SEATTLE – A little more than a year ago, the Mariners were in the midst of a virtual media blitz that featured then-general manager now president Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais extolling their decision to carry over the usage of a six-man starting rotation from the COVID-shortened 2020 season into the 2021 season.
When asked about it, Marco Gonzales offered this thought on it:
“It’s not my job to comment on that sort of thing. My job is to take the ball whenever it’s given to me and go out and win a ballgame. I’m not going to comment on the structure of our rotation.”
The terse tone of his answer about the strategy said plenty. He was not a fan. A few months into the season, he wasn’t alone. The low point came when Gonzales was placed on the injured list with a forearm strain and the Mariners were reduced to making bullpen starts, most off them unsuccessful, in two of the four rotation spots during a two-week period in late May.
Seattle’s use of the six-man rotation, which was believed to offer a way to keep pitchers healthy and rested after truncated usage in 2020, allow for midweek adjustments, maximize in-game performance and control overall innings totals, finally ended in late June when Justin Dunn joined James Paxton, Nick Margevicius and LJay Newsome, who were all on the IL with season-ending injuries.
With only five healthy starters – Gonzales, Chris Flexen, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield and rookie Logan Gilbert – and no-MLB ready depth in Triple-A Tacoma, Seattle had little choice but to scrap it.
Seattle starters, including those bullpen games started by relievers, posted a 4.61 ERA, which ranked 19th in MLB and produced 7.3 FanGraphs wins above replacement which was 22nd in MLB.
The Mariners got most of that from Flexen (3.0 WAR in 30 starts), who had an unexpectedly outstanding season after pitching in Korea in 2020, and Gilbert (2.2 WAR in 24 starts), who looked strong as a rookie. Kikuchi’s strong first half allowed him to finish with a 1.1 WAR in 29 starts.
When Kikuchi didn’t exercise a $13 million player option after the season, it meant that the Mariners had just three projected starters going into the offseason – Gonzales, Flexen and Gilbert.
As promised, Dipoto added an impact starter to the rotation, signing reigning American League Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115 million contract.
Ray, who turned 30 on Oct. 1, posted a 13-7 record with a 2.84 ERA in 32 starts. In 193⅓ innings, he racked up 248 strikeouts with only 52 walks and had a 1.045 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings). His 32 starts tied for most in the American League, and he led the league in innings, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP.
The Mariners were still shopping the free-agent market for another proven starting pitcher when baseball went into a lockout on Dec. 2.
They will resume that search when MLB owners and the MLBPA sign a new collective bargaining agreement, ending the lockout and resuming the regular season. Seattle isn’t looking for another front-line starter but back of the rotation depth. A reunion with Tyler Anderson or right-hander Michael Pineda might be logical on a two-year contract.
If Seattle fails to sign a proven MLB starter to fill that fifth spot, it still has options with some potential.
A year ago, Dunn and Sheffield were expected to take major steps forward in their development and establishing themselves as core pitchers in the rotation.
Despite an offseason when he shed extra pounds and came back stronger, Dunn still lacked command and pitch efficiency, which was a problem in 2020. In 11 starts and 50⅓ innings pitched, he posted a 1-3 record with a 3.75 ERA. Dunn struck out 49 batters and walked 29. A shoulder strain never allowed him to get back to 100%.
After a solid 2020 season, Sheffield struggled with his command and hitters adjusting to his repertoire. He had little to no fastball command, and teams simply refused to chase at his biting sliders, leaving him behind in counts. He posted a 6.48 ERA in 15 starts, giving up a slash line of .316/.391/.520 with 35 walks and 59 strikeouts.
When Dunn and Sheffield were both acquired before the 2019 season as key parts to the future rotation and the organization’s rebuild, the most cynical scouts and pessimistic scouting reports projected them as relievers at best because of their inconsistent command.
While it’s premature to say the doubters were correct, it’s also foolish to say they still project to previous potential. Their weaknesses are established and they’ve yet to prove they can change them.
So, could a prospect from the M’s loaded system follow Gilbert’s 2021 path?
Of that group, right-hander Matt Brash, who was acquired from the Padres in the 2020 season, seems like a legitimate candidate. Already on the 40-man roster after a late-season call-up, Brash will come into camp to compete with Dunn, Sheffield and Margevicius.
In a perfect world, the Mariners wouldn’t have to rush Brash to the big leagues and skip the Triple-A level. Giving him a natural progression in his development seems optimal. But his plus fastball and wipeout slider might make him difficult to overlook.
Top pitching prospect George Kirby could see the big leagues by the end of the season. Due to some shoulder fatigue and the canceled minor league season in 2020, he has yet to pitch a full season as a professional. He threw a total of 67⅓ innings in 2021 so he likely won’t progress past 100 innings in 2022. Lefty Brandon Williamson is also candidate for a late-season starter if needed. He pitched just over 66 innings in 2021 and will have his innings monitored.
The Mariners don’t necessarily have to overpay for another proven starting pitcher to fill out their rotation before the season. If they can’t find capable starters available on one-year deals, they have viable options in the organization and prospects on the verge of contribution to make it work. They also have the prospect capital to make a trade midseason to address a need.
Even if Flexen can’t full replicate his stellar 2021 production or Gilbert doesn’t progress as expected, the addition of Ray and a healthy Gonzales should make this rotation more consistent and better than past seasons. What could push it over the top into something special is who fills that fifth spot and the success of pitchers asked to fill into the rotation at varying points in the season.
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