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Mariners RHP Taijuan Walker
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Mariners preview: The 4 categories that make up 10 options for rotation

Taijuan Walker is back with the Mariners after three years with Arizona. (AP)

The Seattle Mariners’ 2020 pitching staff is going to be a proving ground.

Drayer: Now a veteran, Taijuan Walker ready to give back in M’s reunion

For one pitcher, he’ll be looking to prove Seattle right for giving him a four-year contract extension.

Another will look to show that he can shake off a disappointing rookie campaign and come up with the consistency expected of an MLB starter.

Two players in their late 20s are on the comeback trail after their careers were dealt the years-long setback that is Tommy John surgery.

Another pair are expected to get the first big opportunities to take the talent that have garnered them high prospect rankings and show it will play in the big leagues.

Finally, there are four pitchers on the outside looking in, hoping to make the most of the chance they’ll be afforded on the roster of a young team that will need arms to eat up innings.

Let’s take a look at all 10 options Seattle has in the mix for the starting rotation in spring training, and the four categories they fit into.

The Mariners’ rotation options

THE NO. 1

Marco Gonzales isn’t really what you would consider a No. 1 pitcher in the major leagues, but there are two reasons why he clearly gets that distinction for the 2020 Mariners.

The first is pretty obvious: Gonzales is simply Seattle’s best pitcher. And while that’s not saying much in the second year of the Mariners’ rebuild, the other reason is more complimentary. The 27-year-old left-hander doesn’t throw hard or rack up high strikeout numbers, yet he was still one the most effective starters in the American League in 2019. He tied for ninth in WAR among AL pitchers (3.7) according to Fangraphs, posted an ERA of 3.99 and was one of just 15 MLB players to eclipse 200 innings pitched.

The Mariners clearly like what they’ve seen out of Gonzales since acquiring him in a trade with the St. Louis Cardinals during the 2017 season. He hasn’t suffered any serious injuries with Seattle, a very good sign considering he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2016. And while there were bumps in his 10 appearances with the Mariners in 2017, he’s been the picture of consistency in the past two seasons, compiling a 29-22 record, 3.99 ERA and 1.27 WHIP. That, as well as his fiery demeanor and leadership in the clubhouse, led Seattle to ink him to a four-year extension earlier this month that includes a team option that could keep him in a Mariners uniform through 2025.

With the way the Mariners’ rebuild is structured, the hope is that Gonzales doesn’t have to be the No. 1 for long and that some combination of highly-ranked prospects like Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn develop into front-of-the-rotation types. But for now, Seattle is leaning on Gonzales to set the tone for its rotation of the future.

THE BOUNCE-BACK CROWD

After Gonzales, the Mariners’ rotation gets… sketchy. The pitchers that will likely get the ball on the days between the No. 1 starter and the No. 5 guy are all coming off of non-productive 2019 seasons – one because he struggled in his first year state-side, and two because they literally didn’t pitch due to recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Yusei Kikuchi

The Mariners had high hopes for Kikuchi when they signed him out of Japan prior to the 2019 season, and though he had a few outings here and there that signaled what he can be when at his best, his rookie year was mostly a disappointment.

The 28-year-old southpaw finished 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA and 1.51 WHIP over 32 starts, and he made it through six innings just 12 times. Sure, some of that was planned as Seattle made it a priority to manage his workload, but a lot of it wasn’t.

Kikuchi showed a penchant for tinkering with his process in his first year with the M’s, and the results were uneven – which you might expect from someone whose routine was in and of itself inconsistent. The hope is that he finds something that works for him and turns in more quality starts.

“Bottom line is despite the numbers and the lack of consistency, Kikuchi displayed enough at times to show that there is plenty to work with,” Mariners insider Shannon Drayer wrote in a column for 710Sports.com in the final week of the 2019 season. “He has voiced a desire to help the team and expressed frustration in not being able to do so following rougher outings. It will be important to get him on a good path after a year year of firsts and struggles, and the Mariners will have an offseason plan for him to get going in the right direction. For now he exits the season as he entered it – a big question mark.”

Just like in 2019, Kikuchi will be a very interesting player to watch as it pertains to the Mariners’ future in 2020.

Related: Kikuchi’s changes evident at start of spring training

Taijuan Walker

Tell somebody in 2015 that Walker would be penciled in as a member of the Mariners rotation in 2020, and they probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear it. But if you tell them how he ended up there, you’ll definitely raise an eyebrow.

Once a member of the Mariners’ “Big Three” pitching prospects early last decade, Walker was traded to Arizona in the first really big trade of the Jerry Dipoto era. He pitched well for the Diamondbacks at first, but disaster struck in 2017 with a torn UCL, resulting in Tommy John surgery and the long, arduous recovery that comes with it. Then the offseason hit, Arizona decided against tendering him a contract, and Walker hit the open market with just one inning pitched in 2019 to his credit.

The Mariners swooped in and persuaded Walker to come home, so to speak, just in time for spring training. For Walker, coming back to Seattle is just as much about getting back on the field at all as it is a homecoming.

“It was two long years,” Walker said Friday about his rehab to 710 ESPN Seattle’s Danny and Gallant. “Threw the one inning at the end of the year and that really helped me for my peace of mind going into the offseason, knowing that I was able to throw that one inning and walk off healthy. … Having a normal offseason again and not having to worry about rehabbing and stuff, just worry about getting ready for the 2020 season, so coming into camp I feel really good, I feel confident about where I’m at.”

So what can you expect from Walker? Essentially nothing. That’s not a knock on his ability. The fact is, he’s a very talented player who is coming back from about as career-changing of an injury a pitcher can go through, and he’s always struggled with command. In 2017, his last full season, he walked a career-high 61, which contributed to a 1.33 WHIP that was also the worst of his career.

The Mariners are giving Walker a chance to go out every five days to see if, at 27, he can become the pitcher he once was, and maybe even show some of that promise that made him such a prized prospect during his first stint with Seattle.

There is nothing certain about Walker at this point, however. And the same goes for…

Kendall Graveman

Graveman pitched even less than Walker in 2019, which is to say he didn’t at all in the majors due to the same torn UCL and Tommy John surgery that Walker went through. Because of that, those two will be in the same category going into 2020 as pitchers the Mariners are giving a chance to show they can come back and be what they once were.

A 29-year-old righty, Graveman posted a 4.38 ERA in 78 games – all starts – over four years with Oakland from 2015-18. He underwent his Tommy John surgery in July 2018 and attempted to make a comeback with the Cubs last season. He appeared in two games – one apiece for Chicago’s Triple-A and Rookie-level teams – towards the end of the season.

The Mariners have familiarity with Graveman since he pitched in their division for four years.

“Kendall is a great bounce back candidate,” Dipoto said when the Mariners signed Graveman in late November. “His makeup is off the charts, and we’ve done a fair bit of homework on him from his time in Oakland and more recently in Chicago. He was a work horse, ground ball-oriented pitcher, with whom we saw a velocity spike prior to his Tommy John surgery.”

Graveman is a sinkerballer, and he may be in the mix as Seattle’s most powerful starting pitcher. His fastball typically sat in the mid 90s before his injury, and he was reaching up to 98 mph in 2017.

THE FUTURE

When you get to the battle for the fifth and final spot in Seattle’s opening day rotation, the first two names you come across are also the youngest: Justus Sheffield (23) and Justin Dunn (24).

Though Sheffield is about eight months younger than Dunn, he’s most likely to get the first crack at pitching regularly in the Mariners’ rotation because he actually has more experience. He’s appeared in 11 MLB games, including seven starts last year, and has spent almost all of his time since 2017 in Double-A or higher.

“He’s been in the upper minors now for three years, it’s time to run him out there and see if he’s a major league pitcher,” ESPN.com senior writer David Schoenfield said about Sheffield to 710 ESPN Seattle’s Bob, Dave and Moore on Thursday.

After a rough first half of 2019, Sheffield rebounded in Double-A and returned to Seattle to have three strong outings out of five starts in September. He struck out seven in five scoreless innings against the Cubs, punched out four and used 11 groundouts to get through six innings of one-run ball vs. Cincinnati, and threw another five innings while giving up just a run against Oakland in his final appearance of the year.

Dunn struggled with walks after being called up from Double-A in September, issuing nine free passes in 6 2/3 innings over four appearances for the M’s, but five of those came in a very shaky debut and he went two scoreless innings in each of his last three appearances.

“I’d give him a couple months in Triple-A,” Schoenfield said of Dunn. “… We saw when he got called up in September (he was) a little shaky – you can’t read too much into that, it was only a few innings. I don’t think a couple months in Triple-A would be the worst thing for him but he should be up by June.”

Whether or not they break camp in the rotation, expect to see plenty of Sheffield and Dunn in Mariners uniforms in 2020.

“You gotta see what these kids have; you have no other option,” Schoenfield said. “… Sheffield and Dunn, they’re the future. You gotta see what they can do.”

THE REINFORCEMENTS

Finally, we get to in-case-of-emergency types, or the break-glass class, if you will.

Mariners fans will no doubt see some of these four players – perhaps all – in 2020, but for now they’re with the team to provide depth at a position full of question marks. Sure, Seattle would welcome a surprise breakout from the three younger players or a return to form from the veteran of the crew, but they could all just as likely find roles in the bullpen to eat innings when the members of the rotation can’t get through – or even into – the middle frames.

First up is lefty Nick Margevicius, a 23-year-old finesse pitcher who the Mariners claimed off to waivers to essentially fill a Wade LeBlanc-shaped void that was left on the Mariners’ roster when they didn’t pick up LeBlanc’s option for 2020. While Margevicius pitched in 17 games (12 starts) for San Diego in 2019 after a surprisingly strong spring convinced the Padres to promote him straight from Single-A, he had a 6.79 ERA and will likely get more seasoning in the minors with Seattle.

Nestor Cortes, 25, is another lefty picked up in a minor transaction this offseason by the M’s. He made 33 appearances for the Yankees last year, making one start and throwing two or more innings 18 times. He had a 5.67 ERA and 69 strikeouts to 28 walks in 66 2/3 innings.

“He’s got roughly all the pitches and a very deceptive style,” Dipoto said when Seattle acquired Cortes. “He’s not going to overpower you with velocity, but he has a really effective fastball quality and feel. He is an optionable young pitcher that gives us another flexible piece on our 40-man roster.”

Right-hander Phillips Valdéz, 28, was another waiver claim, this time coming to Seattle from Texas. He had a 3.94 ERA in 16 innings pitched in 2019, his first MLB season, striking out 18 while walking nine. He sits around 92-94 mph with his fastball, throws a changeup and has a breaking pitch that is still developing. Key for the Mariners is that he, like Cortes and Margevicius, has minor league options left.

Last but not least is 34-year-old southpaw Wei-Yin Chen, who is in spring training on a minor league contract, meaning a roster move would be required for him to make the opening day roster. He had some solid years in Baltimore, twice finishing a full season with an ERA below 4, but he scuffled after being knocked from Miami’s rotation to the bullpen in 2019. He comes to Seattle after posting a 6.59 ERA in 45 relief appearances last year.

Follow 710Sports.com’s Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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