Drayer: Who the 6 Mariners starting pitchers are and what we’ve seen and heard
With intrasquad games beginning this weekend here’s a quick look at the Mariners six starting pitchers, a refresher on where they were in spring training, what they did in the shutdown and what we have seen and heard about them since Summer Camp began.
LHP Marco Gonzales
Gonzales came into the camp in Peoria ready to head up the five-man rotation and make his second Opening Day – third if you count the home opener against Boston after the Japan Series – start. Coming off his first 200-inning season and newly signed four-year, $30 million contract, Gonzales looks to continue and build of the consistency that helped earn that contract and has become the name of his game.
In spring training, Gonzales elected to forgo his first Cactus League game opportunity and instead throw an extra bullpen with hitters standing in so he could further concentrate on pitch execution. He made two Cactus League starts and threw in an intrasquad game, giving up five runs in his first outing against the Cubs then throwing 6 scoreless innings over his next 2 starts.
He spent the coronavirus shutdown in Seattle, where he and his wife stepped forward and assisted the community promoting the Mariners and Bloodworks blood drive at T-Mobile Park, filming PSA’s and launching the Gonzales Family Peanut Butter Drive to help struggling families in Washington.
A few weeks ago, Monica and I started a food drive to help kids and families struggling with food insecurity across the state of Washington. We would like to take a moment to announce some good news & thank you all for your support. pic.twitter.com/d9v7zC4KZu
— Marco Gonzales (@MarcoGonzales_) June 6, 2020
In addition to his good work off the field, Gonzales served as the Mariners’ player representative in the labor negotiations to restart the season. Asked about the experience early in Summer Camp, Gonzales said he wouldn’t be talking with the media about the process that ended in MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred imposing a season, which appears to be consistent with what we have seen with other player reps since Summer Camp began.
On the baseball side of things, Gonzales was able to work out in his home gym with his wife, who is a fitness trainer, and throw on a nearby turf field first with his brother Alex, a catcher at MSU Denver, who stayed with Marco and his wife Monica early on in the shutdown, and later with Austin Nola, who also stayed in Seattle. He was able to throw two bullpens a week, one of which was with a hitter stepping in.
In his first week in Summer Camp, Gonzales’ focus has been getting reacquainted with the dirt mound and getting his feet under him and beginning to fine tune his pitches.
As the team progresses to intrasquad games, he will try to see those on the other side in different jerseys.
“It’s tough without game action to build up the competitive side,” he said.
For Gonzales, perhaps more than any other starter, it shouldn’t be hard to trick himself into making these starts matter. He’s known for how fiery he can get on the mound and how he pushes himself.
“I’m a competitor,” he said when asked why he wanted to get back out on the field. “Every day I spend time whether working out or throwing, making the sacrifices to put my body on the line to go out and do the things I love to do. For a lot of people who supported me and made sacrifices as well for me. It’s just in my nature to want to compete. I just wanted to go out and compete, I feel that’s my job.”
LHP Yusei Kikuchi
Kikuchi appears to have not missed a beat which, if you know anything about him, should not be a surprise. No pitcher on the Mariners staff throws more than he does and that did not stop when baseball stopped.
“He looked just like he did when he left spring training,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais last week. “He’s probably a little further ahead. The volume of throwing he does is probably a little bit more than other guys.”
Kikuchi had a lot of good to build off of. After a disappointing first MLB season, he spent his offseason reworking his delivery, doing some of his work at Driveline Baseball in Kent. In Arizona, we saw increased velocity on all of his pitches, most notably a number of 96 mph on the fastball. The slider was harder as well and he had worked on throwing two different curveballs. A lot of change and it looked promising in his four spring starts, where he gave up a total of 3 runs while walking five and striking out 10.
Kikuchi spent the shutdown in Scottsdale, Az., where he was able to maintain his throwing program which included throwing three bullpens a week to interpreter Kevin Ando and teammate Yoshihisa Hirano. After his first live BP session, Kikuchi said that the work he put in during the shutdown solidified the changes he had made in the offseason. The new delivery now feels natural. He was pleased with the velocity he showed, noting that he threw a couple of 95’s, but believes we will see more as camp progresses.
For Servais, something else stood out in the live BP. Kikuchi attempted at times to throw a changeup last year but it wasn’t very effective. He has reworked that pitch and the few that he threw to Tom Murphy opened some eyes.
“They were awesome,” said Servais. “This one is different. It has good action to it. It’s coming out like his fastball. The biggest change is in the grip and what he is trying to get the action of the pitch to do.”
Often we see pitchers experiment with new pitches in spring training and then we never see the pitches again, with Kikuchi I suspect it will be a different story. From what we saw in Arizona, he has a chance to look very different on the mound in 2020.
LHP Justus Sheffield
After a disastrous start at Tacoma in what was expected to be a tuneup before being called up to the Mariners necessitated an unexpected trip to Double-A, Sheffield rebounded well and managed to get some important developmental innings in the majors last year. His emotions on the hill now under control he appears ready for what should be a show me season. It’s time for him to sink or swim at the major league level.
Sheffield made some changes in Arizona most notably adding the 2-seam fastball, a pitch he worked on in bullpens and brought into his final Cactus League start, committing completely to it and scrapping the 4-seamer. Both he and Tom Murphy were extremely excited about the effectiveness of the pitch. While he won’t completely shelve the 4-seamer, he does intend to utilize the 2-seam fastball more.
Sheffield spent the shutdown at home in Tennessee with his brother, who pitches in the Dodgers organization. Back home, he was able to get into a baseball facility and face hitters and throw to his high school catcher. He also says virtual meetings with his rotation mates and pitching coach Pete Woodworth kept the group talking about pitching and sequencing in keeping him sharp.
“My last BP, I felt like I picked up right where I left off,” Sheffield said.
Now in summer camp, he intends to continue with the 2-seamer and focus a little more on what traditionally has been his fourth pitch, the change up.
“I feel like that’s going to be the decider pitch for my season right now,” he said. “It’s looking really good. I’m continuing to throw it in my throwing program having the catcher get down so I can get fully extended and see the action on it.”
Sheffield threw 2 scoreless innings in the intrasquad game Friday.
RHP Justin Dunn
Dunn came to camp knowing all five spots in the rotation appeared to have been filled, but conceding nothing. He had an interesting cup of coffee in September, which started out with the former first rounder walking the first five batters he faced and failing to get out of the first inning. Usually one of the more confident young players you are going to run into, it appeared that the emotions, nerves and adrenaline snuck up on him in his first go around. Limited to just 2-inning starts, he walked three more in his second outing then seemed to settle down. He showed a good fastball-slider combo and finished strong with three strikeouts against the A’s on Sept. 29.
In spring training, Dunn looked ready from the get go. Having worked out with noted trainer Eric Cressey, who now leads the Yankees high performance department since he was a freshman in college, Dunn has always had a strong routine. He showed good velocity early in camp and finished strong following Taijuan Walker against the Brewers in Maryvale, striking out five in 3 innings pitched.
Dunn stayed in Arizona during the shutdown, living with Jake Fraley and his family. Eventually they, along with others in the area, were able to work out at a local batting cage before it opened. Dunn was able to throw bullpens there as quarantine went on and got to the spring training facility as soon as it opened. Once there, he threw live BPs to Fraley and Evan White. When he arrived in camp, Servais pointed to Dunn along with Kikuchi as the two pitchers who appeared to be a bit ahead of the others.
“I feel like I haven’t really regressed in any way since spring training, which I am really happy about,” Dunn said earlier this week. “I realize it’s nothing that is just going to be handed to me. I need to go in and put the work in doing everything day in day out that I can do to give the best audition possible.”
What will be key for Dunn is the changeup, a pitch he needs to continue to develop.
“It’s something that’s going to be really important for his development as he tries to get established in our rotation,” said Servais. “To get through a lineup three times, you need that third pitch.”
While he gave up home runs to J.P. Crawford and Kyle Lewis on fastballs in the first inning, Dunn threw a number of changeups in his second inning, a few of which he said looked good.
RHP Taijuan Walker
The Mariners were cautious with Walker coming off Tommy John surgery in spring training, holding him out of games until March 9 where he threw 3 innings against Milwaukee showing 96 mph in the first inning. While he gave up four hits and a solo shot early facing most of the Brewers regulars, he was otherwise in command of what was a very encouraging first outing.
Walker spent the shutdown at home in Arizona with his wife and 3-year-old son. He found it difficult to know when to start ramping up with the back and forth that went on as baseball attempted to return to play. He kept his arm ready, throwing in his back yard then at the Peoria facility when it opened. Now in Summer Camp, he feels that he was able to achieve the balance he needed while at home.
“I feel good, my arm feels good,” he said. “I like where I’m at. The velo the first time facing hitters was 90-93.”
Walker was intrigued by what he saw from his curveball in Arizona and after getting good feedback on the pitch from hitters who faced him in live BP this week will look to see if it can become more of a weapon for him.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a swing and miss pitch,” he said. “Coming into camp (Arizona), to me it was going to be a strike pitch but even the swings I was getting on it, it gave me a lot of confidence.”
This is an important season for Walker, who looks to re-establish himself before free agency. He understands that getting to make 10 or 11 starts will depend on much more than how he pitches.
“My situation is different,” he pointed out. “I pitched 1 inning in the last two-and-a-half years, so I am doing everything I can so we can play baseball. I’m doing my part.”
RHP Kendall Graveman
Like Walker, Graveman has been waiting for two years to set foot back on a major league mound after Tommy John surgery sidelined him in June 2018. The Mariners gave him that opportunity, signing the former A’s Opening Day starter to a one-year, $1.5 million contract with a $3.5 million option for 2021 last November.
Graveman reported to Peoria ready to pitch and had a normal buildup until a bout with the flu set him back a bit. He was able to make two starts before the shutdown, showing surprising velocity against the Cubs in Mesa, hitting 96 on the radar gun multiple times. The arm appeared healthy, which was good, but the velocity was not a big deal as Graveman said he’s always had it but for him it is best to back off and go for the location and sink.
“I think the first inning it was coming out really firm,” he said with a laugh. “The velo was up a tick. I was excited to get back out there. I felt really good. That’s a good sign, it’s a blessing. I was aware once Woody (Woodworth) told me, ‘Hey, let’s command the baseball.’ I throw through the movement sometimes when the velocity is up, which is never a great thing for me, so I am really focusing on that.”
While he was able to return to Cactus League games, Graveman lost a good amount of weight when he had the flu and the shutdown gave him the opportunity to regain some strength. He spent the down time at home in Alabama, where he was able to workout with his trainer who converted his detached garage into a gym when facilities were not allowed to open.
Now in camp, Graveman looks to pick up where he left off in March and the early returns on his live BP were good.
“Kendall was really good,” said Mariners first baseman Daniel Vogelbach, who faced him during the BP session. “He makes the ball move both ways. He’s competitive. He pitches with an attitude. He was impressive today. I’m looking forward to watching him go to work every fifth or sixth day.”