By Brent Stecker
The Mariners' starting rotation has not been an example of consistency this season. In 2014, that could be a much different story.
Inconsistent veterans Aaron Harang and Jeremy Bonderman are long gone, as the team has finally taken a peek into the future this month, calling up 21-year-old phenom Taijuan Walker and fellow top prospect James Paxton to make their respective MLB debuts. The results couldn't be much better – in two starts, Walker is 1-0 with a 3.60 ERA, while southpaw Paxton held Tampa Bay to one run in six innings of the Mariners' 6-2 win Saturday.
Additionally, both Walker and Paxton have been electric, reaching the mid-to-high 90s with their fastballs, which is something that will always keep fans engaged.
If all goes to plan, Walker and Paxton should occupy two spots in the Mariners' rotation when 2014 rolls around, joining ace Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who has been perhaps the best No. 2 in the American League in 2013. That leaves just one question: who will man the fifth position in the rotation?
The hope has been that it will be Danny Hultzen, the other member of the Mariners' "Big Three" of pitching prospects and the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 MLB Draft, but the likelihood of him being MLB-ready by the start of next season has shrunk throughout 2013. He's dealt with shoulder issues all year, and though he threw three innings of a simulated game at Safeco Field prior to Saturday's game, he managed to toss just 35 2/3 innings in the minor leagues this season. He will head to the Instructional League and Arizona Fall League to continue to work on a revamped arm motion, making it increasingly more likely he'll start 2014 in the minors.
There are still several other young arms the Mariners can turn to, including Erasmo Ramirez, Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan. Each of those three have struggled in turns starting for Seattle this season, but the chances of at least one putting it together in time for next season is strong. Then again, the Mariners could always turn to the free-agent market to get one more veteran pitcher to fill out the rotation, much like they did with Joe Saunders this year.
Whatever the case is for the No. 5 spot, the Mariners' rotation for 2014 already looks in much better shape than the patchwork 2013 rotation. Finally, it's progress by the franchise that fans can be encouraged by.