PEORIA, Ariz. – It wasn’t until the last few weeks of spring training in 2017 where the premise of the projected starting rotation was thrown into chaos by the “soggy” left arm of Drew Smyly.
And that expected group of five starters were never once together during the regular season. Heck, at times, the Mariners only had one of the five not injured – Yovani Gallardo – and he was their worst performer.
The Mariners made it exactly three days into camp before their expected rotation needed editing when Erasmo Ramirez started feeling tightness in his latissimus dorsi (lat muscle) and was shut down from throwing for two weeks.
While there is some hope that Ramirez could be ready to go when needed at the start of the season, aided by an April schedule field with off days, when exactly have the Mariners had recent luck with starting pitchers returning as expected?
It’s prudent to plan for the possibility that Ramirez’s injury follows the more typical path of lat strains, which is a six-week recovery to full strength.
It’s why the two top candidates to replace him – left-hander Ariel Miranda and right-hander Andrew Moore – pitched two innings each in Friday’s Cactus League opener. On the organizational depth chart for starting pitchers, Miranda and Moore sit sixth and seventh. Both seemed headed for Class AAA Tacoma to start the season, but with Ramirez’s status uncertain, they will vie for that open spot in the rotation.
“Both those guys did have some highlights last year,” manager Scott Servais said prior to Friday’s game. “They also had some lowlights. Going out of the chute today, it’s the first time out and you have to be realistic. Throw strikes, get in good counts, try to stay ahead in the count. You’re going to give up some hits, it’s going to happen, it’s Arizona. But that would be more what I’m looking for, their ability to command the strike zone and get after it early in the count, stay on the attack and take what happens.”
Not much could be gleaned from their work in a 3-2 win against the Padres. Miranda started the game and was a little shaky with his command early, walking the first batter of the game and later allowing a run in the first inning. He worked out of the trouble, aided by nice diving catch from Ben Gamel and timely 5-4-3 double play.
Moore pitched two scoreless innings, not allowing a hit with a walk, a hit by pitch and three strikeouts.
What the Mariners are hoping to see over the next few starts is that each has addressed the problems that plagued them during those “lowlights.”
Expected to be in Tacoma to start 2017, Miranda moved into the rotation when Smyly was injured after pitching in the World Baseball Classic. He was solid to start the season, but struggled in the season’s final three months, eventually being demoted to the bullpen. He posted a 7-4 record with a 3.82 ERA in first 17 starts. But he was just 1-3 with a 6.71 ERA in his final 12 starts while allowing a whopping .905 on-base plus slugging percentage and 17 homers. For the season, Miranda gave up 37 homers, second most in all of baseball.
There was some belief that Miranda was tipping his pitches and teams could differentiate his pitches from his windup, which led to all the homers and extra-base hits.
“In some situations, I think I did, but it’s something I’ve really worked on,” Miranda said through Rainiers performance coach Derek Mendoza. “I feel like I’ve made that adjustment.”
Servais wouldn’t use it as a complete excuse for it.
“Some teams will say they have things or whatever,” Servais said. “The reason he gave up a lot of home runs, there were a lot of fastballs up in the middle of the plate. These players nowadays are so locked in. Our guys are good at it, too. They’re trying to come up with any advantage they can. Our guys spend a ton of time looking at pitchers and trying to figure out if it’s a fastball or offspeed on tips. Teams may have something. They probably try to get something on every one of our guys. It’ll be something we keep our eye on today. Our hitting coach also keeps an eye on our own pitchers. That’s something that Edgar (Martinez) is really into, too, and has been able to do his whole career. That’s something we’ll certainly keep our eye on.”
Beyond tipping pitch to pitch, hitters also know that Miranda has been essentially a two-pitch pitcher for his career – fastball and changeup. He’s never had much of a breaking ball to speak of. It’s certainly not a pitch that hitters feared.
“My main focus this offseason was working on my slider,” he said. “That’s what I put all my time into. It’s progressing really well. In order for my fastball to work, I need that other secondary pitch to work.”
The Mariners admit that Moore was rushed to the big leagues because of the rash of injuries to the rotation. He made his big league debut on June 22, picking up the win against the Tigers. His produced quality starts in his first three outings. But that success was short-lived. Teams adjusted to him and he posted a 6.16 ERA in his final eight outings – six starts and two relief appearances.
“It’s the first time he’s ever struggled in his career,” Servais said. “He took a lot of that to heart. When you never struggle anywhere you’re at and all the sudden it hits you and you doubt yourself a little. That’s human nature. Can I survive at this level? The things he’s focused on, there are a couple mechanical things, just the consistency, release points, consistency of secondary pitches, executing them, those are the biggest things for me.”
Moore admitted to searching at times in 2017. His arm slot was so inconsistent it made his pitches lose life and movement. That’s not ideal for a command pitcher that lacks overpowering stuff.
“That was a tough stretch for me,” he said. “I’ve never really gone through something like that before, honestly. Going through that and seeing I could fight through it having some success at times was big. But at the time, it was tough.”
Moore will also re-focus on his changeup instead of trying to force breaking pitches to be his strength.
“That’s my best pitch and I’m getting back to throwing it a decent amount,” he said. “The little adjustment with the arm slot has given more bite toward the bottom where it’s going to get weak contact or swings and misses instead of just floating in there.”
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