Making an Impact: M’s rookie pitchers in 2014

 The goal for all organizations is to draft and develop everyday major leaguers. Every year thousands of players are are drafted or signed but few end up graduating to a big league roster. In 2013, the Seattle Mariners sent ten rookie pitchers to the mound including the debuts of top prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. However it was relievers Danny Farquhar and Yoervis Medina that played key roles in the bullpen as rookies. Farquhar would finish the season as the team’s closer. Brandon Maurer would also debut in 2013, as a starter, before eventually transitioning into a bullpen role in 2014.

The Mariners had six different rookie pitchers toe the rubber this year. Let’s take a look at the impact each of them made during the season.

Roenis Elias, 26 | 2013: Double-A, 130 IP

Elias broke camp with the club after spring training and never looked back. There was some concern as to what could reasonably be expected out of the 26-year old who entered the season with no experience above Double-A. The southpaw worked through a decent first two months of the season with three quality starts before a particularly dominating outing against the Detroit Tigers on June 1. Elias tossed a complete game shutout yielding three hits and one walk alongside eight strikeouts as he shut down one of the best offenses in baseball. Elias would put up the fifth most strikeouts among rookie pitchers this year with 143.

Elias finished the first half with a relatively strong 4.29 FIP, but would see his walk rate increase by an entire run in the second half as he battled some control issues. He had only thrown 130 innings in 2013 and as he approached and eventually eclipsed that number in 2014 he showed some signs of slowing down — the club would then lighten his workload for the remainder of the season. The year ended on a disappointing note for Elias as he left his September 22 start with elbow soreness. Though it was serious enough to effectively shut down his season, the Mariners stressed that there was no reason for concern heading into 2015.

How big of a surprise was Elias this year? He failed to crack the preseason top-30 prospects list by Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill in his annual PI Handbook, and was on practically nobody’s radar prior to the spring. Sometimes, surprises are great.

James Paxton, 25 | 2013: Triple-A, 145 2/3; MLB, 24 IP

   Paxton shined in his September 2013 debut, but spent significant time on the disabled list in 2014. The left-hander had an outstanding 2014 debut throwing seven scoreless innings with nine strikeouts. After going five innings in his second start, he wouldn’t pitch in the majors again for nearly four months due to a strained lat muscle. Paxton incurred a setback during a rehab start in late May and would eventually return to the mound in mid-July.

Upon the Canadian’s return to the rotation in August he showed some flashes of brilliance and put together a string of five starts in which he pitched six or more innings that ran through the first half of September. The strikeout numbers weren’t quite as high for Paxton as they were in 2012 and 2013 in the minors, but he featured a very strong curveball and his velocity peaked in the upper nineties when he was healthy

From Churchill’s preseason Handbook: Paxton made an adjustment last season in Triple-A … [and] … if he’s able to keep things compact and fluid, he’ll throw enough strikes to allow him to pitch through the lineup three times and at a frontline level.

Dominic Leone, 22 | 2013: Rookie, 12 IP; Single-A, 6 1/3 IP; High-A, 39 2/3 IP; Double-A, 18 IP

    Though he didn’t directly make the team out of spring training, Leone was called up in early April and would go on to play a key middle relief role in baseball’s best bullpen. A 16th-round pick in 2012, the right-hander wasted no time reaching the majors after throwing just over 100 minor league innings. The 22-year old is of the typical power arm mould, but threw multiple innings consistently throughout the year.

Leone did have a platoon split in which left-handed batters posted a .353 wOBA compared to a .229 wOBA by right-handed batters. At a glance the reliever may have benefited from pitching at Safeco Field as his home FIP of 2.05 was significantly lower than the 4.10 he posted on the road — his innings in these samples were nearly exactly the same.

From Churchill’s preseason Handbook: He repeats his delivery well and profiles as a high-leverage reliever with a chance to close with improved fastball command and another tick on the slider.

Taijuan Walker, 22 | 2013: Double-A, 84 IP; Triple-A, 57 1/3 IP; MLB, 15 IP

Expectations were high for Seattle’s blue-chip prospect, but shoulder inflammation derailed his season before it could begin. Walker missed most of spring training and suffered a setback in his rehab in April. He was activated from the disabled list in early June and was optioned to Triple-A where he made a handful of starts to build up his strength, including the first complete game shutout of his young career.

Walker made his season debut on June 30 and pitched six strong innings. However, he struggled mightily with his command and walked 11 batters in his next two starts. He was then optioned back to Tacoma where he spent the month of August. Upon his return to the big leagues on September 1, he pitched well out of the bullpen before replacing Elias in the rotation at the end of the month. Walker would deliver a dominating performance in his final start of the year against Toronto going eight innings and allowing a single earned run. His fastball was back up to a 96 MPH average and he featured a much improved changeup — though his grip resembles a splitter — that was filthy at times.

From Churchill’s preseason Handbook: The right-hander can get a lot of outs using just his fastball and cutter, but without the curveball and changeup jumping a grade, Walker’s ceiling of a No. 1 or 2 starter takes an impact hit.

Carson Smith, 24 | 2013: Rookie, 5 IP; Double-A, 50 IP | 2014: Triple-A, 43 IP; Called-up 9/1

After a solid season at Triple-A Smith was called up to the majors when rosters expanded in September and showed he belonged. Of the 29 batters he faced only five reached base and ten fell victim to the strikeout. The 25-year old added some fresh life to the bullpen and enabled the club the chance to give righties like Maurer, Farquhar, and Medina some much needed rest late in the season. Smith averaged 94 MPH on his fastball and has all the makings of a major league closer in the future.

Smith pitched well in Triple-A this year and managed to improve on the 3.06 walk rate he posted in Double-A the previous year. He also allowed just one home run while he was with Tacoma and continued to show an ability to prevent the long ball.

From Churchill’s preseason Handbook: It’s Triple-A Tacoma to start the year … but Smith is a legit late-inning arm and he’s very close, if not ready to get big-league hitters out right now.

Stephen Pryor also made an appearance as a rookie for the Mariners this year when he threw 1 2/3 innings against the Texas Rangers in July. However two-and-a-half weeks later, Pryor was dealt to the Minnesota Twins in exchange for Kendrys Morales. The hard-throwing righty missed most of 2013 with a lat injury that required surgery and finished the year with the Twins at Triple-A.

Overall, Seattle featured an impressive crop of rookies in 2014. If it weren’t for the injuries to Walker and Paxton, it’s possible that the rotation would have been lead by three of them. The emergence of Elias proved to form a crucial part of the club’s starting five and the role that Leone played in the bullpen shouldn’t be overlooked. Barring any potential offseason transaction, all five pitchers should have a role on the big league roster in 2015.

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Tyler Carmont

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