Drayer: How prospect Bryce Miller fits into Mariners’ rotation plans

May 1, 2023, 2:20 PM

Mariners Bryce Miller...

Mariners prospect Bryce Miller pitches for the Arkansas Travelers on Sept. 11, 2022. (Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

(Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

Robbie Ray requiring season-ending flexor tendon surgery has taken short-term replacement plans for a fifth starter for the Seattle Mariners off the table.

Dipoto: What’s next for Seattle Mariners after losing Robbie Ray

Chris Flexen was given four starts but unable to get traction or show the stuff that solidified him in the Mariners’ starting rotation the past two seasons. Then on Saturday, Easton McGee was called up to face the Blue Jays in what turned out to be a brilliant spot start, not an opportunity, as the plan is to go with prized prospect Bryce Miller starting this week in Oakland.

Miller, the Mariners organization’s top-ranked pitcher, opened eyes last year with a plus-plus fastball that sits in the mid-90s and can touch 100 mph, plus sliders – he throws a hard slider and a sweeper – and a changeup that helped him to an organization-high 163 strikeouts in 133 2/3 innings pitched in 2022.

Miller impressed in spring training, pitching first out of the bullpen behind the established starters before getting a few starts of his own. The one blemish on his spring record was his final start, where he allowed five runs (four earned) on eight hits, one walk, and four strikeouts over three-plus innings against the Giants.

Assigned to Double-A Arkansas to begin the season, his overall numbers have not been been impressive – he surrendered 14 runs in 15 innings pitched in his first three games before throwing five innings of one-run ball on April 25 – but these are not the numbers the Mariners are looking at.

“We assess differently,” Seattle Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said last Thursday during his weekly show with Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk. “More often than not we are looking at the ‘shove reports.’ We want to know how the pitchers are executing in 0-0 counts, in 1-1 counts, what the physical stuff looks like and how they are able to repeat it.”

Outings in the minors for the Mariners are more about learning how to attack big league lineups by utilizing the organization’s “Dominate the Zone” philosophy, which relies on winning critical counts. If the stuff is there, and it is with a pitcher like Miller, then how he attacks these counts and getting experience in these counts is more important than getting fellow minor leaguers out. The Mariners can measure how the stuff will play, but the wild card is how the pitcher executes. It would appear they have seen what they need to from Miller.

Adding Miller now gives the Mariners the opportunity to throw All-Star Luis Castillo, who was originally scheduled to start Wednesday against the A’s, on Friday in Seattle against the Astros instead.

For Miller, it’s a soft landing of sorts against the 6-23 Oakland A’s in front of a small crowd. For the Mariners, it will mark a third straight year that they debut a top pitching matchup in early May, with Miller joining the likes of Logan Gilbert (May 13, 2021) and George Kirby (May 8, 2022).

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