SAN DIEGO — It’s about to get crowded in the Seattle Mariners’ rotation — assuming right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma has no problems Tuesday night in his scheduled rehab start for Triple-A Tacoma at Cheney Stadium.
Iwakuma is slotted for six innings and 90 pitches in what will be his third rehab start in his ongoing recovery from a strained back muscle suffered April 21 in a routine day-after throwing session following his April 20 start.
That positions Iwakuma, who won 38 games over the three previous seasons, to rejoin the rotation Sunday in Oakland for the final game of the Mariners’ nine-game trip.
The Mariners don’t have an obvious opening in their rotation.
“It’s a nice problem to have,” manager Lloyd McClendon hedged. “Right now, we’re still in the process of figuring out what we’re going to do when he comes back.”
Since staff ace Felix Hernandez and surging rookie Taijuan Walker are unlikely to be affected by any rotation adjustment, the Mariners — barring an injury or a trade — appear to have the following options:
***Shift veteran J.A. Happ to the bullpen.
***Implement a six-man rotation.
***Keep Iwakuma on his rehab assignment.
The decision should clarify later this week when McClendon announces his rotation for the four-game weekend series at Oakland. Monday’s open date in the schedule provides the Mariners with some flexibility.
As the rotation currently lines up, Sunday would be Montgomery’s turn, but he has a 2.04 ERA in five starts since his June 2 recall from Tacoma to replace an injured James Paxton.
Barring a major stumble Tuesday, when he starts against the Padres in San Diego, it’s hard to imagine Montgomery losing his job.
Elias, in contrast, took a pounding in two of his last three starts, which spiked his ERA from 2.79 to 4.35.
McClendon also opted to shift Elias from a scheduled start Wednesday at San Diego in order to avoid starting two lefties against the Padres. If Elias doesn’t start Thursday at Oakland, he might be the odd man out.
Happ is 0-4 with five no-decisions in his last nine starts despite not giving up more than four runs in any of those games. Also, there are factors arguing against putting him in the bullpen.
He will be a free agent after the season and, as such, could be a trade chip if the Mariners slip further from the race. Putting him in the bullpen would likely depress his value.
Further, Happ has seldom pitched in relief in recent years, and shifting him to the bullpen would force the Mariners to send someone else to Tacoma unless they opt to take a position player off their roster.
McClendon acknowledges “there’s certainly been conversations” about building in extra rest for some starters, i.e., adding a sixth man to the rotation on a short-term basis — perhaps through the All-Star break.
The Mariners can also delay a decision by keeping Iwakuma on his rehab assignment if they don’t believe, at this point, he would represent an upgrade over what they have in their rotation.
Rehab assignments can last up to 30 days for pitchers. Iwakuma’s assignment began on June 20, which means he doesn’t have to be activated until after the All-Star break.
“I’m not sure where we go from here,” McClendon said. “We’re still in the planning stages and moving toward the All-Star break. All of those things will be decided at that time.”