It was only a short while ago that the Seattle Mariners were in desperate need of a starter – they’d gotten less than nothing out of Taijuan Walker to that point, and the only 40-man option in the high minors was the totally unproven Mike Montgomery. Those were the fifth and sixth options, and neither was good enough at the time. There were even mutterings that a starter could be added in advance of the deadline.
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Fast forward to the present and we’re going on week five of Walker and Montgomery pitching like aces. J.A. Happ is still doing his thing, and Roenis Elias‘s struggles only go back three starts. But with Hisashi Iwakuma just about ready to return to action, the M’s are going to have to clear some room in the rotation. And it’s becoming more and more apparent that Elias is probably not long for the major leagues.
Yes, he’s struggling, and yes, this is a fairly recent development. But whether it’s fair or not, Elias now looks like something of a sure bet to be optioned to the minors when Iwakuma is ready to be activated. Elias starts the series opener tonight against the Oakland Athletics, and it might be the last time we see him for a while.
Through his first twelve starts (72.0 innings) this year, Elias is sporting a 4.25 ERA and a 4.56 FIP. Not good numbers, but not out of the range of acceptability for a fifth starter. He’s generating less ground balls and allowing more homers this year, and while his strikeout rate is down a little from 2014, his walk rate has dropped as well. Overall it’s been a slight drop in productivity, though hardly a dramatic one.
His season was actually an improvement over last year until as recently as June 14th, when he allowed eight runs in a drubbing during that disastrous series against the Houston Astros. He saw them again five days later and was excellent – ten strikeouts, no walks – but even in that start he allowed two long balls, and then last time out he was shelled by the Royals.
Now, there’s plenty of reason to excuse his two recent clunkers – the Royals have the AL’s second-best offense, the Astros the sixth. They were sandwiched around a mostly-sterling start. But the question isn’t whether or not Elias is good enough right now to remain a part of a major league rotation, it’s whether he’s one of the five best immediate options in this particular major league rotation. Which he isn’t, due to two starts.
This isn’t an easy call to make. The Mariners are probably going to think long and hard about taking J.A. Happ’s low upside profile and sliding it into the bullpen. Maybe they’re just going to send Montgomery down anyways, despite his unbelievable first six starts. But the right move is probably to demote Elias, though not because he’s been unplayable (or even particularly bad).
The idea here is to play the hot hand. So what if Elias has a great game tonight against Scott Kazmir‘s A’s? Does that push Vidal Nuno to Tacoma and Happ to the bullpen? If so, what do they do when rule five reliever David Rollins is ready to join the Mariners? A nice start might not be enough to save Elias. Again, he’s been having a perfectly fine season.
This is what an embarrassment of riches looks like, and we haven’t even gotten to James Paxton yet. Paxton is still out, and the team is being very, very cautions with him. Because, you know, there’s just nowhere to put him right now. Remember how awesome Paxton was when he was healthy? Hardly matters now, because the team has so many quality options that they basically have to take it as slow as possible with him.
Roenis Elias starts tonight against the Oakland Athletics. No matter how he pitches he’ll likely sit around in the major league dugout for a few days and then find himself optioned to Tacoma next time his rotation spot comes around. He’ll return to being what he was before: one of the best sixth starters in the game. It’s a shame because he deserves more. It’s a great development because he deserves more.