M’s change up pitching staff

 With a return of Hisashi Iwakuma from the disabled list expected to take place on Monday, the Seattle Mariners sent three pitchers to Triple-A Tacoma after Friday night’s vicotry. Starter Roenis Elias was optioned — to make room in the rotation for Iwakuma — as well as relievers Tom Wilhelmsen and Vidal Nuno.

The three players called-up to fill the roster spots include relievers David Rollins and Mayckol Guaipe and outfielder James Jones.

Iwakuma, out since April with a strained back muscle, has not been officially re-called yet. But there is no real benefit to having him on the big league roster until his scheduled start, which explains the likely temporary re-call of Jones. Kuma will be re-called following Sunday’s game or prior to Monday’s.

The right-hander has not pitched well this year, when he was healthy, posting a 6.61 ERA and a 6.27 FIP in three starts. He struggled with the long ball and was generally ineffective. Just because he’s healthy doesn’t mean he should automatically own a rotation spot for the remainder of the season. The 34-year old did not resemble the No. 2 starter he has been for the previous two years, but he will see every opportunity to have success at the big league from here on forward. He is a free agent following the season.

Elias had actually been pitching well during Iwakuma’s absence. Although he was hit hard in two of his previous four starts, allowing 19 earned runs in 20 innings pitched. With rookie Mike Montgomery coming off back-to-back complete game shutouts there was no way he was going to be the odd man out. Former top prospect Taijuan Walker has also found his groove in the rotation and was rock solid throughout the month of June. Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins explored what a potential six-man rotation would look like for the Mariners.

Back to Elias for a moment. PI’s Jason A. Churchill offered a pair of tweets regarding the left-hander’s value after being sent down to the minors again this year:

Like I said, despite a couple lacklustre starts in his rearview mirror, with Elias the demotion isn’t a performance thing. Given the lack of starting pitching depth it’s unlikely he’s dealt before the end of the month, but could become trade bait over the winter. It’s reasonable to suggest keeping him in the bullpen so that he’s available in a pinch for a spot start or long relief duty, but there’s no reason to take him out of his routine as a starter. Unless it was absolutely necessary for whatever reason.

Wilhelmsen has been up and down in 25 appearances out of the bullpen, with peripherals suggesting he’s been better than his ERA indicates. The right-hander hasn’t been walking more batters than in the past and his strikeout rate is actually up a couple batters per nine innings compared to last year. The problem is that in June he’s allowed 13 runs, 11 earned, in 13 innings pitched for a 7.62 ERA. He made only three scoreless appearances in 12 outings. Simply put, it’s a matter of execution and performance.

Manager Lloyd McLendon said that Wilhelmsen just needs to work on his command at Triple-A.

With Nuno, who was acquired in the Mark Trumbo trade, the demotion is slightly more curious on the surface. While he hasn’t been bad during his first month as a Mariner, a 2.53 ERA and a 3.93 FIP in 10 and 2/3 innings pitched, the majority of his work has come in the form of two appearances of long relief. With Charlie Furbush in the bullpen, Nuno wasn’t going to get any of the key lefty on lefty match-ups.

Oddly, many of his appearances were coming late in games with one team having a sizeable enough lead to suggest the game was all but over. Perhaps there was a lack of trust from the manager, but that’s my own speculation.

The real reason for Nuno’s demotion probably had to do with the incoming presence of last winter’s Rule 5 draft pick, Rollins. Adding the left-hander would give the M’s four southpaws in the bullpen including Nuno, Furbush and Joe Beimel, and it’s unlikely McLendon wanted to go that route. Even having three is abnormal by some standards.

Rollins was suspended in late March for a positive PED test and after serving his 80-game suspension completed a 16-day rehab assignment at Triple-A on Friday. He pitched nine and one-third scoreless innings across seven appearances while striking out eight and walking one. I offered a scouting report on Rollins back in December when he was acquired. He’s a hard-throwing lefty with a fastball in the 92-to-95 MPH range and a solid slider. He commands the ball well enough, but without a third average or better pitch isn’t likely to have prolonged success as a starter.

Guaipe surfaced with the big league squad earlier in the year, making his major league debut on June 1. He threw two and one-third perfect innings with a pair of strikeouts. He owns a 3.94 ERA and 4.00 FIP in 29 and 2/3 innings at Triple-A and has seen some time in the closer’s role. With Wilhelmsen going down, Guaipe replaces his right-handed arm in the bullpen.

The third re-call is likelythe placeholder for Iwakuma as Jones gives the Mariners a fifth player on the bench. With Jesus Sucre, Chris Taylor, Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley already in the picture it doesn’t make a lot of sense to carry three outfielders long-term. Even if Nelson Cruz and Trumbo aren’t really outfielders.

Jones gives Seattle his usual element of speed on the base paths and an ability to play center field. He has yet to record a hit in ten plate appearances at the big league level this year but does have two walks. Expect to see him used as a pinch-runner or late inning defensive replacement. He shouldn’t be starting Saturday or Sunday’s games unless it’s an emergency.

Out of all the moves, the two players I’m most interested in watching are Iwakuma and Rollins. A couple weeks in the minors for Wilhelmsen to re-establish some command and confidence should work out — I have little doubt that The Bartender will be back sooner than later.

We will probably learn more about any pitch or innings limits for Iwakuma’s first start closer to game time, if any are in place. The rotation hasn’t been terrible in his absence, but if the Mariners can insert a No. 2 or 3 starter into the mix it would be a huge boost. Truthfully, any value Kuma can provide Seattle at this point should be counted as extra. There’s a non-zero chance that the struggles continue: he appeared to be broken before the injury as opposed to struggling because of the injury.

Rollins was great in Spring Training and appeared to be heading for a bullpen spot on Opening Day before the positive steroid test. His stint in the minors is encouraging and he appears ready for his big league debut. Worst case scenario the M’s return the lefty to the Houston Astros or work out a trade to keep him in the organization. But it’s possible he could become a real weapon in the bullpen. Remember: this is the third time the Jack Zduriencik regime has acquired Rollins — twice previously in the amateur draft. He’ll get his chance.

Any upgrade made by the Mariners helps at this point in time. If these moves solidify the rotation and bullpen, Seattle can turn efforts towards fixing the remaining holes on the field, such as back-up catcher.

Left-hander James Paxton has started some on-field activities but is still several weeks away as he recovers from a strained finger on his pitching hand. As is the current case with Iwakuma, any value Paxton can provide down the stretch is gravy.

Montgomery and Walker, and Elias too, have done an excellent job of plugging the holes in the rotation.

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Tyler Carmont

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