Scott Servais understood there might be some confusion as to why the Mariners decided to option talented rookie starting pitcher George Kirby to Class AAA Tacoma on Saturday.
Because the team was waiting for right-handed pitcher Jacob Barnes to arrive at T-Mobile Park, Servais couldn’t announce that roster move in his pregame media session, and he didn’t get a chance to elaborate on the Mariners’ thinking behind the decision.
He had that chance Sunday morning.
“I do want to explain it, because there were a couple of things that came together at the same time,” Servais said. “First of all, the extra-inning game [Friday] and the understanding that we were going to be thin for the remainder of this series and going into the break because of what one or two games can do to you.”
With Ken Giles leaving the game after six pitches because of shoulder inflammation and Erik Swanson exiting because of the birth of his daughter and Paul Sewald throwing 30-plus pitches, the Mariners needed bullpen help immediately. So they brought up Matt Brash and Matt Festa to fill two spots. By swapping Barnes for Kirby, the Mariners have one extra reliever for Saturday and Sunday and the six-game road trip that starts Tuesday in Washington, D.C.
But beyond the immediate was the larger concern of controlling Kirby’s workload to allow him to pitch in September and possibly October.
“He’s still a developing young pitcher,” Servais said. “Normally, a minor league pitcher has a 120-inning season before they get to the big leagues. He’s never had that. He’s already surpassed his career high in innings pitched. We knew coming into this. And we talked about it when he first got called up: How are we going to manage this?”
Kirby, 24, has made 12 starts in his debut season, posting a 2-3 record with a 3.78 ERA. In 64 1/3 innings, he’s struck out 62 batters and walked just nine.
If you add his big league innings total to the 24 2/3 innings he’d pitch with Double-A Arkansas to start the season, Kirby is at 89 innings. That’s the most innings he has pitched in a season in his professional career.
Last season, he pitched a combined 67 2/3 innings between Everett and Arkansas. But he also missed a month due to shoulder fatigue. The Mariners are cognizant about not overusing Kirby and risking a serious injury.
Teams normally don’t like to go much more than 40 innings over the prior season’s total to not risk major injury. The Mariners hope they can cap Kirby’s innings total in the 120-130 area by getting him extra rest.
“The combination of needing the extra arms and being this close to the All-Star break, we needed to do this,” Servais said. “We will lean on George heavily in August and September.”
No player is happy with being sent down to the minor leagues regardless of the situation and reasoning. Kirby is begrudgingly accepting the reasoning for the situation.
“George feels great right now and I’m glad he feels good right now,” Servais said. “But as I explained to him, we have a lot of people with a lot of experience that have been down this road before. That’s where the trust factor comes in. We drafted George, we’ve developed George and we’re going to do everything we can to help George’s career, but we also want to win and we know how valuable he’s going to be here down the stretch.”
So what’s the plan?
Kirby, who Sunday was at T-Mobile, will report Tuesday to Tacoma when the Rainiers return from their road trip in Reno.
He is expected to pitch this weekend at Cheney Stadium vs. Oklahoma City. It will be a start of two or three innings.
“I do want the intensity to be high because the volume will be lower,” Servais said.
He will have the All-Star break off. While the Mariners might not officially recall him from Tacoma until the day of his first start after the All-Star break — which will either come July 25 or July 26 vs. the Rangers at T-Mobile Park, he will likely be with the team in Seattle out of the break.
“George will be right back in a rotation as soon as we get out of the break, and he’ll be ready to go,” Servais said. “He knows that. And it’s not going to hurt him on the business side of things.”
The business side Servais was referencing was any implication that the team was trying to manipulate his service time and not allow him to reach arbitration eligibility a year earlier than usual.
“We have an opportunity to give him some downtime,” Servais said. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do. I know the normal person doesn’t understand it. The normal person hasn’t done what George is trying to do. George has never done it. We need to be really smart with how we handle things.”
The Mariners will start right-hander Chris Flexen on Tuesday to open the brief two-game vs. the Nationals. Servais said they will likely have a bullpen start Wednesday afternoon with lefty Tommy Milone pitching the bulk of the innings if possible. Marco Gonzales will then pitch Thursday vs. the Rangers in Arlington with Robbie Ray and Logan Gilbert to follow.
While fans think of early last season and cringe at the mention of bullpen starts, Servais is willing to do it in order to keep Kirby healthy and available in the later months.
“To do that one time, we can gain about two weeks of downtime for George,” Servais said. “It could save 10 innings off his total. It may not sound a lot, but it’s a big deal.”
The Mariners will monitor Kirby’s usage in the later months and try to protect when possible.
“There may be spots in the second half where we make sure he gets an extra day,” Servais said. “We do have some off-days built in there. If you look at our August schedule, for the first three weeks we have every Thursday off, so this may not be the first time that we bump him back or slide somebody else in there for a spot start.”