Prediction: Mariners will need more than five starters in 2015

With starting pitcher Roenis Elias being optioned to Class-AAA Tacoma today, Taijuan Walker appears to have a clear path to the fifth spot in the Mariners’ starting rotation. Considering that the 22-year-old Walker hasn’t surrendered a run and looked spectacular in 18 Cactus League innings, today’s announcement wasn’t a great surprise to most observers. Some Mariners fans, however, would prefer that Elias join Walker in the rotation with veteran J.A. Happ being bumped to the bullpen. That scenario isn’t likely since manage Lloyd McClendon is on record stating that the 32-year-old southpaw was brought to Seattle to be in the rotation.

Certainly, Elias will be disappointed by his demotion. Who wouldn’t be? But, the 26-year-old might find some measure of comfort knowing that, if he remains healthy and effective with Tacoma, he’ll get his chance to start in meaningful games for Seattle because his club will need more than five starters in 2015.

Five is not enough
The 2014 Mariners recorded their first winning season since 2009 and finished excruciatingly close to the earning an opportunity to play for the second American League Wild Card berth. In the end, Seattle’s postseason aspirations were dashed, in part, due to the unplanned losses of starting pitchers before and during the season.

Last March, the team left Peoria with starters Hisashi Iwakuma (finger), Brandon Maurer (back), and Walker (shoulder) on the disabled list. To compound matters, James Paxton suffered a strained Latissimus Dorsi muscle after his second start and was lost until early-August. By April 7, the team had lost at least three of their projected starting five. Even injury replacement Blake Beavan was injured during his one and only start on April 15. Despite these setbacks, McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits masterfully handled the pitching staff and kept their squad in contention until the last day of the season.

Unfortunately for Seattle, the wheels further came off the wagon in September. Elias didn’t pitch after September 16 due to a left elbow flexor bundle strain and Chris Young was shut down after pitching his most innings (165) since 2007. The loss of two pitchers, who accounted for 34 percent of the 950.6 innings pitched by starters, left McClendon with no good alternatives. So, the Mariners’ skipper opted to start reliever Tom Wilhelmsen on September 25. The team managed to win that game despite Wilhelmsen being pulled in the second inning. But, the fact that the Mariners’ skipper had to resort to starting a game with a reliever in game number 159 underscores the fact that the team had run out of starting pitching resources.

2014 wasn’t an aberration
Another reason that Elias can be optimistic about a recall to Seattle is the fact that the Mariners have used just five starters only once during their 38-year history when they used the same starting five of Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche, Freddy Garcia, and Ryan Franklin in 2003. Here are the number of starting pitchers that the team has utilized over the past decade.

A league-wide challenge
The Mariners weren’t alone in having to patch together a rotation; every major league team needed rotation help during the season. The Milwaukee Brewers were the most fortunate, using only seven starting pitchers while the injury-riddled Texas Rangers needed 15 starters to survive their disastrous season. Take a look at how the rest of winning teams fared with their rotations.

No team is immune from the challenge of sustaining a successful starting corps. Five postseason participants, including both league champions, used eight starters during 2014 while perennial contenders St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers used 12. The average number of pitchers used in the rotation among teams with winning records was 9.5; the Mariners used ten. Teams were forced to make in-season changes for two primary reasons; injuries and poor performance.

Injuries
Losing a key player, especially a starting pitcher, is always devastating to a team’s season. Virtually every winning team lost starting pitchers to stints on the disabled list last season. Sometimes, an injury can have a silver lining as it did when Elias took advantage of the unexpected preseason losses of Iwakuma, Maurer, and Walker.

Poor performance
Sometimes, members of the original starting five don’t pitch well enough and changes have to be made; both Maurer and Ramirez pitched their way back to Class-AAA Tacoma after poor performances. Maurer returned to Seattle as a reliever later in the season and contributed in his new role. Despite his inconsistent performance, Ramirez was recalled from Tacoma on several occasions to fill in as a spot starter, but continued to deliver mixed results and wasn’t used as a starter after August 27.

Seattle’s options
Since injuries and/or poor performance are a challenge that McClendon and general manager Jack Zduriencik will inevitability have to face in 2015, the challenge of finding productive replacements. So, what are their options?

Roenis Elias
Barring injury or a monumental regression at Tacoma, the southpaw is the obvious first choice. Despite his struggles this spring, Elias is a proven major league talent. Last season, he broke delivered 10 wins and tied Young for the second most starts (29) on the Mariners’ staff.

Erasmo Ramirez
Although Ramirez – who is out of minor league options – has been on the periphery of the fifth starter conversation, he was never considered a realistic option. The soon-to-be 25-year-old has struggled this spring and his fate with the Mariners will likely be determined this week. Barring unforeseen circumstances, he’ll probably be with another organization by April.

Minor league reserves
The team doesn’t have a hot prospect, like Paxton or Walker, who is an obvious choice to make the jump to the big league club. So, Zduriencik added several arms to augment the Tacoma Rainiers’ staff.

Jordan Pries is the lone internal option sans Elias and has impressed McClendon during his first spring with the big league club. The 25-year-old could be the second choice after Elias after posting ten wins and a 3.86 ERA with Class-AA Jackson and Tacoma in 2014.

Kevin Correia signed a minor-league deal with Seattle a week after the start of Spring Training hoping to earn a spot in the rotation, but he’ll start the season in Tacoma. The 34-year-old righty, who split the 2014 season with the Minnesota Twins and Los Angeles Dodgers, posted a 5.09 earned run average (ERA) in 26 starts and could be a veteran option, if needed.

The Mariners acquired lefty Mike Kickham from the Chicago Cubs after the 25-year-old spent the 2014 season in the Giants’ system. The southpaw spent most of the season with Class-AAA Fresno pitching 148.1 during 27 starts and may be better suited for the bullpen.

Other options will include Sam Gaviglio, who was acquired in a trade with St. Louis and posted a 4.28 ERA during 136.1 innings at Class-AA Springfield in 2014, and Justin Germano who has played for seven major league teams and has also pitched in Japan and Korea. He has a 5.85 ERA during 48 career starts. Both will start the season as teammates in Tacoma.

Danny Hultzen
I listed the 25-year-old separately because he’s frequently mentioned by fans as a possible addition to the 2015 squad. But, it’s not likely that the former number-two overall draft choice is not an option for Seattle in 2015. Hultzen is finally healthy after missing the entire 2014 season due to major shoulder surgery, but his recovery from that surgery is far from complete. The 2015 goal for the southpaw will be to stay healthy, while building up arm strength and his innings. Assuming he has no setbacks this year, Hultzen projects to be better positioned to contribute at the major league level in 2016.

Adjusting course mid-season
Teams with an eye towards October may be motivated to make changes for a variety of reasons including injuries, poor performance of incumbents, bolstering pitching depth, or just seizing an opportunity to grab a playoff-proven starter. Last season, the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants, and Oakland Athletics acted aggressively to shore up their starting rotations for a postseason run.

Depending on the circumstances, Zduriencik may be motivated to make an in-season deal to augment his rotation. It’s important to note that deadline deals for starting pitching normally require teams to forfeit valuable resources to get value in return.

The Tigers acquired former Cy Young winner David Price, although they did have to surrender starting pitcher Drew Smyly to the Tampa Bay Rays in the process. Oakland, was even more aggressive by trading outfielder Yoenis Céspedes and their two top prospects in separate deal for so that they could get Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox and Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs.

Outlook
Having to choose between Roenis Elias and Taijuan Walker for the fifth starter spot in a rotation is a problem that nearly every major league manager would be willing to tackle. The 162-game major league baseball season is a test of endurance and most team’s September starting five will look quite different compared to the April version. The Mariners will likely face the same challenges and, barring injury, both Elias and Walker will both have an opportunity to contribute in 2015 and for many years to come.

 

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