Mariners need pitching depth to win

 With the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings set to start in San Diego next week, most trade speculation involving the Seattle Mariners suggests that the Mariners could afford to deal a starting pitcher for more offensive punch. The three names that have been circulated most often are James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, and Hisashi Iwakuma.

Seven names for five spots
Seattle has seven starting pitcher candidates who started major league games in 2014; Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma, Roenis Elias, Paxton, Walker, Erasmo Ramirez, and the newly acquired J.A. Happ. On the surface, starting pitching looks like an area of strength for Seattle and that they could afford to trade an arm. But, a quick glance at the seven pitchers’ statistics illustrates that the potential staff possesses varied experience and enjoyed differing levels of success at the major league level.

Potential Mariners Starters
Pitcher W-L
IP ERA
WHIP
Felix Hernandez, RHP
15-6
236 2.14 .92
Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP 15-9
179 3.52
1.05
Roenis Elias, LHP 10-12
163 3.85
1.31
J.A. Happ, LHP 11-11
153 4.12
1.34
James Paxton, LHP 6-4
74 3.04
1.2
Taijuan Walker, RHP 2-5
28 2.83
1.29
Erasmo Ramirez, RHP
1-6
67 5.21
1.57

Strong at the top, questions elsewhere
The 1-2 punch of Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma is one of the best in the majors. King Felix is a perennial Cy Young Award contender and Kuma posted 15 wins with a 3.2 fWAR that was in the top-20 of the American League. It’s reasonable to expect that both right-handers will post over 200 innings and be highly successful in 2015. After that, there’s a great deal of promise along with some question marks going into 2015.

As a rookie, Roenis Elias broke onto the scene after never pitching above the AA-level prior to 2014. His 163.2 Innings Pitched (IP) was third best for Seattle, just ahead of Chris Young’s 163. The southpaw’s emergence was a nice surprise and helped propel the Mariners towards postseason contention.

James Paxton looked good during his first two starts until suffering a strained Latissimus Dorsi (lat) muscle during the Mariners home opener. His return to the rotation in early August buoyed the team when he posted a 4-4 Win-Loss (W-L) record and a 3.19 Earned Run Average (ERA). The 26-year-old should be able to build on his 2014 success, as long as he stays healthy.

22-year-old Taijuan Walker is the Mariner most often mentioned in trade speculation.  He is projected by many as a future staff ace with superb upside. During his brief stint with the Mariners, Walker struggled with inconsistency posting 4.26 BB/9 Innings. Despite his control issues, the right-hander delivered a superb 2.43 ERA during his five starts. Walker will continue to be considered a prospect until he amasses a larger sample size at the major league level.

The newly acquired JA Happ should be expected to fill the void created by Chris Young’s departure via free agency comments PI’s Tyler Carmont.   The 32-year-old provides another veteran arm that should be able to provide the Mariners with innings after starting 28 games in three out of the last four seasons; he missed nearly half of the 2013 season after being hit in the head by a batted ball.  Much like Young, he was a different pitcher away from his 2014 home field (Rogers Centre).

  J.A. Happ (2014)
Home/Away IP
ERA AVG OBP
Home
91.1
3.15 .237 .288
Away 66.2
5.67 .286
.354

Although it’s a small sample size, Happ hasn’t fared well during his two career starts at Safeco Field recording a 0-1 W-L record with a 9.00 ERA.

Why depth is important
Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik believes that depth is critical with so many young arms and the risk of injury reports Greg Johns of MLB.com.  Based on the challenges that the Mariners starting rotation faced 2014, the GM is justified in being cautious when mulling a trade involving his starting pitchers.

If Seattle traded away any starting pitcher and didn’t replenish their staff, they may encounter problems similar to the ones they faced in 2014.  Last March, the Mariners departed Peoria with a starting rotation of Hernandez, Ramirez, Paxton, Elias, and Young; Iwakuma (finger), Maurer (back), and Walker (shoulder) were unavailable due to injury. After only two April starts, Paxton was lost until early August due the lat injury. So, how did the Mariners manage without these pitchers?

The short answer is not well.  The team used a combination of Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan, and Tom Wilhelmsen to fill the void and that combination delivered undesirable results.

Beavan/Maurer/Ramirez/Wilhemsen (2014)

W-L GS
IP ERA WHIP
2-12
24
107.2 5.96 1.71

Beavan made one start in mid-April and only lasted four innings before having to leave due to shoulder tightness. He didn’t pitch for Seattle again and recently signed a minor league deal with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

After a rocky start to his season, Ramirez shuttled between AAA-Tacoma and Seattle acting as a spot starter for most of the season and was a reliever in September. The 24-year-old looked good for brief instances although he delivered inconsistent results. His last 2014 start on August 27th was his worst; he surrendered 10 runs to Texas in just three innings of work.

Maurer started the season in AAA-Tacoma after having back issues in Spring Training. He joined the team in late April and was out of the rotation by the end of May lasting past five innings in only one of his seven starts. The right-hander subsequently sent to AAA-Tacoma where he became a reliever.  When he returned, he became a key part of the Mariners bullpen during the second half of the season.

Wilhelmsen, normally a relief pitcher, was used as a starter twice during the season with the expectation that he would only pitch 2-3 innings. He started once in July and again on September 25th when he lasted 1.1 innings surrendering 2 earned runs.

Tale of two seasons
Another factor in the Mariners’ rotation struggles was fatigue. Although Seattle posted identical winning percentages (.537) in each half of the season, the team’s starting staff was breaking down by September.  Hence, the need to use Wilhelmsen during the last week of September as the team was attempting to make the postseason.

King Felix was equally impressive in both halves of the season and the only Mariners starting pitcher who did not miss a start in 2014, making the Mariners’ ace a finalist for the 2014 Cy Young Award. Unfortunately, Kuma stumbled late in the season posting a 7.61 ERA in September when the Mariners were in the midst of a race for the Wild Card. Elias and Young pitched substantially less innings than King Felix and Kuma.

As mentioned earlier, Elias didn’t appear after mid-September and it’s unlikely he would’ve have been available for the postseason. Young also hit a wall in the second half after pitching the most innings of his major league career since 2007.  Consequently, he was pulled from the rotation late in the season, although Lloyd McClendon didn’t rule out using the big right-hander if the team played in October.

How many innings can the youngsters provide in 2015?
It’s difficult to project the workload that Elias, Paxton, and Walker will be able to absorb in 2015. Each will be handled individually. Elias posted a professional career-high of 168.2 IP (majors and minors combined) in 2014 and experienced his elbow issue at the end of the season; his previous high was 148.1 IP at Class A-High Desert in 2012. If he demonstrates no residual effects from his elbow injury, it’s possible that he could surpass 180 innings in 2015.  Neither Paxton nor Walker have pitched over 146 innings professionally and both had injury-shortened seasons in 2014.  All three youngsters will be closely observed and managed by Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon and Pitching Coach Rick Waits.

Plans for 2015
Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik isn’t interested in trading Iwakuma and he’s reluctant to trade either Paxton or Walker reports Greg Johns of MLB.com. Since Seattle is intending on making a playoff run, they’ll need enough pitching to go until the end of October; not September.  They’ll need to be capable of withstanding difficulties like those experienced in 2014, when they were forced to use a committee of pitchers led by Wilhelmsen on September 25th against the Toronto Blue Jays.

Trading away starting pitching would be counterproductive to the team’s 2015 aspirations and would leave the team very susceptible to any unplanned loss unless they acquire another experienced, quality starting pitcher to fill the void.

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