The Mariners could have one of the best starting rotations in baseball. But that is based on if oft-injured pitchers like James Paxton and Hisashi Iwakuma can stay healthy, something that hasn't happened the past two seasons.

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If there is a perceived strength of the 2016 Mariners, it might be the starting pitching. They have six starter candidates who have had varied levels of major-league success.

But there is one caveat — health. Sure, it’s the same for any starting rotation. But for the Mariners, injuries to two pitchers — Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton — have been major issues the past two seasons. If Iwakuma and Paxton can stay healthy for the bulk of 2016, the rotation could be among the American League’s best.

Here’s is our spring-training position preview of the starting rotation. Mariners pitchers and catchers report to Peoria, Ariz., on Friday.

The past

Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez watches the game from the dugout. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)
Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez watches the game from the dugout. (Lindsey Wasson / The Seattle Times)

The Mariners thought they had six quality starters for five spots in the starting rotation last year. They had acquired veteran J.A. Happ to bolster their rotation, meaning Taijuan Walker, Paxton and Roenis Elias would battle for the final two spots.

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Walker was brilliant in the spring and earned a spot. Paxton injured his wrist in a fall before the first official workout and fell behind. But because of his talent and success, he was going to be in the rotation as long has he was healthy. That meant Elias, who was inconsistent in the spring, was headed to Class AAA Tacoma to start the season, much to his displeasure.

The rotation came unraveled early.

On April 24, Iwakuma was placed on the disabled list because of a strained lat muscle in his upper back/right shoulder area. Elias was recalled to fill his spot.

Just over a month later, Paxton was placed on the disabled list because of a strained tendon in his middle finger. The Mariners recalled lefty Mike Montgomery, whom they had acquired before spring training.

Iwakuma missed 66 games and returned July 7. In the 17 starts after his return from the DL, Iwakuma was 9-4 with a 3.10 ERA, including his first MLB no-hitter.

Paxton’s finger was slow to heal. After he was cleared to throw in rehab games, he tore the nail off the middle finger while throwing a breaking ball. That nagging issue would be another setback in his recovery. He was finally activated from the disabled list Sept. 13 after missing 96 games. The fingernail issue wouldn’t go away and limited him to three starts.

Beyond the injury issues for Paxton and Iwakuma, the remainder of the rotation had their ups and downs.

Ace Felix Hernandez finished with an 18-9 record and 3.53 ERA in 31 starts. He reached the 200-inning mark for the eighth consecutive season. He struck out 191 and walked 58 in 201 2/3 innings.

Most pitchers would be satisfied with that season, but Hernandez was unimpressed.

“It was frustrating for me,” he said. “I was up and down and inconsistent. I was not happy with what I did this year. I have to prepare myself for next year to be better.

To Hernandez, there wasn’t any area in which he was consistent.

“It was everything,” he said. “Sometimes I would be good and then one moment I was not good, and the next moment I was good. I have to be better than that. I had some really bad games this year, and I didn’t have them the year before. I gave up 10 runs in Boston. I gave up eight against Houston with one out. That’s not me.”

Walker made 29 starts, posting an 11-8 record with a 4.56 ERA. He struck out 157 and walked 40 in 169 1/3 innings. But within those season totals were two very different pitchers. In his first nine starts he was 1-5 with a 7.33 ERA, 39 strikeouts and 23 walks in 43 innings. In his last 20 starts, he went 10-3 with a 3.63 ERA. And in those 126 2/3 innings, he struck out 118 and walked 17.

What was the difference?

“Just the mentality of being competitive and attack hitters,” he said. “I wasn’t attacking hitters in my first couple of starts. After that, I started going after them.”

Elias was below average, posting a 5-8 record with a 4.14 ERA in 20 starts and two relief appearances. Wandering fastball command and a 2.20 strikeout-to-walk ratio didn’t help. The Mariners also were unhappy with his attitude for the first month of the minor-league season after being sent down.

Montgomery, a former first-round draft pick by the Royals, appeared at first to be a pleasant surprise. In his first seven starts, he went 4-2 with a 1.62 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 13 walks, including back-to-back shutouts. But in his final nine starts, he was 0-4 with an 8.33 ERA with 24 walks and 33 strikeouts in 40 innings. He was sent back to Tacoma at the end of August and didn’t return as a September call-up.

With the Mariners out of playoff contention it at the July 31 trade deadline, Happ was traded to the Pirates. After starting 3-1 with a 2.98 ERA in his first seven starts, Happ went 1-5 with a 4.83 in 13 starts and a relief appearance.

Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto lamented the lack of starting-pitching depth in the organization when he was hired in September.

To address that, Dipoto added right-hander Nathan Karns as part of a six-player trade with the Rays. Karns was coming off a strong rookie season in which he was 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA in 26 starts. He struck out 145 in 147 innings. He allowed two runs or fewer in 19 starts, a Rays rookie record and tied for fifth in the AL.

Dipoto made it clear from the time he was hired that re-signing Iwakuma was a priority.

As expected, Iwakuma declined the Mariners’ $15.7 million qualifying offer and became a free agent.  The Mariners offered him a two-year, $30 million contract and wanted an answer on the Friday before the winter meetings were set to begin in Nashville.

Iwakuma asked for another day to decide, and Dipoto knew another team had entered the fray. On the Sunday before the winter meetings, Iwakuma’s representation notified the Mariners that he had agreed to a three-year, $45 million deal with the Dodgers. The Mariners refused to match, unwilling to go for a third year.

Dipoto said the Dodgers “just came in and threw a bowling ball into the alley.”

With Iwakuma gone, Dipoto went immediately to a contingency plan to find another starter. After looking at a rapidly inflating free-agent market and not wanting to part with the No. 11 overall draft pick to sign a free agent with a qualifying offer, he executed a trade with the Boston Red Sox. Seattle acquired durable left-hander Wade Miley and reliever Jonathan Aro for reliever Carson Smith and Elias.

“It was Plan 1A,” Dipoto said at the time. “When Kuma opted to head for the Dodgers, this was the preferred route.”

But in an unexpected twist, the Dodgers were unhappy with the results with Iwakuma’s physical on Dec. 11. They asked to restructure his deal. Iwakuma’s representation contacted the Mariners to see if they were still interested.

Iwakuma met with Dipoto at Safeco Field on Dec. 17, and the deal was finalized that night — a one-year contract for $10 million with a $1 million signing bonus and vesting options for 2017 and 2018.

The Mariners suddenly had a surplus of pitchers.

The present

Starting pitcher James Paxton goes out with an unknown injury to his pitching after 5-2/3 innings. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Starting pitcher James Paxton goes out with an unknown injury to his pitching after 5-2/3 innings. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

Three rotation spots are guaranteed, and another appears to be a lock.

The three spots belong to Hernandez, Iwakuma and Miley.

Though the Dodgers were not pleased with Iwakuma’s health, the Mariners had no such issues. They had done an exit physical with Iwakuma after the 2015 season and felt no need to have a second physical before signing him.

“I don’t have any concerns, and neither does our orthopedist or our physician or we wouldn’t have brought him back,” trainer Rick Griffin said. “I don’t know what happened there. I don’t want to speculate, but I’m glad that he’s back here. We know his body … and we know what we need to do to keep him on the field.”

Miley’s numbers aren’t overwhelming. But Dipoto points to four consecutive seasons with at least 29 starts and 193 innings. He’s durable, and the Mariners believe he’ll benefit from pitching at Safeco Field after pitching in Chase Field and Fenway Park during his career.

It’s difficult to imagine how Walker wouldn’t have the fourth spot considering how well he pitched at the end of last season.

That would leave Karns and Paxton to battle it out for the fifth spot.

Paxton has lost more than 20 pounds, and the problematic nail has healed.

Dipoto wouldn’t commit to Walker in the rotation publicly.

“I look at our starting rotation, and I see opportunity,” he said. “I see opportunity to create depth. There are three — Walker, Paxton and Karns — who are competing for rotation spots, who have options left. That’s not the worst thing in the world. The worst thing in the world is not creating an opportunity for players to go in and compete, and having enough space organizationally to produce depth.”

Dipoto doesn’t feel the need to remind them of the competition.

“They know,” he said. ” … They know they have an option when they’re coming to camp. They know they’re fighting it out for a spot. They know Felix is going to start on opening day if he’s healthy. They know Game 2 is probably going to be Hisashi Iwakuma if he’s healthy, and they have a pretty good idea that Wade Miley is going to take his turn somewhere.”

The odd man out could be sent to Class AAA Tacoma to continue starting and serve as the sixth starter.

“That’s a possibility,” Dipoto said. ” It’s also possible with the bullpen, that we feel good enough about where we are with starters six through nine, that one of those guys may join our bullpen and could impact us in that way. Can you imagine having that kind of arm, heading to middle innings or setup innings of a bullpen, and you don’t know what might happen with a guy’s career? We look now at most dominant, back-end relievers in the game, and many of them started their careers as starters. You never know what could happen. Pitching depth is always a good thing. There’s never a time where it’s, ‘Ahh, we’ve got too much depth.’ You’ll never hear that come out of my mouth on the pitching.”

Dipoto was effusive in praise about the depth.

“I think there’s going to be a great competition for the fifth spot in our starting rotation, and the fact that I think we have minimally six, and perhaps up to eight or nine legitimate candidates for the back of a major-league rotation is excellent, and the fact that our fifth or sixth starter may be physically as gifted as most people’s two or three,” he said. “I think that’s exciting to me.”

Beyond those six pitchers, the Mariners will have right-handers Donn Roach, Adrian Sampson and Joe Wieland and left-handers Montgomery and Brad Mills prepare as starters in camp. What the team will do with lefty Vidal Nuno one of their most versatile pitchers isn’t certain. He could help them as starting depth in Tacoma or serve as the second lefthander in the bullpen.

Most of that group will make up the starting staff for the Rainiers.

Montgomery is in an interesting situation. He’s likely not a real factor in the starting rotation. But he’s also out of minor-league options, meaning that if he doesn’t make the opening-day roster, the team would have to designate him for assignment.

The Mariners could do a few things with Montgomery. They will have him work as a starter to start spring. They could continue him down that path in hopes of building his value and possibly trading him before opining day. It’s kind of how he was acquired when Seattle traded Erasmo Ramirez, who was in a similar situation, to the Rays last season.

The other scenario for Seattle is to convert him to a long reliever as spring winds down and hope he wins the job as the second lefty in the bullpen. The Rays had worked on converting Montgomery to a relief role before he was traded.

It seems unlikely that Montgomery will clear waivers, even if the Mariners wait till the end of spring when 25-man rosters are largely decided.

The future

FILE – In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Nathan Karns throws during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. The Seattle Mariners and the Rays have completed the first significant trade of the offseason, a six-player swap that sends infielder Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and pitcher Danny Farquhar to Tampa Bay for pitchers Karns and C.J. Riefenhauser, and minor league outfielder Boog Powell. The teams announced the deal Thursday night, Nov. 5. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)
FILE – In this Aug. 14, 2015, file photo, Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Nathan Karns throws during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers in Arlington, Texas. The Seattle Mariners and the Rays have completed the first significant trade of the offseason, a six-player swap that sends infielder Brad Miller, first baseman Logan Morrison and pitcher Danny Farquhar to Tampa Bay for pitchers Karns and C.J. Riefenhauser, and minor league outfielder Boog Powell. The teams announced the deal Thursday night, Nov. 5. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)

The bulk of the Mariners rotation is locked up for the next season with Walker, Paxton and Karns under club control beyond that.

The dream of Danny Hultzen joining the rotation seems over. The Mariners are converting him to a reliever this spring in hopes of keeping him healthy after shoulder reconstruction.

Sampson, who was acquired from the Pirates for Happ at midseason, received praise from Dipoto in the offseason. He went 10-12 with a 4.76 ERA in 28 Class AAA starts.

Edwin Diaz, the Mariners’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year, likely will return to Class AA Jackson. Diaz dominated at Class A Bakersfield to start 2015 but struggled with the Generals. He went 5-10 with a 4.57 ERA in 20 starts with Jackson. He struck out 103 and walked 37 in 104 1/3 innings. At Bakersfield he was 2-0 with a 1.70 ERA in seven starts with Bakersfield (April 9-May 12). He limited opponents to a .167 batting average, walking nine and striking out 42 in 37 innings.

The Mariners have three starting pitchers — right-handers Nick Neidert and Andrew Moore and lefty Luis Gohara — in Baseball America’s Top 10 organizational prospects for 2016. But they are at the lowest levels of the minor leagues.