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Seattle Mariners

Mariners have plenty of young arms in case rotation isn’t superhuman again this season

Seattle Mariners pitcher Bryce Miller throws batting practice during spring training in Peoria, Arizona.  (Seattle Times)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – Maybe it’s because he knows it’s unlikely to happen again. Perhaps it’s because he can’t forget seasons past when they tried to piece together an excessive number of bullpen starts or relied upon too many “Quad A” pitchers who needed everything to work right to just be serviceable.

Mariners manager Scott Servais knows his team is going to deal with injuries and missed starts.

By typical Major League Baseball standards, the Mariners’ starting pitching was an anomaly of health and reliability last season. The M’s didn’t have a member of their starting rotation on the injured list. No pitcher missed a turn because of injury. The Mariners used 10 pitchers to start games in 2022, with relievers Penn Murfee and Erik Swanson used as openers for Tommy Milone for doubleheaders. In game No. 161 of the season, Justus Sheffield started the nightcap of a doubleheader.

“That just doesn’t happen,” Servais said.

The 2021 season saw 15 pitchers make starts for the Mariners, with James Paxton getting hurt in his first start of the season, Justin Dunn pitching sparingly because of shoulder issues and even the reliable Marco Gonzales spending a month on the injured list.

The 2017 season was record-setting for the Mariners and not in a good way. They used 17 pitchers to start games and this was before the “opener” strategy.

Servais knows that there will be a need for someone other than the projected rotation of Luis Castillo, Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert, Gonzales and George Kirby to make a start during the 2023 season. He has Chris Flexen in the bullpen if needed.

After watching the organization’s collection of young but ready pitching prospects this spring, Servais believes his team could weather a monthlong absence from a starting pitcher if necessary.

“It’s the healthiest we’ve been, no question,” he said.

On Monday, he watched right-hander Bryce Miller, the organization’s top pitching prospect, toss three scoreless innings vs. the Cubs while allowing two hits and striking out four . Miller displayed a 98-mph fastball and multiple variations of his breaking pitches.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Servais said. “There’s no question about that. He carries himself very well. He’s a Texan. And you know it when you start talking to him. He’s very calm. He’s learning a lot in this camp, and he’s getting great results right now.”

On Wednesday, former first-round pick Emerson Hancock worked two scoreless innings against the Dodgers despite issuing back-to-back walks with two outs in his first inning and giving up a leadoff triple in his second.

“I thought he’s looked really good this spring,” Servais said. “His stuff is up and he’s been super aggressive.

“And it’s not just stuff, in a couple of at-bats … he got behind in the count and he’s able to get back into the count with sliders and he put people away with a change-up even though he had a good fastball last night. It’s like: Are they doing it in a way that does translate to the major league level? Yes. He is. It’s not just throwing as hard as he can and they’re popping it out.”

Servais loves Hancock’s change-up. He pointed to a swinging strikeout of Max Muncy on that pitch.

“His change-up is a real weapon,” Servais said. “Max probably has one of the best eyes in the league and he’s chasing that with two strikes last night. That’s a really good pitch against one of the elite hitters in the league. It is eye opening. Emerson is getting a ton of confidence, which is really good for him.”

On Thursday, hard-throwing right-hander Prelander Berroa, who was acquired in a trade with the Giants for infielder Donovan Walton, gave up a two-run homer. But he’d been dominant in his previous outings, showing an upper 90s fastball and nasty slider.

Any of those three have the potential to be effective if called upon. Miller and Berroa could also contribute to the bullpen during the season.

Beyond those three pitchers, the Mariners also have right-hander Taylor Dollard, who posted a 16-2 record with a 2.25 ERA in 27 starts with Double-A Arkansas.

He doesn’t have quite the power stuff of the other three, but he has the best command and most diverse pitch mix.

Right-hander Bryan Woo, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and was one of the top pitchers in the Arizona Fall League, is also projected to be an MLB starter.

“It’s a credit to our scouts on the amateur side and getting these players drafted into our system, our player development group has continued to elevate guys with different programs we do there and our front-office group in acquiring players like Berroa,” Servais said. “It’s a combination of everybody using all the resources that we have and trying to put together a good group.”

Servais is cautious in thinking that they have too many good pitchers in the organization.

“As big as that bucket looks right now, we all know there’ll be some attrition, some guys maybe won’t turn out to be what we think they’re going to be,” he said. “Some will struggle with injuries. You need a bunch and we do have a bunch, not just good pitchers but guys who really believe in what we’re doing here and what we stand for in our standards.”