By Shannon Drayer
PEORIA, Ariz. – With a week to go until Opening Day, it is probably time to take a look at the competition for the starting rotation. Honestly, I thought we would know by now who the starting five were, and if we didn't know, then we would 'know.'
M's manager Lloyd McClendon has voiced his displeasure with Erasmo Ramirez's two-strike pitches. (AP)
With a couple of shaky performances in the last turn through the rotation, however, and the interesting chat Lloyd McClendon had with the media Sunday morning, there may be more questions than we thought.
Let's start with what we know. Felix Hernandez will be the Opening Day starter. Felix has gone about his business of getting ready for the season this spring and worked his way up to seven innings in his last start. He hopes to throw 100-110 pitches in his final start of the spring, which comes Tuesday against Kansas City in Surprise, Ariz.
Felix has on a couple of occasions this spring told me that he feels very good and then repeated the "very good" for emphasis. He seems as confident heading into this season as I have seen him in any spring training. The change-up has been up and down for him, but when it has been on we have seen the same nasty pitch that we have seen in past years.
One change for Felix is he has been working on a cutter. Last year the cutter would pop up on his PITCHf/x from time to time, though both he and then-pitching coach Carl Willis insisted that it was his fastball with strange movement. He wasn't intentionally trying to throw it and he wasn't using the cutter grip. This year he is. He threw a handful of them in his minor-league start last week and was happy with what he saw from the pitch. He has told me that he plans to take the pitch into the regular season but we shall see. More often than not those new pitches tend to get left in Arizona.
Moving on. I think it is safe to say that James Paxton will be in the rotation. I have been pretty high on him and I continue to be, but he is coming off two rocky starts and, interestingly enough, although his pitch count is where it should be he has yet to pitch more than four innings in a game. That is a little concerning, but the good news is he hasn't been hit hard and he has walked a grand total of three batters this spring.
The No. 3 starter is the big mystery right now. Erasmo Ramirez has put up the best numbers of anyone in camp and has the third-best ERA in the Cactus League. Spring training numbers mean little to McClendon, however. He is more interested in what he sees in front of him on the field, and what he has seen from Ramirez are 0-2 pitches that he believes will get hit in the regular season. Ramirez has been talked to about this, and from what we heard in the tone of McClendon's voice and the adjectives he used to describe the pitches it would appear that there is a bit of frustration that he is still seeing hanging sliders in the middle of the plate in that situation. Is there enough frustration to keep Ramirez off the final 25-man roster? I doubt it, but if Blake Beavan has a solid last start and Ramirez doesn't make the adjustment for his, things possibly could get interesting. More on that below.
The No. 3 starter is the most important piece of this puzzle as this is the guy who will stay when Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker return. I assumed for the longest time that Scott Baker would be the guy but his performance this spring has been the most worrisome. He looks healthy. His velocity is back to where it was before the Tommy John surgery and at times his pitches have looked sharp. Six walks in his last start was alarming, however. Like Paxton, his pitch count is where it should be, but he hasn't thrown more than 4 2/3 innings in a game. I would say the door is certainly open at 3 and the audition will be ongoing until Iwakuma and Walker return.
Randy Wolf may have worked his way into that conversation. On Sunday he became just the second Mariners pitcher to throw six innings in a Major League spring game. For the most part each start has seemed to build off the other, with Wolf gaining better command of his array of pitches. His problem is he doesn't have much room for error, and he has given up six home runs in 19 innings.
Roenis Elias will get another start to show what he can do. McClendon seems to be trying to temper any excitement about the late entrant into the competition, with probably the biggest concern being the number of batters he has walked this spring. He showed the ability to get out of trouble in his last start, however, and as long as this competition is going to go down to the wire there is no reason to shut doors now. I think there is some hesitance within the organization to jump Elias from Double-A to the bigs, but if they don't like what they see from others this week and Elias makes a third straight solid start he could prove to be the surprise name on the roster when the season begins.
Last but not least is Beavan, who gave up seven runs in his last start. The disturbing thing about that start is that he was never able to make the adjustment necessary to get the ball down. Had it been the regular season he would have been pulled from the game earlier and a good amount of bullpen would have had to have been used. It was lousy timing on Beavan's part, which most likely leaves him in a position where someone else will have to stumble for him to break camp with the big team. If Ramirez does not show McClendon what he wants to see in his final start, I wouldn't be surprised if Beavan wins a spot. McClendon isn't the first to be frustrated with Ramirez throwing bad (hittable) strikes at bad times. He has been clear about what he wants to see from Ramirez, and if Ramirez doesn't deliver or at least show progress and a commitment to improving, I think it might be difficult for McClendon to reward him by giving him a spot in the rotation, even if it is a temporary one. It is hard to imagine – and I do think it is unlikely but not out of the question – that one of the pitchers with the best numbers this spring wouldn't be given a spot, but if he wasn't, I would understand why.
Things could get interesting with the March 25 opt-out date a number of players are believed to have. While I have not yet been able to confirm this, I believe that Baker and Wolf have opt-out clauses in their contracts with the Mariners that would free them up to leave the team and try and catch on with another after March 25. I would be surprised if they didn't have this as most veterans who sign minor-league deals make sure that this opt-out is included. This may be something that the Mariners will want to take into consideration. Texas needs pitching and you obviously don't want to make the mistake of helping them out if at all possible.
With one week to go the starting rotation is still a bit of a puzzle. It should be an interesting week.