The Seattle Mariners made moves this past winter with a clear focus on upgrading the offense. Those moves appear to be paying off as Seattle's hitters rank higher in the league in most offensive categories at this junction than they have in a few seasons. But what those moves meant was that Seattle was sacrificing some of their depth in the starting rotation.
The thought appears to be that Felix Hernandez was a sure thing and that Hisashi Iwakuma would be able to replicate the success he showed in the 2nd half of 2012 as a full-time starter. After that the trio of veterans Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang (after he replaced Blake Beavan) and Rookie Brandon Maurer should be able to give the Mariners decent production. The first two are certainly holding up their end of the bargain as King Felix and Kuma have combined for 16 Quality Starts, 10 wins, a 2.21 ERA, 0.94 WHIP, a 5.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 8.9 SO/9 while allowing opposing hitters just a .210/.246/.349 slash against them in their 20 outings while averaging nearly seven innings per start. But Saunders, Maurer, Harang, Beavan and Noesi haven't fared so well in their 26 combined starts, putting together a 6.32 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, striking out just 5.7 per nine and allowing an OPS nearly .200 points above the American League average while turning in just 5 1/3 innings per start.
Maurer had his 3rd start of this season allowing six or more earned runs last night in the 7-1 loss and his season ERA now sits at 6.80 and his WHIP at 1.67. Opposing batters are now hitting .328 off of the 22-year-old right-hander and left-handed hitters are teeing off for a 1.086 OPS against him. Harang also allowed seven earned runs in his last start on Tuesday night and the league is hitting .317 off of the 35-year-old, lefties posting a 1.026 OPS off of him. Saunders has been very good at home (0.94 ERA and .180 opponents' average in four starts) and very bad on the road (11.25 ERA and .423 opponents' average in five starts) and he, too, has been beat up -- allowing seven or more earned runs in three (road) starts.
So what can the Mariners do to fix the rotation's last three spots? Who on the farm is there to help?
Well, there is Blake Beavan for one. The 6-foot-7, 24-year-old right-hander made two starts and seven appearances for Seattle earlier this season before being demoted and was tagged with an 8.27 ERA, 1.69 WHIP and .333 oppponents' average before Seattle decided they'd seen enough of him and his new delivery. But Beavan has pitched pretty well for Tacoma out of the rotation, having allowed two earned runs or less in each of his last three outings for the Rainiers. He is doing a much better job getting right-handed hitters out in Tacoma, too. But he still isn't striking any of them out (five in 47 plate appearances in Tacoma and only five in 58 with Seattle) and his stuff hasn't really taken a step forward so much as his competition has taken a step back. Everyone pretty much knows what Beavan is by now, and that is a guy that probably maxes out as a back-end starter. His fastball isn't great (even with more average velocity than Felix's) and he doesn't get many swings and misses on his offspeed stuff.
30-year-old right-hander Jeremy Bonderman is getting right-handers out and striking them out at a better rate than Beavan, but there are still issues. Having taken two full years away from the game recovering from injuries, Bonderman didn't have his arm built up to full strength at the end of big league camp and he went to Tacoma to work on getting that back. He's pitched better than six innings in each of his last six starts and has averaged 95.5 pitches per game in those starts, but his strikeout numbers and hits allowed have both been trending in the wrong direction of late for the Rainers. Bonderman was a guy that used to be able to give you 93-96 on the gun with his fastball, but time and injuries have taken that away. He'll work in the low 90s now and try to keep the ball down.
Left-handed pitching prospect James Paxton, for a while now a highly regarded arm in the Mariners' system, is also pitching down the road from Safeco for Tacoma. The 24-year-old Canadian born hurler has the 4th best ERA among M's minor league starters in May (2.61), but he's also made it to six innings in only one of his nine starts on the season and has failed to go five in five of those nine as he's averaging nearly 20 pitches per inning as he nibbles for strikeouts. He's also allowing better than a hit per inning and has walked 17 batters (though only seven total in his last five starts). Paxton has the best stuff of anyone on this short list, with a fastball that can touch the mid- to upper-90s and a big breaking curveball, but he hasn't shown that he can hold his command and his mechanics often still betray him at this point in his development.
Pitching better than any of those options in Tacoma is right-hander Andrew Carraway. Carraway has gone at least six innings in seven of his 10 outings and has allowed four or more earned runs only once on the season, posting a 5-1 record and 2.98 ERA while holding PCL batters to a .251 average so far. He's getting right-handers out and striking right-handers out, too. The 26-year-old out of Virginia was a 12th round pick back in the 2009 draft and has a nice track record in the Mariners system, pitching for Tacoma since well before the Triple-A All-Star break last season. Carraway doesn't have knock-out stuff as he pitches mainly in the high-80s with his fastball with a cross-body delivery. But he is very smart and gets the most out of his abilities.
Former reliever Chance Ruffin (from the ever popular Doug Fister trade) is still with the organization, but he is now back in Double-A working on his conversion to starting pitcher. His season got off to a slow start but the 6-foot-1 right-hander has thrown very well in his last five starts with a 2.40 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 28 strikeouts (and only seven walks) in 30 innings in that span. Ruffin doesn't have the same velocity that he showed out of the pen a couple of seasons back as a starter, however, and mainly works at 88-90 with the fastball and has gone away from using the splitter/forkball, too.
Beavan and Ruffin are currently on the 40-man roster. Bonderman is said to have a June 1st opt-out clause in his contract. Paxton and Carraway have neither of those issues working for (or against) them. Obviously if one of these starters comes up then it likely means the end for a current big leaguer (most likely Harang), so there shouldn't be a total concern over the 40-man roster spot right now. But Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen are working their way back from injuries and could be in line for big league time at some point in 2013. And relievers Stephen Pryor and Josh Kinney will soon have to be added back to the 40-man roster when their time on the 60-day DL is up. So there are roster concerns that need to be considered.
But with the M's fighting through a rough stretch of under-performance from their pitchers and hitters in this losing streak, Seattle needs to decide what direction they want their season to take -- and that could mean making a move with one or more of the starting pitchers on this list to see if they can get more out of the 3, 4 and 5 spots in the rotation.
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