By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – There has been quite a buzz around the start made by Roenis Elias Sunday against the Angels. The actual start itself was a surprise for just about everyone except manager Lloyd McClendon, who told the media Saturday that he had been looking at Elias at as a starter all along despite the fact that he had been pitching in relief this spring. It makes sense, he has been a starter his entire career and it it would appear he has the repertoire to be a starter. He just wasn't quite on the radar yet for most. He's there now.
It is an interesting story. Elias comes from Cuba by way of Mexico. He wasn't a heralded or coveted arm coming out of Cuba, however. In fact, he didn't even make the top-level team in Mexico while he was awaiting the proper paperwork that would allow him to eventually get to the United States. He toiled on a lower-level team and went unsigned after his first pro tryout. It wasn't until his second tryout that he was signed.
He has put up good numbers in the three years he has spent in the Mariners' system. His mid-90s fastball has good life and his power curve is about as good as you are going to see coming out of the minors. It has a chance to be a real weapon if he can get ahead in the count. McClendon would like to see him get his walks down. They are not terrible. In fact, his BB/9 rate is slightly less than Taijuan Walker's and James Paxton's but his strikeout numbers are 1-2 less per game than theirs as well so a little more command would go a long way.
Is it a concern that he hasn't pitched above Double-A? Perhaps. The biggest thing pitchers get at Triple-A is the opportunity to pitch against guys who have played in the big leagues, guys who have an approach. It isn't stuff against hitting talent anymore. How you use your pitches becomes important. At 25, he is older than most at that level and he has fit into the clubhouse well and worked well with his coaches and catchers. He has good poise on the hill. Despite coming from Cuba and risking his life to try to play in the big leagues – which would no doubt put more pressure on his shoulders in this situation than most – he told me before the game he wasn't nervous or excited. It would be no different than the innings he pitched the last few weeks in relief. He seems to have the tools both on and off the field to succeed. It would still be quite a jump to make from Double-A but not completely out of the question.
The one problem that the Mariners will face with Elias and others is that they will run into a 40-man roster crunch at the end of the spring. They may have the arms to fill the holes in the bullpen and starting rotation, but the 40-man roster could play into what they do. Elias, Scott Baker, Randy Wolf, Zach Miner, Joe Beimel, Carson Smith and Dominic Leone are not on the 40-man. All are getting good looks and all arguably could fill roles. For each player another would have to be dropped from the 40-man roster, which is at 40 right now with only Danny Hultzen a candidate for the 60-day disabled list.
The next thing to watch for with Elias is to see if he is scheduled for another start. Whoever's start he takes would not necessarily be knocked out as they can get starts in the minor-league games, but that start would indicate how ready the Mariners think Elias might be. We should learn more about that and whether or not Hisashi Iwakuma has been cleared to throw on Tuesday.