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Seattle Mariners

Emerson Hancock is ready to be more than a prospect for the Mariners

Seattle’s Emerson Hancock pitches during the first inning against the San Diego Padres at T-Mobile Park on Aug. 9 in Seattle.  (Getty Images)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – The grunts from Emerson Hancock as he fired pitches to Cal Raleigh didn’t carry the echoing volume familiar from the days of Robbie Ray, whose primal exhortations are now heard in Giants camp over in nearby Scottsdale.

Given Hancock’s soft falsetto voice that drips with a Southern drawl, the sounds of effort in the Mariners’ “six-pack” of pitching mounds offered a hint to his intensity during Wednesday’s bullpen session.

He’s ready to be something more than just a prospect.

“You’re always searching to be the best version of yourself,” he said. “There are certain things you will tweak, but I feel really good. I had a great offseason. I was extremely driven, motivated and I want to just try to help this team win.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Mariners’ coaching staff.

“I’ve been really impressed with Emerson Hancock this spring,” manager Scott Servais said. “He looks great. This is probably the best I’ve seen him. I think he’s going to have a really good camp.”

Hancock might not get that opportunity to help the Mariners win immediately, but it will come at some point in the 2024 season.

With the Mariners returning all five starting pitchers from the rotation that ended the season, there is no competition for an opening-day roster spot. Hancock essentially sits No. 6 on the organizational depth chart. He is expected to start the season with Triple-A Tacoma and to be ready to step into the rotation if needed.

Few if any starting rotations make it an entire season without at least one pitcher spending time on the injured list. A year ago, the Mariners’ depth was tested immediately when Ray went on the injured list after his first start of the season and never pitched again. They also lost reliable starter Marco Gonzales for the final four months of the season.

“We all know that stuff happens to pitchers,” Servais said. “We will use more than five starting pitchers this season.”

The Mariners used 12 starting pitchers last season, including Hancock. He made his MLB debut on Aug. 9 at T-Mobile Park, starting in place of then-rookie Bryan Woo, who was on the injured list with a forearm strain.

Hancock tossed five innings vs. the Padres, allowing one run on two hits with three walks and three strikeouts.

“It gives you that belief that you can do it, that you belong there, that you can help the team win,” he said.

With the Mariners trying to monitor the workload of Woo and Bryce Miller in their first big league season, the plan was to go with a six-man rotation in the final weeks of the season.

But in his third MLB start on Aug. 20, Hancock felt a familiar twinge in the back of his shoulder near the scapula. The latissimus dorsi was starting to tighten with discomfort. He exited the game after two innings.

“Everything happens so quick,” he said. “You’re in (Double-A) Arkansas one minute and the next you’re right in the middle of the playoff hunt. And we were on fire in August, and there’s no better place to be when we’re rolling like that. The clubhouse is great. It’s so much fun. I felt like in Houston I was hitting a really good stride. We were working on some things. I was in a good position. And then I’m back (in Arizona rehabbing) a couple of weeks later.”

Hancock was placed on the injured list the day after that start with a lat strain. His season was finished. It was a crushing end.

“Feeling sorry for yourself isn’t going to help you,” he said. “It’s good to be frustrated. It’s good to be motivated.”

The quiet and unassuming Hancock has remained upbeat even when his professional career has been anything but normal for an assortment of reasons.

“Everyone’s journey is different,” he said. “I would have drawn it up a lot different way, but at the end of the day, sometimes I think about it and I wouldn’t change a thing. It’s made me who I am. It’s led me a lot of different ways. A lot of people have helped me and I’ll always be grateful for that. But it’s part of the journey. You just embrace it and keep going.”

The Mariners selected Hancock with the No. 6 overall pick out of the University of Georgia in 2020. With the COVID pandemic ending his college season after four starts and the 2020 minor league season canceled, the Mariners invited him to the “summer camp” spring training in July.

But the starts and stops of his throwing program left him with shoulder fatigue after his first bullpen session. It’s a theme that has followed him for parts of the past three seasons, for various reasons including shoulder discomfort, and a lat issue.

Hancock’s spring in 2023 was without incident. He arrived healthy and made a solid impression with the big-league coaches. The Mariners encouraged him to use his sinking two-seam fastball more, believing it was a more viable pitch at the MLB. His four-steam fastball that didn’t quite have the velocity or spin rate to generate swings and misses or weak contact. They also pushed for him to use nasty sinking change-up to right-handed and left-handed hitters.

He started the season along with Miller and Woo at Arkansas, posting an 11-5 record with a 4.32 ERA in 20 starts. In 98 innings, he struck out 107 batters with 38 walks.

“Last year, he made huge progress in his stuff, his pitch ability and with a lot of the underlying pitch data,” said Jerry Dipoto, Mariners president of baseball operations. “Emerson really took a step forward.”

The Mariners want him to continue to work on establishing a more effective breaking pitch. He’s experimented with different types of breaking balls, grips and speeds. But he’s settled on one for the foreseeable future.

“It’s kind of that harder cutter/slider,” he said. “It’s just kind of seems like it’s worked really well for me right now. I feel like I command it pretty well. That’s a pitch that I continue to try to get better and better.”

When Hancock went on the injured list last season, the Mariners tried to investigate what was causing the strain to the lat.

They wanted to see if there was an underlying injury causing the problem or a biomechanical inefficiency in his windup or release point.

“Nothing specific,” he said. “I just think the biggest thing for me has been try to monitor in that workload. It’s making sure that you’re putting in really good quality work, but you’re not overdoing it. I love to throw. I love to throw a lot of pitches in the bullpen. It is what it is, but there’s another level where it’s like, ‘All right, I got my work in, I’m good, now let me go recover make sure I’m ready for the next start.’ ”

He’s trying to incorporate that work smarter, not harder mindset this spring

“The work has got to be more quality right here,” he said. “I’ve got to be locked in for these pitches a little bit more. And then having the trust part, like when you get your work done, I trust that I’ll be ready to go when I step over the white lines.”