PEORIA, Ariz. — So lefty Roenis Elias looks like the odd-man out in the Mariners’ spring game of rotation roulette. After a promising rookie season, Elias figures to open this season at Triple-A Tacoma.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker certainly earned his spot in the five-man unit by pitching 18 scoreless innings in his five spring starts. He allowed just six hits while striking out 19 and walking four.
None of this is official yet. More importantly, it might not matter much in the long run. Elias appears likely to log lots of time this season at the big-league level.
Club officials won’t come out and say it, but signs point to the Mariners employing what amounts to a modified six-man rotation over the next six months in order to be ready to handle a seventh month.
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Yep, the Mariners are thinking postseason.
That’s not surprising. The Mariners are generally viewed in the industry as a legitimate postseason contender. And club officials don’t hide the belief that they are in win-now mode.
That means not only planning for October but taking measures to avoid a repeat of last season’s late September fade.
And since the Mariners appear well-stocked in starting pitchers — hey, there aren’t many rotations throughout either league that Elias wouldn’t make — they want to play to that strength.
The likely solution is a a modified six-man rotation — modified in the sense that they won’t just roll six starters through cycle after cycle. But Elias could shuttle regularly between Cheney Stadium and Safeco Field.
Walker has never thrown more than 156 1/3 innings in a professional season. That high mark was two years ago. Last season, he worked just 120 1/3 innings. So where does he top out this season?
Standards vary, but clubs tend to get antsy, in terms of injury risk, when a pitcher goes more than 40 innings beyond his previous season. Going more than 40 innings beyond their career high is another red flag.
Lefty James Paxton threw 169 2/3 innings in 2013 but was limited last year by a strained back muscle to 87. That’s a harder comfort range to determine.
But do some spitballing math: Making 30 starts and averaging six innings gets you to 180 innings. That might be, roughly, the envelope this season for both Walker and Paxton.
Pitchers also often wear down when approaching their ceiling. It’s possible that doesn’t happen with Walker or Paxton. Both are young, big, strong guys. But that risk also increases once they move beyond the 40-plus barrier.
Bottom line: 180 innings might get them through the regular season, if all goes well, but it won’t extend into October without some rest throughout the season.
Elias provides the Mariners with a viable alternative if, occasionally, they want to skip Walker and Paxton in the rotation. (Players sent to the minors can’t be recalled for 10 days; effectively that’s one missed start.)
While an injury to anyone in the the big-league rotation would likely force Elias into full-time duty, that wouldn’t necessarily scuttle the modified six-man approach.
The Mariners might look at right-hander Jordan Pries, who was sufficiently impressive this spring to merit consideration.
Another possibility is Danny Hultzen.
While Hultzen’s innings will be closely watched after missing much of the last two seasons, there’s no reason — if he’s pitching well — a handful of those innings couldn’t occur in the big leagues.
The benefit of a modified six-man rotations goes deeper than than merely protecting Walker and Paxton.
Staff ace Felix Hernandez is a true workhorse who has pitched at least 200 innings for seven straight years and averaged 228 innings in that span.
Hernandez has a 3.40 ERA in 53 career starts from Sept. 1 to the end of the season. That contrasts with a 3.01 ERA in his other 250 career starts. The general belief is Hernandez often simply wore down late in seasons.
Manager Lloyd McClendon took steps last season to ease Hernandez’s workload. Hernandez didn’t have a single complete game among his league-leading 34 starts and, occasionally, got an extra day of rest.
Result: The King led the league with a career-best 2.14 ERA, including a 1.66 mark in six September starts. Trying to keep him fresh into October might require some additional tweaking.
The same goes for Hisashi Iwakuma, who has pitched more than 201 2/3 innings only once in his 14 professional seasons.
All of this underscores one of the major points in the Mariners’ off-season move to acquire veteran lefty J.A. Happ, who averaged 134 innings over the last six seasons.
Some opposing scouts believe Happ is better positioned this season for success than at any point in his career. (The Mariners think so, too.)
But even if he merely pitches to his career norms, Happ provides the Mariners with a reliable innings-eater who permits them to use Elias in a modified six-man approach.
And, no, if you’re wondering: The Mariners can’t put Happ on the Elias plan because he has too much service time to be sent to the minors.