Can Mariners rotation pitch until Halloween?

With pitchers and catchers reporting to Spring Training tomorrow, Seattle Mariner fans have plenty of reasons to be excited about the 2015 season. It’s not just Seattle fans who see good things for the team in 2015; national pundits, well-respected baseball websites, and Las Vegas bookmakers alike are forecasting that Seattle will reach the postseason and possibly the World Series.

To reach the World Series for the first time in the club’s 38-year history, Seattle’s starting rotation would have to do something that it hasn’t needed to do in over a decade; pitch deep into October. Considering that the Mariners are expected to rely on several young pitchers with an injury history, what’s the likelihood that the team’s starting rotation has the “legs” to go the distance?

Surviving October
Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 World Series heroics underscored the importance of having an ace to anchor a team’s rotation during a deep postseason run. The 25-year-old southpaw propelled the San Francisco Giants to their third World Series trophy in five years by pitching a record-setting 52.2 innings. Every postseason team has a “go to” ace, but what else is needed to succeed?

Typically, teams need between three and five postseason starts from each of their top four pitchers to reach and/or win the Fall Classic. That’s what hurlers from the Giants and Kansas City Royals delivered while averaging 22.5 innings pitched.

   Avg Postseason Innings Pitched      (World Series Starters)
Season Innings Pitched
2014 22.5
2013 24.5
2012 20.8
2011 23.0
2010 24.4
5-year average: 23 innings pitched

Regardless of how teams distribute their workload, a team’s top four starters will likely pitch between 10 and 30 innings depending on their stature, performance level, and the number of games played. The 2014 World Series totals exemplify the added burden that the Mariners staff would face during a long postseason run.

 Innings Pitched by 2014 World Series Starting Pitchers 
Pitcher Team Postseason Spring Training Regular Season Total IP
Madison Bumgarner SFG 52.2 22.2 217.1 291.5
James Shields KCR 25 24.2 227 276.2
Yordano Ventura KCR 25.1 23.1 183 231.2
Tim Hudson SFG 21 25.1 189.1 235.2
Jake Peavy SFG 16 12.2 202.2 230.4
Jason Vargas KCR 15.1 24 187 226.1
Jeremy Guthrie KCR 13.1 19.1 202.2 234.4
Ryan Vogelsong SFG 12.1 19 184.2 215.3

Seattle’s 2015 rotation
Barring injury or trade, the Mariners will enter Spring Training with seven candidates with varying degrees of major league experience and talent vying for five starting rotation spots; Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, J.A. Happ, James Paxton, Roenis Elias, Taijuan Walker, and Erasmo Ramirez.

Seattle Mariner Total Innings Pitched *
Name Career High  Season 3 Year Avg
Felix Hernandez 261.4 2010 241.4
Hisashi Iwakuma 238.2 2013 187.1
J.A. Happ 193.1 2011 157.7
James Paxton 172.4 2013 132.2
Roenis Elias 190.4 2014 166.6
Taijuan Walker 163.1 2013 139.8
Erasmo Ramirez 190.3 2014 172.1
* Includes Spring Training, regular season (majors and minors), and postseason innings pitched

The tandem of King Felix and Kuma will anchor the top of the staff and Seattle manager Lloyd McClendon has already stated that he intends to use Happ in the rotation. That leaves Ramirez, Elias, Paxton, and Walker to battle for the last two spots in a five-man rotation. The challenge for the Mariners will be managing the workload of the youngsters who make the rotation. At least one of the young pitchers would likely start three postseason games; perhaps four.

             MLB Starts              (Seattle’s Young Starters)
Pitcher MLB Starts
Erasmo Ramirez 35
Roenis Elias 29
James Paxton 17
Taijuan Walker 8

This balancing act is no easy task considering that Elias is the only one of the four who has started more than 14 major league games in a season and only Ramirez didn’t suffer an arm injury in 2014.

Erasmo Ramirez
Ramirez has the most major league experience among the young starters, but is least likely to make the team. The 25-year-old has been inconsistent throughout his 35 major league starts and is out of options. The probable outcome for Ramirez is that he’ll be traded prior to the Opening Day unless something unforeseen occurs in March.

Roenis Elias
One year ago, Elias seemingly emerged from nowhere to earn a spot in the starting rotation. After never pitching above the AA-level, the southpaw helped the Mariners withstand the losses of Iwakuma, Paxton, and Walker and registered a career-high 168.2 innings. Unfortunately, the 25-year-old missed the last 11 games of the season due to a left elbow flexor bundle strain. The team could have used the rookie’s presence during those 11 games when the team was forced to use reliever Tom Wilhelmsen as a starter on September 25th.

James Paxton
The 26-year-old performed superbly during his first two starts in 2014 until he had to leave the Mariners’ home-opener due to a strained Latissimus Dorsi (lat) muscle and subsequently suffered shoulder inflammation and triceps soreness during his rehab. The injuries limited the southpaw to just 104 innings after he posted a career-high 172.4 in 2013. Paxton is poised to have a breakout year in 2015 and pitching 190 regular season inning seems within reach.

Taijuan Walker
The youngest of the young guns, Walker reported to Spring Training with shoulder soreness and didn’t pitch for the Mariners until late June. Despite the late start and bouncing between Tacoma and Seattle, the rookie amassed 129.1 innings; second only to his career-high of 156.1 in 2013. He should be capable of delivering 170 innings, although the measured approach that the Mariners used with the 22-year-old throughout his professional league career may preclude Walker from reaching that milestone.

The choices made by Mariners management in Peoria and they’re in-season approach with these youngsters will have a significant impact on the team’s success. With that in mind, there are several strategies that could be utilized to the team reach the postseason.

Be more economical
Elias, Paxton, and Walker all struggled with their command and surrendered too many walks-per-nine-innings (BB/9 IP) during their major league starts. Consequently, the trio averaged less than six innings-per-start and placed a greater strain on the Mariners’ outstanding bullpen.

Let’s assume that team decides to use a firm pitch-count limit with the youngsters and that the limit was 100 pitches. By just reducing their pitch-per-inning to 15 would permit each pitcher to average an extra inning-per-start. Over the course of a long season, that’s a significant reduction in workload for the bullpen. I’m not suggesting that the youngsters have to be as economical as King Felix and Kuma; they just need to improve slightly over their 2014 numbers.

Seattle Mariners 2014 Pitch Efficiency
Name Innings/Start Pitches/Inning BB/9 IP
Felix Hernandez 6.9 14.6 1.75
Hisashi Iwakuma 6.4 14.2 1.06
J.A. Happ 5.9 17.0 2.71
James Paxton 5.7 16.0 3.53
Taijuan Walker 5.7 16.5 5.02
Roenis Elias 5.6 16.3 3.52
Erasmo Ramirez 4.8 17.5 4.41

Add another veteran starter
Near the end of the first hour of the February 18th edition of The Steve Sandmeyer Show on 1090-The Fan, Prospect Insider founder and co-host Jason A. Churchill floated the idea of adding another veteran arm to be a number five type starter who could eat innings. Jason mentioned Edwin Jackson of the Chicago Cubs although the name isn’t important. He was merely suggesting that adding an inexpensive arm to displace workload could permit the Mariners to better manage the collective and individual workloads of their young arms.

Walker to Tacoma
This option may be the least popular and, perhaps, the most practical. Barring injury or a catastrophic meltdown in Peoria, I can’t envision any scenario that has Roenis Elias beginning the season in Tacoma. The southpaw made the club out of Spring Training last year and was their third best pitcher in 2014. Letting Walker remain in Tacoma will be frustrating for the 22-year-old hurler and many fans; that’s understandable. However, Walker’s workload could be more easily managed in Tacoma so that he’ll be primed to jump into the rotation later in the year or if an injury occurs.

Elias to the bullpen
One way to lessen workload and keep all three youngsters in Seattle would be to use one of them in the bullpen. During the February 13th edition of the 1090-The Fan Hot Stove Report, Jason A. Churchill and Prospect Insider’s Alex Carson discussed the concept first suggested by Root Sports’ Bill Krueger. Using Elias as a long reliever and spot starter would place controls on his workload while keeping him ready to jump into rotation, if necessary.

Six-man rotation
Using a six-man rotation from the onset of the season could potentially reduce the number of starts for a full-time starter from approximately 33 to 27 over the span of a season; six less starts equates to an average of 36 innings less for each pitcher. Certainly, Felix Hernandez is a stud. But, wouldn’t it be better to have him and Iwakuma fresher at the start of the postseason? Happ would benefit too and there’s a higher likelihood that Elias, Paxton, and Walker could all be contributors during a stretch run and in October. The obvious down-side of a six-man rotation is 12 fewer regular season starts from King Felix and Kuma. That may not sit well with McClendon.

Final thoughts
Elias, Paxton, and Walker are ready to pitch a full season for the Mariners. But, it’s tough to envision any of them starting the season in the rotation and still being able to contribute through October, unless actions are taken to balance out their individual workloads. Based on the Mariners’ judicious management of these young hurlers during their young careers, the team will find a way to integrate all three into the team and mitigate any risk to the their long-term health. Perhaps, it’ll be one of the options I’ve mentioned, a combination of those options, or something completely different involving an acquisition.

Adding a veteran who isn’t as good as Elias, Paxton, or Walker won’t help win games or further the development of each pitcher. Besides, having Elias in the bullpen permits the team to give any starter an extra day of rest and provides injury insurance. Avoiding a repeat of 2014 when Ramirez, Brandon Maurer, Blake Beavan, and Wilhelmsen combined for 2 wins and 12 losses in 24 starts would go a long way in guaranteeing the Mariners’ success in 2015. Personally, I’d prefer the Elias to the bullpen option.

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team and is now a contributor at HERO Sports also. During baseball season, he can be often found observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins

7 Comments

  1. Elements of the pitching could regress as the bar set in 2014 is pretty high. But there are a dozen or more starts my Maurer, Ramierez, etc in April/May that I’ll be happy to replace. Even Iwakuma coming back and essentially having spring training during the regular season.

    So, hopefully, on average the pitching is in the same ballpark and the offense takes a step forward.

  2. The Mariners pitching has been and will continue to be their strength. They’ll only go as far as their pitching takes them. The question is will their rotation be able to pitch until late October?

  3. I think the pitching is due to regress a bit this year. It will still be good, but a step back. I think still playing games well into October will depend on young players on offense taking positive steps forward.

  4. I like the suggestion of using a six-man rotation, but with the caveat that Felix still goes every fifth start. Iwakuma struggled in September and could be used more sparingly. Happ also has had injuries in his career, so probably would benefit from more rest. The youngsters––Paxton, Elias, Walker––could all also benefit from a

    1,2,3,4,5…1,6,2,3,4,…1,5,6,2,3,…1,4,5,6,2,…1,3,4,5,6,…1,2,3,4,5,…1,6…and-so-forth rotation.

    Maybe Walker still starts the year in AAA and Volcano Joe Saunders takes his spot as the sixth Starter. Truth be told, most often there will be an unexpected injury or three (Paxton, Walker, Iwakuma, Hultzen) that helps sort out these preseason Rotation debates. Hence, Erasmo Ramirez won’t be traded until late in Spring Training.

  5. The handedness thing = not a thing at all, especially for a club with six right-handed relievers that can get anyone out regardless of handedness. Just forget about handedness in the rotation. The best pitcher should get the nod, end of story.

    Also — go look at Happ’s and Paxton’s splits versus RHBs… not a problem.

  6. Elias has done something that Wilhelmsen hasn’t been able to do; start games and succeed. LMC could use Elias to help rest his starters and keep them fresh by giving any of his starters an extra day off or even skipping one of their starts. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Mariners handle the staff throughout the season.

  7. I keep reading that Elias is a candidate for the last spot in the rotation, assuming Felix, Kuma, Happ and Paxton are locks. But does it make sense for the Mariners to carry three lefties in the rotation? Does that play to the strength of Safeco? Or would Elias be better off as the second lefty/long relief in the bullpen since he probably has better stuff than any other lefty bullpen candidate? I know the conventional wisdom is to tuck him in AAA as an emergency starter, but if you have Wilhelmsen and Elias both capable of going multiple innings it is unlikely the team will need an emergency starter.

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