By Brent Stecker
The Mariners have finally completed the first leg of their injured-induced starting rotation relay, and all things considered, they're in pretty good shape now that All-Star Hisashi Iwakuma has made his return to the team.
Mariners pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, a Cy Young candidate last season, will make his first start of 2014 on Saturday after missing all of April with an injured finger tendon on his right hand. (AP)
Though Seattle's arms have found themselves sidelined with regularity this season – Iwakuma missed all of spring training with a finger tendon issue, highly-touted prospects James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have been both out of action since mid-April, and even Blake Beavan found himself on the DL just innings into a spot start – the team has stayed afloat, going 12-15 before Iwakuma's return on Saturday. Iwakuma had an immediate impact, too, earning a win by holding Houston to four runs on six hits in 6 2/3 innings.
While the losses prior to Iwakuma's return had their share of ugliness, especially during an eight-game losing skid, some of the fill-in pitchers have made the most of their opportunities afforded by the injured hurlers. That includes rookie southpaw Roenis Elias, the Cuban export who had never pitched above Double-A yet struck out 10 Yankees in a win Thursday, and 6-foot-10 righty Chris Young, a veteran fly-ball pitcher who has somehow bounced back from serious shoulder problems to post a 3.04 ERA.
With those two trending upward and Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez supplanted in his usual spot atop the rotation, the addition of Iwakuma suddenly makes the Mariners rotation much more fearsome. This is the American League's biggest breakout pitcher of 2013 we're talking about, after all, the same guy who was in the middle of some Cy Young talk of his own thanks to a 2.66 ERA and 1.01 WHIP.
It may be unreasonable to expect him to produce at the same level as last year – he wasn't exactly at his sharpest in his one rehab start in Tacoma, allowing two earned runs on six hits and striking out six in four innings. But Kuma's impact should be a big difference-maker regardless, especially since his game has always been about his pinpoint control and there was still a nice round "0" under the walk column from that Rainiers appearance. He followed up with just one walk in Saturday's win, too.
Furthermore, he's rejoining a team that saw Erasmo Ramirez rack up a 6.75 ERA over five starts before sending him back to the minors, the same team that had to yank Beavan from Triple-A to start a game because there was nobody else to turn to. After that adventure, having an All-Star back in the mix is just about as good of a scenario as you can hope for.
The most important aspect of Iwakuma's return is that it should be the first of several for Seattle's rotation. Paxton was very impressive early this season (2-0, 2.25 ERA, 0.67 WHIP) before a lat injury appeared, and he and Walker (shoulder) are both scheduled to throw bullpen sessions next week. If all goes well, they could both be back sooner rather than later, and the Mariners would presumably then have a rotation of All-Stars Hernandez and Iwakuma, rising stars Paxton and Walker, and the choice of Elias or Young.
Then, just maybe, Mariners fans will be able to breathe easy about the pitching situation.