Drayer: How will 4 big Mariners prospects figure into 2022 rotation?

Feb 28, 2022, 11:00 AM
Mariners Scott Servais...
Mariners manager Scott Servais signals to the bullpen in a Sept. 20 game at Oakland. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

While one of the most anticipated seasons in Mariners history is on hold until the MLB lockout ends, we’re not letting that get in our way of breaking down why 2022 should be a big year for baseball in Seattle. Keep your eye on for a series of articles looking at important topics for the Mariners. In the coming days, we will be focusing on the starting rotation.

In this post, Mariners insider Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle looks at pitching prospects who are expected to make their MLB debuts in 2022. Read the first article addressing a big question for the rotation here.

Asked to write about a specific question I might have about the Mariners rotation heading into the 2022 season – whenever that starts – took a little more thinking than it it has in the recent past.

Assuming general manager Jerry Dipoto is able to add another starter this offseason as he has said he would like to do, outside of “you can always use more starting pitching,” big questions are hard to come up with. The eventual question I arrived at is of the good variety.

How are the Mariners going to manage their good, young, close to major league-ready talent?

Matt Brash, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson and Emerson Hancock. All names Dipoto has mentioned as candidates to make their big league debuts this season.

“I do think all those guys have an opportunity to contribute this year and I would be mildly surprised if we didn’t see them in the big leagues,” Dipoto said at the press conference introducing Mariners addition Robbie Ray in November. “I’d like to say that’s ‘later than sooner’ because that’ll give them more time in development, and that probably means our five-man rotation is both effective and healthy to start the year.”

How they do this – assuming none of these players are traded, which is no sure bet – remains to be seen. The Mariners, who will go with a five-man rotation in 2022, will enter the season with playoffs being an expectation. This isn’t another “let the kids play” year. Working them in could be tricky.

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Need could solve part of this “problem.” You hope for the best when it comes to the health of the rotation, but you also know that five starters making every start for a team in a season (shout out to the 2002 M’s rotation of Jamie Moyer, Joel Piniero, Ryan Franklin, Freddy Garcia and Gil Meche) is a rarity. The need will arise.

Dipoto ranked Brash and Williamson ahead of Kirby and Hancock in terms of readiness, noting that either could compete for an open fifth spot in the rotation if that need is not filled before the start of the season. Kirby and Hancock fall into the “later than sooner” category Dipoto spoke of in November.

Judging from the fact that Brash got a call up to the Mariners at the end of last season and is the only member of the group of four pitchers currently on the 40-man roster, he would appear to be at the front of the line heading into spring training. Williamson, however, should not be far behind.

On paper, the development of Brash and Williamson has been similar. Both were drafted in 2019 – Brash in the fourth round, Williamson in the second. Both endured the 2020 lost season and both bounced back nicely in 2021, throwing the most innings out of this group at 97.1 and 98.2, respectively.

Both have had big, eye-opening moments in their minor league careers.

Brash rebounded from shoulder issues after his 2020 trade from the Padres to start unleashing a plus-plus slider that Baseball America ranked as one of the best in minor league baseball.

Williamson, a 6-foot-6 lefty who was the second of five straight pitchers selected by the Mariners to begin their 2019 draft class, showed a jump in velocity shortly after the draft that had organizational members pointing to him as being a surprise.

Both have four-pitch repertoires with Brash possessing more stuff with a plus-plus fastball and slider but Williamson better control. Both lead with the strikeout with Brash posting 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings across High-A and Double-A in 2022, and Williamson 14.0.

We shall see how this translates to the majors but both appear to be on the doorstep. A little further off are Kirby and Hancock, who if you follow Baseball America would seem to be heading in different directions.  Kirby, Seattle’s 2019 first-round pick, vaulted to No. 12 on the most recent top 100 prospect list while Hancock, a 2020 first-rounder, fell off the list completely.

Both pitchers were shut down last July due to concern about shoulder fatigue. Kirby bounced back after he returned in August but Hancock was shut down for a second time as the Mariners ended his season in late August. Hancock did participate in the Mariners’ High Performance camp in the fall and the recent Dominate the Zone Camp, though, with Dipoto saying in November that he was a full-go moving forward.

Kirby did not take part in the optional Dominate the Zone camp, choosing to work from home, so to speak, at a high performance facility. His semi-break follows a season that in the eyes of some raised his already high ceiling from a near the top of the rotation arm with stellar command to potential ace. When you can throw four pitches for strikes and see your fastball jump to triple digits, that can happen. Famous for walking all of six batters in his final college season at Elon, Kirby better used his already very good stuff in 2021, learning that not all strikes are equal as the competition improves. There is a lot of excitement about his eventual arrival, but again, when and how?

With Kirby and Hancock coming off seasons where they pitched less than 70 innings, it is understandable that they fall into that “later” category. The Mariners had good success in 2021 with Logan Gilbert coming off a season where he did not pitch in a game due to the pandemic. He pitched 119 innings in his rookie season but did so mostly in a six-man rotation. With Kirby and Hancock, the innings could be tougher to manage.

The likelihood of seeing all four of these pitchers this season is probably not great, and there should be absolutely no need to rush any of them. That said, I will be interested to see how they are worked in if it is not as simple as a matter of need. In the past it was not uncommon to work starters out of the bullpen in their first experience in the big leagues. I don’t see the Mariners doing that with Kirby, but could that be an option with any of the others? How about piggyback starts or sharing a spot? Not likely but not out of the question, either, particularly if innings are a concern.

Regardless of how they come up – be it as an injury replacement, on a carefully laid out schedule, a get-your-feet wet September callup or perhaps even to bring a little something extra out of the pen in a postseason run– one thing is certain: heading into the 2022 season, whenever it starts, the Mariners have some very different, very exciting depth when it comes to starting pitching.

Previous Mariners series: Breakout candidates

Shannon Drayer: Why Jarred Kelenic could turn the corner in Year 2
Bob Stelton: Logan Gilbert showed he’s built for big moments
Brandon Gustafson: Andrés Muñoz could be next lights-out reliever
Brent Stecker: Cal Raleigh’s high ceiling at catcher

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