james paxtonAfter posting a 9-4 record through the first two stretch of May, the Seattle Mariners find themselves on a four-game losing streak and have now lost six of their last eight games. Oddly enough, starting pitching hasn’t necessarily been their downfall over this current losing streak — the starting pitcher has gone at least seven innings in three of the four games — but it appears that further reinforcements could be on the way as injured starters James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are on the mend and getting closer to returning to major league action.

Paxton, out since April 9 with a strained lat, pitched a two-inning simulated game — or what is essentially live batting practice — prior to the M’s tilt with the Minnesota Twins on Saturday afternoon. The left-hander threw 36 pitches in total and faced John Buck, Logan Morrison, Cole Gillespie, and Stefen Romero. Paxton said he felt fine after the session and reported no pain while pitching or thereafter. He’s tentatively slotted to throw a longer simulated game — likely four innings — on Tuesday, and the club will decide whether he’s ready for a rehab assignment or another simulated game is needed first afterwards.

Walker on the other hand, has been battling a sore shoulder since February and it finally appears as though he’s back on track to make his first appearance of the 2014 season sooner than later after experiencing a setback in April. Shortly after Paxton completed his simulated game, the right-hander threw a 55-pitch bullpen session and is scheduled to throw a two-inning simulated game — the same as Paxton threw today — on Tuesday as well. The Seattle TImes’ Ryan Divish asked manager Lloyd McClendon if  Paxton and Walker would head for rehab assignments after pitching two simulated games, the same sequence of teammate Hisashi Iwakuma during his rehabilitation earlier in the season.

“I think Iwakuma was a little more advanced than these guys are,” McClendon said. “It was his finger not his arm. We’ll see how Paxton is as after this next one and go from there.”

If all goes well for Paxton in his second simulated game, it’s possible he could embark on a rehab assignment and rejoin the rotation by the first week of June. It’s a potentially similar timetable for Walker, though he sits about a week or so behind Paxton in his rehab process. All things equal, the pair should be in the major league rotation once again by the time the club starts an eight-game home stand in the middle of June.

In other rotation news, Brandon Maurer will have his next start skipped as Seattle has an off day on Monday. Felix Hernandez is expected to pitch in the series closer against the Twins tomorrow, while Iwakuma and Chris Young will start the club’s two games against the Texas Rangers on Tuesday and Wednesday. Roenis Elias is expected to take the mound on Thursday when the M’s open a four-game series with the Houston Astros.

It’s possible that Maurer will also be the first rotation casualty when the the pair of top prospects return to the rotation from their respective injuries. In five starts this year, the right-hander has managed to pitch beyond the fifth inning on just one occasion and he’s allowed four or more earned runs in three of those five starts. Across his 24 innings pitched he holds a 6.00 ERA and a 4.21 FIP and although it’s a very small sample size to analyze, Maurer’s strikeout rate in 2014 is down by over two full punch outs compared to 2013 while his walk rate is up by two thirds of a point compared to last year.

If not for the surprising performances of Elias and Young to start the year, it’s possible that Maurer would have more assurance of holding on to a rotation spot once Paxton and Walker return, however there’s still enough time for him to string a couple strong starts together and hold his spot, but that may be unlikely. Elias has already amassed a 0.6 fWAR this season in his first eight starts — third on the team to King Felix and Iwakuma — while Young has been able to pitch effectively beyond the sixth inning on a regular basis this year.

Many have gushed at the possibility of the Mariners running a rotation of Hernandez, Iwakuma, Paxton, Walker, and Elias, and it’s entirely that dream could become a reality by this time next month.

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Tyler Carmont

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