Getting To Know The 2015 Seattle Mariners: Rotation


This is the fifth in a series of posts previewing the 2015 AL West. Previous posts: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers. Next up: Seattle Mariners bullpen.

You’ve gotten pretty familiar with how this works by now – the Seattle Mariners have a nice, strong pitching staff and nothing to do with it. Felix Hernandez And Friends will keep runs off the board, but they’ll have to survive their own miserable offense in order to make it count. For years, it hasn’t worked. Last year, it worked. This year, well, it might work. We don’t know yet.

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Felix is another year older, as is literally everyone, but this rotation is still the backbone of the team. For all the improvements made to the offense, there’s nothing more important to the team’s success than the rotation. This is the group that makes it all possible. Once a strength, always a strength.

Here’s the starting rotation in summary: the best pitcher in the American League is followed by a no-walks veteran who’s generated ace-like results for years. After those two you’ve got a pair of former top prospects who’ve been very good at the major league level, as well as over longer stretches in the high minors. Rounding out the group is a somewhat enigmatic lefty who’s going to a park built for his style of play a year after adding a few ticks of velocity. If he falters, the M’s have as good of a sixth starter as anyone.

Promising group. Let’s meet them!

Felix Hernandez

Mar 26, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) looks on in the dugout against the Kansas City Royals at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Felix gets better every year. It’s so completely insane that that’s true, but it’s true. He’s the best pitcher alive, non-Clayton Kershaw division, and all he did last year was elevate his game to a new level for, like, the third year in a row. Keep in mind he already had a Cy Young under his belt before this most recent run of success.

The King set career-best marks for ERA, FIP, and walks last year. He almost eclipsed his previous marks for innings and K/9, while inducing more grounders than he has since 2007. He allowed a .258 BABIP, easily a career low. Oh yeah, and he should have won another Cy Young. Thanks for nothing, Corey Kluber.

Felix is the type of pitcher who’s almost too good to believe. That’s seven seasons in a row over 200 innings, and nine in a row over 190. Felix turns 29 this year. He’s just now in his physical prime. It’s like all that early-career insanity was just a bonus, and now the M’s get to see just how special their ace really is. It’s hard to imagine Felix taking another step forward, but who’s going to rule it out at this point?

Hisashi Iwakuma

Mar 17, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Daisuke Sekiba , translator for Seattle Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (not pictured) against the Chicago White Sox at Camelback Ranch. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Iwakuma will be 34 soon and is in the last year of his deal with the Mariners. To this point he’s been nothing short of excellent as a major leaguer, flashing the control of a vintage Cliff Lee with the strikeouts to match and that 50% ground ball rate that we all know and love. He’s been excellent, and due to an old shoulder injury the M’s have been paying him precious little. This will be the third year in a row Seattle looks to ‘Kuma as a pillar.

Home runs have been Iwakuma’s weakness in MLB, but as long as his pitching in general doesn’t take a significant step backward it should continue to be a mere wart as opposed to a full-blown issue. While there aren’t any obvious performance-based red flags, this is an older arm we’re talking about. While pitchers age more gracefully than position players, there’s no reason to expect a 34 year old to be safer than a 33 year old.

If Iwakuma pitches as he always has, the M’s likely hand him a little extension to keep him in town for a while longer. If he pitches as he always has, the M’s likely win a lot of games. Iwakuma would probably be starting on Opening Day for any other team in this division. Let’s not forget how bright his star is.

James Paxton

Mar 22, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher James Paxton (65) looks on during the game against the Texas Rangers at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Paxton’s probably going to spend the early part of this season sandwiched between Hernandez and Iwakuma, though that’s not simply due to his left-handedness. Yeah, breaking up the two ace righties is mostly why Paxton’s getting the number two spot, but it’s also largely due to his top of the rotation abilities. The proof is in his entire major league career to date.

Simply put, Paxton has yet to be less than sterling at the game’s highest level. His 2013 cameo gave way to 2014 injury woes, but he returned to make 13 MLB starts and post a 3.04 ERA/3.28 FIP. This time around he even kept the ball in the park. With a fastball this good, anything is possible.

As long as his arm isn’t actively falling off, Paxton is one of the brightest young stars in the league. He arrived last year, but has yet to really put it all together. The strikeouts could still climb. The walks could go down. Paxton’s good now, but he could soon be great. So long as he stays healthy.

Taijuan Walker

Feb 26, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher Taijuan Walker poses for a portrait during photo day at Peoria Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Take everything I just said about Paxton except the left-handedness and apply it here. Oh, and Walker’s four years younger and is considered to have an even higher ceiling. Meet the number four starter, a guy who’s being counted on a little bit more this year while still avoiding the weight of the world. By season’s end Walker may be up there with the league’s best. His future is that bright.

But what we’re most concerned with is the immediate future, and fortunately Walker is giving us reasons to be optimistic. He’s somewhat famously ditched his cutter for a new slider this spring, and the results have been jaw-dropping. He’s on track to post the best Cactus League ERA in M’s history, but more importantly he’s just been a visual treat so far. Nothing about him looks like a guy with 53 big league innings. He looks overwhelming and absolutely in control.

Last year Walker missed a big chunk of time with injury, then had some trouble forcing his way onto the big league roster. When he finally showed up he had trouble with free passes while otherwise pitching excellent, though he improved more and more as the season went on. This year he’s looking to cut down walks by cutting out the pitch he had the least command of. Not to be Mr. Optimist over here, but based on what we’ve seen so far it appears there’s a great chance of this happening.

J.A. Happ

Mar 24, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners pitcher J.A. Happ (33) warms up in the bullpen before the start of a spring training game against the San Diego Padres at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports

Happ is 32 years old. Here’s a little look at how his fastball has evolved since he broke into the bigs:

YearAverage Fastball Velocity

What you don’t expect pitchers to do is increase their velocity every single year for seven straight years. But lo and behold, that’s what Happ has done. The most drastic increases have come the last two seasons, as the guy is up two full ticks from where he was quite recently. This is a big reason the Mariners deemed were willing to trade Michael Saunders for him. That and the fact that they sort of hated Michael Saunders, for some reason.

Of course, Happ’s also got a career 4.24 ERA and 4.36 FIP, indicating a pitcher who’s been just good enough to hang around and eat innings. Except he’s been hurt frequently and hasn’t really been good for that either, only passing the 100 inning mark four times and never topping 2009’s 166.

The hope is that Safeco Field and an ever-improving fastball will lead to Happ’s first season of quality run prevention since 2009, when he posted a 2.93 ERA despite ugly peripheral stats. The hope is that what Chris Young just did can be repeated by someone else. The fit, on paper, is pretty good, though Happ has looked pretty bad this spring. But it’s only spring. Spring doesn’t predict the future.

Roenis Elias

Mar 5, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Roenis Elias (29) flips the ball to first base for the out against the San Diego Padres in the first inning during a spring training baseball game at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

And here’s the insurance policy, optioned to AAA a few days ago after breaking camp with the team last year. Elias came from nowhere – well, from AA – to have an excellent rookie season with the Mariners. He’s now the sixth starter, and maybe the very best sixth starter in the AL.

This is the kind of depth you drool over. This is the best insurance policy the M’s could have in place, just about. If Happ sucks or anyone gets hurt, they’ve got a more-than-capable replacement waiting in the wings. Having six MLB starters is really nice.


Feb 21, 2015; Peoria, AZ, USA; Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Felix Hernandez (34) covers first base during camp at Peoria Sports Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

Best group in the AL West. One of the best groups in the world, or at least so it seems. You never know how these things will shake out. But if the M’s have anything less than an excellent rotation, consider it a shock. This group should continue to be the strength of what looks like a very strong team.

All hail King Felix. Praise the Golden Bear. The kids look alright, too, and hey, maybe this J.A. Happ thing isn’t so bad after all. Be excited! Be really excited!