, and I’m rolling into spring training, and I’ve got my sights on being a big-league player, the last thing I want to read in the paper is the general manager told everybody in the world the week before I rolled in, I don’t have a chance to make the big-league club. I don’t think that’s fair.
But Zduriencik will leave the door open. Just as he did for Pineda.