Can the Mariners contend without Drew Smyly?

When the Seattle Mariners acquired starting pitcher Drew Smyly from the Tampa Bay Rays in January, any doubts regarding the club’s resolve win now should have been wiped away. In the eyes of many baseball observers — myself included — the five-year veteran’s arrival transformed the Mariners into a legitimate postseason contender.

Then came the injury.

After missing his final Cactus League start with an elbow issue initially described as being “a little soggy” by manager Scott Servais, the news took a turn for the worse for both Smyly and the Mariners — a flexor strain.

Dipoto’s big rotation acquisition would start the season on the disabled list and miss a considerable amount of time.

When discussing the diagnosis with Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune, general manager Jerry Dipoto suggested, “Six weeks until he (Smyly) begins throwing. Eight until we anticipate we can make a better judgment on when he will rejoin the club.”

By that timeline, Smyly won’t begin throwing until sometime later next month. By mid-June, the Mariners should have a more clear picture on when the former second-round draft pick might rejoin the club. If all goes well, a return near the all-star break seems possible.

If all goes well.

To facilitate the healing process, Smyly received a platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injection. As with any treatment — injection, surgical, or otherwise — the risk of a setback is always a consideration. Smyly’s recovery could take longer than expected. Worse case scenario, he could facing season-ending surgery and be lost to the team well into next year.

Considering the uncertainty surrounding Smyly’s recovery, a question popped into my head that probably already inhabits the minds of many fans.

Can the Mariners contend without Drew Smyly?

Since taking over, Dipoto has continuously stockpiled arms to help mitigate the loss of starters. However, replacing a pitcher of Smyly’s caliber isn’t easily accomplished. The first man tabbed to fill the unplanned rotation opening is southpaw Ariel Miranda, who’s performed admirably.

Other names likely to see major league action as the season unfolds are Chris Heston, Chase De Jong, and Dillon Overton — all acquired during the offseason.

Heston and Overton are currently starting for Class-AAA Tacoma, as was De Jong until his recall today for bullpen duty. Another potential option prior to Spring Training — Rob Whalen — is currently on the 10-day disabled list with shoulder inflammation.

While Heston, De Jong, Overton, and even Whalen may be called upon to bolster the Mariners rotation this year, none are projected to be higher than a number-five starter. Dipoto brought Smyly to Seattle to be mid-rotation arm. They can help, but it won’t be enough.

Some fans have asked whether youngsters Max Povse and Andrew Moore — currently assigned to Class-AA Arkansas — could contribute for the Mariners this season. While both pitchers are performing well, leap-frogging either to the big league club would be out-of-character for a front office intent on not making the same mistake as their predecessors — rushing young players.

A more realistic outcome for Povse and/or Moore is a promotion when Dipoto turns to Tacoma for rotation help. Notice how I said “when” rather “if?” More than five pitchers will start games for the Mariners this season — expect a double-digit total.

Under the gloomy scenario I’ve suggested, Smyly could be lost for the season with no internal replacements capable of stepping into his mid-rotation shoes. Does that mean the Mariners’ season is sunk without Smyly?

It depends on his rotation mates.

Certainly, it’d be premature to assess the 2017 production of starters Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton, Yovani Gallardo, and Miranda. None have more than four starts — most just three. Yet, several have started the season with stats eerily similar to last year’s totals.

Player 2016 2017
ERA FIP WHIP  OPS ERA FIP WHIP OPS
Felix Hernandez 3.82 4.63 1.324 .718 3.65 4.29 1.378 .860
James Paxton 3.79 2.80 1.306 .717 1.78 1.14 0.870 .463
Hisashi Iwakuma 4.12 4.27 1.327 .776 5.40 6.97 1.267 .828
Ariel Miranda 3.54 5.47 1.089 .738 3.06 4.55 1.189 .675
Yovani Gallardo 5.42 5.04 1.585 .813 6.19 4.53 1.875 .885

 

While it’s early to make judgments, it’s never too soon for angst to creep into the minds of fans. Keep your chins up Mariners faithful, it’s not all bad news.

Paxton has been one of the best pitchers in baseball during the very, very young season. Only time will tell whether he can sustain his success. But, even a regression to his 2016 stat line would be an encouraging development. Good news.

The 27-year-old Miranda has been one of the pleasant surprises of the young season. He’s held opponents to a meager .675 OPS through his first three starts. Like Paxton, if he can perform near to his 2016 level, he’ll be a valued asset to Servais. Good news again.

Now, the rest of the story.

Miranda has just 13 career major league starts under his belt. Furthermore, the southpaw tossed a career-high 158 innings between the majors and minors last year. His late-season availability may come into question as he amasses innings.

I wouldn’t characterize the beginning of the season for the over-30 starters as bad news. However, it’s definitely a developing story requiring further attention.

By now, we’ve all heard the stories about Hernandez’s arduous offseason physical training regimen and the fact he wants to prove the naysayers wrong about his demise as a front-line starter. Unfortunately, we’ve seen mixed results thus far.

While King Felix has dramatically has looked much better at times and has improved his walk-rate from a year ago, the overall outcome has been strikingly similar to last season. He’s allowed just one free pass during four starts, but his walks and hits-per-innings pitched (WHIP) is essentially the same because he’s averaging 12 hits-per-nine innings — up from 8.1 last year.

Is Felix’s performance going to improve or continue to resemble last season?

Iwakuma is certainly off to a slow start, but that’s not necessarily a reason for concern — not yet at least. Last year, he endured an inconsistent April, but went on to be the club’s most reliable starter.

Still, Iwakuma did fail to reach the end of the fourth inning in two out of his final three starts in September when the Mariners were still in contention. Was his late season swoon an ominous warning of impending age-related regression, the effects of a long season, or just coincidence?

The newest Mariner in the rotation — Gallardo — is coming off the worst season of his 11-year career. Whether the 31-year-old can reclaim the success he enjoyed prior to last year or continues to struggle is unknown.

Regardless, Gallardo isn’t the problem with the Mariners’ staff. He’s just the weakest link in a chain with several weak spots. If the top-of-the rotation were performing as expected, his start every fifth game would be an afterthought rather than a main target of social media frustration.

Fortunately, for the Mariners and their tortured fan base, the team has played just 17 games to date. It’s possible the extremely small sample-size of mediocre stats is just a bump in a very long road and doesn’t signal trouble ahead. That brings me back to the my original question.

Can the Mariners contend without Drew Smyly?

No.

Even if the current staff stabilizes, the club will need rotation help. Much like Felix’s return from injury last July, getting Smyly back after the all-star break would provide a boost similar to adding a new player via trade. Without the lefty, Seattle risks returning to fringe-contender status.

Some may suggest the Mariners should make a deal to bolster the rotation. While possible, the organization’s limited number of trade chips and Dipoto’s reluctance to mortgage his club’s future make a significant upgrade seem unlikely. Without a major shift in organizational philosophy, it’s Smyly or nothing.

In the interim, the starting staff must collectively improve until Smyly’s recovery timeline becomes more definitive. Otherwise, it won’t matter when Dipoto’s big rotation acquisition returns.

Not this season, at least.

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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. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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