The evolution of the Mariners rotation

 Plenty has been made about the remake of the Seattle Mariners rotation heading into 2016 and rightfully so. The 2015 edition had considerable upside, but ultimately disappointed. Seattle only had two qualified starters in terms of innings pitched, Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, as injuries limited Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton.

By ERA the rotation ranked 17th in the entire league and by fWAR it ranked 19th. Those aren’t the type of numbers that will end what is now the longest playoff drought in Major League Baseball. Unless it’s backed by a terrific offense and bullpen, but a fair share of ink has already been spilled on how those two areas hurt the 2015 Mariners.

Needing some stability in the rotation, Wade Miley was acquired from the Boston Red Sox. Nate Karns was also acquired from the Tampa Bay Rays to bolster the back-end of the rotation. At the time of the Miley acquisition, it appeared that Seattle had finished tinkering with their rotation. General Manager Jerry Dipoto had even gone so far as to say he was “done” making significant additions.

However, some skepticism over Iwakuma’s physical on the Los Angeles Dodgers’ behalf later, and the right-hander is back under contract for the 2016 season and under team control for the next three seasons.

Currently, the Mariners 2016 rotation projects to include Felix, Iwakuma, Miley, Walker, and one of Paxton or Karns. As written by Prospect Insider’s Luke Arkins, the Mariners undoubtedly will rely on arms beyond those that are in the Opening Day rotation to contribute to the starting staff. The following table shows pitchers that have made five or more starts for Seattle over the previous five seasons with my estimated projection for starters who will hold that distinction in 2016.

Within the confines of this table we can get a glimpse of the natural evolution of the Mariners rotation.

What’s interesting about a list like this is that we can begin to break down players by type. There’s the veteran, one-year contract guys: J.A. Happ, Chris Young, Joe Saunders, Jeremy Bonderman, and Kevin Millwood. There’s the prospects that didn’t cut it: Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and Hector Noesi. There’s even the pitchers that were dealt for a bat: Jason Vargas, Michael Pineda, and Brandon Maurer.

All told, I think the table of starters listed would resemble that of several teams. All teams have a collection of homegrown talent mixed with trade or free agent acquisitions and veteran filler of some kind. Beyond that though, we can see the evolution of a pitching rotation.

King Felix is the established ace of the rotation and has remained a constant for Seattle beyond the group of five starters. We can also see that Iwakuma has become a mainstay in the rotation as well. This year though, Iwakuma takes the role as veteran on a one-year contract. Of course this case is much different than that of Happ or Young since Seattle is counting on the right-hander to be a No. 2 or 3 starter as opposed to back-end depth. There’s also the matter of Iwakuma having a pair of vesting and club options that could stretch the deal to three years.

Most, if not all, of the great rotations have a pillar or two at the top that support the growth of the rotation among the inflow and outflow of pitchers.

Perhaps more interesting than the year Millwood wore blue and teal — though his presence in the combined no-hitter is a great historical anecdote — before Safeco Joe took his place, is seeing the rise and fall of prospects through the years.

Look at 2011 for example. That year Vasquez made seven starts but is still waiting for an opportunity to throw another major league pitch. Furbush, not a top-flite prospect either, hasn’t started a major league game since, though he has become a solid relief pitcher.

Let’s throw another name into the mix: Erasmo Ramirez. Again, he wasn’t among the organization’s high-upside talent in recent years, but he was a prospect with some tools who toiled between the rotation, bullpen, and Triple-A for a few years before being dealt. Now in his place stands Montgomery who serves as some back-end depth for the moment.

Should he fail to crack the Opening Day roster, and because he’s out of minor league options, he could find himself dealt for a similar starter who doesn’t fit his current club’s plans and has an existing option. Practically all organizations cycle through these kinds of starters hoping to find a diamond, or more often an above average season that they can cash in on the trade market or bide time with for a younger arm.

After debuting in September 2013, Walker and Paxton were expected to become mainstays near the top of the rotation. That hasn’t exactly happened yet. Walker is coming off a solid season and appears primed for a potential breakout season. Paxton on the other hand, has struggled with health and finds himself competing for the fifth spot in the rotation instead of beginning the season in the No. 2 slot a la 2014.

The examples of Walker and Paxton speak volumes to the evolution because the development of prospects make up such a big part of it. Teams devote significant resources into these players with the hope that they will headline their next championship team but can’t find a tangible reason for why that player is performing contrary to the skill set they possess.

Walker and Paxton have the tools to be the No. 2 and No. 3 starters in a rotation, provided the Canadian lefty can develop a little more command. Do they get there at some point? Only time will tell. Ideally we see the next steps in both player’s evolution take place in 2016 as Walker continues to be a solid contributor and Paxton proves he can be one.

One thing that we haven’t seen happen with the Mariners’ rotation over the past couple seasons is the development and influx of young talent. Don’t get me wrong, the discussion allotted to Walker and Paxton are warranted, but those two are about it. Roenis Elias was dealt as part of the Miley trade and had some upside. Michael Pineda was also a fine pitcher and Edwin Diaz could turn into the next big thing. But there’s always been the feeling that the rotation was a Felix Hernandez injury — and last year a Hisashi Iwakuma injury, it seemed — from falling apart.

Last season the St. Louis Cardinals lost Adam Wainwright for the bulk of the season. However, despite an ace on the disabled list, the club still managed to win the NL Central with the likes of Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, and Michael Wacha — all homegrown and developed talent — stepping up to fill the void. The deal for John Lackey during the previous season helped too.

The Mariners rotation is better-prepared for injuries this year than they were last, but is there a candidate to step up and fill a potential void left by a key starter? Montgomery had moments last season, but couldn’t sustain anything. Is Vidal Nuno the guy who takes a big step this year? Or maybe Karns?

It’s unfair to expect the results of the new regime bringing large changes to the player development side of the organization right away. We won’t realistically be able to see the difference until several years have gone by, but all signs point to the future looking significantly brighter than it did a year ago.

The Mariners do have talent in the lower minors, like Diaz, but they are still several years away from contributing to the big league roster. That will change as other players come in and some take steps forward, but it’s no secret that replenishing the minor league system, particularly at the upper levels, is a priority for Dipoto.

This season will offer us a look at what the rotation stands to be in 2017 and 2018 as well. How do Miley and Karns fit? Where do Walker and Paxton go from here? Can Iwakuma stay healthy and pitch effectively? Is Felix able to continue being Felix. We’ll see.

It’s important to remember that there is no formula to putting together a major league rotation. Even the World Series champion Kansas City Royals offered a rotation that included that same Chris Young alongside growing star Yordano Ventura, offseason signee Edinson Volquez, and trade deadline acquisition Johnny Cueto.

Seattle has the ace and some interesting wild cards to see play out as the rotation begins another series in the evolutionary process.

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Tyler Carmont

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