Temper Expectations for Elias

 On Thursday morning, the Seattle Mariners appeared to finalize what had been an unusually turbulent and acrimonious battle for jobs in the back of their starting rotation. After releasing popular pre-spring training rotation candidate Scott Baker and parting with Randy Wolf under contentious circumstances, the Mariners signed Chris Young to a one-year deal. Young is healthy and reportedly throwing well, so he makes sense as a stopgap number four starter. The surprise of the spring thus far, though, is that Roenis Elias is slated to break camp as the team’s No. 5 starter.

Before proceeding any further, it’s worth acknowledging the possibility that Elias might not make the big league team. By designating Bobby Lafromboise for assignment yesterday, the Mariners essentially committed to giving Hector Noesi a roster spot, and he could conceivably steal a few starts. Blake Beavan, a more likely candidate to start than Noesi, could also get the last spot if Elias has a poor final outing this weekend or if manager Lloyd McClendon opts for a veteran. All indications, however, are that Elias has won the job and will begin the season in Seattle’s starting five. While the Cuban’s rise from relative obscurity makes him a more enticing option than the mediocre incumbents, fans would be wise to temper their expectations for Elias.

Most significantly, Elias’s arsenal is underwhelming for a major league starter. Elias throws three pitches regularly: a four-seam fastball, a cutter, and a sweeping breaking ball best described as having slider movement at curveball velocity. He also sporadically throws a changeup, but it’s simply not a good major league pitch right now.

His fastball sits around 90-91 MPH, and he commands it well. This spring, he’s done an excellent job of pounding the lower half of the zone with his fastball, and it’s a skill he’s demonstrated in the past. Besides fastball command though, nearly everything else in Elias’s repertoire needs refinement. While he can move his fastball around the zone, and generally stay out of the middle of the plate, it’s a straight pitch, and he hasn’t consistently demonstrated an ability to reach back for something extra when he needs it. It’s a competent offering, but he won’t be relying on his fastball to generate swings and misses.

His cutter isn’t a bread and butter pitch either. Elias doesn’t locate it quite as well as his fastball, and like most cutters, it won’t generate many whiffs. At its best, the cutter’s late break gives him a weapon against righties, and as a pitch that induces fly balls, it’s a good offering for a starter pitching in Safeco.

The effectiveness of Elias’s breaking ball — let’s call it a slurve from here on out — remains to be seen. Working in the southpaw’s favor is his ability to hide the ball during his motion, which creates deception and disrupts hitters’ timing. This spring, he’s been able to regularly get called strikes or induce feeble swings from hitters who are seeing the slurve for the first time. The problem is that there’s nothing too impressive about the pitch beyond deception. Elias’s slurve has more vertical break than most sliders, but since he throws it so softly, it can hang, sometimes in the middle of the plate. Right-handers get a very good look at the slurve, and when he misses his spot with it, good hitters will punish him.

Right now, Elias has no swing and miss pitch for right-handed hitters. His changeup lacks bite and so he has no choice but to try to nick the outer part of the plate with a backdoor slurve as his primary off-speed pitch when he doesn’t have the platoon advantage. Since just about every team in the league can stack their lineup with righties, it’s tough to see him getting deep into games without giving up a fair amount of runs.

Additionally, even if McClendon wanted to give his rookie a long leash, it’s not clear that Elias has built up the requisite stamina to last more than five innings anyway. Players and coaches routinely echo how important it is for pitchers to get stretched out in spring training, and anytime a World Baseball Classic or a foreign opening series occurs, complaints of unprepared pitchers and disrupted routines inevitably follow. How much a short schedule matters can be debated, and the answer probably varies from pitcher to pitcher.

It is clear, however, that Elias has fewer pitches and innings under his belt this spring than most starters around the league. Thus far, he’s thrown just 17.2 innings and 132 pitches; by comparison, Beavan has thrown 24 innings and over 250 pitches. It’s an open question whether Elias is totally stretched out, which could be problematic for anyone jumping from Double-A to the major leagues, particularly for someone who can’t afford to take much off of his pitches.

Add it all up, and Elias just looks a little green across the board. He doesn’t have swing and miss stuff, has nothing to beat lefties with, and because his control is just ok, there’s no reason to hold out hope that he’ll be able to consistently generate weak contact. At best, he may be able to hold his own while turning a lineup over twice. Beyond deception, there’s not much he can attack hitters with, particularly as they adjust to the sweeping break on his slurve.

Ultimately, Elias will probably not make a significant impact on the 2014 Mariners. The Mariners have four off days in April, so the rookie left-hander will probably only be called upon three or four times before one of Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, or Brandon Maurer is ready to pitch. Elias is probably a better – and certainly a more interesting – option than Noesi or Beavan at this point, but realistically, he will probably have his share of struggles in the big leagues and would be best served spending most of 2014 developing his pitches in the minors.

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Jason A. Churchill

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