Young Mariners starters Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias are in the rotation, and with Hisashi Iwakuma on the DL, how the trio performs will set a tone for Seattle’s season.
The Mariners are trying to weather a scattershot start to the 2015 season. They alternate between promising and concerning almost daily. When they hit, they don’t pitch. When they pitch, they don’t hit. Suspect defense, perplexing baserunning, amazing comebacks — they’ve crammed a half season’s worth of drama and angst into just 20 games.
So it’s crazy to learn that there is some symmetry in this mixed bag. The Mariners rank 10th of 15 American League teams in hitting with a .234 batting average and ninth in pitching with a 4.08 earned-run average.
And all these years, you’ve been waiting for balance.
Well, the Mariners (9-11) have it right now. They’re equally inadequate at two major phases of the game.
Of course, we’ve only seen about one-eighth of the 162-game Major League Baseball season. The sample size is too small to overreact, but just right to make a sane first judgment. There are two overriding issues that the first 20 games have presented, both involving the Mariners’ pitching.
1. Despite the incredible start of new slugger Nelson Cruz and the offense’s flashes of brilliance, the Mariners won’t be a special team if their pitching regresses significantly from last season, when they led the American League in ERA. The hitting has the potential to rank anywhere from Nos. 5-8 in the AL, but that won’t be enough if the Mariners don’t have a top-five AL pitching staff.
2. For the Mariners to pitch that well, it’s now up to the young and gifted trio of Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Roenis Elias to overcome their inexperience.
For all the good planning and good money the Mariners invested in balancing out their roster — translation: signing capable veterans so they don’t rely too heavily on unproven talent — the pressure is on the kids again. And they’re not babies anymore. Paxton and Elias turn 27 later this year. Walker turns 23. Elias had nearly a full year of big-league success last season. Paxton now has 21 career starts and 1172/3 innings. Walker has even less experience, but he had a 1.96 ERA in five appearances last September when the Mariners were in contention for a postseason bid.
With the struggling Hisashi Iwakuma on the 15-day disabled list with a strained right latissmus dorsi (back), the Mariners’ starting rotation now includes an ace in Felix Hernandez, a veteran journeyman off to a great start in J.A. Happ and the precocious threesome. In spring training, some fans debated whether Happ deserved to be in the rotation, especially because it meant Elias had to start in Class AAA Tacoma after a good rookie season in 2014. Now, though, the Mariners’ pitching depth is being tested, and Elias is no longer the odd man out. Suddenly, he’s essential to the Mariners’ success, and it was inevitable that he would be because keeping pitchers healthy is so difficult.
The Seattle starters have posted a 4.32 ERA, ninth in the AL. A year ago, the starters had a 3.48 ERA, third in the AL. It was more than enough to get the best out of the bullpen, which had the lowest ERA in the majors (2.59) in 2014.
In the first 20 games, the Mariners have struggled to get the quality starts and production that these starters are capable of offering. Walker began the season with two terrible starts, but he has allowed just one earned run in 121/3 innings in his last two starts. Paxton (6.86 ERA) has had just one quality start in four outings. Elias made his season debut on Sunday, and he gave up two runs over 52/3 innings.
The Mariners need their young trio to pitch deep into games and stay healthy. Despite some of the early struggles, performance shouldn’t be a major issue for much longer. Walker seems to have figured it out. Paxton has the maturity and mental toughness to do the same. Elias struggled in the minors, perhaps because he was disappointed not being with the Mariners, but his start Sunday was encouraging. They should all perform well. Consistency will probably be an issue, but they can perform. Staying healthy, however, is never a given. And all three have had injury issues in the past year.
The Mariners have found ways to minimize the dependence on young everyday players such as Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller. They have a much better 25-man rotation and can shift responsibilities and put players in better positions to succeed. But the old baseball adage that you can never have enough pitching remains true. The pressure is on the young starters, more pressure than the Mariners anticipated.
Iwakuma will return eventually, and if he finds his form, he will make the burden lighter. The Mariners might make a major trade for a starter later in the year. But right now, their progress report is clear: Get the kids ready.
At this early point in the season, their improvement is the most important issue facing the franchise. If the Mariners are to stabilize, those young starters somehow must develop veteran poise.