General manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais met with the media Tuesday morning to wrap up the Mariners 2017 season. While need for better fundamentals was addressed, the biggest issue that impacted Seattle’s season was clearly injuries to the pitching staff. When it was all said and done, the team used an MLB-record 40 pitchers with 17 different players making starts.
“At the end of the day we experienced a very turbulent season on the mound,” said Dipoto. “That as lopsided as it was – and this is a credit to (pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr.) and the job that he did with 40 pitchers and Scott for managing something that no manager in history has ever managed before – they did a remarkable job because somehow they were able to take that group and finish about in the middle of the pack in run prevention.”
From losing Drew Smyly in spring training to the early shutdown of Hisashi Iwakuma to multiple disabled list trips by Felix Hernandez and James Paxton, the rotation was never what it was intended to be. While Dipoto said that he felt confident about the group heading into the season with Paxton coming off a career high in innings, Iwakuma a 200-inning season and Smyly having only one down year due to injury in his career, he admitted that it was on him to find better backup.
“Fate didn’t shine kindly on us in the training room this year, but there were also issues we could have been out in front of both as a medical training staff, as a coaching staff or as a front office planning staff and put in place the ability to absorb some of the innings we lost. That’s on me. I don’t know how many years I can prepare for us to run 17 starters out there, but we have to do better this year,” he said.
The rotation in 2018 will once again be built around James Paxton and Felix Hernandez, who missed a combined 147 games in 2017. Dipoto pointed out that Paxton’s injuries throughout his career have been mostly unpredictable. With Felix he painted a different picture, with much learned this year. His issues going forward are much more predictable and not something that can be fixed in an offseason.
“I don’t know how we are going to get him through 33 starts without managing it a little differently than we have previously,” said Dipoto. “Whether that is starting less frequently, whether it is monitoring pitch counts in a different way than we have before, whether it’s part of his offseason training preparation and in-season routines, we will do whatever we have to do is make sure he is in the best position he can be.”
The wear and tear of just over 2,500 innings over Felix’s career has taken its toll.
“I don’t know that he can try and stay healthier,” said Dipoto when asked what Felix could do this offseason to avoid similar problems. “Once you have these issues it’s a matter of maintenance. The issues that Felix has endured are happening under his skin. You can’t work harder and make ligaments stronger. You can’t lose weight and create more stability in an elbow joint. That’s not real. What we are dealing with is trying to manage and create enough depth behind Felix so that when he goes out and takes his start we can find a way to monitor his outings so he is out there as frequently as he can be and when he steps aside and inevitably needs a little time we have someone who can step in.”
This will go far beyond having a sixth starter ready at Tacoma. As he hinted throughout the season, Dipoto will look to reconfigure the pitching staff. The names and faces will be mostly the same, however the usage could be very different.
“We are not going to plan on innings from starting pitching than we have counted on before,” said Dipoto. “That’s just not how the game works. There were 15 200-innings pitchers this year. We didn’t have a single qualifier for the ERA title. That’s the way the game has gone. We are going to plan as a result of that in a little different way than we have before. You’ve heard me talk before about the wolfpack-type pitching, We are going to see a different style of pitching staff and how it is set up. We have depth, we have quality pitchers on this staff. We have a lot of quality, we just have to figure out how to put it all together in a different way.”
We may have seen a preview of that when the Mariners were down four of five intended starters in 2017, with more of the innings load being carried by the bullpen. While injury necessitated that, the trend in baseball is for starters to throw less. Proof is that only 56 starters threw the 162 innings needed to qualify for the ERA title.
“We are adjusting toward what the world looks like now for starting pitchers, which is a little more the 15-18 (batters per) starter than the complete game starter. And we have to wrap our arms around that, and wrap our minds around that’s where the game is.”
The work of Dipoto and his staff will go beyond finding arms to plug into roles. Those roles could be redefined as new plans are developed. What that looks like is uncertain at this point, but in the end it all has to add up to about 1,440 innings, hopefully split between far fewer than 40 pitchers.