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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn solidify roles in Mariners’ starting rotation, but more talent is on the way

UPDATED: Tue., May 4, 2021

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Justus Sheffield delivers from the mound against the Chicago White Sox on April 5 at T-Mobile Park in Seattle.  (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Justus Sheffield delivers from the mound against the Chicago White Sox on April 5 at T-Mobile Park in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

When you saw Mariners pitcher Justus Sheffield wiggling his way out of jams and pinpointing sliders in Sunday’s 2-0 win, were you celebrating the present or the future?

When fellow M’s starter Justin Dunn made it to the sixth inning for the third consecutive game four days earlier, were you thinking about what just happened or what’s to come?

The Mariners’ top hurler, Marco Gonzales, is on the 10-day injured list due to a left-forearm strain, and former ace James Paxton is done for the season. So now seems like the time for Sheffield and Dunn – ages 24 and 25, respectively – to shine and show they can be part of the rotation for years to come, no?

Actually, Mariners manager Scott Servais said, they’ve already shown that.

“I think they’re already a part of our long-term solution here with pitching and us giving the opportunity that we gave them last year, and what they’ve done this year, and they’re worthy of it,” Servais said. “I don’t think the fact that we have other guys hurt right now means they need to put added pressure on themselves.”

Servais is no doubt right about the second part. When you’re getting a start every five or six games anyway, you don’t think, ‘Our best pitcher is hurt, I better step up.’ When millions of dollars could be at stake, there’s a cocoon factory in a young player’s stomach every time he takes the field.

But there’s another reason Sheffield’s and Dunn’s performances this season might be integral to their future contributions to this franchise: The Mariners’ pitching prospects are a collection of seeds that could sprout into a forest of sequoias.

The 26th highest-rated prospect in the minors, according to MLB.com, is M’s right-hander Emerson Hancock, 21. The 28th highest-rated prospect in the minors is M’s right-hander Logan Gilbert, 23. The 81st highest-rated prospect in the minors is M’s right-hander George Kirby, 23. There are also less heralded names such as Juan Then and Adam Macko that Servais mentioned Monday.

This was in response to a question I floated the skipper’s way about the organization’s fledgling arms.

You’ve been here a few years. Is this the most excited you’ve been about a group of young pitchers?

“Not just since I’ve been here, since I’ve been in professional baseball. This is the best group of young pitching I’ve ever been exposed to,” said Servais, who played 11 MLB seasons, was in the Rangers’ and Angels’ offices for 12 years and has been the Mariners’ manager since 2015. “I’m very confident in saying that from a talent standpoint. What they don’t have yet is innings.”

Hancock, the No. 6 overall pick in the draft last year, has yet to even make a minor-league appearance. Kirby, the 20th overall pick in 2019, has pitched just 23 minor-league innings – all in Class A Everett. Gilbert, the 14th overall pick in the 2018 draft, has tossed 135 minor-league innings but, like Kirby, saw no MILB time last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Draft picks, of course, are unproven. And it seems baseball has more top-round whiffs than any other sport. There are 19 No. 1 overall selections from 1966-2016 with a career WAR under five – and that list includes several players who never made the show.

Still, when a catcher-turned-exec-turned-manager tells you that he’s never seen a young crop like this in his quarter century-plus in the pros, you listen. And if you’re Sheffield or Dunn, you develop rabbit ears.

On Sunday, Sheffield (who has an ERA of 4.18) showed off his composure just as much as he did his slider. Despite walking three batters and hitting two, he Houdini’d his way to six scoreless innings while allowing just two hits.

Dunn, meanwhile, has posted a 3.98 ERA, a 1.279 WHIP and a FIP (fielding independent pitching – often considered the best measurement of a pitcher’s performance) of 5.03 in 201/3 innings this year. All three statistics are improvements from last season (4.34, 1.358, 6.54), when he tossed 452/3 innings.

As Servais said Monday: “They both continue to get better. It’s a common theme around here. … You can get 1% better each week, each start, and then look up at the end of the year, you’ve had a pretty good season.”

A good season is certainly the desire for these two pitchers, but it may also be necessary. As much as they can bring the heat, with the prospects below them – they’re likely feeling it as well.

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