Preview Capsules: Starting Rotation

 Felix Hernandez, RHP: 4FB, SNK, CB, CH, SL
2015: 31 GS, 201.2 IP, 8.52 K/9, 2.59 BB/9, 56.2% GB, .288 BABIP, 3.72 FIP, 2.8 fWAR
Felix Hernandez had his worst season in eight years in 2015, but still was very solid at the top of the Seattle Mariners’ rotation and despite the buzz about the 2,200 innings under his belt in his 10-plus seasons, the ace still averaged 92.1 mph on his fastball and his issues last season don’t appear to have been physical in nature. All this suggests 2015 is likely a bit of an anomaly, not the new norm.

Don’t let people point to the workload and tell you Hernandez just isn’t what he once was without offering legitimate evidence. Age and workload don’t qualify. Zack Greinke is 32, has amassed nearly 2,100 big-league innings in the same timeframe, despite a few trips to the minors on rehab assignments, and Greinke hasn’t slowed much. Yes, Hernandez has had to reinvent himself into a command-and-feel pitcher, but still has the plus curveball to compliment the sinker and changeup.

Hernandez’s command was spotty last season, however, and the changeup registered its lowest value since it became his best weapon in Year 3 of his career. Fly balls left the yard more — up to 15.3% in ‘15, career rate at 10.6 % — with random bad luck sharing the blame with the lack of ideal fastball command and the oft-absence of the good changeup.

He’ll be 30 April 8, but there’s no strong evidence that Hernandez has slipped much and there’s a good chance he rebounds some in 2016. Don’t be surprised if he returns to Cy Young contention this season and makes 32 or more starts. And if the games in September are meaningful, expect big moments from King Felix in his attempt to take the mound in the postseason for the first time in his already-illustrious career.

  Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP: 4FB, SNK, CB, SL, SPL
2015: 20 GS, 129.2 IP, 7.70 K/9, 1.46 BB/9, 50.4% GB, .271 BABIP, 3.74 FIP, 1.8 fWAR
Hisashi Iwakuma isn’t likely to make all 33 scheduled starts, but the 25-28 he does make will tease No. 2 starter results and increase the Mariners chances to win — over the alternative — significantly. He’s 35 in April, yet still displayed above-average secondary stuff to go with fringe-average velocity that all plays up due to plus command. Perhaps most importantly, Iwakuma’s contact authority still results in some ground balls — 50% in 2015, which is line with carer rates — and gets help from Safeco Field, and divisional rivals ballparks O.co in Oakland and Angel Stadium in Anaheim.

The right-hander hasn’t lost anything off the fastball, but he is throwing the four-seamer less in favor of the sinking two-seamer. While there’s no reason to expect that to revert back, there is reason to believe his splitter usage could return to the 21-23 percent range if he’s commanding well early in counts. Iwakuma used his curveball more than ever in 2015, and with good results (.188 BAA, .313 SLG), so the veteran enters this season with a little different book on him than one year ago, which is advantage Iwakuma.

Anything over 170 innings from Iwakuma is a gift to the M’s, but the club’s medical staff has worked minor miracles with Iwakuma before — see: 2012 — and it’s most important he’s available down the stretch if the club remains in contention. If he avoids the long stint on the disabled list,, the chances Seattle actually gets to that point improve quite dramatically.

   Taijuan Walker, RHP: 4FB, CB, CH, SL
2015: 29 GS, 169.2 IP, 8.33 K/9, 2.12 BB/9, 38.6% GB, .291 BABIP, 4.07 FIP, 1.9 fWAR
Taijuan Walker showed in larger glimpses last season that he can be dominant, using a plus fastball up to 97 mph with life above the batter’s hands and some sink down in the zone to set up a firm-but-promising split-change and a curveball that’s been up-and-down and has come with numerous grips. Walker added what he’s calling a slider, but has the look of a hard cutter, a pitch he mastered a few years ago in Triple-A but went away from to focus on his changeup.

The biggest developments for Walker last season included health — not even a blip on the radar in this department — general control and the innings to which the health led. The right-hander issues walks to just 5.7 percent of the batters he faced, good for No. 11 among qualified starters in the American League, right behind Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel.. In the end, Walker took a fairly significant step forward and doing so again this season gets him into dangerous territory — for opponents, that is.

In order to take that step, Walker’s curveball must become a bigger part of his arsenal, and the fastball command needs to take a step forward. Using his lower half better is a great idea in general, but it can only help him in each of the aforementioned areas. The 23-year-old also needs to execute a game plan more consistently so he can get through a lineup three times; eventually, the knob-high fastball will catch too much of the plate and big-league hitters will put the barrel on it and do damage. Being able to pitch backwards sometimes, attacking certain spots that expose a batter’s weakness and using more secondary offerings to do the same all are attributes of a frontline starter. That’s Walker’s target direction, and he could arrive in 2016.

    Wade Miley, LHP: 4FB, 2FB, SL, CB, CH
2015: 32 GS, 193.2 IP, 6.83 K/9, 2.97 BB/9, 48.8% GB, .307 BABIP, 3.81 FIP, 2.6 fWAR
Miley’s first season with Seattle will be his first in a ballpark that doesn’t severely favor hitters. This doesn’t always turn into marked cuts in opponents production for pitchers making such a move, but Miley may be different than the likes of J.A. Happ, et al, since he simply has better stuff, and more options if one of his offerings leaves him for a month.

The 29-year-old left-hander pitches comfortably at 90-92 mph with both a two-seam and four-seam fastball,, but his slider is his most effective pitch since 2013 — .214 BAA, strikeouts in 34 % of the PAs that ended in a slider. He also throws a changeup that improved considerably last season when he was forced to throw it more to keep right-handed batters from trying pepper The Green Monster with 320-foot fly balls.

Miley’s two-seamer has sink and can get some ground ball outs, but he does like to rasie the eye level of the hitter with his four-seamer at the top of the zone. Both fastballs have run in on right-handed batters.and Miley pitches from the third base side of the slab, creating an easier path in on righties.

Miley’s one of those ho-hum looks; you watch start after start, never say ‘wow,’ rarely come away particularly impressed, but he makes 30-plus starts, keeps the ball in the yard and gets into sixth and seventh consistently. There’s not much more in the box than that, but he’s as reliable as it comes in terms of mid-rotation left-handers in the American League.

     Nate Karns, RHP: 4FB, 2FB, CB, CH
2015: 27G/26GS, 147 IP, 8.88 K/9, 3.43 BB/9, 41.9% GB, .285 BABIP, 4.09 FIP, 1.5 fWAR
Nate Karns, 28, had a strong first three months last season, struggled in August and missed almost all of September with forearm stiffness. If healthy to start 2016, he’s a good bet to build on his 147-inning performance and perhaps reach the 170-inning range for the Mariners. Karns always has been a power arm, but last season his changeup was average — plus at times — and he took some mphs off his curveball, adding more depth. Batters swung and missed more than 13 percent of the time on Karns’ curveball, which approaches the upper third among American League right-handers.

There are reason to buy Karns as the power starter he was a year ago — 8.9 K/9, 23.4% of batters faced, and his entire professional career has been led by high whiff totals — but now there’s a book on Karns, whose fastball sits 90-93 mph, far from the type to get away with a lot of mistakes. Safeco Field and the marine layer should help some, but Karns likely will need an adjustment or two; veteran catcher Chris Iannetta is Karns’ best friend in this regard.

Karns is more of a risk than the typical starting pitcher because he has a history of injuries, and on the worrisome side the forearm issue he suffered last summer can end with Tommy John surgery. Here’s where the club’s medical staff — which has a great track record — comes into play. Like Iwakuma, anything north of 150 innings is gravy, more than 170 is Christmas morning.

      James Paxton, LHP: 4FB, CB, CH, CUT
2015: 13 GS, 67 IP, 7.52 K/9, 3.90 BB/9, 48.3% GB, .289 BABIP, 4.31 FIP, 0.5 fWAR
James Paxton’s stuff is good enough to profile as a No. 3, perhaps even a No. 2 starter when the changeup is at its best. Unfortunately, Paxton’s delivery and tendency to find the disabled list the last two years hasn’t allowed for any of the explosive 95 mph fastballs or plus curveballs do much for him or his teammates.

Beyond staying on the field, Paxton’s arm path is long, often creating a more difficult-to-repeat delivery, particularly in terms of release point. Stuff wise, the curveball flashes plus but he buries a lot of them in the dirt; he employs the spike curveball, otherwise known as a knuckle-curve, which includes digging the top of the finger or fingers into the ball, putting pressure on the ball with the fingernail. Paxton’s had issues keeping the fingernail from tearing away, adding to his issues staying active and on the mound.

Ditching that grip on the curveball may be in order, but there’s no sign that’s in the plans, and Paxton still has yet to show he can command his fastball and changeup enough to back off the curveball usage without sacrificing effectiveness. He’s used a cutter-slider before, which could be a weapon for him again, but his first order of business is staying off the medical wagon. If he does that, he can finish off his development and add underrated value to the Mariners’ rotation.

There’s more than just an off chance Paxton starts the season either in Triple-A Tacoma (more likely) or in the bullpen, since he’s probably No. 6 on the rotation depth chart.

       Mike Montgomery Rainiers” width=”300″ height=”238″ class=”alignleft size-medium wp-image-7041″ />Mike Montgomery, LHP: 4FB, 2FB, CB, C, CUT/SL
2015: 16 GS, 90 IP, 6.40 K/9, 3.70 BB/9, 51.2% GB, .290 BABIP, 4.67 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
Montgomery is a fine back-end option for most clubs, including Seattle, which may not have a need for him, clouding his immediate future. He’s out of options, so Triple-A isn’t an option — there are multiple clubs that at any point in March would snatch him up and add him to the mix — leaving a trade or a role in the bullpen his most likely destiny.

The left-hander is more of a command-and-feel southpaw, but not without stuff to get outs, including an average changeup that spikes plus and a mid-70s curveball he uses to change the pace and eye level. He’s dabbled some with a two-seamer and uses a cutter-slider, but primarily sits 90-92 mph with a four-seam fastball with some armside run, setting up his change and curve.

Montgomery has to be efficient or his effectiveness dulls in higher pitch counts enough to shave off his ceiling at the No. 4 starter range, but staying healthy and continuing to build arm strength for deeper seasons should be his main goal in 2016.

        Vidal Nuno, LHP: 4FB, 2 FB CB, SL CH
2015: 35G/10GS, 89 IP, 8.19 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, 42.2% GB, .296 BABIP, 4.42 FIP, 0.3 fWAR
Nuno is a solid No. 5 starter that will start this season in a full-time relief role, where his stuff plays up a bit and the club can take advantage of his three pitches that are devastating to left-handed batters.

As a starter, Nuno sits 88-90 mph with both a two-seamer and four-seamer, getting some fade and sink on the former and some upper-zone life on the latter. His bread and butter is a combination of command, change of speeds and deception in his delivery, which help his secondary offerings — mid-80s slider with tilt, 78-80 mph curveball with some depth and an average changeup — play up, particularly in shorter stints.

If the M’s end up needing to dig as deep as most clubs do during the course of a season, Nuno will make a few starts in 2016, and if he’s literally the No. 8 starter in 2016, Seattle is in terrific shape.

         Brad Mills, LHP: 4FB, CUT/SL, CB, CH
2015: 1GS, 5 IP, 1.80 K/9, 1.80 BB/9, 35% GB, .316 BABIP, 6.53 FIP, -0.1 fWAR
Mills is a soft-tossing middle-relief type, but in an emergency has starting experience that suggest he can get through a lineup once or twice and still give the club a chance to win the game.

Mills doesn’t throw very hard, and never has, sitting around 85 mph in 2015. He’ll throw an occasional cutter-slider in the low-80s to get in on right-handed batters, and his low-70s curveball is fringe-average, despite good shape. Mills’ changeup is where he draws Moyer-lite comparisons, but this kind of arsenal doesn’t play for more than a few innings, typically.

Mills is a depth lefty much more likely to start 2016 in Triple-A or with another club, but could be a serviceable southpaw and a last-second rotation saver.

          Donn Roach, RHP: 4FB, 2FB/SNK, CUT, SPLIT, CB, CH
2015: 1 GS, 3.1 IP, 2.70 K/9, 2.70 BB/9, 68.8% GB, .500 BABIP, 3.43 FIP, 0.1 fWAR
Roach, 26, has the kitchen sink in his holster, but his best offerings include a 72-76 mph curveball with two-plane break and a sinking two-seamer with natural gloveside run. He’ll sit 88-91 mph with his fastballs, occasionally cutting one in on a lefty to set up something away. The slider has been a quality pitch in the past, albeit inconsistent in both command and bite.

Roach, like most rotation options beyond the initial projected five, is more likely to see time in Triple-A to start the season, but may be ahead of even Vidal Nuno on the depth chart since the southpaw likely will be entrenched in an important relief role.

The right-handed Roach, a third-round pick in 2010 who played JC ball with Bryce Harper, has 17 games of big-league experience, including two starts, one for San Diego and one for the chicago Cubs a year ago. He’s not going to miss a lot of bats, but is another serviceable option if the club gets desperate for innings.

           Joe Wieland, RHP: FB, CB, CH, SL
2015: 2 GS, 8.2 IP, 4.15 K/9, 5.19 BB/9, 38.7% GB, .276 BABIP, 6.94 FIP, -0.2 fWAR
Joe Wieland might be a wild card for the bullpen as much as Ryan Cook, but has a starting background, including nine in the big leagues.

The 26-year-old has a lively fastball despite average velocity in the 89-91 mph range, but he’s pitched comfortably at 90-93 before injuries (Tommy John in 2012, missed half of ‘12, all of 2013) slowed his development. Even in the minors Wieland never was a big strikeout artist, mostly due to two below-average breaking balls and an inconsistent and often-times flat changeup.

In a relief role, the 80-82 mph slider may play up some and the fastball could build back toward 92-94, lending Wieland a few legitimate big-league weapons. He pitches from a high arm slot, creating downward plane and a better chance to keep the ball in the yard. This also bodes well for his curveball and changeup.

If he’s starting games for the Mariners in 2016, it’ll mean one of two things: 1) Wieland has returned to form and significantly improved his curveball or slider, or 2) Seattle is awful. Even two injuries unlikely get the M’s all the way down to Wieland for starts without the latter taking place in March and April (in the minors).

            Adrian Sampson, RHP: 4FB, 2FB, SL, CH
2015: (AAA) 28 GS, 162.2 IP, 6.79 K/9, 2.02 BB/9, .341 BABIP, 4.46 FIP
Adrian Samspon was acquired in the trade with the Pittsburgh for lefty J.A. Happ last summer. The Skyline HS and Bellevue College product posses a solid-average fastball up to 94 mph, but typically pitches at 89-92 with some sink and armside run from a low three-quarter slot. The four-seamer will show life up in the zone.

The slider flashes average at 83-86 mph and Sampson keeps it down well, assisting in keeping the ball on the ground, which is his M.O. with the fastball mix. His changeup is a bit firm at 86-88 but occasionally has shown a better velocity differential (83-85), which also shows more movement away from left-handed batters. It’s well below average, but isn’t a throw-away at this stage.

Sampson needs to return to the minors and continue his work on command with the fastball, the changeup as a whole and perhaps more two-seam sinkers so he can carve out a nice little sinker-slider career for himself as a swing arm or No. 5 starter.

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Jason A. Churchill

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