Mariners’ rotation a question entering spring training

Feb 12, 2014, 9:55 AM | Updated: 5:15 pm

Seattle’s rotation is set at the top with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma but otherwise lacks experience. (AP)

By Shannon Drayer

While we go about our day in the wind and rain here in Seattle, Mariners pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training under sunny skies and a forecast of 80 degrees in Peoria, Ariz. The offseason is officially over.

Additions can still be made via trade or the acquisition of a number of free agents that are still on the market – and we very well may see this happen
with the news of Hisashi Iwakuma’s finger injury – but the Mariners are opening camp with an interesting group of pitchers from which their starting five and bullpen will come. The question is whether they have enough.

Enough to improve on a particularly and uncharacteristically disappointing season from the arms as a whole last year? Yes, there were bright spots, huge bright spots with Felix Hernandez being Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma’s emergence, Danny Farquhar stepping up into the closer role and Charlie Furbush proving that he is more than just a left-handed bullpen arm. But ultimately the group as a whole – and yes, the defense certainly had its part in this number – allowed 754 runs. That was over 125 more runs than the top two teams in the division and the sixth most allowed by any staff in baseball. In order to have any kind of success in 2014, this number must improve.

It all starts with the rotation, where the Mariners have some of the biggest question marks even with a healthy Iwakuma. Question marks, however, are not always a negative. Taking a look at the potential rotation with a glass-half-full outlook, you are looking at a group with five-award potential. Hernandez and Iwakuma can be in the conversation for the Cy Young Award at the end of the year and you could be looking at two Rookie of the Year candidates in James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. As long as the glass is half full right now, we might as well have it overflowing and say that Scott Baker could come out of the 2014 season as Comeback Player of the Year. All of this is more than possible.

Of course, things could go in the opposite direction as well. Felix and Iwakuma remain one of the top one-two punches in baseball but they can only pitch every five days. How ready are Paxton and Walker? They both passed the get-your-feet-wet test last fall, but will they pick up where they left off? Two rookies in a rotation is something many in baseball are not comfortable with, but are these two special enough to put those qualms on the back burner? I believe they are.

Paxton in particular had the look of someone who had figured things out last September. There is no question he has the stuff and to watch that stuff against big-league hitters from teams in the hunt for the postseason was one of the highlights of last year. It was also a surprise.

After tweaking his delivery, James Paxton showed better command during four encouraging September starts. (AP)

His callup was a surprise for that matter given his minor-league numbers that year. Command was the issue with him but we saw no issues with that in September. The encouraging thing is that this wasn’t a fluke. Paxton had made an adjustment to his delivery. Beyond the pitching, what has impressed me the most about Paxton is his off-field preparation. He studies hitters and other pitchers. He has an idea of what he wants to do when he takes the mound and if there is a problem it isn’t one of those mysteries of baseball. He goes looking for an answer and it appears he found a major answer with his delivery last year.

The stuff, the preparation and the experience he has had pitching in the minors and college gives him the look of readiness. He appears ready to step in and contribute for a full season, most likely with little to no restrictions.

Walker isn’t as far down that path as Paxton is. He could be on Felix’s path, however. There was no keeping Felix down in 2005. It was time to call him up. There was nothing else he could get in Triple-A at that point. He wasn’t a finished product when he was called up, however. He was still the phenom but he was continuing to develop, which included improving his pitches, adding pitches, learning hitters and learning to control his emotions. When all of that came together we got the Felix we see today, but that took time – about three years. And the Mariners hardly suffered through his starts in those three years. Felix contributed as he learned and Walker could do the same.

I don’t think it would be a stretch by any means to have these two rookies in the rotation together. Both have the potential to eclipse what we saw from the back end of the rotation last year. Both have the potential to be spectacular but you can’t plan for that, and because you can’t plan for that the Mariners need a solid No. 3 and that is the missing piece to this rotation.

Could Baker be the answer? Baker before Tommy John surgery certainly would have been, but you don’t know what he is after. I feel a little better about him knowing that he did get into three games at the end of last year. That would indicate to me that he has had a normal offseason as opposed to one in which he rehabbed. Technically, he is not coming off surgery heading into his first spring throwing session. Hopefully those hurdles were crossed last July and August in preparation for his September starts. We shall see.

Also competing for a spot will be Erasmo Ramirez, who has had injury problems of is own. He has proven he can pitch in the major leagues, but if we see the Ramirez we saw last year that might not be enough to make this rotation. Ramirez struggled with his command coming off the injury, which is something we had never seen from him. He threw very well in Venezuela this winter, however, and I am interested to see just where he is a) health-wise and b) command-wise this spring.

I am also interested to see what the plan is for Brandon Maurer. He had a great spring last year, great enough to skip Triple-A and earn a spot on the big-league roster. Things didn’t come together for him at the big league-level, however, and he didn’t fare much better when he was sent to the minors.

Some scouts I have talked to have said they believe he would thrive in the bullpen. I am not sure the Mariners are ready to make that move, though, as he is only 23 and has some big advocates in this organization, including new pitching coach Rick Waits. What do you do if he is lights out again this spring? Do you believe your eyes? Do you start him in Triple-A to make sure it is real this time or do you start him in the bullpen with the big-league team? What is he best suited for? What will the team need at that point? It would be good if he is an option for either role at the end of spring.

Of course, the biggest question regarding the rotation at this point is whether we will be talking about a new name in the coming days. General manager Jack Zduriencik could still add a starter and that move could be made today, tomorrow, the last week of spring training or beyond. The picture may or may not be complete at this point but for now, 32 roster and non-roster pitchers plus three yet to be announced with deals pending physicals report to camp Wednesday and hit the field Thursday.

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