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Breaking down the Mariners: Rotation isn’t a strength but might be enough

Felix Hernandez isn't the Mariners' ace anymore. They just need to him to stay healthy. (AP)

With pitchers and catchers reporting this week and the full squad beginning spring training next week for the Seattle Mariners, we’re taking a closer look at the team in a three-part series. Up second is the starting rotation.

We’ve heard it all offseason: “The Mariners need another starting pitcher.”

It certainly didn’t help that general manager Jerry Dipoto put just about everything into a pursuit of international free agent Shohei Ohtani, who instead went to the Los Angeles Angels. And the fact that the Mariners haven’t been a major player for any of the big names left on the market has only added fuel to the fire when it comes to pessimism about Seattle’s rotation.

Breaking down the Mariners: Lineup | Bullpen

I’m comfortable in saying is that starting pitching is unlikely to be a strength for the Mariners in 2018. But that’s not to say it’s a bad rotation – on paper, it’s actually OK. And with a stacked lineup and presumably strong bullpen, OK could be enough to get the job done.

The big thing is the Mariners need their starters to stay healthy, which is no given, especially considering how disastrous injuries turned out to be for the team in general and the rotation specifically in 2017. There are a good amount of ‘ifs’ that will need to go Seattle’s way for its rotation to be successful this season, but when you start going through them, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that this group of Mariners pitchers puts together a good season.

Here’s a closer look at the 2018 Mariners rotation entering spring training.

The Ace: James Paxton

The Big Maple may or may not start on opening day – and he probably shouldn’t due to Felix Hernandez’s seniority and the potential impact on clubhouse harmony – but he is clearly the Mariners’ ace at this point. When healthy and on his game, Paxton was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2017. July was the clearest example of that, as he won the American League Pitcher of the Month for the month by going 6-0 with a 1.37 ERA and 46 strikeouts over 39 1/3 innings pitched. The Mariners need Paxton to stay away from the disabled list, however, something he’s never been able to do in his five seasons in the majors. At 29 years old, Paxton has yet to start more than 24 games for the M’s, and that reality fueled his offseason workouts. If he gets past the 30-start mark, it could make a big difference for a team that was in the wild card race into the final month of 2017.

The once-and-maybe-just-former King: Felix Hernandez

We know what Felix used to be: the 2010 AL Cy Young Award winner, a six-time All-Star, and the guy who gave the Mariners their best shot to win when it was his turn on the mound. But now that he’s just about to turn 32, has over 2,500 MLB innings on his right arm and has been slowed down by injuries in each of the last two seasons, it’s pretty hard to figure out what exactly he can be counted on to provide. Expecting Felix to be your No. 1 is out of the question. The best the Mariners can hope for is for Felix to pitch a little more to contact, concentrate on getting through six quality innings and give the lineup a chance to jump out to a lead. The front office is aware of that, and they just want him to stay healthy enough to take the ball every five days. “If he can give us the 25 starts or more like he did in 2016, we are going to be a good team,” Jerry Dipoto said at the Mariners’ pre-spring training media luncheon. “If Felix gives us 16 or less, we are going to have to answer a lot of questions.”

The rock: Mike Leake

Leake is the reason Dipoto didn’t make signing another quality starting pitcher his biggest offseason priority. In fact, Dipoto was even saying late last season when he acquired Leake in a trade from the St. Louis Cardinals that he was essentially getting a jump on the offseason market. “The chance to acquire a guy who is pitching his 30-year-old season next year and get some controllable pitching in the door with a history of durability like Mike has,” Dipoto said last August, “for us that was a huge concern going into the offseason and something we were able to address in August.” Leake was excellent in his five starts with Seattle in 2017, going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA and 1.06 WHIP, and he finished the season at 186 innings combined between the Mariners and Cardinals. That number is as big as any to the Mariners, as it marked the sixth straight season Leake threw at least 175 innings. Leake may not wow you with his stats, but he is dependable. After the issues the team went through with injuries last season, it’s hard to put a price on that from a No. 3 starter.

The question mark: Erasmo Ramirez

Ramirez has the potential to be a reliable starting pitcher. He’s never really had the chance for a full season, bouncing between the rotation and bullpen throughout his career, but the Mariners are poised to give him the opportunity to prove he can handle the extra workload. Ramirez, who will turn 28 in May, did a decent job after coming to back to Seattle in a trade form Tampa Bay, posting a 3.92 ERA over 11 starts. What Seattle really needs from him in 2018 is innings. He made it through the sixth inning seven times for the M’s last year. With him entering the season stretched out and prepared to start games, it is conceivable that he’ll build on that this year. The Mariners no doubt will need him to.

The competition: Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore

All three of the pitchers vying for the fifth and final spot in the rotation took at least a few turns starting for the Mariners last year, and while Miranda saw the most success, this is actually Gonzales’ job to lose. It would take a lot for him to lose it, too, as he is out of minor league options and cost Seattle prized outfield prospect Tyler O’Neill to acquire his services around the trade deadline in 2017. The Mariners have every intention of giving the 25-year-old lefty a chance to prove he can start at the major league level. That doesn’t rule out Miranda and Moore getting starts here and there, especially since a six-man rotation is likely to be used at points when Felix or Paxton could use an extra day or two of rest.

The potential X-factor: Hisashi Iwakuma

Should the Mariners count on getting anything out of Hisashi Iwakuma in 2018? Not in the least bit. He’s almost 37, couldn’t get back on the field last year after shoulder issues landed him on the DL following just six starts, and he’s not even on the 40-man roster after coming back to the franchise on a one-year minor league deal. But the fact that there is a former All-Star, especially one who has proven he knows how to pitch around limitations, lingering in the system is definitely not a bad thing. The Mariners are only going to bring Iwakuma back to the big club if he looks healthy and strong enough to help them. There’s a chance he’ll be able to do that. And if he does, the rotation suddenly looks better than just OK.

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