The state of Mariners’ starting pitching: Where all 5 spots stand

Jul 24, 2021, 8:45 AM
Mariners Logan Gilbert...
The Mariners have won eight straight in games pitched by Logan Gilbert, Saturday's starter. (Getty)

With the July 30 MLB trade deadline looming, one thing is clear for the Seattle Mariners: they could use some starting pitching help.

And, well, so can a lot of teams hoping to make the postseason this year.

Servais: Gilbert giving Mariners ‘a lift,’ Kelenic ‘in a really good spot’

The Mariners find themselves in a tough market, especially considering two teams in need of starting rotation help – the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers – have two of the more aggressive general managers when it comes to making deals.

Making it an even tougher task for the Mariners is where they stand as an organization. They’re one of the American League’s surprise teams, over .500 and enjoying success for the first time since undertaking a rebuild in 2018, and as such they’re trying to find ways to increase their chances of making the postseason as a wild card without making too much of a dent in their future.

“What we don’t think makes a great deal of sense is forfeiting any real significant part of our future for short-term, rental-type gains,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Jerry Dipoto Show, “so we are focused on players who would be part of the Mariners beyond just 2021, and until further notice that’s our only focus.”

Related: Dipoto would ‘love to add,’ give M’s players vote of confidence

With that in mind, now seems like a good time to check in on the state of Seattle’s five-man rotation – with recent insights from Dipoto and Mariners manager Scott Servais – to get some perspective on why the Mariners are looking to add a starting pitcher or two before the deadline.

Let’s start with the least-clear spot for the M’s.

The Mariners’ No. 5 spot

Who is the last person in the Seattle’s rotation right now? The Mariners appeared to get at least a temporary answer on Wednesday. After Keynan Middleton was used as an opener in the first inning against Colorado, he handed the ball over to rookie Darren McCaughan, who made quite the impression in his MLB debut. The 2017 Mariners 12th-round pick went five no-hit innings, walking three and allowing one earned run against the Rockies. That made him the seventh player since 1901 to throw five or more hitless innings in his MLB debut, according to Mariners PR.

“I don’t know if we will use an opener the next time that spot in the rotation comes around, but I anticipate that Darren McCaughan will get that crack again. He earned a second chance with his performance,” Dipoto said Thursday on 710 ESPN Seattle.

After Wednesday’s game, a 6-3 Mariners loss, Servais had some praise for the 25-year-old right-hander.

“What D-Mac was able to do, first time ever in the big leagues and to go out there and throw five innings like that at Coors Field, what an effort,” Servais said. “Heck of a job by him. That’s who he is. He throws a lot of strikes, keeps the ball on the ground.”

McCaughan has made 11 starts in the minors this year, with 10 coming for Triple-A Tacoma. He has a 3.97 ERA and 1.153 WHIP with 52 strikeouts to 13 walks over 64 2/3 innings for Tacoma. And while you can’t make too much of a declaration based off of one appearance in the big leagues, especially since this spot would be the first to go to a trade deadline acquisition, the Mariners at least can hope McCaughan figures in as some extra needed depth.

The Mariners also have two starters working their way back from the injured list that will figure back into the mix when healthy. Lefty Justus Sheffield, who had been hit around considerably before going on the IL with both arm and oblique strains earlier this month, is expected to throw from the mound on Sunday. That puts him a bit ahead of righty Justin Dunn, who was off to a decent start this season but has been out since mid-June with a shoulder strain.

Yusei Kikuchi

The 30-year-old lefty has had quite the season, earning his first MLB All-Star nomination, but things got rough as soon as he found out he had made the American League team. The Yankees touched Kikuchi up for five runs in the first two innings alone on July 7, and after sitting out the All-Star Game at Coors Field coming off an illness, he fared even worse against the Angels on July 17, allowing seven runs on nine hits and a walk over five innings. The aforementioned illness also resulted in a brief COVID-19 injured list stint around the All-Star break, though he never tested positive and just felt some symptoms consistent with the virus.

“Those two starts, I think, not indicative of the type of season he’s had, of course,” Servais said Tuesday on 710 ESPN Seattle’s Scott Servais Show. “I thought the stuff was OK last time out (on July 17). I thought the Angels had a really good approach against him there. The Angels are more aggressive by nature, they’re up there hacking, they’re looking for fastballs. With Yusei, his fastball probably plays a little bit better at the top of the zone. I wish we could get it there all the time. In the ballgame the other night he got his fastball down in the zone and they were on it. … He tried to go to the slider, it was effective at times, but his go-to pitch (is) really the fastball, cutter.

“We need to get him back going again in a good spot but I really don’t want to read too much into it. Gotta give the Angels some credit, they were on, they had a good gameplan and they executed it.”

Good news arrived in the form of Kikuchi’s start Friday against Oakland, as he was closer to the version of himself that earned him the trip to Denver. He posted a quality start, allowing three runs over six innings, and set a new career-high in strikeouts with 12. After the outing, he sits at a 3.95 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and .218 batting average against, with a 3.25 strikeouts to walk ratio and 9.63 strikeouts per nine innings.

Chris Flexen

Considering Kikuchi’s recent struggles, Flexen appears to be the Mariners’ best starter at the moment – well, at least the best starter with more than 11 career starts in the big leagues.

Though he took the loss Thursday against the A’s, the 27-year-old righty still had a strong outing, holding Oakland to two runs over 5 2/3 innings on six hits and two walks. He certainly wasn’t helped out by a ball booted by second baseman Dylan Moore that could have ended the fifth inning but instead prolonged it, as an infield single by the next batter, Ramón Laureano, broke a scoreless tie.

In 18 starts this year, his first back in MLB after pitching in Korea in 2020, Flexen is 9-4 with a 3.35 ERA, 1.213 WHIP and a 3.00 strikeouts to walk ratio. He’s especially been strong over his last eight appearances, going 4-1 with a 1.94 ERA, .219 batting average against, and .248 batting average against on balls in play.

“Flexen’s been awesome,” Servais said. “He’s exceeded my expectations. Coming into this season and him coming back from Korea, didn’t really know a ton about him, you learn more as you go along. He has really impressed me in his ability to make adjustments throughout the course of games based on what’s working maybe how the other team is approaching him, which is a great sign for a starting pitcher.”

The key for Flexen, according to Servais, is his ability to rely on all four of his pitches.

“I think the emergence of his changeup has been huge, using it to not just against lefties but to righties. We always loved his cutter, we thought that was going to be the big carrying pitch. The changeup has really worked in the mix. His ability to use all of his pitches very equally – some nights he may lean heavily on a cutter or changeup than other nights based on the lineup – but that’s really been his calling card. And credit to him, he’s just got all four weapons, he’s not afraid to use any of them in any moment, and I think our catchers have been doing a nice job with him as well, understanding what the game calls for, and he’s been able to execute. Off to a great start, he’s really been consistent for us and we’re going to need it here in the second half.”

Logan Gilbert

We’ve written a lot about Gilbert lately on, and for good reason. The 2017 first-round pick has been a revelation after shaking off a few rough starts to begin his MLB career. Saturday’s scheduled starter for the Mariners against Oakland owns a 3.50 ERA and dominant 0.98 WHIP in 11 starts, with 62 strikeouts to 12 walks for an eye-popping 5.2 ratio that would rank eighth in the majors if he had enough innings to qualify.

Gilbert has been on a roll over his last eight starts, going 4-0 (and the Mariners going 8-0) with a 2.49 ERA and .185 batting average against, but for Dipoto, it all started when he outdueled Cleveland ace and reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Shane Bieber on June 13.

“That day we beat Bieber in Cleveland, it was kind of the coming out party for Logan,” Dipoto said. “He had shown us flashes but that was the first game end to end that he really put it together and showed us what he does, and he’s roughly done it every time through the rotation since then, and I believe since that time as a team we’re 20-10, which I believe is the best record in the league over that time. Logan Gilbert as well as Chris Flexen over that time have been two of the five or six best pitchers in the American League by WAR value.”

Gilbert’s impact in his rookie season is a big deal for Seattle.

“When you think about it, how early that’s happening in Logan’s career and the impressive physical stuff, preparation, execution and consistency that we’re seeing, you can’t help but be exited,” Dipoto said. “He’s in a great place and he’s doing all the things we imagined he could do, just doing them quicker than we could have believed.”

Marco Gonzales

Finally we get to the X-factor.

Gonzales was the Mariners’ opening day pitcher, the member of the starting rotation who could be trusted the most heading into the season. Only it hasn’t been business as usual for the crafty southpaw. He’s 2-5 with a 5.69 ERA and 1.492 WHIP – numbers that surely aren’t pretty or what was expected after his stellar showing in 2020 (7-2, 3.10, 0.947).

A stint on the injured list didn’t help, but there’s hope Gonzales is starting to right the ship. On Wednesday in Colorado, his home state, he answered the call in what 710 ESPN Seattle’s Dave “The Groz” Grosby described as the biggest start of the Mariners’ season thus far, holding the Rockies to two runs over five innings to get the win. Will that be the turning point?

“He looked like what we’re used to seeing out of Marco,” Servais said after Wednesday’s game. “I thought the cutter was a bigger pitch for him tonight. Had a little bit more break to it. He got some ugly swings on it, which is a good sign. … Really, really encouraged, happy with the way he threw the ball.”

I’m with Groz on another point he made – no matter what additions the M’s make before the trade deadline, the biggest boost they can get for the stretch run is Gonzales pitching more like he did over the previous two seasons. Wednesday was a step in the right direction, though the Mariners could certainly still use an acquisition or two to add to the rotation before next weekend.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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