Pitching Notes: Iwakuma, Walker, Baker, Santana

 Official Cactus League games are now underway for the Seattle Mariners, but the fact there’s baseball once again is overshadowed by the news that it’s unlikely Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker will be healthy by Opening Day. Iwakuma sprained a tendon in his middle finger just before camp began and Walker has been shut down for seven days after experiencing discomfort in his right shoulder throughout camp. Both don’t figure to miss time beyond April, but if their respective injuries take longer to heal than expected, the Mariners could be in some serious rotation trouble.

We already knew that Iwakuma would be out for at least the first couple weeks of the regular season, and on Friday it was revealed he must keep his finger in a splint for the next three weeks and should then be able to resume throwing. Manager Lloyd McClendon suggested it’ll take the All-Star around 20 innings of minor league action or simulated games to be ready to face major league hitters once again, and a couple weeks participating in a regular throwing program will be required to build up some arm strength first. Most were hoping Iwakuma would be slightly ahead of schedule after doing various throwing exercises without gripping a ball earlier in the week, but it appears that a mid to late April return to the rotation is the most likely outcome.

It’s not time to completely panic yet, but concern is growing quick over what’s going on with Walker after Friday’s tests revealed inflammation in his throwing shoulder. The Mariners have down played the injury and suggested it’s nothing to be worried about, but it’s hard to remain calm when the same was said about Danny Hultzen last year. Perhaps it really is just a simple bout of soreness and Walker will be just fine in a weeks time, but many won’t be sleeping easy until he steps on to a mound again. The young righty is being optimistic about the setback however, and doesn’t plan on letting it affect him more than it has to. If there is a silver lining in any of this, it could be that Walker is prepared to deal with troubles from a mental standpoint, a trait not always found in young players. Should he be able to resume throwing next weekend, he’ll really only be a couple weeks behind schedule. Not ideal of course, but far from the end of the world.

Suddenly Seattle’s lack of proven pitching depth has become even more magnified, especially when Randy Wolf‘s name is being mentioned as possible stopgap piece while Iwakuma and Walker get back to full strength. This concern isn’t new by any means and many agree that the M’s pitching staff doesn’t resemble that of a contender even in a best case scenario. The offseason signing of Scott Baker could almost be considered crucial now given the recent events. He made his first appearance if the spring today throwing two innings and allowing two to reach base. But pointless Spring Training stats aside, his early velocity is a definite positive.

Baker was a strong candidate to make the rotation out of camp anyways so long as he was healthy once again, but he could definitely start the year as the number three guy in the rotation depending on how the rest of camp goes. It’s still possible he pitches out of the bullpen at some point this year and the incentives in his contract are set up for both situations, but if his arm strength and durability allow him to pitch six or more effective innings every five days, he could be one of the best moves of the Mariners’ offseason.

Seattle has off and on again been connected to free agent Ervin Santana given their lack of pitching depth and the difficulty that exists in acquiring decent pitching via trade without giving up too much in return. It’s easy to connect the dots and suggest the M’s should pick him up given the uncertainty in their rotation has only increased in the past month, but Santana seems content to wait for the deal he wants to sign. That’ll likely be in the four-year $50 million range that his free agent counterparts signed for, but with seemingly minimal interest, is there a chance he folds and accepts less? Maybe, but probably not.

It wasn’t that long ago that Santana’s agents wanted $100 million for their client, but obviously that pipe dream was neither realistic or relevant once Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez signed their respective contracts. It’s not unreasonable for the right-hander to hold out for a four year deal and get it, the Toronto Blue Jays were rumored to have offered three years, but one has to think the likelihood decreases as the days go by. The Baltimore Orioles were reportedly interested before their free agent splurge, but they’re probably sitting back right now. The Colorado Rockies have kicked the tires a little bit recently but don’t seem overly interested. The New York Yankees were rumored to have some interest but haven’t been reportedly involved in a long time, and the Jays seem content to go with what they have at the moment.

Seattle has always appeared to be a logical destination, and perhaps is the only remaining one at this point. So long as the budget allows for it, it’s probably not all that bad of an idea to sign Santana right now. Three years would be preferable, but a four-year pact worth $10-13 million annually isn’t really all that bad; especially given the fact Bronson Arroyo will make north of $10 million in each of the next two seasons. Personally, I don’t like the idea of signing Santana to a multi-year deal given his history, but I like it a lot more than Seattle being forced to rely on young arms like Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez once again. Nothing against the two, the M’s just need more certainty in their rotation heading into the year.

It remains to be seen whether the Mariners have any more moves up their sleeves or not, but one thing is for certain: it never hurts to have extra pitching depth.

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Tyler Carmont

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