Mariners’ Opening Day rotation is a cause for concern
By Brent Stecker
The faint of heart should avert their eyes from the starting rotation the Mariners will trot out to open the season.
Sure, ace Felix Hernandez is healthy and slotted in right where he should be at the No. 1 spot. But the King can only pitch once every five days, and the drop-off after his turns resembles a cliff.
The rest of the rotation – Erasmo Ramirez, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, and Chris Young – will make casual baseball fans scratch their heads and die-hard Mariners fans gasp in horror. Ramirez and Paxton have only 34 combined games of MLB experience, Elias has never pitched above Double-A, and Young hasn’t appeared in the Majors since 2012. It’s not exactly a fearsome foursome.
Entering spring training, it was not out of the realm of possibility to think starting pitching could be one of the Mariners’ strengths in 2014. Injuries took their toll, however – Hisashi Iwakuma, a Cy Young candidate last year, didn’t pitch in a single Cactus League game as he healed a strained finger tendon, and prized prospect Taijuan Walker has been held back by right shoulder inflammation. As a result, both will start the season on the disabled list.
As if injuries to two of their top three starters weren’t enough, the Mariners also went through the ringer trying to find the right veterans from the scrap heap to plug holes. Scott Baker and Randy Wolf, neither of whom set the Cactus League on fire, both asked for and were granted their release last week.
Shoulder surgery kept Chris Young out of the MLB for the entire 2013 season, but he was signed last week by the Mariners and will be their No. 5 starter. (AP)
That left Seattle scrambling to sign the right-handed Young, an injury-reclamation project who opted out of his minor-league deal with the Nationals last week and is best known for not reminding people of Randy Johnson despite his 6-foot-10 height (he’s a fly-ball pitcher whose fastball doesn’t reach the 90s).
Young at least was solid in his Mariners debut in their final spring training game Saturday, holding the Rockies scoreless on four hits in 4 2/3 innings. His rotation mates all had good springs, too, but the lack of experience is troubling, to say the least.
Ramirez, who posted a 4.98 ERA in 2013 and has just 21 career MLB starts, is the current No. 2 starter. A week ago it wasn’t even a certainty that the 23-year-old would make the rotation out of the Cactus League. Now he’s expected to man a spot that was supposed to belong to Iwakuma – and talented as Ramirez may be, he is no Iwakuma.
Then again, at least Ramirez has some tangible experience in the big leagues.
Paxton, 25, seemingly has a bright future ahead of him, but he has just four MLB starts under his belt, all coming in September of last season.
Fellow 25-year-old southpaw Elias wasn’t even considered a candidate to make the big league club when spring training started, but he pitched his way into the conversation and was in the right place at the right time after the injuries and releases.
It’s not that the Mariners rotation is terrible, but it’s hard to feel good about the four players that are either lacking in MLB experience or trying to make a big comeback after a year away from the big leagues. Simply put, consistency is not something that these players can be counted on. It’s also hard not to look back at the offseason when the franchise had an opportunity to pursue free agents like Ubaldo Jimenez and Ervin Santana and instead stood pat on the mound.
The good news is this makeshift rotation is only expected to last through April. By then Iwakuma and Walker will be back in the mix, and hopefully the offense will be able to provide enough run support in the first month to keep the team afloat.
‘Hopefully’ is a word that has dominated conversation about all aspects of the Mariners for years now, and it’s indicative of a larger problem that the team is hoping to put in the rear-view mirror – a culture of wait-and-see, where fans are continually asked to be patient as the franchise works to turn everything around.
Hopefully has applied to hitters like Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders, who have yet to pan out as reliable everyday players. Hopefully has been used when talking about Paxton, Walker and fellow pitching prospect Danny Hultzen in regards to living up to their potential.
Hopefully hasn’t turned the team into a winner yet, and this Opening Day rotation looks like anything but a game-changer. In fact, all it does is make ‘hopefully’ apply to just getting the Mariners through the first month of the season.