PITTSBURGH — Twice every five days, the Mariners have the comforting knowledge that they are one step ahead of the game — no matter whom they're playing. They will be sending out a starting pitcher with a high probability of turning in a strong performance, holding the opposition in check, and giving Seattle an excellent shot to win.
The other 60 percent of the time, however, is not nearly so reassuring. While their hitting remains an ongoing concern — though their swinging has been on the upswing the past 10 days — the longterm health of this Seattle season might hinge on the Mariners' ability to get the bottom of their rotation (and the middle, for that matter) into a more consistent realm.
So far this year, the Mariners have had 19 starts not manned by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Those efforts have produced a 5-12 record with a 6.84 earned-run average and seven quality starts.
Contrast that with Hernandez and Iwakuma, who are a combined 7-3 with a 1.61 ERA in 14 starts — all but two of the quality variety.
Sum up their rotation this way: “Kuma and the King, and the other three better improve if the M's want a ring.”
No, that phrase doesn't flow very well, but that's appropriate, because neither have the Mariners' three, four and five starters.
Blake Beavan made two subpar starts before being relegated first to the bullpen, then to Tacoma. Aaron Harang was acquired to take Beavan's place and began with three weak efforts before rebounding his last time out with a winning effort against the Orioles. But he's still carrying an 8.68 ERA.
Rookie Brandon Maurer has been a roller-coaster ride — two bad, three good, one bad. Joe Saunders has been particularly maddening because of the way he has dominated at home (2-0, 0.81 ERA in three starts at Safeco, including a masterful complete game against the Orioles), contrasted with repeated poundings on the road (0-4, 12.54).
For the Mariners, this disparity was set into motion in spring training, when they reached the final week of the season with five pitchers — Maurer, Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez, and veterans Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman — vying for the final two rotation spots.
Rather surprisingly, they declined to guarantee Garland a berth, allowing him to exercise an out clause in his contract. Garland quickly landed with the Colorado Rockies, for whom he is 3-2 with a 4.75 ERA in six starts.
The Mariners had earmarked a rotation spot for Ramirez, who was mostly impressive last year in eight starts (3.64 ERA). But Ramirez had somewhat mysterious arm issues in spring training, and remains on the mend in Arizona. Bonderman needed more time to build up arm strength after missing nearly two full seasons following Tommy John surgery and other ailments.
By process of elimination, that left Maurer (making the jump from Class AA) and Beavan, and opened the Mariners them to second-guessing for the decision to essentially dump Garland. I advocated for keeping the younger pitchers over Garland (though I didn't know at the time that Ramirez would be out of the picture). But so far it looks like I was wrong, and the Mariners, too.
Moving forward, the Mariners are hoping to get by with improved performances from the three. Certainly, Saunders isn't going anywhere any time soon, not with his $6.5 million salary and major-league track record. He just needs to figure out a way to transfer his Safeco magic to other ballparks. Maurer must avoid the slow starts in ballgames and show that he can make adjustments necessary to get out left-handers, who are hitting .358 off him, with four homers and five doubles.
The next in line should Harang or Maurer falter now appears to Bonderman, who has been pitching with increasing effectiveness in Tacoma. In his last outing, he worked eight shutout innings, giving up just two hits.
Left-hander Danny Hultzen had been on a fast track to the majors with the Rainiers, but is currently sidelined with a rotator cuff strain. Fellow lefty James Paxton has a high 5.19 ERA in six starts with Tacoma but an encouraging strikeouts-to-walks ratio of 31-13 in 26 innings. The Mariners appear averse to rushing 20-year-old Taijuan Walker, the final member of their vaunted “Big Three” of pitching prospects, despite his stellar numbers at Jackson (3-2, 1.54 ERA in six starts for the Class AA team).
Andrew Carraway is 4-1, 3.40 in seven starts with Tacoma, while James Gilheeney has pitched well in two starts (2-0, 2.84) since coming up from Jackson. For that matter, so has Brian Sweeney (3-0, 2.55), but he is 38 years old and not currently on anyone's radar. And Beavan is still around, trying to solve his problems while pitching in Tacoma's rotation.
The Mariners' pitching depth has been depleted in recent years, of course, by the trades of Brandon Morrow, Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas, all in the name of beefing up their offense. The future of the rotation remains bright, at least in potential, with considerable young talent brewing on the farm.
It is the present that is currently shaky, but not on Wednesday. After crossing their fingers on Tuesday when Harang faces the Pirates in Pittsburgh, they have the security of sending Hernandez to the mound the next night. And when that happens, or when Iwakuma trots to the mound, the Mariners pitching worries fade away.