Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Don’t be surprised if Mariners use modified six-man rotation

So left-hander Roenis Elias looks like the odd-man out in the Mariners’ spring game of rotation roulette. After a promising rookie season in 2014, 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.

Yep, the Mariners are thinking postseason.

That’s not surprising. The Mariners are generally viewed 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 Seattle won’t just roll six starters through cycle after cycle. But Elias could shuttle regularly between Cheney Stadium and Safeco Field.

Here’s why:

Walker has never thrown more than 1561/3 innings in a professional season. That high mark was two years ago. Last season, he worked just 1201/3 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 1692/3 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 since both are young, big and 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 past 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 rotation goes deeper than merely protecting Walker and Paxton.

Staff ace Felix Hernandez is a true workhorse who has pitched at least 200 innings for seven consecutive years and averaged 228 innings in that span.

But 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 in 2014 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 2012/3 innings only once in his 14 professional seasons.

All of this underscores one of the major points in the Mariners’ offseason move to acquire veteran lefty J.A. Happ, who averaged 134 innings over the past 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 in case you’re wondering, no, the Mariners can’t put Happ on the Elias plan because he has too much service time to be sent to the minors.

KING UP TO 100 PERCENT

What was once a near-certainty is now absolute.

McClendon previously cited Hernandez as having a “99.9999 percent” chance of starting the season opener on April 6 against theAngels at Safeco Field.

Asked whether that was still the case, McClendon provided new odds: “He’s up to 100 percent.”

It will be Hernandez’s seventh start in a row, and eighth overall, in the season opener.

TALENT ON HAND

Rule 5 pick David Rollins had emerged as the favorite for duty as the second bullpen lefty before receiving an 80-game suspension Friday after testing positive for steroids.

So what happens now?

McClendon said the Mariners won’t look for outside help if they opt for a second lefty reliever in addition to Charlie Furbush. McClendon says he is satisfied with the options already on hand.

“If we take a second lefty,” he said, “it will come from within.”

That’s good news for the two candidates still in camp: Tyler Olson and Joe Saunders. It also suggests the Mariners won’t pursue free-agent Joe Beimel as a late possibility.

Beimel held the role last season and compiled a 2.20 ERA in 57 outings. He signed earlier this month with Texas but was released after allowing 14 runs in three innings.

Olson and Saunders are each in camp as non-roster invites, but the Mariners gained an opening on their 40-man roster when Rollins was suspended.

Olson had not allowed an earned run in 82/3 innings over eight outings. He had also not permitted a walk and only five hits while striking out 11.

Saunders has three clean outings in six appearances but, overall, had allowed nine runs and 12 hits in 61/3 innings. He had four strikeouts and five walks.

MILLER STILL OUT

Shortstop Brad Miller, who is still recovering from flu-like symptoms, was the only omission Saturday from what projects as the Mariners’ lineup for the season opener.

“He was dehydrated (Friday),” McClendon said. “I just don’t want to take a chance. Give him another day to recoup. Hopefully, he’ll feel better (on Sunday).”

Willie Bloomquist replaced Miller in the lineup.

BONDING OPTIONS

The Mariners are likely to make significant trims to their 38-player camp roster within the next day or two. McClendon wants to have his final roster in place several days before the season opener.

“It’s important to, at some point, get your team together and let them bond,” he said. “Let them work together. We’re in the process of trying to do that as well.”

When karaoke was suggested as a bonding experience by one broadcast reporter, McClendon responded: “I’m not a karaoke guy.”

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