Today we start our position-by-position look at the spring training battles for spots on the Rainiers opening day roster. We’ll begin with the starting pitchers.
Assuming I didn’t accidentally miss someone, there are eleven candidates to make the Rainiers five-man starting rotation. Let’s run through the candidates:
THE VIRTUAL LOCKS
- Andrew Carraway: The returning Rainiers starter made 20 starts last year, going 6-7 with a 4.66 ERA. He had flashes of brilliance, and he now has a bit of PCL experience that will help the club. I expect to see Carraway in the Rainiers rotation.
- Brandon Maurer: The Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year award winner last year, Maurer went 9-2, 3.20 at Double-A Jackson, with 117 strikeouts in 137.2 innings. After the season, the Mariners protected him on their 40-man roster. We can count on Maurer getting the promotion to Tacoma in time for opening day.
- James Paxton: The left-hander overcame a mid-season knee injury to put together a very strong finish at Jackson, ending up with a 9-4, 3.05 line. Paxton had 110 strikeouts and 54 walks in 106.1 innings. He also pitched in the Arizona Fall League and is set for a bump up to Tacoma.
I think those three above are near-locks to make the Rainiers opening day starting rotation – whoever the new Tacoma clubbie is, he can start stitching the names on the back of the jerseys.
THE PROBABLE TACOMAN
- Danny Hultzen: The most confounding Mariners pitching prospect, Hultzen’s spring training performance will be watched like a hawk. After dominating Double-A Jackson last year, he was bumped up to Tacoma and could not find the strike zone, walking 43 batters and drilling four more in 48.2 innings. However, he has great stuff and Triple-A hitters didn’t hit him very hard. It seems highly likely he’ll break camp with Tacoma, but what happens if he can’t throw strikes in spring training? For me, this is the No. 1 story to watch in Peoria.
OK, now we have two players with Triple-A experience who could be starters or relievers.
WHAT’S THEIR ROLE?
- Hector Noesi: The right-hander acquired from the Yankees has good stuff, but boy-oh-boy did he struggle in the majors last year. His results in Tacoma weren’t all that great, either: 2-6, 5.74 in 11 starts. He tossed 64 innings for Tacoma and had 55 strikeouts and 22 walks – good numbers, yeah, but he allowed 80 hits and seven dingers. He reaches a consistent 94 mph as a starter, so the Mariners might be interested in seeing what happens with a move to the bullpen. One other factor: as of today, he is penciled in as the Mariners No. 5 starter… at the big league level.
- D.J. Mitchell: Of everybody on this list, Mitchell had the most success in Tacoma last year. He made eight starts after the Ichiro trade, posting a 2.96 ERA. He doesn’t have the pure stuff of Noesi, but he has savvy and intelligence on the mound. Mitchell also has more Triple-A experience than everyone else, making 49 career starts at this level. It seems logical for Mitchell to be in the Tacoma rotation – but if all of the kids get moved up, there might not be room for him at first. It’s possible he could be in the bullpen to open the season; it’s also possible he could get the start on opening day.
There are candidates who we should keep an eye on, but health issues are the main concern.
THE GET HEALTHY GUYS
- Anthony Vasquez: The lefty reached the majors in 2011, but he struggled with elbow problems in Tacoma last year. In November the real trouble came: emergency brain surgery. Last we heard, he was recovering and hoping to be able to participate in spring training. We wish Anthony the best – and it would be quite a story if he returned to the mound in Tacoma.
- Jeremy Bonderman: The Mariners took a flier on the former major leaguer, who hasn’t pitched since 2010 and is coming off elbow surgery. He is in camp on a minor league deal, so I am including him here because it is possible he could be with the Rainiers. However, we won’t have any idea how he is progressing until we get into spring training and people see him pitch.
We already have two rookies in the probable rotation, in Maurer and Paxton. There could be more!
- Taijuan Walker: Considered to be the top pitching prospect on the Mariners farm, Walker spent all of 2012 with Double-A Jackson. He made 25 starts, going 7-10, 4.69. He supposedly has the best stuff and the best athleticism of the M’s pitching prospects. His mediocre numbers last year have been attributed to the development process: he spent a lot of time working on his complimentary pitches, trying to improve his change-up, rather than just blow hitters away. Walker is only 20 years old and a return to Jackson to open the season is expected – although we should see him in Tacoma at some point in 2013.
- Anthony Fernandez: A 22-year-old lefty who came on strong last year, Fernandez was added to the Mariners 40-man roster in November. He has just 13 Double-A starts under his belt, but they were good ones. I think he’ll open the year in Jackson, but keep this name filed away. We’re gonna see him eventually.
Every Triple-A team needs a swing-man; a guy who can pitch in the bullpen and also in the starting rotation, moving between roles as the situation changes. We have one for 2013.
THE CAGEY VETERAN
- Brian Sweeney: The rubber-armed veteran will be with the Rainiers. He will start the season in the bullpen but you can count on him to swing into the rotation at some point. My favorite get-away day pitcher since Rusty Meacham, Sweeney works quickly and throws strikes. Sweeney can also be a positive influence on the young pitchers.
Want to take a stab at the Rainiers opening day rotation? Go for it in the comments. Here is my guess, based on nothing but my gut feel here on January 30: Mitchell, Carraway, Hultzen, Maurer, Paxton.
- Apparently, the Mariners are on the verge of signing Kelly Shoppach to be the back-up catcher.
- Only one man in our media market could come up with Ten Interesting Facts about Kelly Shoppach.
- Larry Stone listed the Mariners players he is looking forward to seeing in spring training.
- Another from Stone: he caught up with Lou Piniella.
- John Sickles has the Mariners ranked as the No. 2 farm system in baseball.
- For you long-time fans, former Rainiers reliever Scott Atchison signed a minor league deal with the New York Mets.
- How did Branch Rickey‘s bible signed by the 1953 Pittsburgh Pirates turn up in the Sacramento library? Nobody knows.
- Here is something we do know: Tacoma is an excellent burger town. Sue Kidd of The News Tribune brings us a State Of The Burgers Address.
I plan to be back on Friday with a news round-up. The next Rainiers position we will cover will be the bullpen, and that is coming on Wednesday, February 6.