Seattle hopes a rejuvenated Felix Hernandez will lead a starting rotation that is filled with question marks about the upcoming season.

Share story

It seems that each year the quality or lack thereof of the Mariners’ starting rotation elicits heated debate among fans. There was never enough proven starters or not enough young arms, too much reliance on potential or trusting fading veterans.

The one constant through those years was Felix Hernandez sitting atop the rotation as the reliable ace that made the assembled unit just a little better because of his presence and outstanding performances.

But that thinking is fading. Why? Because Hernandez is no longer that same dominant pitcher. He turns 31 on April 8 and has logged more than 2,400 innings over his career. The inevitable regression of an aging pitcher began to show the past two seasons.

This wasn’t unexpected. The Mariners believed they had drafted and developed the pitching to help offset that occurrence. Remember “The Big Three” of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen? Well, only Paxton remains in the organization. And the Mariners have failed in drafting and developing other high level starting pitchers to help slot into the rotation in this time of need.

Instead, general manager Jerry Dipoto has been forced to acquire some mid-level starters in hopes of bounce back years and eating up innings.

Most teams find and develop a pitcher like Hernandez once in a decade. But it’s the lack of overall starting pitching depth coming from within the organization in the prior five seasons that have been put the Mariners in this position.

 

The Past

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, right, looks away as Houston Astros’ A.J. Reed, left, rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, July 5, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith) TXES114
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, right, looks away as Houston Astros’ A.J. Reed, left, rounds the bases after hitting a two-run home run in the fourth inning of a baseball game, Tuesday, July 5, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/Eric Christian Smith) TXES114

Going into the 2016 season, Dipoto believed that his starting rotation would be a strength. He had six starting pitchers for five spots. The late signing of Hisashi Iwakuma after his deal with the Dodgers fell apart was considered a coup that gave the organization more experienced depth. When it looked as though Iwakuma was headed to the Dodgers in December, Dipoto quickly traded for lefty Wade Miley to fill up the lost innings and pitch in the middle of the rotation. Taijuan Walker was coming off a strong second half to 2015 and was cemented in the rotation while Nate Karns, who was coming off a solid rookie season with the Rays, and James Paxton would fight it out for the fifth spot.

But of those six pitchers, Hernandez, Walker, Miley and Karns performed well below expectations.  Iwakuma led the staff in wins (16), games started (33), innings (199.0) and strikeouts (147), and Paxton, after some changes in Class AAA Tacoma to start the season, showed signs of finally reaching his massive potential in the final months of the season.

For the first time since 2008, Hernandez made an appearance on the disabled list. The Mariners’ ace tweaked his calf while working out before a game on May 31 and then made it worse, straining the muscle while celebrating the victory. He would miss the next seven weeks.

But pre- and post injury, there were some glaring issues with Hernandez’s performance as he finished the season with an 11-8 record and a 3.82 ERA in 25 starts. It was clear that he had massive mechanical issues, wandering command and receding faith in his fastball, leading to numerous walks, hitter’s counts, pitch-filled innings and sub seven-inning outings.

M's position previews

The roots of these struggles can be traced back to a respectable 2015 season. Yes, he went 18-9 record and had two shutouts. But a 3.53 earned run average was his highest since 2007. He failed to reach 200 strikeouts and barely made it to the 200-inning mark while his home run rate per nine innings was its highest ever (1.03) and walk rate increased (7.0 percent) to the highest it had been since 2011 and his strikeout rate (23.1 percent) was the lowest since 2012.

Those struggles continued into 2016. His strikeout rate dropped to 18.6 percent — the lowest of his career — while his walk rate climbed to 9.9 percent — the highest of his career — to go with a 1.12 home run per nine innings ratio. His walks plus hits per innings pitched grew to 1.32, highest since 2008. He walked four-plus batters in seven of his starts, including two games with five and one with six.

“What happens is that guys realize they have less room for error, stuff-wise over the plate then what they try to do is get more (from their delivery) or make pitches that they shouldn’t be making,”  pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said. “It can lead to getting sideways with your mechanics and you get off.”

In his first season as M’s pitching coach, Stottlemyre could see Hernandez’s mechanics were “off” far too often for optimal success.

“You look at how he works, he’s got a lot of moving parts,” Stottlemyre said. “The thing that gets him in trouble out of all the things that go on with his delivery is when he gets his head away from his arm and he gets that distance or gap as he’s going down the slope. And what happens as soon as that heads get off line and his arm gets away from him, he loses command of the baseball. It’s fairly simple.”

Much was expected from Walker after he finished 10-3 with a 3.63 ERA in his final 20 starts in 2015. And in those 126 2/3 innings, he struck out 118 and walked 17. He seemed to carry it over in 2016 with four brilliant starts to begin the season, posting a 2-0 record and 1.44 ERA.

Then his season fell apart. A nagging bone issue in his right foot hampered his ability to push off the mound and limited his conditioning. It forced him out of two starts early, to delay or miss multiple starts and an eventual stint on the disabled list. But it was more than just the foot. Walker’s mechanics were also in need of repair. Pitching from the stretch at all times, he had stationary hips and minimal drive with his legs.

Changes were suggested early to Walker, but he was resistant given his success at the end of 2015 and early success in 2016.

Then came the struggles and rock bottom — the worst and shortest outing of his career on Sept. 3 against the Angels, giving up six runs on six hits, including three straight homers and getting booed by Mariners fans as he left the game.

Walker went to Stottlemyre about the changes he wanted.

“This was something that when I laid my eyes on him over the course of the winter, just looking at how he worked, that I envisioned him getting to in the end,” Stottlemyre said. “But with the nice run that he had last year and some spots here and there where he was throwing the ball good this year, it was hard.  We started those conversations about some of those changes that needed to take place about six weeks into the season.”

The sample size of the mechanical changes was pretty small (five starts, 4-1 record 2.93 ERA), but Walker did throw a shutout against the Angels on Sept. 13 and seemed confident he was on the right path.

Miley had never been an overwhelming performer as a big league pitcher during his career with the exception of a solid 2012 season. Dipoto preached his durability and willingness to take the ball every five days. But by midseason the Mariners were ready to part with Miley and did so in a trade right with the Orioles before the deadline. It wasn’t just lack of his inconsistent production — 7-8 with a 4.98 ERA in 19 starts.

It was also Miley’s presence within the clubhouse. The Mariners weren’t impressed with his minimal commitment to conditioning and his willingness to find ways to avoid it. Miley was also one of the most vocal detractors of the new philosophy of defensive shifting, pushing for changes through his new friend Hernandez.

“He just became a receptacle for all the complaining and bitching,” said a organization source. “It was addition by subtraction when we traded him.”

Karns was an equal disappointment. He beat out Paxton in spring for the fifth spot while Dipoto and manager Scott Servais gushed about his stuff and potential. He went 5-1 with a 3.43 ERA in his first 10 starts of the season. The numbers were a little misleading in that Karns pitched into the seventh inning in just three of those outings. He struggled to put batters away, control his pitch count and get hitters out in the third time through the lineup.

After five starts in June where he posted a 7.33 ERA and failed to get to the sixth inning in any of them, he was moved to a relief role. The hope was that Karns would embrace move and allow his stuff to tick up in the short bursts of relief work. The Mariners thought he could be “Wade Davis Lite,” referring to the Royals closer. Karns took the move as a demotion and never embraced it. He was openly frustrated by the move even after looking strong initially. After seven relief outings, he was placed on the disabled list on July 30 with a back injury. He never pitched again for the Mariners.

The rotation also had disabled list stints from Hernandez, Walker and Miley near the same time  in June-July forcing the team to use Miranda as a starter, trade for Wade LeBlanc, call up Adrian Sampson and bullpen starts from relievers.

From the start of the season through the end of May, the Mariners used only their five starters from opening day. Seattle was the last American League team to use a sixth starter. And then from June through the end of the season, Seattle used a total of 13 different starting pitchers, the original five followed by Paxton, Wade LeBlanc, Adrian Sampson, Vidal Nuno, Mike Montgomery, Ariel Miranda, Cody Martin and Joe Wieland.

 

The Mariners still managed to post a 4.25 ERA, which was far from the worst in the AL. Here’s their rotation numbers from 2016:

But a slew of short starts midseason with the injuries led to losing streaks and far too much for a thin bullpen. The Mariners had 57 games where their starter pitched five innings or less. They went 13-44 in those games.

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Taijuan Walker (11 starts, 2-9 Mariners record)
  • Nate Karns (9 starts, 4-5 Mariners record)
  • Hisashi Iwakuma (8 starts, 1-7 Mariners record)
  • James Paxton (8 starts, 1-7 Mariners record)
  • Felix Hernandez (6 starts, 2-4 Mariners record)
  • Wade Miley (5 starts, 1-4 Mariners record)
  • Wade LeBlanc (2 starts, 1-1 Mariners record)
  • Ariel Miranda (3 starts, 0-3 Mariners record)
  • Vidal Nuno (1 start, 0-1 Mariners record)
  • Mike Montgomery (1 start, 0-1)
  • Joe Wieland (1 start, 0-1 Mariners record)
  • Cody Martin (1 starts, 1-0 Mariners record)
  • Adrian Sampson (1 start, 0-1 Mariners record)

Beyond that, the Mariners had 21 outings where the starter pitched four innings or less. They went 2-19 in those games.

“We had 13 starting pitchers take a turn,” Dipoto said. “And 21 different pitchers won a game for the Mariners last year. There was a Mariner team that had 14 starters but I talked about depth, depth, depth until I was blue in the face last year before spring training began and as we got to spring training, we were trying to figure out who was going to be our 12th pitcher. We wound up using 31.”

 

The Present

James Paxton struggled with his control Friday against Houston.  T(Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
James Paxton struggled with his control Friday against Houston. T(Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

There will be no competition for the starting rotation during this spring. Barring injury, the staff is set:

  • Felix Hernandez, RHP
  • James Paxton, LHP
  • Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP
  • Drew Smyly, LHP
  • Yovani Gallardo, RHP

Basically, the Mariners are hoping that a changed approach and routine for Hernandez will lead to rejuvenation, Iwakuma can continue to stave off age-related regression with his maniacal preparation and build off his best overall season, Paxton follows up on his strong finish to last season to reach his potential, Smyly benefits from not playing in the AL East and the Mariners’ fleet outfield while staying healthy and  Gallardo has a complete bounce-back season and finds the lost velocity.

There are plenty of skeptics.

Going into the offseason, Dipoto wanted to add one more established starting pitcher to his rotation. When he traded Walker on the day before Thanksgiving, the need grew to two starters.

Why trade Walker?

There is some debate as to whether Walker will ever reach his potential without a viable breaking ball. For much of his big league time, he’s been a 1.5 pitch starter. He has a plus fastball and decent changeup. But the lack of a consistent breaking pitch to get hitters out is a separator. Walker’s curve and slider have never developed into quality pitches as hoped. There is still time with his new mechanics, but no guarantees. If he doesn’t figure out a breaking pitch — a distinct possibility — then he may never be more than a No. 5 starter at the big league level. The Mariners felt they could find a No. 4-5 level starter via trade or free agency easier than acquiring a top of the order presence like shortstop Jean Segura without giving up Walker.

Seattle picked up Gallardo first in the offseason  in a trade with the Orioles. The move was met with a collective “meh” from baseball analysts. He wasn’t good last season.

Gallardo, who turns 31 on Feb. 27, posted a 6-8 record with a 5.42 ERA in 23 starts with Baltimore last season. In 118 innings pitched, he struck out 85 batters with 65 walks.  He missed six weeks (April 23-June 18) on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis in his shoulder. It was the first time since 2008 where he didn’t make 30 starts in a season. He also showed noticeable decreased velocity with his fastball.

The Mariners hope he’s a candidate to bounce back to his 2015 numbers — 13-11 record with a 3.42 ERA in 33 starts — with Texas.

Smyly was acquired from Tampa Bay late in the offseason as the final piece to the rotation. Dipoto identified the 27-year-old lefty early in the offseason as a fit, but couldn’t find a match with the Rays. He persisted and worked out a modified three-team deal to get Smyly.

“I’ve probably spent more time throughout the course of our offseason trying to acquire Drew Smyly than any other thing that we’ve done,” Dipoto said.

Smyly made a career-high 30 starts in 2016, posting a 7-12 record with a 4.88 ERA. In 175 1/3 innings, Smyly struck out 167 batters with 49 walks. His 2.52 walks per nine innings were seventh lowest in the American League. Over his final 12 starts, Smyly posted a 5-1 with a 3.73 ERA. In five Major League seasons combined with Detroit and Tampa, Smyly is 31-28 with a 3.74 ERA in 156 appearances, including 85 starts.

“With Felix Hernandez, Kuma’s coming off a 16-win, roughly 200-inning season, Drew Smyly who has pitched in the middle of rotations for a number of years, and Yovani Gallardo who has a history in this league getting it down the middle, that’s a nice balance,” Dipoto said. “We don’t feel like we’re incredibly reliant on one guy to carry the load. There’s five guys and there’s another five lined up after them that we feel like when they inevitably have to miss a start and somebody will, it’s probably going to result in 25 or more starts that are going to be taken by pitchers not named one of those five. We are going to fill in the blanks and we are in a much better and healthier position to do that this year.”

But the biggest factor to Seattle’s success is Hernandez. While nobody expects him to be the ace of his mid-20s, there is a belief he can still be very effective. The Mariners pushed for Hernandez to make changes to his routine and thinking that reflect his age and innings accumulated. They asked for an increased focus on offseason conditioning and greater effort in preparation during the spring and in between starts during the season. Dipoto, Servais and Stottlemyre all did so in a very public manner after also telling Hernandez privately.

He seems to have been motivated by his struggles and their suggestions. Multiple videos of Hernandez working out with a trainer named “Iron Glenn” have been posted to social media this offseason. He’s the trainer who works also with Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano in the offseason.

 

“Felix Hernandez is still a very good major league pitcher,” Dipoto said. “He’s still very capable of fronting a staff and we are very reliant on him to do the things he does. Nothing has changed, but we’ve built a group around him that we feel like better allows for Felix to have his days of struggle just like everybody else will be allowed. He’s 31 years old. He’s worked hard. I like the fact that he did come out and pitch a couple of times in the winter. He’s worked very hard and shared the video of it and he looks good. I think he probably feels good about himself for what he’s been able to do and I’m looking forward to seeing what he looks like when he gets to Peoria.”

 

 

After being critical to start the offseason, Dipoto went to complimentary at the end.

“You know, I’ve said this publicly, I think the idea that Felix Hernandez, the demise of Felix Hernandez is being grossly exaggerated,” Dipoto said. “He’s still a very good major league pitcher. You know, he had a lower body injury last year, there was nothing wrong with Felix’s arm.

Felix still has dynamic secondary stuff that ranks with the best of them. He still has the ability to go out and create soft contact, he’s always done that. He’s been an innings force throughout the course of his career and my impression of the way the off-season has gone for Felix is that some of the fact that he has been questioned so heavily publicly has acted as a motivating tool to get himself ready to come pitch and show the world that he’s still Felix Hernandez.”

It’s fair to expect some level of regression from Iwakuma after throwing a career high in innings. He turns 36 on April 12 and showed signs of fatigue at the end of last season, going 2-5 with a 4.96 ERA in his last nine starts. Ideally, the Mariners would like to get him extra days of rest every few weeks in the final months of the season.

Paxton believes this is “his year to take off.” There were certainly signs of it late last season. The commitment to offseason conditioning last year, mechanical changes made in Tacoma to a lower different arm slot and a change in his mentality all led to periods of dominance. He will be critical to Seattle’s success this season.

“He dominated the strike zone last year,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said. “He throws the ball over the plate. That wasn’t always his strength so we saw real changes. The velocity uptick, the consistency in his secondary stuff, a cutter that became just a knockout pitch for him. We had teams come through here, multiple teams, general managers sharing with me that James Paxton was as good stuff-wise as anyone they’d seen all year including teams that were still playing in October. He really showed us that he has the physical ability, like he has shown before to pitch near the top of the rotation.”

The Future

San Francisco Giants’ Chris Heston delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
San Francisco Giants’ Chris Heston delivers a pitch during the first inning of a baseball game against the Miami Marlins, Wednesday, July 1, 2015, in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

The Mariners believe they have better starting pitching depth in past years. The projected starting rotation for Class AAA Tacoma will feature right-handers Rob Whalen, Chris Heston, Cody Martin and Christian Bergman and lefty Dillon Overton. All five pitchers have big league experience with middling results. Heston was perhaps the best performer of the three, going 9-5 with the Giants in 2015.

Miranda, who spent time in the rotation, could also bump one of those five in the rotation, but he will also vie for a spot as the second lefty in the Mariners bullpen.

But really these pitchers are mostly depth level arms to fill in.

In terms of true prospects, the Mariners have right-handers Andrew Moore, Max Povse and Nick Neidert to look to the future. Both Povse and Moore seem likely to start the season in Class AA Arkansas, but figure to be in Tacoma at some point. Neidert is likely ticketed for Class A Modesto after a solid year at Class A Clinton.

Moore isn’t a power arm. He relies on location and command and a variety of pitches to get outs. Povse, who stands 6-foot-7, has drawn comparisons to Doug Fister for his sinking fastball and deceptive pitch plane to hitters. Neidert is just 20 and has a fastball in the low to mid 90s with excellent command.

 

View Comments
No personal attacks or insults, no hate speech, no profanity. Please keep the conversation civil and help us moderate this thread by reporting any abuse. See our Commenting FAQ.
Powered by Livefyre

The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only, and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.