Felix Hernandez, or #FelixHernandez, is currently locked in a tight Twitter battle to be crowned the Face of MLB, or #FaceOfMLB. Go vote for him by tweeting those two hashtag wordclusters! I know I sure did, a bunch of times! Felix is the potential Face of MLB because Felix is one of the very best and most recognizable baseball players alive. A residual effect of being one of the game’s elite talents is that Felix is guaranteed to start the season at the top of the Seattle Mariners rotation. He’ll pitch on opening day, and he’ll probably pitch great on opening day. Felix Hernandez is the King, and he’s the best, and he’s currently the only guarantee in Seattle’s rotation.
Hisashi Iwakuma, of course, is the other ace-level starting pitcher on the Mariners. He should be a guarantee, but it’s quite possible that his current finger injury will keep him out for the first few weeks of the season. For at least April, the Mariners should be prepared to use four non-Felix, non-Kuma pitchers in their rotation. That’s certainly possible and all, but this team wants to win the World Series. We know they have two really good starters and a couple of touted prospects, but how much else is there? Is there a World Series-caliber rotation buried in the depth charts? Let’s take a look, shall we, and find out for ourselves.
Scott Baker: 2013 stats – 15 IP, 3.6 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 3.60 ERA, 5.65 FIP
Scott Baker and Taijuan Walker pitched the same number of innings at the major league level in 2013. Walker spent most of the season as one of the very best pitching prospects in all of baseball, whereas Baker spent most of the season as a guy rehabbing from serious injury. What Baker did during his rehab was pitch poorly in A ball, but it’s rehab, and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Pre-injury Baker was an awesome pitcher who averaged roughly 7 K/9 and 2 BB/9 for about seven years. The thing about awesome pitchers who get hurt is that they sometimes return not-awesome, and that’s a very real possibility with Baker. He might suck. He might not even pitch. But if he’s anything like the Scott Baker who starred for some excellent Minnesota Twins teams, then he’s the number three starter. So far in camp he’s looked healthy and competent, which is to say he’s looked like the Mariners number three starter.
Erasmo Ramirez: 2013 stats – 72.1 IP, 7.09 K/9, 3.24 BB/9, 4.98 ERA, 4.83 FIP
Last year the Mariners had a really bad bullpen, which was sort of surprising. The surprise came not because we expect great Mariners bullpens, which we don’t, but because the group posted one of the league’s worst ERAs despite a middle-of-the-pack FIP. When fielding-independent numbers are better than fielding-dependent numbers, we often sigh a big luck-related sigh of relief. Erasmo Ramirez sucked last year, and his FIP was nearly his ERA, and his WAR was rightfully near zero. Any hope for positive regression lies almost solely in his home run per fly ball rate, which is probably not going to be 14.8% again next year. I doubt his BABIP is .300 again, either. Ramirez still profiles best as a starter for the Mariners, but there’s plenty of reason I’ve been suggesting he’d be a fine swingman candidate. His value took a hit last year, and he’s not a rotation lock. He’s not an MLB roster lock. But he’s still interesting, and interesting is what we as fans are into.
Taijuan Walker: 2013 stats – 15 IP, 7.2 K/9, 2.4 BB/9, 3.60 ERA, 2.25 FIP
2013 Taijuan Walker and 2013 Scott Baker threw the same number of innings for the same ERA. Walker’s FIP was better than half what Baker’s was, largely due to the zero home runs he allowed in his three major league starts. We all know the deal with Taijuan Walker: he’s amazing. He’s the best Mariners pitching prospect since Felix, and any shoulder-related concerns seem to have become quiet nothings this week. Walker’s going to make the rotation, and he’s almost certainly one of the team’s five best starters right now. He has the potential to be an ace. He has the potential to be the best pitcher alive, for all it’s worth. He’s not super likely to be either of those things ever, let alone this season, but it’s all possible with Walker. A lot of people are excited to watch the Mariners this year. Walker’s deservingly one of the top reasons why.
James Paxton: 2013 stats – 24 IP, 7.88 K/9, 2.63 BB/9, 1.50 ERA, 3.26 FIP
Paxton’s had a much harder time than Walker has retaining his prospect shine, and one suspects that his age (25) and control issues are the main reasons why. However, it’s just as possible that Paxton’s major league cup of coffee and end of season successes are telling, seeing as he is a top 100 prospect on the verge of his physical prime with the Mariners. It’s not inconceivable that his issues are fading away, and what that leaves is a pretty exciting young pitcher with oodles of cheap team control. A lot of folks are predicting that Paxton is in line for a lot of AAA time this season, which is a safe thing to say. After all, he, like most of the other M’s rotation candidates, is an inexperienced young pitcher. But he’s also a potential franchise building block, and the Mariners could do worse than to open the year with him as their fifth starter.
Brandon Maurer: 2013 stats – 90 IP, 7 K/9, 2.7 BB/9, 6.30 ERA, 4.90 FIP
The first thing I always remember about Brandon Maurer’s 2013 with the Mariners is that he spent all of 2012 in AA, then opened the season in the majors. The second thing I remember is always his huge ERA, and the better-but-still-quite-crappy FIP that came with it. The thing I absolutely never remember is that in making the jump from AA to MLB, Maurer actually improved his K/BB ratio. That’s… awesome, really, despite the bazillion homers allowed and ultimately bad season. Maurer is still a prospect, at least in the sense that Mike Zunino is still a prospect. His upside is still there, and even last season we glimpsed it in his strikeout and walk totals. Maurer isn’t likely to make the rotation out of spring training, but he’s better depth than most of us give him credit for.
So those are the guys behind Felix and Kuma. How does the depth chart shake out, spots two through seven? Probably something like Baker-Walker-Paxton-Ramirez-Maurer, though you can just as easily flip flop Paxton and Ramirez if you’d like. Baker’s only as good as his health, and his health is no guarantee after the last year-plus. There’s already an the Iwakuma injury thing going on, and Baker’s a risk, and then there’s four young guys who have proven essentially nothing at the big league level. This group looks fine, and even above average with some good breaks. But for a group seven starters deep, this rotation somehow still manages to lack significant depth. The Mariners could use another starter. But even if they open the season with Iwakuma hurt and a rotation of Felix/Baker/Walker/Paxton/Ramirez, things shouldn’t be that bad. Fingers crossed.