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Five Easy Pieces: The Seattle Mariners Rotation in 2016

Wednesday, November 11, 2015


Felix Hernandez

They say that a team is only as good as its starting pitcher on any given day. They say that pitching and defense win championships; that the best offense is a good defense, and that good pitching always beats good hitting. Regardless of how many clichés they throw at us about the importance of a good pitching rotation, the numbers don’t lie. Playoff teams without three very good pitchers at the top of their rotation rarely make it far. Sure, Felix Hernandez could put a team on his shoulders and win you a one-game playoff, but what then? Going into a five or seven game series, you’d better have some confidence in that third guy in your rotation. 

In 2015, the Seattle Mariners ranked fourth in all of Major League Baseball in earned-run average, 22nd in walks allowed and 18th in batting-average against, with opponents hitting .256 against them. They did manage to strike out a fair amount of batters and were just a few pegs below league average over-all.

The rotation suffered from early-season injuries to Hisashi Iwakuma, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, but showed glimmers of hope with young pitchers like Mike Montgomery, Roenis Elias and Vidal Nuno filling in when needed and at times excelling.

There are two ways to look at the Mariners 2015 season. One way would be to say that their rotation is injury prone and full of unfulfilled potential. The flip side of that is a more desirable reality in which the Mariners got through the growing pains of James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, who may both be ready to contribute for a full season at a high-level, and that Mike Montgomery and newly acquired power-pitcher, Nate Karns, are the real deal. I mean, if the chips all fall where you want them to, the Mariners might have a pretty good rotation as is… well, if you count Iwakuma.

The free-agent market for starting pitchers is deep this year. There are a few high-profile pitchers at the top of that list, but after that the drop-off is actually pretty subtle. You could easily identify the top few names on the list in an order that reads something like this on most ranking boards you’ll see. 

David Price (30)
Zach Greinke (32)
Johnny Cueto (30)
Jordan Zimmermann (30)
Hisashi Iwakuma (35)

I’ve said in previous articles that I think the Mariners’ top offseason priority should be signing Iwakuma, who recently turned down a qualifying offer from the team of over $15 million dollars. Most predictions have him getting a two to three year deal in the neighborhood of $14 to $16 million annually. New Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has expressed an interest in getting Iwakuma signed to a deal as soon as possible, and everything seems to point to the feeling being mutual. 

David Price

So, before we start arguing about how the Mariners should go out and sign one of the best pitchers available, I think it’s worth noting that signing Hisashi Iwakuma to a deal would be doing just that. I know it doesn’t sound flashy, but if the team can avoid a bidding-war or losing an unprotected draft pick by locking up a great pitcher right away, I think it’s a good move. If that was the one signing the team made for our rotation this offseason, I wouldn’t hate it. I mean, this might be alright…

RH Felix Hernandez
RH Hisashi Iwakuma
RH Taijuan Walker
RH Nate Karns
LH James Paxton

I kind of loathe having less than two left-handed pitchers in the rotation, but with Mike Montgomery and Roenis Elias waiting in Tacoma, each gaining from their experiences in 2015, I could maybe live with it.

Now, if they re-sign Iwakuma and still think they need another quality arm, there’s some logic in that too. The team has a decent rotation and just got stronger by adding Nate Karns by way of a trade with Tampa Bay.  But if they see a good fit out there on the market and think that the right player can be had for relatively cheap, maybe the team is just one innings-eater away from contending; or even dominating next season. 

Under the assumption that Iwakuma is the big acquisition in the rotation, we likely won’t be seeing another pitcher from that top group of pitchers coming to Seattle. But as I mentioned earlier, the well is deep. The second tier of free-agent starters includes some serious talent and even more experience. Here’s a list of those players with their respective ages. 

Jeff Samardzija (31)
John Lackey (37)
Wei-Yin Chen (30)
Mike Leake (28)
Scott Kazmir (32)
Mat Latos (28)
Ian Kennedy (31)
Yovani Gallardo (30)
Doug Fister (32)
Mark Buehrle (37)
Brett Anderson (28)
Marco Estrada (32)
Colby Lewis (36)
Bartolo Colon (43)
J.A. Happ (33)
Kyle Lohse (37)

Of that group, many will be offered qualifying offers from the teams they pitched for in 2015. The Mariners have the top unprotect pick in next year’s draft, which means that if the team was to sign a player who’d received a qualifying offer they would lose that draft pick. Only players who played the entire previous season with the same club can be extended a qualifying offer. So, if a player was traded during the prior year, they aren’t eligible. That rule surely limits the Mariners interest in signing certain players. Jerry Dipoto has said that he wants to rebuild the farm system, so it would stand to reason that he places high value on a first-round pick. When I look at this list I see a few players who are thought to be considering retiring as well, so that shortens the list too.

Even with the possibilities narrowing with those restrictions, Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners still have several options to look at in that second tier, and pitching depth could be an important thing to consider with the amount of time our starters spent on the disabled list last season.
I think looking at a player like Doug Fister could be a great move. He won’t be tendered a qualifying offer, has pitched well in Seattle in the past, and is still young enough that he could be a very productive pitcher in the back of the rotation.

Doug Fister is just one way to go and an example of the kind of pitcher the Mariners might look to sign if they want to add depth to the starting-pitcher position. This team still needs an outfielder or two, a part-time catcher and a lefty for the bullpen. But the clichés are clichés for a reason; and often it’s because they’re true.

A team really is only as good as their starting pitcher on any given day. Good pitching does usually beat good hitting. And more times than not, pitching win championships.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


Related Slideshow: 12 of the Greatest Sports Movies of All Time

Hank Stern ranks his top twelve favorite sports films. 

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#12 Rollerball

Some of the non-athletic scenes in this dystopian classic show their age, but Rollerball is a strangely prescient film that anticipated both the corporatization of sport and fans’ limitless taste for violence. Bonus points for the ominous intro music.

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#11 A League of Their Own

A comedy that looks back to the antithesis of corporate sport – a women’s baseball league during World War II with many memorable lines to choose from (e.g.,”There’s no crying in baseball.”)

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#10 Remember The Titans

Yes, filmmakers took liberties with some of the facts dealing with the integration of a high school football team in Virginia. But there’s a reason football teams often screen this film on the eve of big games. It’s a damn inspirational tale.

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#9 The Natural

This film has grown on me over time. Originally, it seemed slow and schmaltzy. Now, it seems well-paced and charming. Then and now, the re-created scenes of pre-World War II ballparks arrive like perfectly preserved postcards from the past.  

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#8 The Longest Yard

Not the remake with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. But the hilarious original with Burt Reynolds and Eddie Albert as a wonderfully villainous warden who pits the guards against the inmates in a grudge football game that includes former Green Bay linebacker Ray Nitschke and other ex-football players like Sonny Sixkiller and Joe Kapp, both stalwart Pac-8 quarterbacks long, long ago.  

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#7 Slap Shot

The Hanson brothers. Enough said.

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#6 Rocky

Often imitated, but never replicated. The definitive underdog boxing story featuring Sylvester Stallone before he became a self-caricature in multiple sequels. Impossible to hear the theme song without being motivated to get off the couch.

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#5 Seabiscuit

A fantastic book as well as a great movie. Like “The Natural,” Seabiscuit captures its Depression-era setting for modern-day viewers taken back to an era when horse racing actually meant something in America. 

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#4 Requiem for a Heavywei

A too often-forgotten film these days but a wonderful boxing drama that shows the sport’s underside with memorable  performances by Mickey Rooney, Jackie Gleason and Anthony Quinn.

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#3 Hoosiers

Want to know something about small-town America in the 1950s and about Indiana basketball? This hoops movie does all of that with a healthy dose of redemption throughout. 

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#2 Bull Durham

There’s a pretty good case to be made this movie played a huge part in the rebirth and re-marketing of minor league baseball. As written by former minor leaguer Ron Shelton, there are many great scenes to choose from but this one is a favorite. 

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#1 Raging Bull

A rags-to-riches-to-rags story of boxer Jake LaMotta meets the actor born to play him, Robert De Niro. Not a false moment in this black-and-white powerhouse.


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