The first three spots in the rotation figure to be held down by Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders. But the last two spots could go a number of different ways. Seattle has brought in veterans Jeremy Bonderman and Jon Garland -- both trying to make it back to the big leagues after a layoff -- and holdovers Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi figure to get a chance to prove they belong during Spring Training, too. But 2013 could be the year where one of the young arms breaks through:
Danny Hultzen: Hultzen really hit the wall in Triple-A in 2012 during his first professional season, completely losing his command (8.0 BB/9 in Tacoma after 3.8 BB/9 in Jackson) and getting roughed up in five of his 12 starts at the minors' highest level as a result. But the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft still posted a 3.05 ERA and struck out 136 batters in 124 innings while allowing only 87 hits all told in his 25 starts in Jackson and Tacoma.
If his command is sharp during spring and he shows the continued ability to beat hitters with his fastball then it is absolutely not out of the question that Hultzen could grab one of the final two spots in Seattle's Opening Day rotation.
James Paxton: Paxton had a knee injury that limited his ability to finish his pitches early in the 2012 season and missed about a month getting right from that, but he was very sharp after returning from that layoff in 11 starts and pitched well early in the AFL, too. The big left-hander has a power arsenal and is the oldest of the top prospects in the system at 24-years-old -- it may be time for him to be challenged.
But James hasn't pitched an inning of Triple-A ball yet and there are still the bouts with command and control that he has when his mechanics escape him at times. Probably less of a shot than Hultzen, but the stuff could shine through and earn him a spot.
Brandon Maurer: Maurer is the flavor of the week in Mariners' pitching prospect circles after turning in the best season of the talented group in Jackson in 2012 on his way to Southern League Pitcher of the Year and the Mariners' organization Most Improved Player. The right-hander posted a 3.20 ERA and a 9-2 record in 137 2/3 innings and got much better with his approach and his results as the season went along.
Maurer is a 2008 draft pick out of high school and has battled injuries off and on during his minor league career, but the right-hander has very good stuff (4-pitch mix with a fastball that can reach the mid-90s), a great build (6-foot-5) and without as much hype surrounding him as "The Big Three", he may have an easier time relaxing in his first big league camp in 2013.
Taijuan Walker: Walker is extremely talented and litters the Top-5 or 10 of seemingly every minor league prospect list out there. He had a 2.23 ERA in his first nine starts in 2012 and then hit a big road bump over his next six or seven starts that saw his ERA double. He made one great start in August -- going a career-best eight innings -- before being up and down the rest of the way and ending with a 4.69 ERA and 7-10 record.
Walker threw very well in the playoffs for Jackson and there is no denying the electric stuff he has, with the potential for four-plus pitches and a high-90s fastball, but he is still just 20-years-old. Walker likely takes a little more seasoning in the minor leagues before Seattle unleashes the 2010 draftee on the major leagues.
Anthony Fernandez: Fernandez is another left-hander that pitched very well in 2012 -- both at pitcher-killing High Desert and Jackson -- and the Mariners rewarded him by adding him to the 40-man roster after the season. His stuff took a step forward in 2012 and he struck out a career-best 134 hitters in a career-best 164 innings, posting a 3.51 ERA and 1.23 WHIP in 27 starts in 2012.
Fernandez has walked just 2.5 batters-per-nine since coming to the U.S. in 2009 and walked only 2.1 per-nine last season. His ability to command his pitches -- much like Erasmo Ramirez -- could give him a big boost in the eyes of the staff, but he's likely headed for Triple-A to start the year.
Andrew Carraway: Carraway is a guy that the front office really seems to like, and he's a pitcher that gets by pitching smart more than beating hitters with pure stuff. The right-hander was the first out of the very talented group of starters in Jackson (the first four names above) to earn a promotion to Triple-A in 2012 and he established himself immediately at that level, carrying a no-hitter into the 8th inning of his first start for Tacoma.
Carraway was a different pitcher on the road (7.06 ERA, .324 oAVG in 11 starts) than he was at Cheney Stadium (2.14 ERA, .190 oAVG in 9 starts) in Triple-A, and he's a fly ball guy that can get hurt with the long ball at times. But he is constantly reinventing himself and creating ways for his pedestrian fastball to induce weak contact.
Depending on what happens with the veteran players above if they are beaten out for the rotation, the club could find themselves without a true long relief option now that Shawn Kelley -- who had thrown 2+ innings in 18 of his 120 career outings with the M's -- has been removed from the 40-man roster. Certainly Ramirez was good out of the pen early in 2012 before coming back as part of the rotation late in the year, but he looks like a leading candidate for one of the last two rotation spots right now.
There may be one other spot where it is possible for a prospect to "wow" his way on to the roster, too, if the M's decide to carry 12 pitchers out of Peoria. That doesn't seem likely with the way that roster construction of the 25-man is playing out at the moment, but injuries are always a possibility to consider.
Seattle does have several arms in the upper minors that could be fits for both roles, including a couple with some major league experience already under their belts:
Bobby LaFromboise: LaFromboise was added to the 40-man after the 2012 season that saw the big lefty own a sparkling 1.36 ERA and 1.00 WHIP while pitching 66 1/3 innings in Double-A and Triple-A. Having struggled as a starter/swing-man early in his career, the 2008 draftee has a 2.19 ERA over 96 games the past two seasons pitching strictly in relief.
He can get left-handers out (1-21 w/12 Ks vs. them in the AFL) with his slinging motion and the movement on his pitches, but he showed the ability to limited the damage from right-handers in 2012, too: a .535 OPS in Double-A and a .623 OPS in Triple-A. The M's are already carrying three lefties on the 25-man roster.
Carson Smith: Smith was very good in a very tough place to pitch in his debut 2012 season, posting a 2.90 ERA in 49 games of relief. The right-hander was one of just nine pitchers to throw 50+ innings in the California League and post an ERA under 3.00, and he allowed only two earned runs in 27 games in the season's second half (0.57 ERA).
The 2011 8th round pick by Seattle ranked third in the league in saves with 15, and 14 of those came in the second half. The M's lone low level minor leaguer in the AFL, Smith posted a 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 10.8 SO/9 there, earning rave reviews from those that saw the 23-year-old pitch there. He has strong sinking action on his plus fastball and generates a lot of ground balls.
Logan Bawcom: Bawcom came to Seattle in last year's Brandon League trade and had the tag of a 'near-MLB-ready' bullpen arm at that point. He struggled with his control a bit at first for Jackson but wound up as the closer as they marched towards and into the playoffs. He was second in the Southern League in saves (19) in less than a full season and has 53 saves the past two years, among the tops in minor league baseball.
Bawcom doesn't have as good of pure stuff as some others here, but he is fairly polished as a 24-year-old and former college starter. He only had one appearance (out of 11) in the AFL where he retired every batter he faced and struggled with his command in Jackson, but he has a very good arm.
Chance Ruffin: A year ago Ruffin seemed like a pretty safe bet to break camp in the big league bullpen. But a rough spring saw him head back to Triple-A and for his time in Tacoma, rough doesn't really do it enough justice. A 5.99 ERA and 1.56 WHIP were troubling, but the former dominating strikeout pitcher (11.1 SO/9 in minor league ball and 9.2 SO/9 in the major leagues in 2011) struck out just 54 in 70 2/3 innings (6.9 SO/9) and struggled throwing strikes and getting ahead overall.
He has two plus pitches and pitched much better in the 2nd half of the year (2.59 ERA in 17 games and 13 SO in his final 14 IP), but he'll likely head back to Triple-A to continue to refine his command.
Yoervis Medina: 2012 was Medina's first season as a full-time reliever, and he took to the role very well. After a 2011 that saw him go 1-14 with a 6.18 ERA as a starter, Yoervis threw 64 1/3 relief innings with a 2.80 ERA and 10.2 SO/9 while collecting five saves in six chances in July and August for a hot Jackson team.
Medina had a very strong showing in the Venezuelan Winter League, too, with a 2.40 ERA in 30 relief innings. The big right-hander has a good fastball and a plus slider -- he just needs a little more work on his command. Medina is already on the 40-man roster.
Danny Farquhar: One of the two pitchers that came to Seattle from New York in the Ichiro trade, Farquhar actually pitched for four organizations during the 2012 season. With Tacoma he only allowed one earned run in 12 outings (16 2/3 IP) while putting up a 0.54 ERA and 0.84 WHIP.
The diminutive right-hander continued to pitch very well in the Venezuelan League this winter, with a 1.50 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 11.25 SO/9 in 21 games for Cardenales de Lara. He's been traded three times and claimed off waivers twice since being drafted in 2008 but he's always put up very good numbers and good ground ball rates.
Nick Franklin: Franklin reached Triple-A for the first time in 2012, and while some were disappointed with his showing at the level, it is worth noting that he matched his extra base hit total from his breakout 2010 season last year while getting to the plate 43 fewer times. He also struck out less and posted a better walk rate, all while handling his most extended time at second base of his career.
Franklin has said he prefers shortstop defensively and there are some that are coming around to the idea that he can handle the position defensively. Franklin also thinks he made a change that can have long term benefits in his right-handed swing during his latest turn in the AFL -- another very impressive showing offensively. Carrying Franklin on the big league roster and not letting him play five or more times a week seems like a bad idea so he may end up back in Tacoma until there is a full-time big league spot for him.
Carlos Triunfel: Triunfel split time with Franklin at second and short from late June on and his error totals at shortstop really crept up in that time (12 in 42 games). The good news was that his bat heated up; he hit .283/.316/.418 with 22 extra base hits over those final 65 games before earning his first big league cup of coffee to end the year.
Triunfel probably has the best arm in the system and he has the tools to handle second, short and likely third at the big league level just fine. With Robert Andino having much the same profile though, Triunfel will assuredly head back to Tacoma barring injuries and/or a huge breakthrough by him in spring.
Mike Zunino: Zunino's profile may have actually improved since being the 3rd overall pick in the 2012 draft thanks to his showing at two regular season stops and in the AFL with the bat. His defense has shown to still be a work in progress, though, as catching is a very demanding position in pro baseball. There is no question that his bat profiles to impact at the big league level after he led the Northwest League in OPS (1.210) and ranked 10th in the Southern League in OPS (.974) during his time at those levels before posting an .800 OPS in the AFL when he was admittedly tired.
The club has stated -- and Zunino has acknowledged himself -- that it is a long shot for him to make the roster out of big league camp this season, but if anything ends up coming of Jesus Montero's name and the Florida drug clinic, time tables could be pushed up out of necessity. Regardless, the right-handed hitter figures to make his MLB debut at some point during the 2013 season.
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