With Felix Hernandez back on the mound Thursday against San Francisco and in top form in his first start since returning from the World Baseball Classic, the Mariners’ rotation is beginning to fall into place.
There are no surprises, but there is a possible wrinkle.
Hernandez is — no surprise — slotted to start the season opener for the ninth straight year when the Mariners play the Astros on April 3 in Houston. His final tuneup will be a tapered three-inning start Tuesday against Arizona.
With Houston planning to start left-hander Dallas Keuchel, the opener will be a matchup of former Cy Young Award winners looking to bounce back from disappointing and injury-interrupted seasons.
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Hernandez was 11-8 with a 3.82 ERA over 21 starts, while Keuchel was 9-12 and 4.55 in 26 starts. Hernandez missed two months because of a strained calf; Keuchel was sidelined for the season’s final five weeks because of shoulder inflammation.
Then comes the wrinkle.
Once things get rolling, the Mariners will likely separate their two lefties, James Paxton and newcomer Drew Smyly, but that might not be the case in season’s opening week.
Club officials are weighing the possibility of starting Iwakuma in the second game, which will probably position Paxton and Smyly back-to-back in the final two games against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
"That’s what we’re thinking," manager Scott Servais admitted. "It’s not definitely determined yet, but some guys have better track records against certain teams for whatever reason, even though teams change a lot.
"Right now, we’d probably have Kuma on day two."
Here’s the key point: Whichever pitcher starts the third game will be lined up to face the Astros again April 10 in the home opener at Safeco Field.
The Mariners’ apparent preference is for Iwakuma to face the Angels in the second series rather than open the season with two starts against Houston — and it’s easy to see why.
Iwakuma is 9-5 with a 2.83 ERA in 19 career games against the Angels but 5-6 with a 3.70 ERA in 14 starts against the Astros. Paxton also has better numbers against the Angels, but the sample size is smaller.
If the Mariners do opt to flip Paxton and Iwakuma in the season’s first series, an open date on April 13 would then permit a corrective flip back to the preferred position of separating the two lefties.
Houston manager A.J. Hinch has not yet announced his rotation beyond Keuchel in the opener, but Charlie Morton and Lance McCullers are expected to pitch the second and third games.
Whatever the Mariners decide in the season’s second game, they appear set on Smyly for the fourth game. That positions veteran right-hander Yovani Gallardo, another newcomer, for the April 7 series opener against the Angels in Anaheim.
Hernandez and either Iwakuma or Paxton would then pitch the two remaining games against the Angels.
After the home opener on April 10, Smyly and Gallardo will complete the three-game series against the Astros at Safeco Field.
If these plans hold, Hernandez and the Mariners will convene the first King’s Court for the first time this season on April 14 against Texas.
The Mariners’ roster flexibility this spring doesn’t only extend to the large number of players who have options available and can therefore be sent to the minors without clearing waivers.
There are also no players in camp on minor-league contracts who qualify as major-league free agents. Those players must be notified five days prior to opening day as to whether they will make the 25-man roster.
If not, those players must be given their unconditional release or, if sent to the minors, given a $100,000 retention bonus and the option to become a free agent if not on the 25-man roster by June 1.
Additionally, the Mariners also do not have any players in camp who have early opt-out clauses if not on the 25-man rosters. These are players who don’t qualify as major-league free agents but agreed to sign only if they had an opt-out clause.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners