By Brent Stecker
The new Mariners coaching staff's first week of Spring Training could have gone smoother – especially for pitching coach Rick Waits.
On the same week that pitchers and catchers reported to the Mariners' facilities in Peoria, Ariz., the team received bad news about both top prospect Taijuan Walker and All-Star hurler Hisashi Iwakuma. Walker, who is expected to be a full-time starter this season after making his MLB debut late last season, is dealing with some shoulder soreness, manager Lloyd McClendon said Thursday. Meanwhile, Iwakuma has a strained tendon in his right (throwing) middle finger that will keep him out of action until the start of the regular season.
Hisashi Iwakuma is working out with the Mariners at Spring Training despite a strained tendon in his right middle finger, while Felix Hernandez is right on schedule, according to pitching coach Rick Waits. (AP)
Those two injuries should give Waits plenty of headaches, though as he told 710 ESPN Seattle's "Wyman, Mike and Moore," it could be worse.
"They're both gonna pitch with us this year. I think that's the thing," Waits said.
He explained that Walker, 21, hasn't had his progress slowed down much from his soreness.
"With Walker, he's been feeling great this week," Waits said. "His arm strength is good. He's been getting his distances back. He's been throwing, playing catch a little bit with Felix (Hernandez), and so I'm really encouraged by his arm strength and his progress at this point."
As for the 32-year-old Iwakuma, who's coming off a 2013 season in which he posted a 14-6 record, 2.66 ERA and 1.01 WHIP, he's doing what he can, though that won't even involve holding a baseball for a few weeks.
"Of course it's tough losing Iwakuma, one of our best pitchers, and it looks like he may be out four to six weeks, maybe," Waits said. "It's a sad injury for us, but if anyone knows Iwakuma, he's everyday working hard in the gym. He's been out of the field with us doing some PFPs (pitchers' fielding practice) and running around. Even though he's set back a little bit, he's gonna get his starts and he's gonna win his games this year."
It was Iwakuma's workout regimen that is likely to blame for his finger issues in the first place.
"I think he was just reaching up high or jumping up high while he was working out in California, kinda got his finger caught up in some netting while he was working out, and just kinda got the end of his finger," Waits said. "I'm hoping it's gonna heal quickly and that he'll be back on the mound whenever they think it's safe to do so."
The Mariners have at least one proven starter who is right on schedule, though – Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young Award winner and four-time All-Star.
"We're not gonna change anything of what he's been doing in the last several years," said Waits, who was previously the Mariners' minor league pitching coordinator from 2011 to 2013. "He is in just tremendous shape. This is my fourth year that I've seen him; I think he might be in the best shape I've ever seen him."
Hernandez is looking to build on a typically strong season in 2013 in which he finished with a 12-10 record, 3.04 ERA, 1.13 WHIP and 216 strikeouts.
"He's throwing and we're progressing the same way that he usually does in Spring Training to get ready," Waits said. "He'll be ready to get on the mound and start throwing some bullpens maybe by Monday, and that's what he's done every year. He usually gets somewhere between 20 and 25 innings of work done here before the spring is over, and he'll be ready to go. He's in great spirits. He's been a great help to our young pitchers talking to them, so he's feeling good and looking good right now."