Drayer: Is Mariners starting rotation on its way to being better than expected?

Mar 3, 2020, 1:23 AM
Mariners LHP Marco Gonzales...
Marco Gonzales' second outing of the spring was literally off the Mariners' charts. (Getty)

As the Mariners headed into the first day off of the spring, general manager Jerry Dipoto was asked for a quick evaluation of what he has seen so far. In a nutshell, for the most part he’s seen what he expected to see. On some days they’ve looked very young. On other days they’ve looked more like he had hoped they would look.

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Among the young regulars Dipoto is pleased with are infielders J.P. Crawford and Shed Long and the team’s catchers. Outfielder Jake Fraley has garnered acknowledgment as well, as have the young relievers – with the caveat that they are still a little way away from the big leagues.

And the rotation?

“I think by and large the takeaway as we head into our off day is that our starting pitching is maybe a little better than it is given credit for being,” Dipoto said Monday. “You are going to have some hiccup days in Arizona, but from the very beginning I think the starting pitching has been solid.”

For a refresh, because the question is often asked, the Mariners have a rotation. For all intents and purposes there is not a battle for the fifth spot. Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Kendall Graveman, Justus Sheffield and Taijuan Walker are all but inked into the starting five spots, and the four who have made starts have all done something noteworthy early.

Gonzales’s first outing was bumpy as he struggled to find his command, but his second was off the charts – literally off the Mariners’ charts.

“It was better than what I thought,” manager Scott Servais said on further review of Gonzales’ Saturday outing, which involved a new metric the Mariners’ analysts have come up with and had just introduced to the players that morning. “He was really good. The things that we track, he hit a home run. About as good as you can throw for three innings.”

It is just three innings and all of these appearances are just spring training outings – there, got that out of the way – but it is going to be interesting to see if Gonzales gets a little more recognition around the game if he continues to perform or builds upon what he did last year. He’s been largely under the radar so far in his MLB career, but a couple of the new players to the team have remarked to me that he is a guy that is talked about behind the scenes. Just something to watch for moving forward.

With Kikuchi, Dipoto called what he has displayed this spring “a revelation.” Will he take the increased velocity on all of his pitches into the season, and can he stick with the more compact delivery? Will his secondary pitches play better – we still haven’t seen a ton of the curveball – and can he accomplish what he wants with his current mix? He certainly has put in the work in the offseason and that came with significant change. Is it real, and how will hitters react as they see more of the new-look Kikuchi? All we can do right now is stay tuned.

With Graveman, health comes first and foremost, and by all appearances he has put any of the uncertainty that comes following Tommy John surgery behind him. His first outing was better than his second, where he briefly lost his command, but being able to work out of the situation he got himself into is an important exercise in spring training.

Sheffield has the look of a starter that is building for the season, which is exactly what you want to see from him. He has confidence that his slider is there, has things to work on with the fastball, and it was encouraging to see him throw his changeup a little more in his second outing. Then there is the issue of breathing.

“That was probably the calmest I have seen him out there, which was great to see,” Servais said after Sheffield’s start Monday. “He continues to get feel for his stuff and move from there.”

Walker, who like Graveman is coming back from Tommy John surgery, is the one pitcher in the rotation yet to make an impression as he has yet to pitch in a game. That should change soon with Walker scheduled to see some action Wednesday.

Throw in two innings of one-hit ball from Logan Gilbert and some nice work from Nestor Cortes, who could fill the swing/spot start role if needed, and it has been a good first look at the starters. Are they as Dipoto said – perhaps a little better than what they are being given credit for? Only time will tell.

Follow 710 ESPN Seattle’s Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

Check out Shannon’s Get To Know Your Mariners series

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• Cal Raleigh has been on the baseball path since Day 1
• OF Jake Fraley could be the gem of Zunino trade
• If anyone can relate to top Mariners prospects, it’s Taijuan Walker
• Julio Rodriguez looks the part of future superstar on and off the field

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Drayer: Is Mariners starting rotation on its way to being better than expected?