PEORIA, Ariz. — For the first time since 2006, the Mariners enter a season without Felix Hernandez as part of the starting rotation.
But his presence had been more unpredictable than superstar the last four seasons.
While Hernandez tries to make the Braves’ rotation as a free agent on a minor league contract, the Mariners push forward with a projected rotation for the 2020 season that is part future and part reclamation project.
Four of the five starters have serious questions about either their reliability over the course of a season or their viability to pitch beyond five innings.
The talent and stuff level of this projected starting group has increased from a year ago when the Mariners relied upon using “openers” for 28 starts to offset the limitations of soft-tossing lefties Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone.
If the projected group can perform to reasonable expectations, along with the supplementation of a few talented pitching prospects by mid to late season, the rotation’s production could be respectable while building experience for following seasons.
If all goes to plan, the rotation that the Mariners finish the season with could comprise 4/5ths of the 2021 opening-day rotation.
Projected opening-day rotation:
Marco Gonzalez, LHP
2019 stats: 16-13 record, 3.99 ERA, 34 starts, 203 innings, 147 strikeouts, 56 walks, 3.7 WAR
2020 outlook: The leader of the Mariners’ pitching staff, he was rewarded with a four-year, $30 million contract this offseason. At 27, Gonzales is coming off season highs in wins, innings and starts. He eclipsed the 200-innings mark, a feat accomplished by just seven other pitchers in the American League in 2019.
So where does he go from here?
Well, Gonzales has to embrace a leadership role that has been bequeathed to him based on his success and contract status. He relishes the opportunity, and has already been building relationships with the slew of young, talented prospects in the system.
On the field, the Mariners will need him to be the stabilizer. With the unpredictability and limitations of the other four rotation members from start to start early in the season, he might be an oasis every five days for a heavily used bullpen.
Yusei Kikuchi, LHP
2019 stats: 6-11 record, 5.46 ERA, 32 starts, 161 2/3 innings, 50 walks, 116 strikeouts, 0.2 WAR
2020 outlook: As expected, his first season at the MLB level was an up-and-down experience. Perhaps more aggravating for the Mariners was Kikuchi’s unpredictable approach that saw him change up his mechanics, game plan or arm slot on a whim. He was constantly searching for success with each change instead of finding something consistent to build upon. That stopped this offseason when Kikuchi met with the Mariners staff and worked to simplify his mechanics, including his arm path and leg kick. The early reports are positive, and with a season of pitching every fifth day behind him, the expectation is for Kikuchi to be a more consistent performer.
Kendall Graveman, RHP
2019 stats: 0-0 record, 3.00 ERA, 2 rehab starts, 6 innings, 8 strikeouts, 1 walk
2020 outlook: After missing most of the 2019 season as he recovered from Tommy John surgery, Graveman is one of two bounce-back candidates signed as free agents over the offseason. He arrived at spring training without limitations and looked strong in his first bullpen. When healthy, he’s got an outstanding sinking fastball that generates ground balls on more than half the balls he allows in play.
Justus Sheffield, LHP
2019 stats: 0-1 record, 5.50 ERA, 8 appearances (7 starts), 36 innings, 18 walks, 37 strikeouts, 0.3 WAR
2020 outlook: This is the season for the talented young lefty to step forward. After an uneven 2019 season that saw him demoted to Double A Arkansas to refine his confidence and command, Sheffield returned to the big leagues late in the season and showed promise. The key to his success will be fastball command and efficiency in the strike zone. He has big league-caliber stuff, but it’s a matter of harnessing it and his emotions each outing. The Mariners would like to get 150 innings out of Sheffield.
Taijuan Walker, RHP
2019 stats: 1 inning pitched, 1 strikeout
2020 outlook: Tommy John surgery and shoulder issues have limited him to 14 innings the past two seasons. He comes to camp healthy, but the Mariners won’t push his progression or his pitch count early in the season, allowing him to build some arm strength. A total of 125 innings pitched this season for Walker would be considered a reasonable goal. He will also need his fastball velocity to return to be effective.
The next five:
Wei-Yin Chen, LHP
2019 stats: 0-1 record, 45 appearances, 68 1/3 innings, 18 walks, 63 strikeouts, -0.4 WAR
2020 outlook: Despite pitching out of the bullpen last season for the Marlins, the Mariners plan to stretch him back out to starting, something he’s done of the bulk of his career. He’d be a logical fallback option if a projected starter is injured or isn’t ready to start the season. Chen could also serve as a multi-inning reliever out of the bullpen to piggyback off Walker or Graveman early in the season.
Justin Dunn, RHP
2019 stats: 0-0 record, 2.70 ERA, 4 starts, 6 2/3 innings, 9 walks, 5 strikeouts. At Class AA Arkansas: 9-5 record, 4.24 ERA, 25 starts, 131 2/3 innings, 39 walks, 158 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: He came to camp with the hope of winning the final spot in the rotation. But the signing of Walker seems to have dampened those hopes. Ideally, the Mariners would prefer to have Dunn, their No. 5 prospect, start in Triple A Tacoma, build up some controlled innings and be on the MLB staff by midseason.
Logan Gilbert, RHP
2019 stats: Class A/AA combined: 10-5 record, 2.13 ERA, 26 starts, 135 innings pitched, 33 walks, 165 strikeouts.
2020 outlook: The Mariners hope to have their top pitching prospect make his debut by midseason. He’ll report to Double A Arkansas to start the season. Depending on his performance, he could make the jump directly to the big leagues. The Mariners could ease him into his MLB experience and control his usage by using him as a scheduled long reliever, piggybacking off a starter every five days.
Manuel Banuelos, LHP
2019 stats: 3-4 record, 6.93 ERA, 16 appearances (8 starts), 50 2/3 innings, 33 walks, 44 strikeouts, -0.4 WAR
2020 outlook: He’ll likely start in Tacoma’s rotation and could be a swing reliever or emergency starter if needed.
Phillips Valdez, RHP
2019 stats: 0-0 record, 11 appearances, 3.94 ERA, 16 innings, 18 strikeouts, nine walks, -0.1 WAR
2020 outlook: They’ll stretch him out to be a starter and put him in Tacoma’s rotation, but he could ultimately end up being a multi-inning reliever.