The Seattle Mariners have suffered from the loss of three starting pitchers for large chunks of the 2014 season. Hisashi Iwakuma missed all of April, James Paxton made two starts and then hit the disabled list with no return in sight and Taijuan Walker has yet to appear in a big-league game due to shoulder issues. Left-hander Danny Hultzen, who would have been a candidate for a rotation spot in March, had shoulder surgery and will miss all of 2014.

Still, the M’s are 28-28 for the year and while many are singing the praises of right-hander Chris Young, and the veteran has been very solid in filling a spot in the rotation, the same praises can be bestowed upon rookie left-hander Roenis Elias.

The 25-year-old skipped Triple-A Tacoma and has been able to adjust to major-league hitters and sustain some early-season success through his first 12 starts. In nine of those 12 outings he’s yielded three earned runs or fewer and allowed just four baserunners in Sunday’s complete-game, three-hit shutout versus the Detroit Tigers. He walked just one and struck out eight in what was his best performance yet.

After the game manager Lloyd McClendon was quoted as saying Elias “has as good a stuff as any left-hander in the league,” and while there is some assumed hyperbole attached to that in the eyes on many, the skipper isn’t all that wrong. Yes, I know, ‘wrong’ is an absolute. Managers, however, often speak in a way in which the listener has to realize the level of hyperbole. McClendon may not have intended for any hypberole, but he’s not that far off no matter which way one analyzes it.

Elias, versus the other left-handed starters in the American League, has comparable stuff to most. The few that stand out above Elias are just that — few. Chris Sale comes to mind as one whose stuff is a tick above, as does 2012 Cy Young winner David Price. That may be it. Derek Holland? Elias’ stuff is comparable, if not flat out better. C.J. Wilson? Same story. Mark Buehrle gets by with guile, smarts and command. Elias’ ‘stuff’ ranks above.

There is a nice group of lefties with good stuff. But only the aforementioned two go beyond Elias’ to fare incomparable. Not CC Sabathia, not Tyler Skaggs. Not Martin Perez, pre-injury, not Jason Vargas, not Jose Quintana, Tommy Milone, Drew Pomeranz or Hector Santiago, not John Danks or Wei-Yin Chen.

Dallas Keuchel? Nope. He has better command, for sure, which sets him apart. Elias is comparable in stuff to Jon Lester. Scott Kazmir, too. Both have better command and more consistent third pitches, but in terms of pure stuff, Elias is right there.

The Cuban is living 90-93 with the four-seam fastball, occasionally mixing in a 90-91 mph two-seamer. He throws an average slurve-like breaking ball to left-handers but the curveball is plus — sometimes plus-plus — and his changeup, which began the year as a very inconsistent 35-grade offering, is flashing plus and more often is traveling to toward the plate as an average or better pitch. He showed that Sunday to the Tigers’ right-handed dominant lineup.

Essentially, Elias has given the Mariners as much or more than they could have expected, not only from him, but from Paxton, Walker or Hultzen, too. He’s rocking a below league-average FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) is averaging more than six innings per start and ranks in the Top 25 in the AL in fWAR among starting pitchers, No. 4 among rookie starters.

Saunders Soaring
Outfielder Michael Saunders just finished the second-best full month of his career when he ended May with a .318/.357/.477 triple-slash, including four doubles, two triples and two home runs. He drove in 18 runs, drew seven walks and struck out 18 times in 100 plate appearances.

For the year, Saunders is batting .275/.327/.435, all of which rank above the league-average for right fielders, the position Saunders is charged with more often than not. What’s one month mean, you ask? Not a whole lot. Hitters have good months often, yet to don’t back it up with more months of production. But Saunders isn’t a one-month wonder, really.

In April, McClendon used Saunders sparingly — 36 sporadic at-bats. Throw that month away and add his May performance to his production the final three months of 2013 and what do you get? A .277 average .342 OBP and .455 slugging percentage. That’s a player, especially considering Saunders plays solid corner-outfield defense and runs the bases well.

Among AL outfielders with 140 plate appearances or more, Saunders ranks No. 15 in fWAR and only one player ranked above him has fewer PAs — all others have 68 to 109 more trips to the plate.

Sometimes players figure it out in their mid-to-late 20s. Jose Bautista didn’t better those numbers until 2010 at age 29. Carlos Gomez was 27 before he broke out at the plate.

I’m not claiming Saunders is an all-star, but the 27-year-old has been productive when in the lineup for more than a half-season of plate appearances. That .277/.342/.455 line over nearly 350 PAs is comparable to what Adam Jones and Shane Victorino put up last season. It’s better than what Starling Marte and Alex Rios posted — the latter in significantly better lineups and home ballparks — and it’s also better than the likes of Andre Ethier, Nick Markakis and Torii Hunter.

Michael Saunders is showing he’s a big leaguer.

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Jason A. Churchill

Churchill founded Prospect Insider in 2006 after getting his start at InsidethePark.com. He spent several years covering prep, college and pro sports for various newspapers, including The News Tribune and Seattle PI. Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016. Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.

7 Comments

  1. I agre with rjfrik. It’s great that this team is respectable, but I’m wondering how long the smoke (pun unintended) and mirrors thing will take them.

    The offense is still brutal. We have one legit middle of the order hitter, and that’s about it. Zunino is great, and Saunders and Seager are useful guys. Hopefully Jones can surprise as well. But all those guys are more solid contributors than really good hitters. With Ackley, Miller, Smoak, and the DHs doing little or nothing, I just don’t see how this team will keep scoring runs.

    Having “nice surprises” like Jones, Elias, and Young is awesome. Hopefully they can keep it up. However, I don’t think those guys come close to making up for the losses of Walker and Paxton and the struggles of Miller, Smoak, Ackley, Franklin, etc.

    I’m pleasantly surprised this team is around .500, but I’m not willing to drink the Coolaid yet.

  2. Topher,

    Saunders isn’t a JZ guy, he was a guy drafted by Bavasi. As Jason said, Saunders seems more like a guy that just figures it out later in his career. I will give JZ credit for Jones, he looks like he might actually be a big leaguer. But the rest of JZ’s lot…sure seems like a lot of busts, not “players that are producing” as you mention.

    Yes the M’s are .500, but they have been extremely lucky to get there and I’m not sure they can keep it up. This team looks and feels like a below .500 team. Frankly I think it’s time for someone else to come in and try to turn it around.

  3. Elias and Saunders are better than I expected so far, especially Elias yesterday. We tend to focus on those who are not fulfilling their promise and not on those who are exceeding expectations. With all the rotation hits they have taken .500 is a respectable performance for the first two months and they have shown they can beat good teams like the A’s, Angels and Tigers. The Mariners ended May with a 16-14 record, which was just the third time since 2004 they finished the month with a record of .500 or better. I think there is some room for optimism with this crew. They are at least worth the price of admission at this point.
    “Nineteen years of scouting and he’s the best kid I’ve ever been around in my life,” McNamara said. “He has [an] unbelievable work ethic.” Mariners scouting director on James Jones. That’s an impressive recommendation.

  4. “Finally the players he has brought in are producing.”

    Like Ackley, Smoak, Miller………………

  5. I’m still not sure what took Lloyd so long to give Saunders a shot. It was clear to me that he was our best outfielder going into this season. He’s even cut down on his strikeouts this season. It frustrated me when Sims was going on about how Lloyd was his manager of the year so far when we’ve seen stupid stuff like that all year. Farquhar is still being relegated to a lot of mop up work and Romero and Maurer have gotten way more opportunities than they deserved. At least with Brad Miller, he’s had success in the major before. Romero and Maurer have never even done well in AAA.

    I will give credit to Lloyd for Elias though. All I was hoping was that Elias could put together a decent 3 or 4 starts in April. I never expected this.

  6. Shannon Drayer just posted that Elias,” An improved changeup and a crazy good curve which he threw 28 times with none falling for hits and 26 of them recorded as strikes.”

  7. Jason thanks for this post. Since M’s are in the thick of the WC race in June, I am excited. It has been years since they have been competitive. And with Elias on board and is he fun to watch, a LH SP with that curveball is a delight. Fun to see other teams knees buckle. Also fun to see Tigers, a top team in AL only win one game.

    And to add that we may have a legitimate ML OFer is also impressive. I have always believed in Jack Z and am pleased that he was not fired. Finally the players he has brought in are producing. He has not acquired any OF ers per se. But there really have not been any available worth pursuing. None through FA and he tried his damnest to trade for one but to no avail. So with Saunders coming around and with Jones looking promising situation is improving.

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