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O’Neil: Mariners taking a different approach to find value in starting pitchers

Marco Gonzales is the kind of guy who needs a little time to settle in, says Danny O'Neil. (AP)

Mariners left-hander Marco Gonzales didn’t manage so much as a strike to the first hitter he faced on Thursday night, walking David Fletcher on four pitches.

The second-hitter, shortstop Andrelton Simmons, singled the third pitch he saw, and Gonzales was officially off to a rocky start.

Come to think of it, that would describe his first couple months as a Mariner.

But if we’ve learned anything from the left-handed starter in the 349 days he has spent as a Mariner it’s not to judge Gonzalez prematurely. Because things didn’t start out well for him. At least not in Seattle, which acquired him last July 21 in exchange for Tyler O’Neill, who was only the Mariners’ top hitting prospect.

Gonzales started seven games for the Mariners last season, didn’t pitch more than five innings in any of them and was credited with one victory. The results were similar to Gonzales’ fastball: underwhelming.

Velocity has always been valued in baseball, but right now it’s coveted. Teams are obsessed with fastballs in the mid to upper 90s whether it’s the power arms teams try to pile up in the bullpen or hard-throwing starting pitcher like the Yankees’ Luis Severino to the Mariners’ very own James Paxton, whose career was revitalized by the extra few mph he discovered by changing his arm slot two years ago.

That’s part of what made Seattle’s acquisition of Gonzales a little puzzling. And when Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto followed that up by dealing for another soft-tossing Cardinals starter in Mike Leake you had to wonder what exactly the Mariners were doing.

The answer: They were doing the toughest thing in baseball today. They were finding value in starting pitching.

It’s not that Seattle doesn’t value velocity. The Mariners love that just like every other team in baseball. But velocity is expensive. Really expensive. It’s expensive in how much pitchers who have it can command in salary. It’s expensive in the talent it costs a team in order to acquire it.

So Seattle broadened its search to look for pitchers who had other traits that would allow them to succeed despite lacking the above-average fastballs that have become so valued.

Athleticism and competitiveness. Those were the two traits that Dipoto and the Mariners looked for and two traits that Gonzales embodies as well as anyone.

He’s got a great feel for pitching that can be traced to a father who had decades as a pitching coach, but he was never going to blow anyone away with the first impression of his fastball.

Gonzales is the kind of guy who needs a little time to settle in. It was true in Thursday’s start against the Angels when he got a crucial double play to escape the first inning unscathed and then dug in his heels on a night when his sinker wasn’t working and his change-up wasn’t great, either.

Gonzales struck out seven, but he didn’t overwhelm the Angels. That’s not his game. He’s a pitcher with a great feel for pitching and someone whose mental approach to the game is as good as it gets, according to Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto. And now – two full years removed from the elbow surgery Gonzales underwent in April 2016 – he has pitched so well that Seattle can stop wondering how the power-hitting O’Neill will pan out for the Cardinals. The Mariners needed a starting pitcher, and they got a really good one in Gonzales. It just took a little while for that to become clear.