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Last night, Seattle Mariners fans received an unexpected and welcome surprise when general manager Jerry Dipoto announced that starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma would be returning to the team for the 2016 season.

Yesterday was a tumultuous day for the 34-year-old starter and his fans. Earlier in the day, rumors were circulating that the Los Angels Dodgers were backing away from a three-year/$45 million deal with the right-handed free agent due to concerns with the results of his physical exam.

By the end of the day, “Kuma” was back with the only major league team he’s known. The financial terms of the deal are unknown, but the team has announced that he’s under contract for next season with vesting options for the 2017 and 2018 seasons. Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that Iwakuma can earn near to $45 million, if both seasons vest. He reportedly received a full no-trade clause too.

While I’ve been lukewarm to the notion of bringing Iwakuma back to Seattle, the circumstances surrounding the veteran hurler’s return to the Emerald City have immediately improved the Mariners’ 2016 outlook in several ways. His presence instantly improves the rotation’s strength and depth, plus it helps deepen the bullpen – which is the club’s weakest link.

Rotation strength
Having a pitcher of Iwakuma’s caliber is always a good thing – as long it’s at the right price and risk is mitigated. His return has more impact now than it would’ve a month ago because Seattle added Wade Miley when it appeared that Iwakuma was signing with the Dodgers.

Miley’s inclusion in the middle of the rotation helps alleviate Iwakuma durability concerns and pushes everyone down a notch on the depth chart. On the following table, I’ve listed the Mariners’ most prominent rotation candidates, as today. That’s important to note, because the roster is definitely a living, breathing document under Dipoto. Included are the FanGraphs version of wins above replacement (fWAR) and the Steamer fWAR projections for the candidates, plus the fWAR for the key starting pitchers from last season.

   Rotation Candidates Key 2015 Starters
Name 2015 fWAR
2016 Steamer fWAR Name 2015 fWAR
Felix Hernandez 2.8 4.7 Felix Hernandez 2.8
Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8 2.9 Hisashi Iwakuma 1.8
Taijuan Walker 1.9 2.4 James Paxton 0.5
Wade Miley 2.6 1.9 J.A. Happ 1.2
Nate Karns 1.5 1.3 Taijuan Walker 1.9
James Paxton 0.5 0.8 Roenis Elias 0.6
Mike Montgomery 0.3 0.1 Mike Montgomery 0.3
Totals 11.4 14.1                                           9.1

As you can see, there are seven names in the mix and they project to add more five wins than last season’s top-seven starters. Based on the above projections, the rotation should be Felix Hernandez, Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker, Miley, and Nate Karns. If it were only that easy. The truth is the Mariners – and every team – will need more than five starters next season.

Starting pitching depth
A month ago, I pointed out that major league teams have averaged 10 starting pitchers-per-season since 2000, which is why pitching depth is a Mariners need. Even the best teams will need way more than five starters to survive the rigors of a 162-game season and a possible postseason run. Here’s a look at the number of starters used by each 2015 postseason team.

# SPs  Team(s)
16    Los Angeles Dodgers
13    Houston Astros
12    Texas Rangers     /   Toronto Blue Jays
10    Chicago Cubs      /    Kansas City Royals      /   New York Mets      /   New York Yankees   
9    St. Louis Cardinals
8    Pittsburgh Pirates

The Dodgers – who had two of the top-three Cy Young award vote-getters – used 16 starting pitchers on their way to winning the National League West division. The team that eventually beat them in the playoffs – the National League champion New York Mets – needed 10 starters, as did the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals. Guess who else used 10 starters last season? The Seattle Mariners.

Seeing these numbers should help stymie the trade James Paxton and/or Mike Montgomery for the time being. It’s possible that Dipoto will move someone, but what’s the hurry? Trading Paxton now would be selling-low. Based on three months of observations, dealing from a position of weakness doesn’t seem to be a “Dipoto thing.”

As far as Montgomery goes, a roster decision is pending on the southpaw. As I mentioned two days ago, he’s one of six Mariners out of options. The 26-year-old has to make the big league roster out of Spring Training or he has to pass through waivers before reassignment to Class-AAA Tacoma. There’s no doubt that Montgomery wouldn’t get through waivers. Barring injury, he’ll either be traded or make the roster as either a starter or reliever.

No one can guarantee that Montgomery would be a fit in Seattle’s bullpen. He’s been primarily a starter throughout his professional career. But, but adding another lefty reliever into the bullpen discussion certainly can’t hurt. Plus, his trade value will increase when some team inevitably loses a starter to injury during Spring Training. Who knows, that team could be the Seattle Mariners.

Having Montgomery – and whoever else loses out in the rotation battle – available to spot start would be beneficial. Remember how the Mariners needed last year’s rotation battle runner-up – Roenis Elias – and Montgomery when Paxton and Iwakuma went down? Back-of-the-rotation options matter for an organization that expects to make the postseason in 2016.

For a recent example of starters helping the bullpen of contenders, look no further than the 2015 World Series. Three starting pitchers had a huge impact on the outcome of games – former Mariner Chris Young, Bartolo Colon, and Jonathon Niese. You can never have enough starting pitching. It’s reasonable to expect that two starting pitchers will miss time in 2016. I bet Dipoto is banking on it.

Bullpen depth
As Seattle Times beat writer Ryan Divish and Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill pointed out here Iwakuma’s presence improves the Mariners’ bullpen flexibility since Vidal Nuno has held left-handed batters to a .200/.268/.315 slash during his three-year career as a starter and reliever.

Those numbers are very similar to projected set-up man Charlie Furbush, who has a career .203/.269/.269 against lefties. Nuno’s success against left-handed hitters could prove to be vital, especially if Furbush hasn’t fully recovered from the partial rotator cuff tear he suffered last season. It’s important to note that the southpaw is reported to be progressing well, but hasn’t started throwing yet.

The Mariners are better because Hisashi Iwakuma is back on their roster. I still have reservations about the back-end of the bullpen and its overall quality. However, I feel more comfortable calling the team a “fringe contender” now than I did yesterday. Being fringy isn’t exactly something to celebrate – but it’s only December and it’s better than what the Mariners were 24 hours ago.




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