At the end of the 2013 season we got a glimpse into the future of the Seattle Mariners’ rotation when James Paxton and Taijuan Walker were called up and made their big league debuts. Fast forward to Opening Day 2014 and just one of the two were in the starting rotation — Walker would begin the season on the disabled list. Erasmo Ramirez broke camp as the club’s No. 2 starter, but would make just five starts before being sent down to the minor leagues. He would be called up a few weeks later to start the second game of a double-header against the Oakland Athletics before returning to the minors until June.
Just over three weeks ago Ramirez when was re-called for Triple-A he made a start against the Atlanta Braves and it wasn’t pretty. The 24-year old lasted just three innings and would give up five runs on eight hits, two of which were home runs. Since that start however, Ramirez has not allowed a run to score. In fact, he’s arguably managed to improve his performance in each of those three starts, at least statistically.
Beginning with a start against the Tampa Bay Rays on June 9th, Ramirez would pitch four and two-third scoreless innings despite walking five batters and giving up four hits. He would last five innings in his next start against the Texas Rangers in which he allowed four walks and three hits. That brings us to his last start against the San Diego Padres this past week where he went a solid six innings while walking two batters and giving up just a pair hits.
Ramirez now holds a 4.62 ERA and 5.39 FIP on the season which are still a ways away from the 3.36 ERA and 3.55 FIP he posted in 59 innings across 16 appearances — eight were starts — in 2012, but he’s definitely shown some signs of returning to that form when he’s been able to control his pitches. However, more often than not he’s struggled with his control this year and his walk rate is a lofty 4.44. In 2012 his walk rate was just 1.83 per nine innings and even in 2013 he managed a 3.24 rate. So even though Ramirez has somehow been managing to strand runners at an 80.1 percent clip this season — he left 70.2 percent of base runners on in 2013 — there’s still reason to be concerned over the young right-hander moving forward given the control issues.
Perhaps the biggest factor that’s keeping Ramirez in the Mariners’ rotation right now is the situation with Walker. The M’s top prospect appears to be at full health once again, but he hasn’t exactly been his usual self in five minor league starts since beginning his return from a shoulder injury. In 21 and 2/3 innings pitched he’s given up six home runs and has walked nine. His strikeout rate of 8.72 per nine innings isn’t all that concerning, but his 6.91 FIP in that span is slightly worrisome.
Remembering that the sample size is very small and it’s unclear how many of those innings Walker was trying to work on something specific more so than getting outs, one shouldn’t read much if anything into his minor league ERA and FIP numbers from the past four weeks. And of course if you cut down the home run and walk numbers things haven’t looked too bad for him, but they haven’t been good enough for the M’s to make the call to promote their top prospect just yet.
Right now Ramirez is slated to start against the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday night while Walker is also set to start for the Tacoma Rainiers. Is it possible that a poor showing from Erasmo and a strong outing from Taijuan is enough to see the pair of starters switch places by the end of the week? Sure, but it may be a little premature to make any bets just yet. Mind you, it’s been no secret that manager Lloyd McClendon hasn’t been thrilled by Ramirez’s performance of late despite the scoreless streak, even going so far as to say the right-hander has “got to be better than that” after his start against Texas last Saturday. He did walk four batters, remember.
Whatever the case may be, Tuesday night definitely could be a pivotal night in regards to what the Mariners’ rotation will look like over the next couple weeks. If Ramirez manages to put a quality start on the board — six innings and no more than three earned runs — it’s possible he’ll get another chance to maintain his spot in the rotation. But, if he implodes or the control issues continue and he walks three or four batters again, we could be seeing Walker back with the big club in a hurry.
Not that that would be such a bad thing, after all.