It’s Only April, Seattle

It’s been a tough season for the Seattle Mariners and it’s only April.

The problems started when Cactus League play was coming to an end. Newly acquired starter Drew Smyly was diagnosed with a flexor strain in his pitching elbow. Best-case scenario, the southpaw returns near the all-star break. The alternative could be season-ending surgery.

The next snag cropped up during the home opener. Shortstop Jean Segura suffered a strained hamstring leading to a stint on the 10-day disabled list. In total, the 27-year-old missed 12 games.

Then came the slumps.

Entering last weekend, three starting players — Leonys Martin, Danny Valencia, and Mike Zunino — were living well below the infamous Mendoza Line.

By Sunday, Seattle designated Martin for assignment and Valencia found himself losing playing time to Daniel Vogelbach, a defensively challenged rookie who didn’t make the squad out of Spring Training.

Then came last night in Detroit.

The Mariners’ best player thus far — right fielder Mitch Haniger — left the game against the Tigers in the second inning. Later, we learned he’s suffering from the notorious oblique injury. How long he’ll be out of commission is unknown.

Wait. There’s more.

The following frame, starter Felix Hernandez didn’t come out for the third inning. Initially, observers speculated the longtime ace departed due to ineffectiveness. Manager Scott Servais employed a similar maneuver with Hisashi Iwakuma just 10 days ago. Shortly after the game ended, we learned the truth. It wasn’t good.

King Felix was suffering from shoulder tightness and a “dead arm.” He’s heading back to Seattle to see the team physician and receive an MRI. For the active pitcher with the most innings tossed since 2005, that’s an ominous development.

For many fans — at least the ones on social media — the Mariners’ season officially ended last night. The loss of Haniger is one thing. That’s survivable. But, the team’s best pitcher is going to miss the rest of the season, perhaps much longer. There’s no way Servais’ club can compete, right?

Wrong.

First, we don’t know how long Felix will be sidelined. Even if he misses significant playing time, the Mariners season isn’t over — not yet at least. It’s only April after all.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand why some fans are downtrodden today. Their ball club hasn’t been to the postseason in ages and the best pitcher of the last decade — their beloved King — may not be available to lead a postseason run.

Still, the Mariners’ greatest strengths were never going to be their pitching, defense, or even offense. Rather, roster versatility and rotational depth were the keys to 2017 success. Both are being tested right now.

During Segura’s absence, Taylor Motter stepped in and became an instant sensation thanks to a game-changing power and his long, flowing golden locks. Now, the 27-year-old is likely to see more time at first base and in the outfield while Haniger mends.

When the club dispatched Martin, replacements were on hand to take over in center field. That wasn’t the case last year. Jarrod Dyson assumes the vacated spot with teammates Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel also capable of playing the position.

Behind the plate, I continue to believe Zunino will provide offensive value. He’s not going to be the next Buster Posey or Jonathan Lucroy. But, he’ll hit enough to justify being the starter. If I’m wrong, Servais has a ready option in proven veteran Carlos Ruiz.

That brings us to rotation depth and pitching in general.

Mariners starters are averaging just 5.5 innings pitched/start — second lowest in the AL. That’s not good enough for a contender.

Short outings have hamstrung a bullpen that started the season without the injured Steve Cishek, Tony Zych, or Shae Simmons. Only Detroit’s relievers have provided less value during the young season than Seattle’s crew.

Yes, the baby is ugly. But, there’s a way to navigate through this turbulent period — the rotation delivers more innings beginning today.

Some may place more blame for the Mariners’ sluggish start on slumping hitters or the bullpen than the rotation.

I don’t agree.

Remember, the offense is potent enough to keep the team in most games. They currently rank third in the AL in runs scored and should remain above league-average for the duration of the season.

Yes. Individual relievers have stumbled out of the gate, but the bullpen as a whole is reeling because they continuously inherit high-leverage situations early in games.

Starting pitchers going deeper won’t fix all ills, but doing so would provide a measure of stability to a struggling bullpen.

Based on what we’ve seen through the first 21 games of the season, expecting the rotation to step it up now may sound unreasonable. But, it’s not out of the question.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, James Paxton is poised to anchor the rotation. He’s the only starter averaging 6-plus innings/start and has the stuff to continue the trend. Sure, the southpaw delivered a clunker in his last start. But, that happens. Paxton is ready to carry the staff.

Name Age GS IP/GS
Yovani Gallardo 31 4 5.6
Felix Hernandez 31 5 5.3
Hisashi Iwakuma 36 4 5.1
Ariel Miranda* 28 4 5.2
James Paxton* 28 4 6.3
Team Total 29.3 21 5.5

 

In each of his five preceding seasons with the Mariners, Iwakuma has averaged 6-plus innings/start. But, the veteran is off to a shaky start. Having said that, he’s proven to be a dogged competitor during 134 career starts.

Moxie can’t overcome potential age-related regression, but Kuma started slowly last April and ended up being the club’s most reliable starter. For now, the 36-year-old deserves the benefit of the doubt until a bigger sample size is available for analysis.

Another potential difference maker could be Yovani Gallardo. Pegged as the number-five starter, the 31-year-old had his best outing as a Mariner over the weekend. The righty surrendered just one run and one walk, while striking out seven during 6.1 innings.

Expecting the same level of performance in each of Gallardo’s starts may be wishful thinking, but regularly reaching the sixth inning and occasionally finishing the frame would do wonders for the bullpen.

Ariel Miranda appeared to be the first call-up option from Class-AAA Tacoma in the event of rotation injury. Little did he know the call would come before the season when Smyly went down. Now, the 28-year-old has a chance to serve as a linchpin in the rotation depending on how he performs going forward.

He’s off to an inconsistent start this season, but Miranda reached or completed the sixth inning in eight of his 10 starts last year. If he can repeat his 2016 success, the southpaw will be an integral part of the starting staff.

While some may accuse me of using hope to draw my road map for success, that’s not the case at all. The season is young enough for the Mariners to hold it together, assuming the rotation takes pressure off the bullpen.

Based on today’s transactions by general manager Jerry Dipoto, he appears to agree. He recalled Chase De Jong and Dillon Overton from Tacoma.

De Jong will take Felix’s spot in the rotation, while Overton will likely fill a long-relief role.

Perhaps what I’ve suggested is out of the Mariners’ reach. Maybe the rotation won’t be able to deliver more innings with the current cast of characters.

If that’s the case, Dipoto may shift gears from win-now to deadline seller by July. On the other hand, it’s too early to consider that possibility.

It’s only April, Seattle.

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who was sent to the Pacific Northwest by the Navy and then decided to stay. He grew up as a New York Mets fan and continues to follow them from afar, although he can be frequently found at Safeco Field observing the hometown team. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

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