Mariners Insider Blog

Previewing the Mariners in spring training: Rotation

Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma provides the Mariners’ rotation with a reliable veteran.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma provides the Mariners’ rotation with a reliable veteran. AP

The final piece in the Mariners’ off-season overhaul occurred Jan. 11 when they executed a pair of trades that succeeded in obtaining left-hander Drew Smyly from Tampa Bay.

"I have probably spent more time throughout the course of our off-season," general manager Jerry Dipoto said, "in trying to acquire Drew Smyly than any other thing that we’ve done."

Which is saying something.

Smyly is a 27 year-old who has sufficient experience to offer a viable track record but still young enough to have upside. He made a career-high 30 starts last season and his homer-surrendering tendencies should be muted by Safeco Field.

"With our outfield defense," he said, "and how big this field can play, I think it, for sure, is going to help me."

The trade to obtain Smyly came one week after Dipoto acquired Yovani Gallardo in a trade from Baltimore. Soon to be 31, Gallardo is coming off a forgettable year that included a shoulder injury that limited him to 23 starts.

The Mariners are betting that Gallardo, while he no longer possesses the power that made him a front-line starter for years in Milwaukee, will rebound sufficiently to resemble his 2015 form, when he was 13-11 with a 3.42 ERA at Texas.

"In my throwing program," he said, "I feel great. I feel strong. It’s just a matter of now continuing that."

Smyly and Gallardo roughly replace the starts previously slotted for Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns, who were each traded away. It amounts to a swap of potential for the consistency that accompanies better-known quantities.

All of which is fine, but Smyly and Gallardo project to pitch at the back of the rotation. The unit’s success, as it has for years, revolves around long-time ace Felix Hernandez, a workhorse who stands at a career crossroads.

The King missed nearly two months last season because of a calf injury and, when he did pitch, compiled his worst ERA since 2007. Questions and doubts proliferated, which prompted a vow for a more-intense winter workout routine.

And Hernandez spent the off-season posting videos on social media that showed him grinding away in the gym. Great. But there are 2,415 2/3 innings on his arm since he reached the majors, which is easily the most by any pitcher in that span.

A Felix who simply returns to his 2015 level — a good season but far from his best — would go a long way toward stabilizing the rotation.

The other big question is whether lefty James Paxton, now 28, can finally pitch consistently to his potential. There were encouraging signs last season over the final two-plus months when a small change in his delivery paid big dividends.

"I feel this is my season to take off,’ he said. "I was able to get to a place last year that I felt I’ve been trying to find for a long time. Now, I feel I’ve got that."

If so, and if Hernandez bounces back, the Mariners can match arms with the front of any rotation.

The unit’s final member is right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma who, though still reliable, is soon to be 36 and might need some extra rest, say an extra day on occasion between starts or even being skipped in a cycle.

Iwakuma matched a career high last season with 33 starts, and set a career high with 16 victories, but he also had a career-worst 4.12 ERA and seemed to wear down in September.

And that’s it. The five-man unit, barring injuries, is set. The Mariners did add several new faces as organizational depth but, at this point, that’s all they are.

WHO’S IN CAMP? (8 on 40-man roster)

49 RHP Yovani Gallardo (6-feet-2, 205 pounds): No longer a power pitcher, but he and the Mariners believe last year was an aberration. He signed late, got injured and never clicked. M’s would love his 2015: 13-11, 3.42 in 33 starts. Option status: not applicable.

34 RHP Felix Hernandez (6-3, 225): Slipped last season when a calf injury kept him from making 30 starts for first time in a full season. Vowing a return to form. Importance of that happening can’t be overstated. Option status: not applicable.

32 RHP Chris Heston (6-3, 195): A December acquisition from San Francisco, he loomed as a good bet for a job until subsequent trades netted Smyly and Gallardo. Now likely head to Tacoma as first alternative. Option status: one remaining.

18 RHP Hisashi Iwakuma (6-3, 210): Soon to be 36, he remains a reliable mid-rotation arm who matched a career high last season with 33 starts after battling injuries over two previous seasons. Option status: not applicable.

60 LHP Dillon Overton (6-2, 175): A second-round pick in 2013 who took a beating last year when he reached the big leagues — 12 homers in 24 1/3 innings. But was 13-5 with 3.29 ERA in Triple-A. Option status: two remaining.

65 LHP James Paxton (6-4, 220): Everything is in place for him to become the dominant front-of-the-rotation guy the Mariners have long envisioned. If that happens, this rotation gets a lot better. Option status: two remaining.

33 LHP Drew Smyly (6-3, 190): GM Jerry Dipoto chased after him all winter before landing him in a January trade with Tampa Bay. A still-young lefty (27) with upside potential, he should be a good fit at Safeco. Option status: not applicable.

63 RHP Rob Whalen (6-2, 200): Should be in Tacoma’s rotation after making five big-league starts last year as a rookie at Atlanta. A strong spring could position him as top promotion option when need arises. Option status: three remaining.

NON-ROSTER INVITES (6)

56 RHP Christian Bergman (6-1, 195): Has struggled in limited duty over the last three years at Colorado. His signing represents another step toward building organizational depth.

57 RHP Cody Martin (6-3, 230): Pitched capably last season in a swingman role over a series of brief promotions from Tacoma. That’s likely to be his role again; a starter for the Rainiers and a prime fill-in option for the big-league club.

74 RHP Andrew Moore (6-0, 195): The organization’s minor-league pitcher of the year in 2016, he’s in camp for a taste. The crowd of arms at Tacoma could push him back to Double-A to start the season, but he’s on the radar.

35 RHP Micah Owings (6-5, 220): Looking to re-start his career at 34, solely as a pitcher, after spending last season with an independent team. Hasn’t played in the majors since 2012. Who knows how much he has left?

76 RHP Max Povse (6-8, 220): Has drawn comparisons to Chris Young and Doug Fister because of his size. Baseball Prospectus has him at No. 4 among the organization’s prospects. Will either start at Tacoma or Double-A Arkansas.

69 RHP Dylan Unsworth (6-1, 190): Was off to a strong season in Double-A before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury in late May. Here for a look but likely to be back in Double-A when the season begins.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Felix Hernandez. This will be tough because Felix, in the past, has often clunked his way through spring only to hit the season opener in top form. But this spring, after his 2016 struggles, seems different.

2. Determining who is next in line. While the five-man unit is set, it is likely to need help at some point. The initial pecking order will be established in Arizona. Top candidates include Chris Heston, Dillon Overton and Rob Whalen.

3. Andrew Moore and Max Povse. The organization sees both as legitimate prospects who could be part of the rotation in the not-too-distant future. Both should get an early look in camp.

Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners

Mariners positional preview series

Today: Rotation

Upcoming: Bullpen, Catchers, Infielders, Outfielders

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